February 26, 2020

Leaders of Men

I’ve been wading through thoughts of the leaders of men the last few weeks, from Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, to Marcus Aurelius and Cicero.  Today on my Facebook feed was a quote from Denis Diderot (Thanks Jake!) that fit so perfectly with Wolf Hall (which I finished my second pass through yesterday), it made me startle.

To give background, Wolf Hall is about the change in England during the reign of Henry VIII.  Hang on now, this isn’t the corset titillation of Philippa Gregory.  This is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, the guy who gets things done: the Lawyer.  He isn’t an aristocrat, and he is consistently told he looks like a murderer.

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Thomas Cromwell portrait by Hans Holbein. This guy IS the wolf.

He doesn’t care about the old titles, not honor or chivalry, not divine right, not the Pope in Rome.  He understands what inspires a person: debt.  Money is the currency of the day (quite literally).

While common history gives us the juvenile chant of what Henry VIII did with his wives, the absolutely huge ethic it overlooks is that Henry turned his back on the Catholic Church. He threw off a tyranny that blanketed Europe, a move so bold that if he was wrong, would cost him his everlasting soul.  Gutsy move, Harry.

This is also the time of the first English translations of the Bible.  How shocking it must have been for people to learn there was no mention of purgatory, no tithing, the rituals they had been taught as sacrosanct.  It must have felt like a betrayal.  Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VII, one of those that got her head chopped, knew of the English translations, put them into Henry’s hand.

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The original power stance.

Because here is the other part of history that is so vital to the huge upheaval that shaped our world into what it is today: Henry was meant for the church.  He was the second son.  His older brother, Arthur, was meant for kingship.  He was the leader of men.  Henry was meant to become the Archbishop of Canterbury.  He was very learned about Church doctrine, about the Bible, about what was expected of him as a clergyman.  Anne Boleyn shows up with her English translations, new ideas from Martin Luther in Germany (she’d been in France for quite some time at this point), seduces Henry’s brain meat with new ideas in his favorite subject.

Henry notices Cromwell (who had been a fixer for the former Cardinal Wolsey), and Cromwell does what no one else can do: creates an England where the Catholic church has no say.

Bear with me a little longer, because the point is: Cromwell knew that a man can only be controlled by who he allows himself to owe.  Or, as Abraham Lincoln wrote,

No man is good enough to govern another man without that others consent.

That is what Cromwell knew, as a runaway, as a scrapper, a wool merchant, a mercenary. Henry ultimately fulfilled his original destiny, to be a leader of the English clergy.  He happened to do it while still being King.

There were threats, and uprisings, and the next decades were bloody and tumultuous as the people revolted against the idea of an Anglican church.  Many wanted Catholicism back, the way things had been.  Not every monastery was fat and corrupt, but they were all disbanded anyway, money given to the desperately poor Crown.

So this morning, encountering the Denis Diderot quote:

And his hands would plait the priest’s entrails,
For want of a rope, to strangle kings.

To bring the circle wider: we turn on our TV, we look on the interwebs, and what do we see?  The primaries of our own King-less election.  I live in a country where a group of men realized what Cromwell realized.  It was a tenuous rebellion at certain times, and those men would have all been killed in the worst of ways, their wives and children outcast if not killed or imprisoned as well.  It was a risk to throw off from King George.

Now, centuries later, our leaders of men do a very different dance to ask us for the humble charge of leading us.  Perhaps that is why politics is a forbidden topic at many dinner tables in our country.  We are not throwing all of our clergy in jail. We are not burning dissenters at the stake.  We are trying to have a civil discourse, interviewing this wide panel of candidates for who would be best for the job.  But in the background, we have so many other issues we are struggling to resolve, and that colors our rancor. For 240 years, our country has sped through agriculture, industrialization, genocide, civil war.  Two and a half centuries isn’t very long, and we’ve come a long way from our beginnings, every new wave of immigration adding to the French braid of our ethics and culture.

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He led the country during unrest and paid a steep price for it.

Many may argue with this next statement, but in my opinion (mine alone): I think we are better.  I am proud of the work we do in ourselves.  We are not there yet, not by a long shot.  But we are trying.  All (almost all) of us want the world to be better.  Our crime rates our down.  Our civil liberties are up.  Do I want more change?  Yup, you betcha I do.  But none of us can snap our fingers and tomorrow all of the bigotry and misery and greed goes away.  So we work on it.  We protest when we need.  We vote (isn’t that amazing?), vote for the candidate that seems the most worthy of our following.

The question isn’t, “who should lead?” The question is a much more individual one: “Who should I follow?”

Because:

No man is good enough to govern another man without that others consent.

Thanks, Abe.  I agree.

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