Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, October 15, 2012

MELVILLE: Billy Budd (Chapter 22: The Problem of Justice)

One of the most fundamental problems in Great Books is the simple question: “What is justice?” This question starts off Plato’s Republic and the whole discussion about what would be the ideal form of government.  It’s a problem that lies at the heart of the American system of government and is famously expressed in Federalist Paper #51 this way: what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary… Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.  Justice is what the United States government is all about.  Americans will pursue justice until we either get it right or else lose our freedom trying.  Obviously freedom and justice are at the very core of America’s most cherished values.  Herman Melville was an American writer and had both freedom and justice bred deep in his bones.  So it’s odd that he uses an English warship to set up his epic conflict about the struggle between freedom and justice; or maybe not so odd.  Americans (possibly in youthful exuberance) want both freedom AND justice and we don’t see any conflict between pursuing both simultaneously.  But Melville draws from much older and sterner traditions: the law of the sea and the Old Testament.  Life aboard ship is different from life ashore.  There are strict rules and rigid punishments.  The captain of the ship is, for all intents and purposes, the voice of government for sailors.  It’s not a democracy.  Martial law defines what justice is and sets limits to the freedom of sailors.  The captain enforces the law.  He also interprets it.  So Captain Vere has to decide what to do with Billy Budd.  Billy killed a man; a superior officer in fact.  Martial law is clear.  The penalty for merely striking a superior officer is hanging.  And Billy not only struck the Master-at-arms, he killed him.  The law is clear.  Billy must die.  But it doesn’t seem fair; not to the reader, not to the officers aboard the ship, not even to Captain Vere.  And yet the law is clear.  Captain Vere feels intensely the conflict between his freedom to decide what’s fair and his duty to carry out the law.  What he said was to this effect: “Hitherto I have been but the witness, little more; and I should hardly think now to take another tone, that of your coadjutor, for the time, did I not perceive in you, (at the crisis too) a troubled hesitancy, proceeding, I doubt not, from the clash of military duty with moral scruple…”  This troubled hesitancy from the other officers is the direct clash of military duty with moral scruple.  The other officers don’t think it’s fair that Billy must die.  For them justice is being denied by handing down Billy’s harsh punishment.  Their argument goes something like this: Billy didn’t intend to kill the Master-at-arms.  And besides, if anybody had it coming it was Claggart (the Master-at-arms).  In a way this is sort of poetic justice.  So the officers think justice would be served to at least defer sentencing Billy and pass the decision up the chain of command to the admiral.  In this particular case, which is an exceptional one, let the admiral decide what justice is.  But that’s exactly why these men are lower-level officers and Captain Vere is commander of the ship.  It’s the captain’s job to make these tough decisions.  His advice to them is stern and clear as an Old Testament prophet: strive against scruples that may tend to enervate decision. Not, gentlemen, that I hide from myself that the case is an exceptional one. Speculatively regarded, it well might be referred to a jury of casuists. But for us here acting not as casuists or moralists, it is a case practical, and under martial law practically to be dealt with.  Captain Vere reminds them: we’re not philosophers; we’re officers in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.  It’s not our duty to question the rules and regulations.  It is our duty to carry them out.  As sailors we’re not given the freedom to decide for ourselves what justice is.  That decision has already been made.  Whatever we may privately believe about justice it’s our public duty to maintain law and order.  What is justice?  For Melville it’s the focal point for a great story about a tragic incident.


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