I don’t have a lot of patience with the argument that literature only matters insofar as it is “relevant” to our contemporary context. That doesn’t mean, however, that I am incapable of being thunderstruck, from time to time, with precisely how relevant it is.
It happened most recently when I had occasion to read Sir Thomas More – a not terribly well-known, not particularly well-preserved, and not-especially great play from early in the 17th century. The manuscript version that we have was written by committee – with five or more authors or revisers involved – and the version we have can almost certainly be considered unfinished work.
However, in the middle of the play, the reviser, whom we strongly suspect was Shakespeare, takes over the revision of a scene where Sir Thomas More quiets a riot of London citizens against immigrant labor. The beauty of the language and vividness of the imagery caught my attention first, and then I was struck by how precisely Shakespeare seemed to be commenting on some of the issues that are most explosive today.
When the London citizens complain that the immigrant craftsmen are stealing their jobs and demand to have them removed from the city as a protective measure, Shakespeare has More argue:
Grant them removed, and grant that this your noise
Hath chid down all the majesty of England;
Imagine that you see the wretched strangers,
Their babies at their backs and their poor luggage,
Plodding to th’ ports and costs for transportation,
And that you sit as kings in your desires,
Authority quite silent by your brawl,
And you in ruff of your opinions clothed;
What had you got? I’ll tell you. You had taught
How insolence and strong hand should prevail,
How order should be quelled; and by this pattern
Not one of you should live an aged man,
For other ruffians, as their fancies wrought,
With self same hand, self reasons, and self right,
Would shark on you, and men like ravenous fishes
Would feed on one another.
More says, in other words: Suppose you get your goal, exert your power of numbers, and kick these people out of England. All you will do is prove to the next set of ruffians that might makes right. All you have done is to encourage continual power struggles in the city of London.
He follows this argument with another that focuses on the impiety of their rebellion against a divinely ordained monarch. Noting that this is rebellion against the authority of God, as well as against the authority of the king, he points out that such rebellion is a fairly good way to wind up banished. If that were to happen, and if the rest of the world were to share their opinions of immigrants, where would these rebels be able to go?
…Say now the king
(As he is clement, if th’ offender mourn)
Should so much come too short of your great trespass
As but to banish you, whether would you go?
What country, by the nature of your error,
Should give you harbor? Go you to France or Flanders,
To any German province, to Spain or Portugal,
Nay, any where that not adheres to England,—
Why, you must needs be strangers. Would you be pleased
To find a nation of such barbarous temper,
That, breaking out in hideous violence,
Would not afford you an abode on earth,
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, nor that the claimants
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But chartered unto them, what would you think
To be thus used? This is the strangers’ case;
And this your mountanish inhumanity.
The argument that Shakespeare gives to More is not a complicated one, but it is a human one. It is as ancient as the bible’s injunctions to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It is as pertinent to the classical liberal project as Adam Smith’s insistence that in order to sympathize with the trials of other humans we must learn to conceive “what we ourselves should feel in the like situation.” And it is as relevant as the news broadcasts from Washington and from Charlottesville.