Christine de Pizan’s Song of Joan of Arc: A Defense of a Political Heroine

Jeanne d’Arc by Albert Lynch, engraving from Figaro Illustre magazine, 1903, public domain

This is a paper I recently submitted for one of my classes at the University of Edinburgh. I was very glad for the opportunity to bring Joan into my studies here!

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Song of Joan of Arc (Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc) is the medieval Italian-French writer Christine de Pizan’s paean to the teenage visionary who led the French army to stunning victories in the Hundred Years War against the English and their French allies. Prior to Song, from about 1399 to 1429, de Pizan authored forty-one works of poetry, prose, and praise and earned her own living doing it, the first European woman to do so.[1] Many of her works are called proto-feminist not because she advocated changing the social and political roles of women, but because she used her pen so often to defend the moral and intellectual worth of women against misogynist literary attacks, notably Jean de Meun’s The Romance of the Rose and Matheolus’ Lamentations.[2] Nadia Margolis describes de Pizan’s magnum opus The Book of the City of Ladies as ‘the first recorded history of women by a woman author, …one of the first deliberate, systematic refutations of male assertions of women’s inferiority ever written.’[3]

De Pizan draws on her canon for her Song of Joan. She marshals her characterizations of great female heroes and saviors of the past from her prolific body of work in celebration of this amazing heroine of her own time. She draws on the Bible and the classics for her Song as well. Nor does de Pizan stop with great women: a mythic and historic, Biblical and Greek array of great male and female figures march triumphantly before Joan in Song. Written in 1429, the year of de Pizan’s death and two years before Joan’s execution by fire, it’s the last of her works. This epic poem is not only a hagiography nor even, as we’ll see, is it interspersed with mere patriotic digs at the English foe and their allies. Like so many of her works, it’s also a defense, not of all women in this case, but of one particular woman. Specifically, it’s a defense of Joan against politically motivated attacks on her personal and religious character. Thus, I argue, de Pizan’s Song is a political work as well.

As the introductory stanzas give way to the main topics of the Song, de Pizan calls on God to help her tell her story well and truthfully.[4] This is reminiscent of the openings of ancient Greek works such as Homer’s Odyssey[5] and Hesiod’s Theogony[6], in which they call on the Muses to do the same. De Pizan draws this classical theme throughout her Song, calling on the ancients as well to help demonstrate the type and significance of Joan’s heroism. This device serves to underscore Joan’s monumental role in history as well as to make the God-ordained nature of her mission more believable: after all, God has called on people to do great things many times before. De Pizan portrays Joan as the fitting culmination for her own time of the great lineage of heroes and saviors from the Bible and the classics. And not only is Joan like them, she is superior to them: “She frees France from its enemies, …not even Hector – Nor Achilles could withstand her.”[7] In stanza XXIII, Joan is a Moses, leading her people out of subjugation.[8] In stanza XXV, Joan is a Joshua, a conqueror. In stanza XXVII, Joan is a Gideon, a simple shepherd called by God to be a warrior. But these were men, de Pizan points out, and Joan was a young girl. Not only did she perform brave and marvelous feats, she did so without the naturally greater physical strength of grown men.[9] Because this rendered her task more difficult, her feats were all the greater.

And de Pizan has no shortage of great female heroines to associate with Joan. Some of these associations are named: Judith, Esther, and Deborah. The exploits of these great heroines of the Bible would have been widely known to her Christian audience: Judith cuts off the head of the general Holofernes before he can destroy her city; Esther risks her life to reveal a plot that would have led her husband-king to destroy her people; and the prophet and judge Deborah arranges a battle to free her people, then cements the victory by hammering a tent pin into the enemy general’s head as he rests in defeat. Some of the women de Pizan associates with Joan, however, are not identified by name. Nevertheless, many of these latter associations would have been readily identifiable for the educated reader and especially for readers of de Pizan’s earlier work since they were drawn from the classics. For example, in stanza XIV, De Pizan attributes Joan’s military success to her intelligence as well as God’s help: “Once it was lost but now it is yours – …And all due to – the intelligence of the Maid who, thanks – to God, most expertly played her part.”[10] In earlier works, such as Letter of Othea to Hector and The Book of the City of Ladies, de Pizan lauds Minerva and Pallas Athena, two aspects of the same Greek goddess. Minerva is associated with war, as the wise woman who invents armor and iron weapons; Pallas is associated with wisdom and knowledge generally. As the wise warrior woman extraordinaire, Joan is Minerva-Pallas, personified.

