Thursday, January 20, 2011

On greed and gluttony

Somehow I keep coming back, with a mixture of horror and fascination, to the corpulent tyrant famous for his six wives: Henry VIII, of whom Dickens said: he is "a disgrace to human nature, a blot of blood and grease upon the history of England."

This is definitely not the lean, mean and sexy image projected by Jonathan Rhys Meyers in the TV series The Tudors. Or the charmer protrayed by Richard Burton in Anne of a Thousand Days. The real Henry was repulsive, a selfish tyrant not too far removed from the worst dictators of the 20th century (except that those guys were not born to power: they fought for it).

What interests me is Henry's destruction of monastic culture, politely called the Dissolution of the Monasteries, carried out with ruthless skill by his chief henchman Thomas Cromwell from 1534-40.

It so happens that G.J. Meyer, now of Oxfordshire, England, whom I remember from our undergrad days at St. Louis University, has turned his skills as a writer to the ambitious project of portraying not only Henry but his father and the rest of the family. His recent, and very readable popular history, is called The Tudors (Delacorte Press, 2010).

There Meyer gives a good overview of what he rightly sees as the destruction of the monasteries: Henry VIII made England bankrupt to satisfy his own swollen ego after making himself and his barons rich by taking over some 800 abbeys and shrines, destroying priceless libraries, hospitals, almshouses, and other centers that cared for the needy. It's hard to imagine a more colossal social and economic dislocation: 16% of English land was involved and some 480 million pounds just from the sale of the property (that's $700 million, roughly) was gained by the Crown. At least 10,000 people's lives were upended.

I am reading a more detailed view, by Geoffrey Moorhouse, who, like most modern historians, has little good to say about Henry and his regime.

The big picture (I always come back to that!) here for me is the fascination that readers have with the way human nature can go terribly wrong. Witness the man who contacted me this week wanting to study Dante. I assume he is open to a discussion of virtue and vice, of the morality that is seldom talked about in public discourse these days. I assume he's ready to face unpopular words like sin, social injustice, and punishment because Dante does not hesitate to deal with such conventional realities.

Watching a CNN program this week about China, I heard Christine Romans discussing the way the American middle class has long been eager to buy cheap goods from China to the great advantage of that Asian giant so that now America's economy is threatened. When the interviewer mentioned the "greed and gluttony" of American consumers, Romans laughed an embarrassed laugh, as if to say, such words are shocking and inappropriate: we're not in church here, guys.

My thoughts went back to Dante and his Aristotelian catalog of vices and virtues, to his discussion of the importance of the will in making moral choices (which are now called "inappropriate" in public discourse, not "wrong."). I didn't think of old Henry VIII--until I turned off the TV and picked up my reading about those endlessly interesting Tudors.

Greed and gluttony are perhaps easier to deal with from the distance of 500 years.

No comments: