Another Lesson We Seem Never to Learn


After Kenneth Colston’s inclusion of The Betrothed, by Alessandro Manzoni, during his talk at the 2015 Portsmouth Institute conference, I put the book on my reading list.  The relevance to the conference was Pope Francis’s saying in an interview that he had read the book three times and was preparing for a fourth reading.  “Manzoni gave me so much,” he said.

One chapter in, the novel has given me some hope that Manzoni placed a light bulb in the pope’s mind on a topic for which it may prove very important to have light in the coming years.  With the narrative set in northern Italy, just under the Alps, at around the time that the Pilgrims were settling in to their new home across the Atlantic Ocean, the civic culture that Manzoni describes gives the impression of a fully formed variation of a type of tyranny that is hardening anew in our own age:

… We do not mean that there was any lack of laws with penalties directed against private acts of violence.  There was a glut of such laws in point of fact.  The various crimes were listed and described and detailed in the most minute and long-winded manner. The penalties were of insane severity, and as if that were not enough, they were almost invariably subject to augmentation at the whim of the magistrate himself, or of any one of a hundred subordinate officials. …

… If [the proclamations] had any immediate effect, it lay principally in the addition of many new harassments to those which the pacific and the weak already suffered from their tormentors, and an increase in the violence and the cunning shown by the guilty; for their impunity was an organized institution, and had roots which the proclamations did not touch, or at least could not shift.  There were places of asylum; there were privileges attached to certain social classes, which were sometimes recognized by the forces of the law, sometimes tolerated in indignant silence, and sometimes disputed with empty words of protest. …

… With the appearance of each proclamation designed to repress men of violence, those concerned searched among their practical resources for the most suitable fresh methods of continuing to do what the edicts prohibited.

What the proclamations could do was to put stumbling-blocks in the way of simple folk, who had no special power of their own nor protection from others, and harass them at ever step they took.  For the proclamations were framed with the object of keeping everybody under control, in order to prevent or punish every sort of crime; and so they subjected every action of the private citizen to the arbitrary will of all kinds of officials.

This perspicuous observation applies to any number of issues, particularly those near and dear to the hearts of progressives, including among others campaign finance, environmental regulation, and general economic/business policy.