The Presentation of Malitia and Guile in Melville’s Billy Budd

Through the kindness of the author, Professor Mitchell Kalpakgian, I was unexpectedly invited to comment on his own recent article in the April 2012 issue of New Oxford Review. What he wrote was a trenchant literary essay concerning Herman Melville’s posthumously published novella, Billy Budd, and its vividly counterpointed depiction of Elemental Invidious Evil, and of a much subtler form of Evil Sophistry that corrupts a man’s higher faculties of purposive deliberation. Professor Kalpakgian himself implied some of these deft nuances even in his own compact title, “Elemental & Sophisticated Evil” (pp. 34-37). Envy and Sophistry, as such, are the concepts and consequential themes which I now propose to accent.

Given the befitting limits allowed me for my few remarks, I have therefore decided not to consider how Melville himself and his arguably Calvinistical views of Necessitous Fate might have intended or vividly effected the concrete treatment of metaphysical evil, as well as moral evil, in Billy Budd. Rather, I have chosen to concentrate on how a somewhat theologically informed Roman Catholic might well reflect upon the novella’s depiction of the Mysterium Iniquitatis. For, in Melville’s text, there seems to be revealed to us gradually an almost mystical hatred of innocence and purity, which is fearsome and has often been considered itself a sign of the insinuating operation of Hell. The insinuation even seems to work upon us drop-by-drop, as in a contagious titration.

Moreover, we may thereby gradually see the effects of disproportionate and arbitrary injustice—especially an arbitrariness that operates even to the point of seeming randomness—which, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn (as well as Viktor Frankl) later witnessed, broke down even the strongest of men in the camps. A seemingly Aleatory Universe led to their rage and surrender and despair.

Indeed, in Melville’s vivid novella, such a combined, resentful assault, as it is especially focused upon the vulnerable innocent character of young Billy Budd himself, seems indeed to be an almost infallible sign of the operation of a dark, mysterious, and perhaps demonic, agency. This is suggestively so, and to be seen initially in Claggart’s expressedly degrading vice and darkly corrosive passion of Envy (or Invidia, in Latin, which is itself one of the Seven Deadly Sins or Vitia Capitalia). And, as St. Augustine said, we have as many masters as we have vices.

On the premise that contrast clarifies the mind, it may be helpful in this context to consider an important difference between the moral vice of Avarice (Avaritia) and the even darker, “levelling-downward” vice of Envy. If someone is avaricious, he wants to get what you have that he eagerly wants for himself. But Envy goes one step further, in that the envious man, even if he cannot get what you have that he wants, does not want you to have it. He wants you to be deprived of it. Even to be deprived of a spiritual good, such as the love or respect of another, or of one’s good name and honor.

Sophistry itself, as my beloved mentor, Josef Pieper, understood so well, adds another aspect. For it is a permanent temptation of the human mind (and hence attractive and alluring as all temptations are, or it wouldn’t be a temptation!). But, Sophistry, as in the cumulative conduct of Captain Vere, also entails a twofold corruption: first, depriving one of his access to reality; and secondly, depriving or impeding one from communicating that reality to another. Hence it is a twofold obstruction and, minimally, an attempted denial, suggesting also Dante’s frightful depiction of the Great Refusal—finally and permanently. To include the Refusal of Grace, in a hardened, prideful Final Impenitence.

Sophistry also tends to make the better seem worse and the worse seem better, as Plato memorably shows in the case of the celebrated Sophist, Gorgias. That is to say, in his depiction of Gorgias the Sophist’s Proud Boast that he could persuasively defend his Thesis of “Three Negations,” namely: that “There is no truth; or even if there were, we could not know it; and, even if we could know it, then we could not communicate it to another.” Plato’s Academy was, therefore, inherently Anti-Sophistic; and Plato’s view of the proper purpose of Rhetoric, as he argued in his Dialogue, the Phaedrus, was to have a gradual “leading of the soul” (a “psychagogia,” in Greek) to the conviction of truth.