The clearest and most-repeated association I find between Joan and an unnamed great woman is with the Virgin Mary. In one stanza, de Pizan praises Joan as both virgin and a moral mother “You are virgin, very young, – To whom God grants the strength and power – To be both woman and champion, – Who offers France the gentle breast, – the food of peace…”[11] Later on, de Pizan continues the Marian theme: “Aha!! What honor for the female – Sex! God shows how he loves it, – …By one woman [the nobles and realm] were fortified, No men could do this deed….”[12] If these parallels aren’t clear enough, de Pizan portrays Joan as the vessel through which salvation comes (to France) and through which the king comes to rule his kingdom (Charles’ coronation at Reims). And just as it was in Nazareth, God could have saved France any way he chose, and he chose to save both through women.

Some of de Pizan’s hagiographic characterizations of Joan do not relate to her virtues as a woman, such as those which reflect her earlier works such as City of Ladies and Letter of Othea, or as a savior, such as those which compare her to Old Testament and mythic heroines and heroes. It appears, rather, that they relate to her superiority over her foes. Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty, in the interpretive essay which accompanies their publication and translations of Song, identify the strong anti-English sentiment found throughout the work.[13] As they point out, de Pizan characterizes the English and their allies as evil, wicked, traitors, and before Joan and her army’s power, helpless as dead dogs.[14] De Pizan also uses the term l’Englecherie, which Kennedy and Varty describe as a pejorative term for the English in that place and time.[15]

Yet this patriotic poem goes beyond ‘heaping scorn’[16] on her foes. De Pizan offers a defense of Joan’s character by offering descriptions of her virtues and intentions that contradict the negative characterizations of her spread by the English and their French allies, the Burgundians. We have a contemporary record of these in the transcripts of her trial in Rouen. Joan was captured on May 23rd, 1430 at Compiègne, and after lengthy negotiations, was handed over to an ecclesiastical court in exchange for 10,000 livres.[17] Despite her being subjected to a purportedly religious trial, she was not, as was customary in those kinds of cases, kept in a religious prison looked after by nuns. Rather, she was kept in an English military prison, chained to a wall, with male guards inside and outside her cell.[18]

The trail at Rouen was widely understood to be both a character and a literal assassination carried out by means of a show trial,[19] carried out with elaborate procedure to make it seem as impartial as possible.[20] Her judges, led by Pierre Cauchon, a French judge in the pay of the English, set out to prove Joan was so depraved, morally and religiously, that she could not have been sent by God. The opening statement of the trial reads: “The reputation of this woman had already gone forth into many parts: how, wholly forgetful of womanly honesty, and having thrown off the bonds of shame, careless of all the modesty of womankind, she wore with an astonishing and monstrous brazenness, immodest garments belonging to the male sex…”.[21] The issue of men’s clothing, which Joan habitually worse since going to war, was a major theme throughout the trial. It was used as evidence not only of her immodesty but her heresy as well, since the Bible forbids women to wear men’s clothing[22]. The judges did not address the fact that imprisoning her in a cell with male guards exposed her to the continual threat of sexual assault and rape[23]; Joan may have found it expedient to wear men’s clothing to preserve her virginity[24], a status which these judges were so intent to undermine. After many sessions of testimony and questioning, twelve formal Articles of Accusation were drawn up and read aloud. One accuses her of staying in a house “with unguarded women” where soldiers liked to hang around[25]. Another accuses her of “having intimate relations” with Captain Robert de Baudricourt and promising to bear him one pope, one emperor, and one king[26].

In defense of Joan’s moral purity, De Pizan refers specifically to Joan’s virginity no less than 13 times in her Song, besides numerous allusions throughout to Joan’s generally virtuous character. De Pizan might have used this description to describe any great woman since de Pizan considers virginity as sacred a designation for women as any Christian of her time[27].

