Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Freeman Essays--II--Sir Walter Scott on Lawyers

If you have read any of my previous blogs, you know that my father was a lawyer. Lawyers have always fascinated me. What fascinated me about my father and the other lawyers I knew as a child was their confidence in the power of law to achieve good ends, independent of the laws consonance with Natural Law. I wrote the following essay during a period of my life when I was deep into the novels of Sir Walter Scott. I will discuss some of the lessons of his better, Scottish novels later, but having just written about my father, I felt this one most appropriate.

Lawyers as Knights--A Look at Scott's Ivanhoe

In 1819 Sir Walter Scott, the great Scottish novelist lay dying. He called his family together and said his last farewell and prepared to depart this world. During the long and painful illness that had preceded this farewell, Scott had dictated, often between screams of pain, the novel The Bride of Lammermoor. His condition during this dictation was so near the level of unconsciousness, that in later reviewing the text of the novel, he claimed that he did not recognize a single line!
After saying his farewell, he began a miraculous recovery. His joy at living and being free from the agony of constant pain, so buoyed his spirits that he wrote, almost joyously, the novel for which he is best remembered, Ivanhoe. Scott had been very careful about historical details in his earlier Scottish novels, but in this romp through Merrie Old England, he allowed himself great license. Historians love to point out the many inaccuracies, anomalies, and anachronisms that occur, but accuracy was obviously not his purpose. He wanted to tell a good story and in that, as generations since have attested, he succeeded magnificently.

One of the most interesting things that casting the story into the middle ages allowed him to do is to give a very accurate description of his fellow lawyers--something he would hardly have dared do in a story set closer to his own time. Scott was by day a lawyer himself, but his heart was in the heather, and according to his biographers, while the proceedings dragged on in his courtroom, he was using the incidents and characters that were playing themselves out before him to weave stories of the past.

In this instance, rather than cast his fellow lawyers as lawyers at all, he cast them as knights. Knights were, after all, the agents of justice and redistribution in Medieval England. They were essentially to Medieval society what lawyers are to modern society.

Just as lawyers in modern society recognize that their power is privileged and must, therefore, be closely regulated, so also with the knights. They had codes of honor and ethics, just as our modern lawyers.

By examining the role that Scott's knights played in medieval society, I believe, we can better understand the role of lawyers in our own. After all, Scott is really describing lawyers, and they haven't really changed that much since his day. It might also help us to understand what we can do to make our society a freer and happier one.

Like most great novels, Ivanhoe has a cast of dozens of characters, but Scott paints a vivid portrait of six knights. Of these he clearly has little admiration for three, mixed feelings toward one, and great admiration for two. Let us look at each in turn.
At the bottom of the heap, as far as honor is concerned is Reginold Font de Bouf. Here is a knight who is kept from wholesale rape and rapine only by the strictest censures and almost overt threats. He wants, of course, to have the privileges of knighthood, but it is clear that he intends to use and abuse those privileges as much as he possibly thinks he can and still get away with it. In the novel he attacks a defenseless party of travelers and takes them to his castle to demand a ransom for them. He is the kind of knight that is an embarrassment and shame to the order. One wonders which of his colleagues, Scott had in mind when he created Font de Bouf. My own feeling is that one reason for the increased dislike for lawyers in our society is that the number of Font de Boufs amongst them is swelling. The tragedy is that the rack and ruin they bring through their own actions is minuscule compared to what they bring about by condoning, defending, and even, encouraging poor behavior in others.

For my part, when I think of him, I think of a lawyer who told a good friend of mine all the things he could do to continue to push illegal drugs and not be brought to justice. My friend went to jail and the lawyer, for different reasons, was himself convicted of a felony, but his friends at the bar rallied round him--as so often happens with lawyers--and his sentence was suspended.

In Ivanhoe, Font de Bouf is finally brought to justice by one of the knights Scott admired, King Richard the Lion-hearted, acting in concert with the outlaw, Robin Hood. But Richard dared do it only because he was incognito as "the Black Knight".
The second knight, obviously not particularly admired by Scott, was Miles De Bracy. De Bracy was a knight who used his knighthood as a vehicle for advancement by attaching himself to the party in power. In our day he would represent the kind of lawyer who offers his services as a support bureaucrat. De Bracy obviously has no political convictions, or indeed any convictions at all, other than the fact that Miles De Bracy, having achieved knighthood, deserves to live well. While Prince John is the ruler, he is his faithful servant, but the moment he discovers that King Richard has returned, he offers his services to him, fully aware that John will shortly be deposed. Scott depicts Richard as far too noble a person to accept the services of such as De Bracy, even when his need was really desperate.

