Rank Skullduggery in a Good Cause

“See the high priest informer turns,
So fierce his righteous fury burns
  Against the church’s foe.”

John Westley, “Paul’s Trial Before Felix” (1762)

The events of recent months remind us that high ideals are often accompanied by low deeds, and that those who say they are fighting on the side of the angels often reveal themselves as devils when they take up the sword.  There is nothing like the blaze of righteous fury to make men and women neglect the little decencies of honesty, courtesy, and respect for property not their own.  Let men and women undertake a regeneration of the world, and you will at once observe a sudden and striking degeneration in the everyday morals of those men and women.

This is evident in my epigram, which is taken from John Westley’s Hymns on the Acts of the Apostles, and which refers to the perjured testimony of Ananias, high priest of the Sanhedrin, in the trial of St. Paul before Felix.  You will recall that Ananias tried to cozen Felix into a judicial murder of Paul, just as Caiaphas had cozened Pilate into a judicial murder of Jesus twenty-five years earlier.  If this stratagem failed, the back-up plan of dastardly Ananias was that hired brigands would murder Paul on the road to Jerusalem.

Thus righteous fury against a foe of the temple excused Ananias from observance of little laws, such as those against bearing false witness and murder.  As Westley puts it a little later in his poem,

“Swift are the steps of angry zeal”

Swift indeed, and scoundrelly.

* * * * *

Ananias said that Paul must be put to death because he had profaned the temple and stirred up trouble among the Jews.  This was a lie.  And in telling this lie, Ananias reveals that his reasoning actually ran in the opposite direction.  In the mind of Ananias, the temple must be profaned, and trouble must be stirred up, because Paul must be put to death.  And in this reversed line of reasoning, fictional profanation and troublemaking would suffice.

Accusations of profanation and troublemaking were not the reasons Paul must die.  That Paul must die was the reason there must be accusations profanation and troublemaking.  The ideals of ritual purity and social peace were, for Ananias, mere pretexts for the murder of Paul.

* * * * *

Friedrich Nietzsche saw all high ideals as pretexts for aggression, oppression and deceit.  He agreed with the many writers who have said, in various ways, that moral values are nothing but the mask of power.  Thus Nietzsche has Zarathustra say,

“A table of values hangeth over each people . . . behold, it is the voice of its will unto power.”

A people does not seek power to defend what it holds dear.  It holds these things dear to seek power.  Its values are simply more or less effective means to ignite the righteous fury with which it hopes to destroy its enemies.  As Nietzsche puts it,

“Whatever enableth a people to dominate and conquer and shine . . . that is regarded as the high, the first, the standard . . .”

Peace is, after all, a perfectly good pretext for war, just as equality is a perfectly good pretext for the establishment of an aristocracy that will keep everyone else on the same level.  And it is generally that case that wars for peace are especially vicious and unscrupulous, and that aristocracies within democracies are especially mendacious and underhanded.

It is in this way that scoundrels in masks carry out rank skullduggery in a good cause.

* * * * *

The American South was prepared for Nietzsche’s cynical doctrine by what many Southerners call the War of Northern Aggression.  Southerners believed that they had been convicted on the perjured testimony of men who were as self-righteous as Ananias, and not one bit more honest.  Southerners therefore experienced rank skullduggery in a good cause some twenty years before Nietzsche published his oracle of Zarathustra, and were long thereafter quick to spot a scoundrel in a “humanitarian mask.”

To my knowledge, the phrase “humanitarian mask” was first used by the Louisiana creole author Charles Gayarré.  This was in 1877, in an article called “The Southern Question,” which appeared in The North American Review.   Gayarré maintained that the Southern question had long been how the North could break the political power of the old South.  According to Gayarré, the political power of the old South was grounded in the fact that the agrarian South produced honorable statesmen, whereas the commercial   North produced nothing by slightly grubby politicians.

And Gayarré  said that the agrarian society of the old South produced honorable statesmen because slaveholding gave its planter aristocracy a natural “instinct of command.”  He quotes a French nobleman visiting Louisiana saying this of the old Southern gentleman.

“You are the born rulers of your country, because you have from the cradle the instinct of command, and you inherit from generation to generation . . . that innate self-possession and self-confidence . . . which are productive of a race of statesmen.”

In order to break the political power of the old South, it was therefore necessary for the North to destroy this race of statesmen.  In order to destroy this race of statesmen, it was necessary for the North to destroy the social order that gave these statesmen their “instinct of command.”  In order to destroy this social order, it was necessary for the North to vilify that order with the moral accusation that its key peculiarity was an abomination that cried to heaven for redress.

Thus the scoundrelly North donned the “humanitarian mask,” recast the political Southern question as the moral slave question, and then crushed its old rival with all the righteous fury of an avenging angel.

“Hence arose the slavery question, which was really an entirely political one under its humanitarian mask . . .”

As Nietzsche would explain twenty years later, the North did not destroy the South because it believed in the value of equality.  It believed in the value of equality because this permitted it to destroy the South.  As Zarathustra would say,

“Whatever enableth a people to dominate and conquer and shine . . . that is regarded as the high, the first, the standard . . .”

* * * * *

Everyone has heard Samuel Johnson’s apothegm, “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels.”  It is a favorite among scoundrels who wish to discredit patriotism, but a spurious patriotism is just one of the masks a scoundrel can don when he is carrying out rank skullduggery in a good cause.  As the skullduggery of Ananias shows, spurious piety is another.  And when it comes to the humanitarian mask of a spurious moral rectitude, we have Charles Dicken’s character, the unctuous and self-seeking fraud called Seth Pecksniff.  Pecksniff’s brand of masked skullduggery is so common that his name has entered our dictionaries as the adjective Pecksniffian.

I generally disapprove of George Bernard Shaw, but agree when he says in Man and Superman (1903).

“The reformer for whom the world is not good enough, finds himself shoulder to shoulder with him that is not good enough for the world.”

Show me a saint and I will show you a scoundrel, if not behind the mask he is wearing, then at least to both sides of him.  This is because, as Shaw writes a few lines above the line just quoted,

“Decadence can find agents only when it wears the mask of progress.”

10 thoughts on “Rank Skullduggery in a Good Cause

  1. According to Gayarré, the political power of the old South was grounded in the fact that the agrarian South produced honorable statesmen, whereas the commercial North produced nothing by slightly grubby politicians.

    This reminds me of a paradox voiced by a political commentator I read on occasion. In reference to an interview by the Attorney General, wherein he claimed he would take great pains to refuse to prosecute politically motivated crimes. His predecessor had no such inhibition, giving rise to what the commentator called the great paradox of political power: Those on the political right refuse to engage in political proscriptions against their opponents, while those on the political left have no problem doing so. This leads to those on the political right being perpetual victims of impropriety, and when the political right does take some measure of authority, they have a reluctance to use it against their opposition in like manner.

    In other words, the South was doomed because their honorable statesmen would never raise a hand against their opponents. Even if they won the war, they would inevitably lose as disohonorable statesmen dominate and conquer and outshine them. Thus rank skullduggery in a good cause becomes the only way of doing business. This is classic prisoners dilemma. Both gain most by cooperating, but when one goes low, the next best thing is for the other to stoop just as low.

    This is why true Christian virtue is so out of place in the world. Christ is the best example: He refused to stoop to skullduggery to achieve some political end, but rather maintained his honorable posture. He was crucified for it.

    Thus when an honorable man finds himself standing tall amid a crowd of stooped and grubby men engaged in skullduggery for a good cause, he should not be surprised when it comes time for him to be crucified. The tallest grass gets the blade.

    Which is why Christ admonishes us all to pick up our cross and follow Him.

    • The Virtues of Christ requires Divine vindication. Only in a Universe where God is Just can a Man even be risen from the dead who is also God.

      In an Atheistic Universe. Jesus would never have allowed himself to be handed over. And his servants will fight to prevent that.

  2. Pingback: Rank Skullduggery in a Good Cause | Reaction Times

  3. JM – Cozen O’Connor P.C. is an international law firm based in Center City Philadelphia. How’s that for truth in advertising?

  4. Methinks the proper answer to Nietzsche is that the existence of scoundrels does not imply that there are no men of good will, but rather the opposite.

  5. Pingback: Going Underground – The Orthosphere

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