Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, September 14, 2009

MELVILLE: Billy Budd, Sailor

Imagine being captain of a war ship. Your chief petty officer accuses an enlisted man of trying to start a mutiny. Without time to think, the enlisted man strikes the chief petty officer and kills him with one punch. What should the punishment be? Military law is clear on this point: death by hanging. But you believe the chief petty officer was lying; the enlisted man is the last guy on the ship who would mutiny. You also witnessed the event and there was obviously no intent to commit murder. What to do? What is justice? Not justice as an abstract principle, but justice in this particular case?

That’s the dilemma Captain Vere faces in Billy Budd, Sailor. Plato once defined justice as each man getting what he deserves. Using this definition we could argue that the chief petty officer, Claggart, got what he deserved. But what does Billy Budd deserve? Billy was clearly innocent of the mutiny charge. He was also clearly guilty of not only striking, but killing, a superior officer. There are also extenuating circumstances on both sides of the question. This is a very difficult decision, even in the comfort of an armchair reading the story in the safety of your own home. And Melville points out that Forty years after a battle it is easy for a noncombatant to reason about how it ought to have been fought. It is another thing personally and under fire to have to direct the fighting while involved in the obscuring smoke of it. Sports fans aren’t the only Monday morning quarterbacks. Many of us daydream about how calmly we would respond under pressure. This story may make us reconsider and hope that day never comes. Under certain conditions the time for philosophical talk about justice is over. There’s no more time to think about it. We have to act. As Captain Vere puts it so bluntly to his fellow officers: We must do; and one of two things we must do, condemn or let go.

In considering what justice is, there are many side roads we might take. For example, can an innocent man like Billy live in the same world with evil men like Claggart? Do we, as a society, have an obligation to protect innocent people like Billy? Or should we instead get rid of evil men like Claggart? But how do we know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? How do we separate the wheat from the tares? And following this line of thought even deeper: how do we know that evil men should be held responsible for being evil? Melville puts it this way: With no power to annul the elemental evil in him, though readily enough he could hide it; apprehending the good, but powerless to be it. Claggart can’t help being the way he is. This is what Melville, taking his cue from the Bible, calls “the mystery of iniquity.” There’s evil in this world and there are men like Claggart amongst us even today. What are we to make of a man like Claggart? Melville says that To pass from a normal nature to him one must cross “the deadly space in between.” This is getting us into some very deep waters. Maybe we should leave the deadly space in between to the existentialist philosophers and move on.

To get back to the main road then, we’ve still not answered the question what is justice? Remember, you’re captain of a war ship. Your crew is waiting for your decision and time is wasting. What will you do? Captain Vere’s verdict: for us here, acting not as casuists or moralists, it is a case practical, and under martial law practically to be dealt with. It may not be fair, but Billy must hang. And we still don’t know what justice is.


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