It seems to me that the tremendous growth of the government at all levels has produced a veritable army of De Bracys--men with almost no real personal political conviction, but who are eager to use their training as lawyers to assure themselves a prime post in the burgeoning public sector. They are adept at mouthing the sentiments that they think will bring them into the service of whoever happens to be in power at the moment, but those sentiments are subject to change at a moments notice--a single election result, or even a new Gallup poll is frequently all it takes.

The third knight--also not much admired by Scott--is Lucas Beaumanoir. Scott pictures him as the hard-bitten old idealogue whose self-righteous zeal for the cause has made him blind to every real human consideration. He reminds me of a cartoon character I saw many years ago who proclaimed, "I love mankind, it's people I can't stand." Years of single minded devotion have resulted in his being chosen Grand Master of the Knights Templar. He is discouraged that so many of the knights in his order have used their position to further their own personal ends. He is sure that he knows exactly what is right for everyone and is ruthless in his determination to see that his vision of good is enforced.

The fourth knight is Brian de Bois-Guilbert. In many ways he is the central character in Scott's romance. He is a brilliant and accomplished knight. In terms of battle strategy and prowess, he is clearly second only to Richard, and possibly Ivanhoe. He is beaten by Ivanhoe at a tournament early in the book but it is clear that the two are very nearly equal.

It would be very interesting to know who Scott had in mind when he painted de Bois-Guilbert. Here is clearly the lawyer who started out his career with the determination to use his considerable talents for the furthering of justice, but at some point became embittered and cynical. In the novel, de Bois-Guilbert sees only two roads for the knight. Either he becomes the hardened old idealogue and fanatic, like the Grand Master of his order, Lucas Beaumanoir, or he sinks into the self-serving debauchee, like Font de Boeuf. Of course, he never really sees himself sinking that low. He intends, like his friend, Albert Malvoisin, to keep up the appearances of nobility, but such as de Bois-Guilbert are not very adept at hypocrisy. In the novel he is kept from sinking either to the level of Font de Boef, or to the hypocrisy of his friend, by his association with a beautiful Jewess, Rebecca.

Rebecca is the one person in the novel Ivanhoe whom critics say sounds the depths of character for which Scott is famous in his greater Scottish novels. When she and Brian first meet, she is a prisoner in Font de Boef's castle, and Brian de Bois-Guilbert attempts to violate her--an indication how much he was becoming like his host. In a justly famous passage, she jumps to the window of a turret and says she will cast herself down rather than submit to his advances. He approaches her just enough to realize that she is being truthful and retreats. Her nobility of character grips him so much that at the end of the novel, before she is to be tried by combat, he offers to flee with her and make her his wife. She refuses. For no consideration, not even for saving her life, will she consent to become the wife of a lawyer--that is a knight. One can't help but feel that the world would be a much better place if there were more women like Rebecca. Of course, in many of the dramatizations of the play, she actually does become the wife of one--Ivanhoe, but Scott would have nothing of that, and even if he did, it is much different, as we will see when we discuss Ivanhoe.

One of the criticisms leveled against Scott is his use in this novel of a Trial by Combat--a concept they claim had disappeared much earlier. Of course, in that concept, a person is judged guilty or innocent depending upon the performance of his or her champion and the champion of the opposition. That Scott believed in it is clear. That lawyers believe in it, or at least give it lip service, is also clear by the fact that they allow lawyers to withhold material evidence from trial. The idea is that if it was really meant to be brought forth, the opposition will somehow find out about it.

Of all the knights in the story Brian de Bois-Gilbert is the one most frequently involved in the action. But he is not the hero. He is trapped by his own cynicism. He has all the making of a truly great knight, but he has arrived at the point where he can really see no value in knighthood. Because he is locked into the system, he arrives at the point where using his skill as a knight will take the life of the only person he really cares about--Rebecca.

