A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Sunday, September 21, 2014

In a Popular Albeit Neverending Series

which for fear of spoilers TOF shall not name, the following comment was made by a blogger. Names and context have been altered to protect the innocent.

Context: Following a civil war that spun wildly out of control and devastated the land, the imperium has fallen on the shoulders of a slightly cracked and sadistic regent whom we will call Queen Dido. Because Dido could not be bothered actually, you know, ruling the country, she acceded to requests from the State Church to arm its militia to protect the people beneath Dido's notice.

In the course of plotting the downfall of her rival (Queen Lola) for influence over the child-king we will call Baby Joey, Dido has inveigled a soldier of small brain (Bobo) to perjure himself against Lola, by accusing her of Doing the Dirty Deed with him. To win his cooperation for this dangerously self-incriminating confession, Dido has Done the Dirty Deed with Bobo, since he evidently carries his brains in a small sack below his waist.

However, the head of the State Church (Poo-Bah) has Bobo tortured to confirm the confession and in the course of it he recants and says it was really Dido with whom he made the Beast With Two Backs. Consequently, Dido -- whom the reader has grown to loathe in the course of the narrative -- is tossed in an unpleasant cell in the Church's dungeons, whereupon she begins to feel Real Sorry for Herself.

Now the comment:
The precedent that Dido has unwittingly set here, of giving the Church political power over the monarchy, frankly makes my blood curdle, regardless of how it has served to so deservingly topple Dido herself. The problem is that a policy or course of action doesn’t always have to end in disaster for it not to be a disastrous policy in the aggregate. And if there’s one policy I hold to be unequivocally disastrous, it’s a lack of separation between church and state. Eeek.

Eek, indeed. It's not as though the Church has actually been given "political power" over the monarchy. Is it necessary to count the number of swords and soldiers? What has happened is that the new Pooh-bah has arrested both Lola and Dido on suspicion of mucking around with royal succession-type prerogatives. That is a moral authority over Upper Class individuals in the 1%. Somebody has to keep an eye on them. Ask King David about Nathan the Prophet.

Now, granted we live in the age of the Total State, in which there is no aspect of life that is not the business of the State, but still it is astonishing how people will react with reflexive reactions of reflexivity to the thought that any organization might have powers independent of the Men With Swords. One is reminded of Mussolini's dictum: "Everything within the state; nothing outside the state; nothing against the state." The commenter seemed delightfully unaware that up to this point, the State and Church had been equally unseparated -- except that hitherto it had been the kings and queens appointing (and assassinating) Poo-bahs. Why is it only a "lack of separation" if the Churchy People stand up on their hind legs and bark, not when the Men With Swords grind their hobnailed boots into Churchy faces, (or buy compliant smiley faces for the pulpits)? Ochone! So deeply has the totalitarian sensibility wormed its way into our hearts.

After all, it's not as if the tale up to now has shown the State to be run by earnest, fair civil servants determined to treat the People with loving solicitude. But let someone (the new Poo-bah) actually stand up for the People, and suddenly we are shaking in our booties?

Oh, sure, it's likely to end badly; but everything in this narrative ends badly. It's a fiction. That means it is deliberately constructed to achieve an emotional effect. But here is a comment from a book on the Modern Democratic State entitled happily enough The Modern Democratic State. Speaking of the medieval period, A.D. Lindsay wrote:
"It was perhaps equally important that the existence and prestige of the Church prevented society from being totalitarian, prevented the omnicompetent state, and preserved liberty in the only way that liberty can be preserved, by maintaining in society an organization which could stand up against the state."

"The adjustment of the relation between these two societies was, of course, no easy matter. The history of the relations between Church and state in the Middle Ages is the history of a long dispute waged with wavering fortune on either side. Extravagant claims by one side called forth equally extravagant claims on the other. The erastianism of post-Reformation settlements was the answer to earlier imperiousness on the other side. But the disputes between the secular power and the papacy, however long and embittered, were boundary disputes. Neither party denied that there were two spheres, one appropriate to the Church, the other to the state. Even those partisans who made high claims for their side did not deny that the other side had a sphere of its own. They only put its place lower than did their opponents. The Christian always knew that he had two loyalties: that if he was to remember the apostle's command 'to be subject unto the higher powers,' he was also to remember that his duty was 'to obey God rather than man.' There are things which are Caesar's and things which are God's. Men might dispute as to which were whose, but the fact of the distinction no one denied.”
Naturally in the comm box someone wrote regarding the surprise of this plot development:

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Surprise is their chief weapon.
Ho Ho. We have learned our history at the hands of Monty Python. They are confusing the Spanish Inquisition with the secret police and SWAT teams of the modern scientific state. In fact, the Spanish Inquisition always gave advance notice that a tribunal was coming to town. (The idea was that suspected heretics would have a chance to repent.) IOW: Everyone expects the Spanish Inquisition!

Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition (Yale University Press; 1997)


  1. Mel Brooks' history was fanciful, but the surprise Spanish Inquisition is from imaginations of Monty Python.

    1. Dagnabbit. I thought it was from History of the World Part 1. I will change the post and no one will ever know.

  2. Not just disastrous, too, but 'unequivocally disastrous'. One would think that this kind of tale would suggest to even an obdurate mind that even if disastrous it is at least a little bit ambiguously so.

  3. One of the hallmarks of our increasingly stupid and arrogant age is how much the Average Schlub relies on Monty Python for his information.

    When were people paranoid about witches? "She's a witch! She's a witch!"
    Why is the Catholic Church against contraception? "Every sperm is sacred!"

    And they say medieval people were stupid!

  4. For bonus points, the Spanish Inquisition's issues largely came from too much state control-- the Pope told them to cut it out!

  5. The commenter seemed delightfully unaware that up to this point, the State and Church had been equally unseparated -- except that hitherto it had been the kings and queens appointing (and assassinating) Poo-bahs.

    I was thinking the same thing. Dido had the previous Poo-bah killed. Killed. Did that also make the commenter's blood curdle?

    Other than that, the kings and queens had been all too happy to subject themselves to the religious dictates of the Poo-bahs (whenever it served those kings and queens politically anyway). So the "precedent" had already been set.

    It's a really strange comment. As your post seems to indicate, when people like the commenter use the phrase "separation of church and state," what they really seem to mean is any arrangement whereby the state is at the top of the food chain, and the church exercises no independent power; if the church becomes the state's plaything, or even worse, the state assassinates the church's leaders ... well, that may be bad, but not blood-curdling bad.


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