Rights, compassion and all that serious stuff

Our concepts of justice and social justice are closely tied to our ideas about the rights we enjoy as human beings. Rights easily taken for granted, and all too easily abused.

That takes us to another question, one that’s long concerned me – what lies behind the rights we enjoy? An external authority? Or something beyond that – are the rights we enjoy innate in who we are?

If this sounds heavy duty, please do bear with me. It gets to the core of why I set up the zenpolitics blog: how we can relate compassion, and the practice of compassion, to our everyday lives, and beyond that, to political life.

Negative rights assume self-interest is paramount: we respect the rights of others to pursue their interest to the extent that they respect our rights to do the same. Our loyalties are tied to family and community and to country: emotions attach to those loyalties, but they link back to our own selfish interest.

Positive rights assume a wider concept of interest, where the interests of self and others are ultimately the same, based on a natural justice common to all. From this derives everything from the right to vote and to an education, to the rights of the child, as in the UN Charter, and indeed to natural justice, where justice, and the legal system that enacts it, is common to all.

A natural justice common to all? Based on what? It can’t simply be a convenient construct, or rely on a hypothetical contract between citizens, which can be interpreted many different ways and swing as mood and opinion swings, or government or media interests dictate. (Though for many a construct or contract is as far as they’re prepared to go, following a trail blazed by Thomas Hobbes.) It must rely on something that goes deeper.

Religions avow an external authority, but I’m not sure we need religion as such. When we put ourselves beyond the addictive emotions, beyond anger, fear, desire, pride – beyond the attachments which cloud our judgement in everyday life, we find in the silence – a silence of mind – that compassion and fellow-feeling come entirely naturally. Compassion isn’t an emotion but a state of mind.

In Buddhist terms, your ‘original face’, in Christian terms, we’re back before the Fall, for the humanist we’re simply in touch with human nature. In the debate whether mankind is intrinsically evil or good I come down firmly on the side of good.

Silence – we have to find silence. Not a few moments walking to the station, or even walking the hills. Silence is silencing all the voices and emotions that take over our lives without our realising it. That’s where we go beyond our selfish selves, and find something else. Where the feelings of others are as important as our own.

The ‘others’ are not just our family, our peer group, community, country – they are by definition (compassion isn’t partial) all mankind.

We fall short all the time of course, sometimes a million miles short. But silence is our reference point.

Taking the measure of Shakespeare

Justice and mercy – concepts which Shakespeare simply takes in his stride. His characters take up the arguments: Shakespeare himself stood above the fray. A way of avoiding arrest for sedition? ‘No, that’s not what I believe,’ he might have said, ‘that’s Angelo, or the Duke, or Isabella.’

They are concepts which weave their way through Measure for Measure, which I’ve recently read for the first time. The title refers to a passage in Matthew’s gospel: ‘…and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.’

For the story in outline – read on.

Angelo, left in charge by the Duke, who isn’t too keen on worldly affairs (‘I love the people,/But do not like to stage me to their eyes…’ – a reticence many in our time could usefully copy), sentences Claudio to death for the offence of – put simply – sex before marriage. Is this justice?

At the time he’s arrested Claudio accepts his guilt – and it seems, his fate: ‘Our natures do pursue,/Like rats that do ravin down their proper bane,/ A thirsty evil, and when we drink we die.’

The Duke likewise supports the rule of law and its stern implementation:

‘Now as fond fathers,/having bound up the threatening twigs of birch,/Only to stick it in their children’s sight/For terror, not to use, in time the rod/Becomes more mocked than feared: so our decrees/Dead to infliction, to themselves are dead,/ and Liberty plucks justice by the nose,/The baby beats the nurse, and quite athwart/Goes all decorum.’

Now, quite apart, from anything else, the language is extraordinary. As a fond father I never threatened with twigs of birch, but I did try and ensure that the baby didn’t beat the nurse – or the dad. I love the half-rhyme of ‘nose’ and ‘nurse’. Stating the supremely obvious, Shakespeare was one hell of a poet.

I won’t recount the full story. But Claudio has a beautiful sister, Isabella, a novice nun, no less. Isabella pleads for mercy for her brother – pleas rejected by Angelo – in language reminiscent of Portia in the Merchant of Venice. Compare:

(Isabella) ‘…Well, believe this,/No ceremony that to great ones ‘longs, /Not the king’s crown, nor the deputed sword, /The marshal’s truncheon, nor the judge’s robe, /Become them with one half so good a grace /As mercy does.’

(Portia) ‘The quality of mercy is not strain’d,/It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;/It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:/’Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes/The throned monarch better than his crown;/His sceptre shows the force of temporal power…’

But then Angelo suggests a cruel bargain. He promises to free Claudio – if Isabella will sleep with him. Back to the Bible, and seeing the mote in another’s eye and not the beam in your own. (I grew up with metaphors such as this – but I doubt if my children would understand…)

The Duke has wisely kept Angelo under surveillance, and Angelo is tricked into sleeping with his ex-fiancee, Mariana, who he has cast aside, while thinking it’s Isabella – a very Shakespearian stratagem. (Always check who you’re sleeping with – that might be the warning here!)

There’s more, but it’s enough to remark how Shakespeare supports authority, but with a light touch – reminding us of the hypocrisy which too often (I was going to say always, but maybe we should let the Duke off – he seems an all-round good guy) goes hand-in-hand with authority.

Shakespeare never preaches – he leaves that to his characters. Sexual desire is part and parcel of life, and the rough, and the tumble, and the illicit and the licit, it’s all of a piece, all part of his story. To take out sexual desire would be ‘to geld and spay all the youth of the city’ (in Lucio’s words).

I could find all sorts of parallels with our own time. We have the current case of the Culture Secretary, and his affair with a hooker, and the press of which he’s in charge of regulating claiming that they didn’t report the story before because it wasn’t in the public interest. Hypocritical tosh of the highest order.

But that’s enough – let Shakespeare speak for himself. He is the world in microcosm, and even though he was writing four centuries ago the characters who walked the stages of the Globe or the Swan still walk our streets and share our beds today.