Monday, September 12, 2005

Doleful News for Austria

I've been reading Hume's History of England, and, in particular, the history of the reign of James I. One of the situations James found himself in had to do with the Palatinate. James's son-in-law Frederick, the Elector Palatine, had attempted to take control of Bavaria; he was put to flight by the Austrian Emperor Ferdinand, who also seized the Palatinate. James had made the very unpopular decision not to support the Elector militarily; instead, he tried to deal with the problem diplomatically, by negotiation. Hume discusses the problems with this at length. One passage was particularly amusing (History, vol. 1, ch. 5):

To shew how little account was made of James's negotiations abroad, there is a pleasantry which is mentioned by all historians, and which, for that reason, shall have place here. In a farce, acted at Brussels, a courier was introduced, carrying the doleful news, that the Palatinate would soon be wrested from the house of Austria; so powerful were the succours, which, from all quarters, were hastening to the relief of the despoiled Elector: The King of Denmark had agreed to contribute to his assistance a hundred thousand pickled herrings, the Dutch a hundred thousand butter-boxes, and the King of England a hundred thousand ambassadors.


UPDATE: It might be worth adding a brief note or two about Hume's approach to history. He's writing philosophical history, so his primary interests are the lessons history can teach us about the way politics and society works. One of his common themes is a realistic account of human progress: if we take the notion of progress seriously, we have to take seriously the fact that people start in relative confusion and only gradually through the give-and-take of society come to a relatively clear view. Thus, our ancestors often came to the right conclusions for all the wrong reasons, or put forward all the right reasons but still somehow managed to draw the wrong conclusions, or (and Hume discusses a lot of cases like this) drew the lines of the debate in a place that we would consider very odd. Hume thus criticizes James for his failings (e.g., in not being forceful where forcefulness was needed), but he also criticizes James's critics, pointing out that (for instance) if James had done more to tolerate Catholics than he actually did, he would have faced the same problems Charles later did, and probably worse, because the Protestant subjects of the King barely accepted what he did do, and that grumblingly and grudgingly. Our sense of civil liberty or tolerance would have guaranteed the destruction of society as they knew it; our sense of liberty was hard-won, and required many social changes before it was even a remotely practicable way of looking at the world.

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