But aside from the sometimes rather startling charges pertaining to her sexual behavior, the imputations of witchcraft and heresy were more serious. The opening statement continues, “her presumptuousness had grown until she was not afraid to perform, to speak, and to disseminate many things contrary to the Catholic faith and hurtful to the articles of the orthodox belief. And by so doing, as well in our diocese as in several other districts of this kingdom, she was said to be guilty of no inconsiderable offenses[28].” Her judges expand on this theme in another statement read over a month later at the first public session[29].

De Pizan goes well beyond defending Joan as personally pious: she presents Joan as a defender of the Christian faith itself. De Pizan writes that not only will Joan defend the faith, but “The Christian faith and Holy Church, – Will both be set to rights through her…”[30] This was one of the passages which alerted me to the political elements in Song. The Hundred Year’s War and de Pizan’s Song long predate England’s schism with the Catholic Church; it so happened that the Pope bestowed the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ nearly one hundred years later on the English monarch Henry VIII before Henry broke England’s ties to the Catholic Church[31]. There were no particular reasons to charge England with being at odds with the Christian faith except as far as they refused to lay down their arms before Joan. Still, even if Joan were on God’s side in the quarrel between the French and the English, this wouldn’t imply that Joan was defender of the Christian faith at large. What, then, explains de Pizan’s remarks here?

The English and their allies certainly did not see themselves as enemies of God or the true faith[32]. They saw themselves as rightful heirs to the throne of France; indeed, as a result of the habit of monarchs creating alliances by marrying their children off to one another only to have these heirs to the crown die off in inconvenient succession, the English monarch did have a real claim to the French throne[33]. It was not in the English interests for their claim to be invalidated as against the will of God. It was in their interests to demonstrate that Joan was not on God’s side. If she had a reputation as indecent, immodest, unwomanly, or a woman of loose morals with a penchant for soldiers, that would weaken Joan’s reputation for holiness. It was even more in their interests that Joan be perceived as a witch, a heretic, or both: if this could be demonstrated, then Joan’s claim to be sent by God could not[34]. Therefore, de Pizan mounts a strong defense of Joan’s godliness, claiming her not only as a pious Christian but as a defender of the faith itself. But the role as a defender of the faith doesn’t seem necessary to add to Joan’s already impressive resume of Christian greatness in Song except as an additional qualifier, a sort of icing on the cake. But de Pizan goes even beyond that: “Yet destroying the English invader – is not, indeed, her primary concern. – For her calling is in preserving – the Faith….”[35]

Once again, we can ask: what impels de Pizan to make the claim that Joan’s primary concern is defending the Christian faith, on behalf of the impressive warrior-saint for whom she’s already claimed so much? When de Pizan mounts her defense of Joan, she could not have known that Joan would be tried by an ecclesiastical court that would seek to officially undermine Joan’ claim that she was doing the will of God on behalf of France. But while de Pizan wrote her Song, Joan was on trial in the court of public opinion. Both trials were political trials, each side out to win the public’s support for their legitimacy to rule. God had chosen a side in this political contest, and Joan said that was France. Therefore, de Pizan added, Joan, as God’s chosen champion of God’s chosen France, was also the champion of the faith itself. In Song, de Pizan places France, France’s king, Joan, God, and the Christian faith itself on one side, the English and their allies on the other. There was only one side, therefore, that the faithful could join, and that was Joan’s. The faithful was transformed, in Song, to the political.

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[1] Redfern, Jenny. “Christine de Pisan and The Treasure of the City of Ladies: A Medieval Rhetorician and Her Rhetoric” in Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women and in the Rhetorical Tradition, ed. Lunsford, Andrea. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1995, p. 74

[2] De Pizan, Christine. Letter of Othea to Hector (1399-1400). Trans., ed., and interpretive essay by Jane Chance. 1997, pp. 8, 14

[3] Margolis, Nadia. “A Feminist-Historical Citadel: Christine de Pizan’s Book of the City of Ladies.” Feminist Moments: Reading Feminist Texts. Ed. Katherine Smits and Susan Bruce.: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. 11–18. Bloomsbury Collections. Accessed 28 Nov. 2017 at http://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781474237970.ch-002, paragraph 1

[4] De Pizan, Christine. Ditié de Jehanne d’Arc (1429). Ed. and trans. by Angus J. Kennedy and Kenneth Varty. Oxford: Society for the Study of Mediaeval Languages and Literature, 1977, pp. 41-42

[5] Homer, Odyssey. Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University. Accessed 6 December 2017 at http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0136, v. 1-10

[6] Hesiod, Theogony. Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University. Accessed 6 December 2017 at www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.01.0130, v. 1-5, 20-25

[7] De Pizan, The Song of Joan of Arc. Trans. by Leah Shopkow. Retrieved 20 November 2017 from www.indiana.edu/~dmdhist/joan.htm, stanza XXXVI

[8] Margolis writes that De Pizan sees herself in this role in the City of Ladies as well: ‘First, it echoes the Old Testament (2 Kings 17: 7) in comparing women constrained by misogyny to the Jews enslaved by Pharaoh, thereby likening Christine to Moses (Exod 1; Deut 34). Just as Moses was chosen to lead the Israelites to freedom, so Christine was chosen to lead women to better destinies.’ – paragraph 6

[9] Song, all translations, stanza XXVII

[10] De Pizan, The Song of Joan of Arc. Trans. by Ben D. Kennedy. Retrieved 20 November 2017 from www.maidofheaven.com/joanofarc_song_pisan_contents.asp. Leah Shopkow translates the phrase to ‘wise Joan’, but the Middle French dictionary I consult translates the adjective sensible as closer in meaning to ‘intelligent.’ As Shopkow notes, in some places she sacrifices a little accuracy for overall coherence and poetic rhythm. See the introduction to her translation at www.indiana.edu/~dmdhist/joan.htm

[11] Song, trans. Shopkow, stanza XXIV

[12] Song, trans. Shopkow, stanza XXXIV

[13] Ibid., p. 13

[14] Song, trans. Shopkow, stanzas XXIII, XXIV, XXXIV, XLV, and XXXIII, respectively

[15] Song, Kennedy and Varty, p 87

[16] Ibid., p. 13

[17] The Trial of Jeanne D’Arc. Trans. By W. P. Barrett. Originally published New York: Gotham House, Inc., 1932. From Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University. Accessed 29 November 2017 at https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/joanofarc-trial.asp, p. x

[18] Ibid., p. x

[19] Michelet, J. Joan of Arc: Or, The Maid of Orleans: From Michelet’s History of France. New York: Stanford & Delisser, 1858. Accessed 28 November 2017 from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=nyp.33433071375152, pp. 115-116; Robins, P. R. “Discerning Voices in the Trial of Joan of Arc and ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’.” Fifteenth-Century Studies 38, 2013, pp. 177, 187-188

[20] Robins, p. 183

[21] Ibid., p. 2

[22] Bible, King James Version. [online], Accessed 29 November 2017 at: www.bible.com/en-GB/bible, Deuteronomy 22:5

[23] On at least one occasion, though she was in chains, Joan successfully fought off a rape attempt: Michelet, p. 207-208

[24] Men’s clothing was somewhat time-consuming to remove: hose and chausses were laced to a belt and/or the upper garments to hold them in place – Houston, Mary G. Medieval Costume in England and France: The 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries. (1939). New York: Dover, 1996, p. 53, 80-81. Joan’s ability to fight off her would-be rapist may have been aided by her protective covering of laced-together, difficult-to-remove clothing

[25] Trial, Article XIII, p. 154

[26] Ibid., Article XI, p. 159

[27] De Pizan, Christine, The Book of the City of Ladies (1405). Trans. and intro. Brown-Grant, Rosalind. London, Penguin Books, 1999, p. xix, xxiii

[28] Trial, p. 2-3

[29] Ibid., p 34, 36 ‘Since she was appearing in judgment before us we began to explain… how many of her actions, not in our diocese alone but in many other regions also, had injured the orthodox faith, and how common report of them had spread through all the realms of Christendom…. Therefore, considering the public rumor and common report and also certain information already mentioned, after mature consultation with men learned in canon and civil law, we decreed that the said Jeanne should be summoned and cited by letter to answer the interrogations in matters of faith and other points truthfully according to law and reason….’

