[Originally published at foodforthought.blog.lemonde.fr on January 4, 2018]
KING HENRY II OF ENGLAND
— You? You can’t allow? You can’t stand by? Are you taking yourself seriously as archbishop?
— I am the archbishop, My Prince.
KING HENRY II OF ENGLAND
— By my grace! Are you demented? You’re Chancellor of England. You’re mine.
— I’m also the archbishop, and you have introduced me to deeper obligations.
– Becket, 1964
Among the themes explored by Jean Anouilh’s historical play Becket are one’s honour and sense of duty, and the struggles deriving from dual allegiances and diverging expectations.
Let us briefly set the scene. Henry II is the young and frivolous king of 12th century England, more interested in his own pleasures of hunting and whoring than dutifully ruling his kingdom. Overall, Henry wishes for a simple life of pleasure and expects his command to be obeyed, whether on the throne or in his chambers. He is supported in his adventures and governing by low-born Thomas Becket, whom he makes Chancellor of England as proof of his trust and of their bond. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, leader of a church that defies him, passes away, Henry feels a stroke of genius and names Becket as the new archbishop.
But unbeknownst to Henry, too focused on his own feelings and amusement, Becket has long lamented his own lack of honour and the vacuity of his life — a situation made worse in the play, where Becket is portrayed as a Saxon having betrayed his people in service of the conquering Normans. Upon becoming archbishop, Becket finds his honour in the devotion to a higher cause, replacing a king’s selfish desires with a moral quest. This decision obviously places him on a collision course with Henry, furious and baffled that his long-time friend, his man-on-the-inside, has become his fiercest enemy — the defender of the honour of God.
In the scene above — from the 1964 movie adaptation starring Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton as King Henry and Thomas Becket, respectively –, Henry questions Becket’s decision to excommunicate one of Henry’s barons for the murder of a priest. As Becket refuses to bow to his command, the King comes face-to-face with his friend’s new-found moral convictions and “deeper obligations”.
What’s in treason
Becket’s decision to move away from Henry in order to serve a higher purpose is a fascinating transition. Henry is not simply Becket’s king, to whom he owes obedience; he is also Becket’s closest friend. Becket supports Henry in both his public and private life, and acts as his confidant. In return, Henry places his utmost trust in Becket, crosses his family and aristocracy to make him a nobleman and later the Chancellor of England, second only to the king himself. Not only did Henry name Becket archbishop but Becket was in on the intrigue: he is named specifically to be Henry’s man in the Church, his tool to finally put a stop to the clergy’s continued defiance against the king.
At first glance, Becket betrayed Henry and that is certainly the King’s perspective. Henry gave him everything — power, safety, pleasure — and elevated him as high as he could. All to see his friend turn against him.
Yet, Becket’s sincerity is not questioned: he is shown throughout as a man of duty, calm and cold. He does not seek money, power or prestige, and initially refuses the position of archbishop, foreseeing the unavoidable conflict of interest. Once archbishop, he gives away his riches, dresses modestly, and invites the poor. He simply serves, as he has always done. In his own view, he is not betraying the King, he is simply serving a higher power and strives to reconcile the King with God. Serving both God and the King insofar as the two are compatible, but now placing the former above.
A life of service
Leaving religion aside, why should we be interested in Becket’s life?
From his king to his convictions, Becket leads a life of service. His allegiance changes with his new position but his actions continually stem from a sense of duty, a desire to do well and to do right. Even before getting a chance at a new life, Becket’s sadness at his lack of honour hints to his moral fortitude. He lacks a line to walk on but he is indeed eager to find one. Once found, he will endure his King-and-friend’s wrath to stay the course and maintain his honour.
In this, Becket is not so far from a Jean Valjean. One-time petty criminal to feed his family, Valjean knows only hardship and violence. But when exposed to a new way of life — through a simple but profound act of humanity –, he seizes this moral baton and runs away with it, helping and serving for the rest of his life.
Serving in the modern world
While selflessness and serving others are applicable to most parts of one’s life, there is one domain where Becket’s example shines a powerful light: public service.
Confidant and accomplice of the most powerful man in the land, Becket discovers the general interest: an interest that doesn’t run against his friend, simply against Henry’s selfishness. By serving all, he does serve his king — but precisely does not serve only the King.
In a more modern setting, Becket is a civil servant. Nurtured and raised to power by self-interested politicians, he is placed in a public position to curry favours and rig the system for the powerful. But he chooses to serve the people instead — extending his service to all, not just to his mentors — and making enemies as he does.1
Porosity between civil service and service to politicians (or other private interests, for that matter) often raises the question of civil servants’ allegiance. Will the close advisor of a successful politician placed in a Ministry serve the general interest or his mentor? Will a Wall Street banker placed in a central bank serve the people or his corporate interest and his connections?
Knowing human tendencies for greed and lust for power — even more so in a consumerist age that promotes wealth maximisation, accumulation, and often “having” over “being” –, revolving doors and transitions from public to private (and vice-versa) are enough to make one wonder whether the general interest is still promoted and defended.
Hierarchy of allegiance
Fealty and loyalty are essential values, to be sure, as they relate to someone’s ability to be true to his word and commitment. What makes a difference, as in Becket’s case, is the hierarchy of one’s allegiances.
