Monday, July 26, 2010

Dryden, Drogheda and Utilitarianism


            Last night I read Dryden's poem in honor of Cromwell.  He entitled it, "Heroic Stanzas, Consecrated to the Memory of His Highness, Oliver, Late Lord Protector of this commonwealth, &c."   The first time I read this poem, I was shocked.  I thought all the major literary and historical figures hated Cromwell.  Of course I shouldn't have been shocked.  As soon as the "restoration" occurred, Dryden wrote equally enthusiastically (if not as eloquently) about Charles II.  Emerson wrote that "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little mind."  Dryden was not guilty of consistency, whether foolish or otherwise.  One might excuse him a bit on the basis of his need to write whatever was going to sell.  He needed the money, but did he need to convert to Catholicism upon the accession of Charles II?  His family was traditionally Puritan; so a poem in honor of Cromwell wasn't inconsistent, but his conversion to Catholicism and his praise of the Catholic Monarch was.  That he was interested in doing whatever was necessary to make a living could also be seen in the dramatic tripe he produced.  He admitted that he had no sense of humor but comedies were popular so he bent his "genius" to the writing of them.

            But if one sets out to study the English Civil War, one may end up more tolerant of Dryden.  He wasn't the only one to adopt the politically-correct support of the Catholic Monarch.  The intellectuals of the Restoration were brutal in their treatment of Cromwell's memory.  The old saying that the victors get to write the history was never truer than in the case of Cromwell, but as time went on why weren't Cromwell's achievements dusted off and resurrected?  Why did historians keep denigrating Cromwell as viciously as did the writers of the monarchy in the days of Charles II?

            To get a more balanced view of the English Revolution and especially Cromwell one needs (in my opinion) to read the Marxist historian Christopher Hill.  I am no Marxist and invariably argue against that position, but Marxism doesn't intrude into or disrupt Hill's treatment of his subject.  I believe I am (or was) sensitive to the Communist Party Line but I never discovered a hint of it in any of Hill's histories of this period.

            The last time I was reading extensively about the English Revolution and Cromwell it seemed to me the main thing that could not be forgiven was Cromwell's brutality after the Siege of Drogheda.  It occurred to me that Cromwell's tactics were Utilitarian.  He gave the men of Drogheda the chance to surrender and told them no harm would come to them if they did so.  But they chose to fight.  By killing all the men after the siege he created an example that saved the lives of countless Irish in subsequent confrontations.  No subsequent town, if I remember correctly chose to hold out as Drogheda did. 

             I wonder what Robert Wright thinks of Cromwell's actions at Drogheda.  Yesterday someone sent me a debate between the Utilitarian Robert Wright and the Thomist Robert P. George: .  I am no admirer of Utilitarianism but surely there must be Utilitarians in the home of that philosophy who admire Cromwell for his actions at Drogheda . . . if there are any who maintain a foolish consistency in their little minds.

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