[30] Song, trans. Shopkow, Stanza XLII

[31] ‘Defender of the Faith’. Ed.s, Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. Accessed 29 November, 2017 at http://www.britannica.com/topic/defender-of-the-faith

[32] Robins, p. 177

[33] Vale, M. G. A. The Origins of the Hundred Years War: The Angevin Legacy, 1250-1340. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996, pp. 227, 266

[34] Trial, p. xi, Robins, p 177

[35] Song, trans. Kennedy, stanza XLV

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Say What? Francis Bacon Quotes Cicero On Cato and Government

‘Cato means well: but he does hurt sometimes to the State; for he talks as if he were in the republic of Plato and not in the dregs of Romulus.’

– Marcus Cicero, as quoted by Francis Bacon in Wisdom of the Ancients

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Hannah Arendt!

Hannah Arendt, born on October 14, 1906 in Hanover, Germany, was one of the twentieth century’s leading thinkers about political philosophy and the nature of evil. In the one and only filmed interview with her that survives, Arendt objected to being called a philosopher; she said she doesn’t feel like a philosopher, and that she thinks she has not been accepted in the philosophical community. We’re still hashing out what she meant by these statements to this day: some believe that she didn’t feel, as a woman, that the traditionally male-centric philosophical circle had room for her, so she did her work in another arena of thought; some believe since she emphasizes action and responsibility in her ethics and political thought, she felt this did not fit into the abstract nature of the accepted philosophical canon. However, her latter remark has proved no longer true, if it ever was: she is not only accepted into the philosophical circle, she has earned a prominent place in it.

Arendt completed her doctoral degree in philosophy in 1928. By 1940, she was forced to flee the Nazi’s persecution of intellectuals, first as a refugee to Paris, then to the United States, where she arrived in 1941. She settled in the U.S. for good, became a naturalized citizen, and taught at the University of Chicago and then at New York City’s New School for Social Research. Arendt established herself as a major political thinker with her 1951 book Origins of Totalitarianism, and a controversial one with her series of articles for The New Yorker about the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’s 1961 trial. She used this series as the basis for her 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem.

Among Arendt’s major themes is the idea that evil is not so much the result of an active malevolence but of thoughtless complacency. She distills this idea in her concept the banality of evil, which made people very uncomfortable at that time and ever since. Many hate this idea in part because they detect in it an element of victim-blaming, such as in Arendt’s including in her discussion the supposed cooperation of many Jewish community leaders in the massive and efficient deportation of the Jews to Nazi concentration camps and gas chambers. But I believe people hate Arendt’s concept more because of its implication that it’s so very easy for every single one of us to participate in great evil through our own carelessness and laziness.

Arendt’s philosophy of action and personal responsibility, problematic as it might be in some particulars, presents an important challenge even as it lays on all of us what might feel like an intolerable burden. She demands that we shake off complacency every moment of our lives, that we resist the temptation to thoughtlessly participate in harmful practices and ways of thinking. In an age where mass consumption has become the norm, even the source of meaning and impetus for most of our actions, regardless of its ravages on the beautiful world that gives us life, there are few ideas that are more timely or more important.

Learn about the life and thought of the courageous and brilliant Hannah Arendt:

Hannah Arendt ~ Interview with Gunter Gaus for Zur Person

Hannah Arendt ~ by Maurizio Passerin d’Entreves for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Hannah Arendt ~ Melvyn Bragg talks to Lyndsey Stonebridge, Frisbee Sheffield, and Robert Eaglestone for In Our Time

Hannah Arendt: American Political Scientist ~ by the editors for Encyclopædia Britannica

Hannah Arendt and the Hierarchy of Human Activity ~ by Finn Bowring for The Times Literary Supplement

Film Review: Hannah Arendt ~ Yasemin Sari for Philosophy Now

The Trials of Hannah Arendt ~ Corey Robin for The Nation, May 12, 2015

Why Do Hannah Arendt’s Ideas about Evil and the Holocaust Still Matter? ~ An interview with Michael Rosenthal for the Stroum Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Washington

Various articles ~ by Hannah Arendt for The New Yorker magazine

Various articles featuring Hannah Arendt ~ Maria Popova for Brain Pickings

Ordinary Philosophy is a labor of love and is ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

O.P. Recommends: Speaking Ill of Hugh Hefner, by Ross Douthat

‘No doubt what Hefner offered America somebody else would have offered in his place, and the changes he helped hasten would have come rushing in without him.

But in every way that mattered he made those changes worse, our culture coarser and crueler and more sterile than liberalism or feminism or freedom of speech required….

Now that death has taken him, we should examine our own sins. Liberals should ask why their crusade for freedom and equality found itself with such a captain, and what his legacy says about their cause. Conservatives should ask how their crusade for faith and family and community ended up so Hefnerian itself — with a conservative news network that seems to have been run on Playboy Mansion principles and a conservative party that just elected a playboy as our president.’

Read this article in full in the New York Times‘ Opinion Page for Sep 30th, 2017

~ One thing I’d like to make clear: I don’t at all endorse the ageism I discern in many of the articles I’ve read that are critical of Hefner, including this one. So many of these writers imply that Hefner’s sexuality was distasteful, at least in part, because of the physical attributes associated with aging. For example, Douthat mocks Hefner’s ‘papery skin’ and ‘decrepitude’ as if they were among those things the reader should be disgusted by. I don’t believe it’s any more justified to stereotype older people as it is to stereotype women based on narrow conceptions of what desirable or likable people should look like.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Trump Embraces a Post-American World

Fareed Zakaria

By Fareed Zakaria
Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017

President Trump’s speech to the United Nations was well delivered. But it was a strange mishmash of topics and tones, in parts celebrating realpolitik but then also asserting the importance of freedom and democracy. There was, however, one overriding theme — the embrace of nationalism. And in striking that chord, Trump did something unusual, perhaps unique for a U.S. president: He encouraged, even embraced the rise of a post-American world.

First, the mishmash. Early in his speech, Trump asserted, “In America, we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” But then, a few minutes later, Trump proceeded to castigate North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba for their undemocratic political systems, virtually demanding that they all become Western-style liberal democracies.

The danger of this kind of lofty rhetoric is that it has been selectively applied, so it is seen cynically…

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On the Value of Intellectuals, by Brad Kent

“George Bernard Shaw near St Neots from the Millership collection” from the Birmingham Museums Trust, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In times of populism, soundbites, and policy-by-Twitter such as we live in today, the first victims to suffer the slings and arrows of the demagogues are intellectuals. These people have been demonised for prioritising the very thing that defines them: the intellect, or finely reasoned and sound argument. As we celebrate the 161st birthday of Bernard Shaw, one of the most gifted, influential, and well-known intellectuals to have lived, we might use the occasion to reassess the value of intellectuals to a healthy society and why those in power see them as such threats.

Born in Dublin on 26 July 1856 to a father who held heterodox religious opinions and a mother who moved in artistic circles, Shaw was perhaps bound to be unconventional. By age 19 he was convinced that his native Ireland was little more than an uncouth backwater–the national revival had yet to see the light of day–so he established himself in London in order to conquer English letters. He then took his sweet time to do it. In the roughly quarter of a century between his arrival in the metropole and when he finally had a modicum of success, Shaw wrote five novels–most of which remained unpublished until his later years–and eked out a living as a journalist, reviewing music, art, books, and theatre. That eminently readable journalism has been collected in many fine editions, and we see in it an earnest individual not only engaged in assessing the qualities of the material before him–much of which was dreadfully insipid–but eager to raise standards and to cultivate the public. He prodded people to want more and gave them the tools to understand what a better art would look and sound like. And he did so in an inimitable voice that fashioned his renowned alter ego: the great showman and controversialist, GBS.

“George Bernard Shaw, circa 1900” from the Library of Congress, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Shaw became more widely known as a playwright in late 1904, when King Edward broke his chair laughing at the Royal Command performance of Shaw’s play John Bull’s Other Island. He was no longer a journalist by trade, now being able to live by his plays, but Shaw continued to write essays, articles, and letters-to-the-editor in leading papers to set the record straight, to denounce abuses of power, and to suggest more humane courses of action. When he published his plays, he wrote polemical prefaces to accompany them that are sometimes longer than the plays themselves. These prefaces, written on an exhausting range of subjects, are equally learned and entertaining. Indeed, it has been said by some wags that the plays are the price that we pay for his prefaces.

