This is the twenty-first in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXI: I Promessi Sposi, Manzoni
Positions in civil government, from national presidency to homeowners’ association board seats, can be magnets for those who would take advantage of their neighbors. An excellent example of this corruption can be found in I Promessi Sposi, (most often translated as The Betrothed,) by Alessandro Manzoni. When the plague struck Milan in 1629, vicious and rapacious men saw an opportunity. The tumult caused by the plague made it easy for these bad actors to operate without consequence. Indeed, many of them found it expedient to take official government posts, the better to steal and blackmail. “The villains, whom the pestilence spared and did not terrify, found in the common confusion, and in the relaxation of all public authority, a new opportunity of activity, together with new assurances of impunity; nay, the administration of public authority itself came, in a great measure, to be lodged in the hands of the worst among them. Generally speaking, none devoted themselves to the offices of monatti and apparitori but men over whom the attractions of rapine and license had more influence than the terror of contagion, or any natural object of horror.” And once it was clear how much profit was to be made as a government-employed extortionist and robber, these men worked to perpetuate the plague, and thereby perpetuate their power. They would “purposely let fall from their carts infected clothes, in order to propagate and keep up the pestilence, which had become to them a means of living, a kingdom, a festival.” It is remarkable what those in power are capable of doing to maintain their position.
But, as rare as they may be, there actually are examples of political leaders who come into power for noble reasons and maintain their virtue despite that power. Manzoni relates the story of Father Felice Casati, a Capuchin friar who became a sort of minor autocrat during the plague. As the pestilence spread through Milan and the surrounding area, the population of the Lazaretto of Milan swelled. The Lazaretto was a huge quarantine building that became a city unto itself. Although people were dying at a prodigious rate, the population of the Lazaretto exploded as more and more people contracted the plague. At one point, as many as 16,000 people filled the Lazaretto. With so many sick and desperate people, good governance was needed to keep the Lazaretto from becoming pandemonium. The Board of Health decided to install Father Felice as governor of the Lazaretto. Although not a glamorous appointment, the governor was granted “primary and ultimate authority” within the Lazaretto. With this power Father Felice “animated and regulated every duty, pacified tumults, settled disputes, threatened, punished, reproved, comforted, dried and shed tears.” He was absolute dictator within the confines of his quarantine kingdom, but neither that power nor the plague corrupted him.
In at least this once instance, there was an exception to Lord Acton’s axiom that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But to rely on every (or virtually any) politician being another Father Felice is probably a mistake. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken: cleaning up politics by electing righteous people makes no more sense than cleaning up a brothel by filling it with virgins; they either lose their virtue or jump out the window.
Beer of the week: 98 Problems IPA – This hazy orange India Pale Ale is a product of Michigan’s Perrin Brewing Company. The aroma is dominated by pineappley and floral hops. The hops also dominate the flavor, with crisp bitterness both up front and lingering in the aftertaste. Despite the name, there’s not much wrong with 98 Problems.
Reading of the week: I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni – Although I Promessi Sposi is a work of fiction, the author tells us that his account of the plague is historically accurate. This excerpt tells how members of the Milanese public attacked doctors, accusing them of fabricating the claims about the plague for personal gain. It is an excellent study in how people will reject the truth and accuse its bearers of evil motivations if the truth is adverse enough to their interests.
Question for the week: What is the best mechanism for curbing political corruption?
This is the tenth in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
MODERATION: Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
As I noted in an earlier post, Sydney winters never get cold enough for a proper polar bear plunge. As a result, those who want a real winter swim have to be creative. Members of the Bondi Icebergs Club take blocks of ice with them into their beautiful tidal swimming pool. Cold water swimming is meant to be both salubrious and invigorating.
On the other temperature extreme (and on the other side of the world) are the Finns, who take great pride in their scorching hot saunas. There are even competitions (some of which end quite badly) where contestants attempt to sit in the hottest temperature for the longest period. Aside from the dangers associated with doing it competitively, the use of saunas is regarded as healthful and rejuvenating.
How does one reconcile these practices with the general proposition that extremes are harmful? The conclusion, I think, must be that extremes are not dangerous in themselves. A certain amount of extremity pushes the body (or the mind), very much in the way that physical exercise does. What is dangerous about extremes is when they cease to be extreme. Extremes are extraordinary conditions to be endured, and they should not be allowed to become ordinary.
Beer of the week: Pop-Up IPA – A “session” IPA is a tribute to moderation. It is a drink for those who want the flavor of an IPA without the extreme hopping or alcohol level. Unfortunately, I think that Boulevard dialed this beer back a little too much. To be sure, it is a fine beer, but the flavor is not quite as full as I would like. Pop-Up is a cloudy session IPA with a thick, sticky head. The beer’s aroma is dominated by grassy, floral hops. The aftertaste has a hint of pepper.
Reading for the week: Tartuffe, or the Hypocrite by Molière, Act I, Scene VI – “Men,” says one character in this scene, “for the most part, are strange creatures, truly! You never find them keep the golden mean; The limits of good sense, too narrow for them, Must always be passed by, in each direction; They often spoil the noblest things, because They go too far, and push them to extremes.”
Question for the week: Are occasional extremes really good for us, or is that just a justification for indulging in extremes that ought to be avoided.