Monday, February 08, 2016

Reading some classics

Currently my reading time is my own. I am taking advantage of that to reread, or read for the first time, some books that I consider classics. Some of it is old science-fiction that I kept when most of my book collection was dispersed on my recent move. For instance, I reread the Man Who Sold the Moon by Robert Heinlein simply because some of the most interesting space exploration at the moment is being financed by the private sector, and that's what Heinlein thought might happen. That book is not really very good, actually. Heinlein's tendency to lecture his readers on how things actually work is on full display. What he thought might happen, based on his experiences up to the 1940s, is not particularly realistic. The sheer scale of private enterprise now as opposed to a private enterprise in the 1940s is staggering.

I am living in a house full of other classics. I have recently picked up Thomas Babington Macauley's Critical Essays. Macauley is a famous, or formerly famous, politician, essayist, and educational theorist of the early 19th century. He wrote the Lays of Ancient Rome, including the famous story of Horatio on the bridge. He also convinced that the British government to make English the language of advanced education in India. He was a Whig among Whigs, a believer in the superiority of modern British institutions and attitudes toward liberty.

Macauley wrote a bunch of essays in the form of a very long book reviews. His book on critical essays includes many re-considerations of the careers of famous politicians of the previous century or even earlier: Thomas Cranmer, Horace Walpole, William Pitt, his son the earl of Chatham are all discussed at length. It's a little bit hard to follow if you don't know British history of the early modern period pretty well. On the other hand, McAuley's early Victorian prose is a delight? Staggering? Amazing?

Here is what he has to say about Cranmer, the Archbishop of Henry VIII so deeply involved in the English Reformation. He doesn't like Cranmer, and thinks that rating him as a martyr is ridiculous:

He voted for cutting off [Thomas] Cromwell's head without a trial, when the tide of royal favour turned. He conformed backwards and forwards as the King changed his mind. He assisted, while Henry lived, in condemning to the flames those who denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. He found out, as soon as Henry was dead, that the doctrine was false. He was, however, not at a loss for people to burn. The authority of his station and of his grey hairs was employed to overcome the disgust with which an intelligent and virtuous child [Edward VI] regarded persecution. Intolerance is always bad. But the sanguinary intolerance of a man who thus wavered in his creed excites a loathing, to which it is difficult to give vent without calling foul names. Equally false to political and to religious obligations, the primate was first the tool of Somerset, and then the tool of Northumberland. When the Protector wished to put his own brother to death, without even the semblance of a trial, he found a ready instrument in Cranmer. In spite of the canon law, which forbade a churchman to take any part in matters of blood, the archbishop signed the warrant for the atrocious sentence. When Somerset had been in his turn destroyed, his destroyer received the support of Cranmer in a wicked attempt to change the course of the succession.

The apology made for him by his admirers only renders his conduct more contemptible. He complied, it is said, against his better judgment, because he could not resist the entreaties of Edward. A holy prelate of sixty, one would think, might be better employed by the bedside of a dying child, than in committing crimes at the request of the young disciple. If Cranmer had shown half as much firmness when Edward requested him to commit treason as he had before shown when Edward requested him not to commit murder, he might have saved the country from one of the greatest misfortunes that it ever underwent.


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