In many ways continuing his fine work as the Fabian Society’s main pamphleteer in the 1890s, his prefaces suggest remedies for the great injustices of his time. And, what’s more, the vast majority of his prescriptions are as topical and provocative today. For example, if you’re American, should you opt for Trumpcare or Obamacare? Read The Doctor’s Dilemma and its preface and you’ll have a compelling case for neither, but rather a comprehensive and fully accessible public healthcare system, the sort now common in Canada and most European countries. That’s right, people were feeling the Bern–we might say the original Bern–well before Mr. Sanders was born.

Some of Shaw’s opinions came at a great cost. When he published Common Sense About the War, which was critical of both German and British jingoism at the outset of the Great War, he ran too much against the grain of the hyper-patriotic press and government propaganda, thereby becoming a pariah to many. But his star gradually returned into the ascendant as the body count mounted and a war-weary population came to share his point of view. The run-away international success of Saint Joan brought him the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1925 and, as Shaw said, gave him the air of sanctity in his later years.

“George Bernard Shaw with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, May 1949”, from Nehru Memorial Museum & Library. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

However, Shaw always maintained that he was immoral to the bone. He was immoral in the sense that, as a committed socialist in a liberal capitalist society, he didn’t support contemporary mores. Instead, he sought to change the way that society was structured and to do so he proposed absolutely immoral policies. A good number of these beyond universal healthcare have seen the light of day, such as education that prioritises the child’s development and sense of self-worth, the dismantling of the injustices of colonial rule, and voting rights for women. But those in power continue the old tug-of-war, and the intellectuals of today must be as vigilant, courageous, and energetic as Shaw in the defence of liberal humanist and social democratic values. Witness the return of unaffordable tertiary education in the UK, made possible by both Labour and Conservative policies.  We might recall that Shaw co-founded one of these institutions–the renowned London School of Economics–because he believed in their public good.

Whenever Shaw toured the globe in his later decades–he died in 1950 at age 94–he was met by leading politicians, celebrities, and intellectuals who wanted to bask in his wit, wisdom, and benevolence (Jawaharlal Nehru, Charlie Chaplin, and Albert Einstein are a few such people). Time magazine named him amongst the ten most famous people in the world–alongside Hitler and the Pope. Everywhere he went, the press hounded him for a quote. Yet despite the massive fees he could have charged, he never accepted money for his opinions, just as he had declined speaking fees in his poorer days when he travelled Britain to give up to six three-hour lectures a week to praise the benefits of social democracy. He would not be bought–or suffer the appearance of being bought.

On his birthday, then, we would do well to think of Shaw and maybe even read some of his plays, prefaces, or journalism. We might also cherish the service and immorality of intellectuals. And we should always question the motives of those who denigrate their value.

This piece was originally published in OUPBlog: Oxford University Press’s Academic Insights for the Thinking World

The Mealy-Mouthed Cowardice of America’s Elites After Charlottesville

As is so often the case, Fareed Zakaria’s analysis is the best I’ve read on this subject. As Bill Maher recently pointed out, sure, there was violence on both sides in World War II as well, but one side was still right

Fareed Zakaria

By Fareed Zakaria
Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017

Much of the United States has reacted swiftly and strongly to President Trump’s grotesque suggestion that there is a moral equivalence between the white supremacists who converged last weekend on Charlottesville and those who protested against them. But the delayed, qualified and mealy-mouthed reactions of many in America’s leadership class tell a disturbing story about the country’s elites — and the reason we are living in an age of populist rebellion.

The least respected of today’s leaders are, of course, politicians. The public largely views them as craven and cowardly, pandering to polls and focus groups. And that is how too many Republican officials have behaved in the face of Trump’s words and actions. With some honorable exceptions, men and women who usually cannot stop pontificating on every topic on live TV have suddenly gone mute on the biggest political subject of the day.

I…

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