In many societies, allegiances grow stronger with the closeness of relationship: family comes first, then kin, then mentors, friends, and finally the rest of the community. As such, we easily empathise with Johnny Cash in Highway Patrolman when he sings “Man turns his back on his family, he ain’t no good”. In the song, a State official puts family first by allowing his brother to cross over to Canada while wanted for murder in the United States. Many other stories tell the tale of individuals sacrificing everything they have or believe in for their loved ones.
But, while this spirit of sacrifice can be admirable in heroic cases, the same hierarchy of allegiance, in the day-to-day life, can also have dire consequences on society. Another famous man-sacrifices-all-for-family story is that of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, where Michael Corleone eventually places the honour and position of his criminal family before his own initial righteous convictions as a World War II Marine (“that’s my family, Kate, it’s not me”, he tells his fiancée early on). Likewise, in real life, the seemingly noble idea of family-before-all, is what allows mafia networks to prosper and gangrene entire societies, for as long as families and friends cover the criminal acts of their own, the power of law enforcement remains severely limited.
The same can indeed be said for any single criminal, but organised crime — of which the mafia seems the more family-oriented version — spreads through society and deeply corrupts the community and its political and judicial institutions. The extend of the « maxiprocesso » in Italy between 1986 and 1992, which indicted 475 Sicilian mafiosi, or the « Mani Pulite » investigation — where as many as 5,000 Italian public figures fell under suspicion and over half the Parliament was indicted — are testimonies of the scale that organised crime and corruption can take in society.
Indeed, the point here is not the promotion of denunciation but the insistence on the hierarchy of one’s allegiances, and the danger of supporting friends and relatives regardless of their actions’ impact on society. In this sense, placing the general interest before personal connections is not favouring cold legality over family and friends, it’s acknowledging that we all live together as a society and that our obligations to our fellow men — even the ones we don’t know — may run against the selfish interests of the ones we do know. Contrast Johnny Cash’s song with Nicola Carati, protagonist of Marco Tullio Giordana’s seven-hour epic La Meglio Gioventù, who heart-wrenchingly reports his wife — part of a terrorist organisation — to the police just before she carries out her first assassination, at great cost for himself and their young daughter.
Likewise, Becket’s service of his King will go far but only insofar as it is compatible with a higher moral principle, and our support of one another must be compatible with and guided by the general interest and principles of life in community.
An interesting case is the recent presidential election in Kenya, where the Supreme Court decided to cancel the victory of incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta based on “irregularities and illegalities” denounced by his opponent, Raila Odinga. Out of the seven judges of the Supreme Court, three — including the Chief Justice — had been nominated in 2016 by Kenyatta himself. The other four had all voted against Odinga’s previous petition following the 2013 election. This perceived bias of the Supreme Court against Odinga had led him to announce that he would not appeal to the Court, a move widely criticised by President Kenyatta and his Jubilee party.
However, when the Supreme Court, in an unexpected move, sided with Odinga’s position and not with the President, Kenyatta’s opinion of the Court quickly soured. Speaking on live television, the President issued thinly-veiled threats, saying: « We shall revisit this thing. We clearly have a problem.” Referring to the judiciary, he added: “Who even elected you? Were you? We have a problem and we must fix it. »
It was the first time on the continent that a court ruled against the electoral victory of an incumbent.
The beauty of service
The viability of our democracies, the endurance of our freedom, and the respect of our rights are conditional upon the elevation of the general interest above purely private interest.2
In general terms, politics is concerned with the way we organise our public life — who decides, how, through which mechanisms, for which goals, according to which principles. Populating this public life are civil servants, with the notion of service ingrained in their very name.
We should here take a cue from one of Life is Beautiful’s most memorable scenes, where a young waiter gets advice from a wise uncle: “You’re serving. You’re not a servant. Serving is a supreme art. God is the first servant. God serves men, but he’s not a servant to men.”3
Civil servants, often derided for perceived incompetence, are in reality the backbone of our democracies. Their required dedication to the general interest, above party lines, above personal gain, and above ethnic affiliations, is the cement of a system that works for the benefit of all and ensures equality of opportunity for the most vulnerable.
Our times may have lost a sense of reverence for those who serve, in favour of blind admiration for those who order. And we would probably gain from reconsidering the notion of public service in our societies. From the highest echelon to the most menial position, one’s rank matters less than the spirit in which one acts: for personal gain or for public benefit. Public service takes many forms and we can all contribute if we put our hearts to it: through our profession, through pro bono work, through volunteering activities, for instance. At the core of it is working for others. Others like us and unknown to us. Because we belong together as members of the same community; because we all live together under the same institutions; because we have a moral responsibility to support one another. Because public service — service for all — is the most noble cause one can serve and elevates us all as a society. Because we owe so much to the Beckets of our time.
For no one has ever lowered himself by serving those less fortunate than him.
- Indeed, one can make the case that, in a dictatorship (monarchy or otherwise), with all the State machinery geared to serve the dictator, his friends and kin, religion becomes the closest thing to the general interest.
2. Even in the field of economics, Adam Smith’s praise of the private interest is meant for the very realisation of the public interest, and Smith is very mindful of the risks presented by large business and cartels for a fruitful economic life that benefits us all.
3. The original Italian makes a further nuance here, saying God is the first “servitore” but not a “servo”, clearly more pejorative.
Originally published at foodforthought.blog.lemonde.fr on January 4, 2018.