What Professor Kalpakgian’s article discusses in his own extended section on “sophisticated evil” is much more than the Ship-Captain Vere’s opportunistic cravenness and cunning willingness to sacrifice an innocent man to putative maritime justice, lest he appear to be himself a “provocative weakness” and thereby incite a mutiny he is purportedly trying to avert. Captain Vere’s conduct is more than mere poltroonish, self-serving Astutia (Cunning) or Prudentia Carnalis (Carnal Prudence, in the words of Pope Gregory the Great); and it is certainly distinct from the fuller first Cardinal Virtue of Prudentia, which is itself often called the “recta ratio agibilium,” and thus moves, in Dr. Pieper’s lucid conceptual words, “from the knowledge of reality to the realization of the good.” True Prudence is thus both an intellectual virtue and a moral virtue, and binds the two of them together in action. For, the additionally binding Catholic moral principle understands that “thou shalt not do evil that good may come from it.” An apparent Expediency must not trump Justice, and, even as Thucydides showed us (not only in his Melian Dialogue), mere cynical expediency is self-blinding and eventually leads to destructive injustice, as in the Sicilian Expedition that follows the Melian Dialogue. Finally, as even Thucydides structurally shows and unmistakably implies, it is Justice that is truly and abidingly expedient. Hence unencumbering, in a deeper way, even morally.

However, Captain Vere appears to us more and more viscously bound up in a great deception and in self-deception in his own tangled web of Sophistry. He is living the lie. And he inflicts the lie upon others in his deliberate injustice. Hence the corruption of his higher faculties.

Because he has willingly corrupted his own higher faculties and effectively pressured or intimidated his subordinate officers to do the same compliantly, Vere has partaken in great evil, as Dante also showed in the very structure of his Inferno. The greater the perversion of the higher faculties of man, the deeper the place and the degree of punishment, as if to say “Corruptio optimi pessima est.” The inverted hierarchy in Dante’s Hell shows, for example, that the sins of spontaneous passion (as in acts of impetuous lust or anger) are punished in the upper circles, whereas the more deliberate and premeditated and slowly planned sins (such as lascivious seduction or perfidy) are punished in the lower circles—with the Perfidians of intentional treachery to be found in the Ninth Circle where we also find and see “the congealment of lovelessness” as well as “the corrosion of hopelessness.” (The wings of Satan in the ice, for example, barely move, as at the hypothetical temperature of Absolute Zero.)

Captain Vere’s perfidy even corrupts the Official Formal Record, as if to exemplify something Winston Churchill supposedly said about his opponent, Neville Chamberlain: “History will treat Chamberlain very poorly, and I know, for I shall write it.” Even more cynically, Joseph Stalin is said to have summarized his own Philosophy of History in one simple and cynical sentence: “Paper will put up with anything written upon it.” We might call this concept, rather, the “Philo-Sophistic of History”–where the truth does not matter. Or it changes with the Party Dialecticians. Herman Melville was spared from such Dialectical Sophistries of Evil—as in Dialectical Idealism (Hegel) or Dialectical Materialism (Feuerbach, Marx)– but he certainly saw and tasted, could vividly depict, the dark and malicious vices such as Envy and the more indirect and specious deceits of Sophisticated Evil, as Professor Kalpakgian has himself so potently shown.

We may also remember, or freshly consider, that all sin is personal. To speak of organizational or institutional “structures of sin” can be confusing and conduce to the evasion of personal responsibility and accountability. It may be clearer to speak of certain situations or locations or organizations as “grave temptations” or “proximate occasions of sin”–especially for those who have not the qualities nor gifts of sustainable “heroic virtue.” But, sin itself is always personal.

For, we are assured, at least in accord with the Catholic Faith, that there will be a Final Verdict of Truth. And it will be very personal. And it will be conducted by a Just and Merciful Scrutator Cordium. His Mercy will include His Justice, as Saint Thomas Aquinas so soberly and unsentimentally affirms.

Billy Budd, who had a grave speech impediment and, with his almost catatonic paralysis when under stress, could not adequately exercise the full faculty of Logos, will, as it were, be judged finally by the Incarnate Logos Himself Who is the Discerning Searcher of Hearts. He will certainly remember, in Evelyn Waugh’s own memorable and heartfelt words, those unfortunate meetings “in which there began that unended war of mobs and magistrates against the innocent!” (Helena)–i.e., first between a guileful Herod and the innocent Magi and, later, also with the sophistically manipulated Democracy-Mob who preferred and chose Barabbas, instead of Him Who was Pure and Innocent and Without Guile. Sine Dolo.


Originally penned: 21 April 2012

Feast of Saint Anselm of Canterbury (d.1109)

and of Saint Konrad of Parzham (d.1894)

© 2012 Robert D. Hickson