It is clear that although he did not particularly admire de Bois-Guilbert, that Scott was fascinated by him. He probably saw many of his colleagues start out with high ideals, only to sacrifice them and become cynical and begin using his great skill for purely personal ends. Hence, because he was skilled the innocent are imprisoned and the guilty set free. This character, more than any other in the novel, shows the terrible limitations on achieving good ends through the use of violence and argument--even when they are backed by a high code of ethics. To see the real limitations, however, one must go to the Knight Scott clearly greatly admired and look at him from a perspective that Scott--in this novel at least, chose not to see.

That character is Richard, the Lion-hearted. Scott actually featured Richard in prominently in two novels--Ivanhoe and The Talisman. In the latter he is actually out-done by his Muslim opponent, Saladin, but he is obviously admired in both. In Ivanhoe, however, he is unbeatable. He is the knight's knight. He is perfectly strong, clever, brave, just, compassionate, and everything else you could possibly want a boy scout, a knight, or even a lawyer to be. Against incredible odds, he saves Ivanhoe at the tournament of Ashby, he conquers Font De Boeuf, who is protected not only by an all-but-invincible castle, but also by some of the best knights in England, and he does it with the help of a few rag-tag outlaws; he refuses the services of the servile De Bracy; finally, he hastens to the rescue of the helpless Jewess, Rebecca.

Although I would hesitate to name a modern archetype for the other characters, I have no hesitation in naming one that I think many in our society who is seen in the same light as Scott saw Richard--that is John F. Kennedy. He is widely viewed as a person who accomplished wonderful things for the poor and down trodden, who used his law training and his skill in politics to serve the ends of social justice. And I think the results are exactly the same as those for King Richard.

Scott, as I said, clearly admired Richard. He is certainly not alone. Winston Churchill in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples says of Richard in obvious admiration--even envy--"His life was one glorious pageant." But as other historians, not so taken by the charisma of his character have pointed out, it was a pageant paid for dearly by the common people of England. Richard Adams, for example, in The Land and Literature of England titles his discussion of this period with "Two bad kings: a hero and a villain." Richard, of course, is the "hero" and his brother, John, the "villain". But, terms of being a blessing, neither was better than the other. The problem with Richard was, according to Adams,was that he "was a fighter and nothing else." Unfortunately, therein lies the problem with both knights and lawyers--very few of them recognize how very limited the possibilities are for obtaining any really good end by arguing or fighting. To see the possibilities in that area we have to look to the final knight in our discussion--Ivanhoe.

If you have ever seen a dramatization of Ivanhoe and compared it with the book, you know that faithful dramatization is almost never attempted. The reason is that in the book, Ivanhoe, the nominal hero of the book, spends most of the novel in bed recuperating from the wounds he suffered at a tournament at Ashby. Lying in bed is not a particularly favorable place for the hero of a sword-and-shield swashbuckler to show off his talents. Nevertheless, Ivanhoe is the hero and by making him such, Scott shows us his own insight into real life. Ivanhoe is the hero not for any great thing he does on the battlefield in the tournaments, great and important as that may be. In that area he is clearly excelled by Richard and equalled by de Bois-Gilbert. He is the hero because of the quality of his character, something hard to portray in a swashbuckling drama.
After the main events detailed in the book, we are told that he retires to his father's estate where he takes over the management of the estate; in other words, he ceases to spend his time as a knight and becomes a farmer and landlord. His experience with lance and battle-axe probably did little to increase the quality of crops and livestock on his land, but it probably did help him to resist the encroaches of the likes of Reginold Front de Boef and Miles de Bracy. It was probably men like Ivanhoe who made Magna Charta possible.

In our own society it is often men like Ivanhoe, who have studied argumentation and law, many of whom who have actually practiced for a while, but who decide to move on into more productive pursuits, who are among our most important contributors in science, medicine, business, and religion. I don't know what your church is like, but almost half the leaders in mine are men that somewhere along the line have decided that saving souls is more important than winning arguments, even if those arguments are in court and winning them (or even losing them) is highly profitable.

For me the lessons in Ivanhoe, are first the terrible limitations to violence and the threats of violence in achieving good ends, and second, the terrible temptation to those who do use them under license from the government for clearly defined ends, even under the restraints of codes of ethics and honor, to subvert its intended aims for their personal ends.

1 comment:

Gavin said...

This was great! I am impressed that you could tie Scott's knowledge of lawyers so well.