Art Carden  

"Take pity of your town and your people": Sarah Skwire on Henry V and War

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Liberty Fund's own Sarah Skwire is one of my favorite people, and by reading some of her columns in The Freeman I've been able to catch up on the classical education I thought I had and always claimed but eventually realized was of a meager and unsatisfactory kind.*

In her most recent column, she takes a new look at pro-war and anti-war themes in Henry V and cautions the reader to note that there is a lot more subtlety in the play than might immediately be apparent (or that is apparent from the St. Crispin's Day Speech, which I tell my students to remember every time they want to mumble an answer toward the ground during a class discussion).

Instead of summary, I'll let the good Dr. Skwire's last few paragraphs speak:

Just as it's hard to read the St. Crispin's Day speech without being stirred into a martial frenzy, it's hard to read the Harfleur speech without being sickened by the horrors of war. Add to that the Duke of Burgundy's painful meditations on a conquered France where all husbandry and industry have been destroyed by war, and it becomes very difficult indeed to read the play as whole-heartedly pro-war.


As Tyler Cowen notes, "Now, some things actually are good vs. evil. We all know this, right? But I think, as a general rule, we're too inclined to tell the good vs. evil story. As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you're telling a good vs. evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more."

Literature is not for clear answers. Literature is for complicated questions. That's why it's useful. That's why it's important.

With sabres rattling and drums beating and the prospect of yet another military adventure on the horizon, Skwire's article is worth reading. A few times. And after that, check out Bryan Caplan's posts on pacificism (1, 2, 3, just for a few). Reject the arguments if you will, but at the very least, consider them.

*Award yourself a bonus point if you catch the allusion!

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (5 to date)
Roger Sweeny writes:

I actually came to that quote first in footnote 10 of Frank H. Knight's "'What is truth' in Economics?"

"The saying often quoted from Lord Kelvin (though the substance, I believe, is much older) that 'where you cannot measure, your knowledge is meagre and unsatisfactory,' as applied in mental and social science, is misleading and pernicious. This is another way of saying that those sciences are not sciences in the sense of physical science and cannot attempt to be such without forfeiting their proper nature and function.

"Insistence on a concretely quantitative economics means the use of statistics of physical magnitudes, whose economic meaning and significance is uncertain and dubious. (Even wheat is approximately homogeneous only if measured in economic terms.) And a similar statement would apply even more to other social sciences.

"In this field, the Kelvin dictum very largely means in practice, "if you cannot measure, measure anyhow!" That is, one either performs some other operation and calls it measurement or measures something else instead of what is ostensibly under discussion, and usually not a social phenomenon. To call averaging estimates, or guesses, measurement seems to be merely embezzling a word for its prestige value.

"And it might be pointed out also that in the field of human interests and relationships, much of our most important knowledge is inherently non-quantitative and could not conceivably be put in quantitative form without being destroyed. Perhaps we do not 'know' that our friends really are our friends; in any case, an attempt to measure their friendship would hardly make the knowledge either more certain or more satisfactory!"

[Paragraph breaks and some commas added]

Art Carden writes:

@Roger: Ding! You win!

Hazel Meade writes:

It's really hard to judge Henry V by 20th century standards. The play was written in an era when England was ruled by an absolute monarch, right on the cusp of the Imperial era.
So maybe the foremost concern of the writer wasn't pro-war or anti-war, but a more complex exploration of the ethics of warfare and the relationship between the subjects and the ruler.
Certain KINDS of action during war are wrong (i.e. looting, raping and pilliaging, killing camp followers), certain kinds are obligatory (following orders, obeying the king, displaying loyalty and bravery). Virtues vs. vices.

John T. Kennedy writes:

Harold Bloom argued, persuasively I thought, that Shakespeare must have considered Henry V a machiavellian monster. We know this, he argues, because Hal/Henry definitively turns his back on all the good and wisdom in Falstaff, who Shakespeare clearly loves. I think Shakespeare lets Henry work his will on the audience just as he would on his own subjects and they overwhelmingly walk out stirred by his perceived heroism. In this light Henry V is a villain so triumphant that everyone love him.

Sarah Skwire writes:

John, I think that Bloom *vastly* underestimates the problems with Falstaff--problems of which Shakespeare was well aware. We remember him just as a rowdy, funny, roistering drinking and wenching buddy.

But he runs a battalion for Hal. And he allows the qualified and healthy men to buy their way out, so that the soldiers he takes into battle are all too poor to escape the draft and too weak to fight. And when Hal calls them "Pitiful" (meaning deserving of pity) Falstaff says of them: "Tut, tut; good enough to toss; food for powder, food for powder; they'll fill a pit as well as better: tush, man, mortal men, mortal men." Not even 3 of the 150 soldiers under his command survive.

It's a bad idea to let yourself be seduced by Falstaff.

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