Saturday, September 24, 2016

Moral, Legal, and Political Philosophy of W.S.Gilbert

An example of what I take Gilbert's attitude towards harsh punishment of offenders.
In this case, a "Billiard Sharp"
I presented "The Moral, Legal, and Political Philosophy of W.S. Gilbert" at the Philosophy Club of The Villages, FL, on 23 September, to an enthusiastic audience (Including a bit of singing, thanks Moe).


William Schwenck Gilbert wrote the words and oversaw the production of 14 "Gilbert and Sullivan" comic operas from 1871 through 1896. (Sullivan composed the music). They have become staples of English-language "light" entertainment over the past century. In addition to being Plain Fun, I believe the lyrics embody the actual philosophical attitude of Gilbert, who, IMHO, in the era of Queen Victoria, would have been a Tory (aligned with Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli) rather than a Liberal (aligned with Prime Minister William Gladstone).


At the end of my talk, I asked the audience to rise and act out what the First Lord of the Admiralty (in HMS Pinafore) called "The Customary Attitude" of a "British Tar" (a lowly seaman).

I retitled that epic piece "An American" and, most recently, have made it gender-neutral. (See adjacent image.)

As our children and grandchildren were growing up, we'd act it out together. When I'd ask "what is your Customary Attitude?" they'd assume the fighting stance suggested  by Gilbert. (Now that the youngest are in college, I don't know if that request works anymore. However, if any of them are reading this right now, I'd like to know!)

In any case, by placing this at the end of my talk, with the audience on their feet, I was guaranteed a "standing ovation".


I drew Philosophical Issues from five operettas:
  • Trial by Jury (1875 - the second Gilbert and Sullival collaboration, and their first real success)
    Philosophical Issues: Nepotism, Martial Fidelity, Sexism, Enforcing Contracts, Need for Bias-Free Court, Judicial Restraint
  • HMS Pinafore  (1878 - the fourth collaboration, and a wild success, with about 150 unauthorized rip-offs by American theater companies)
    Philosophical Issues: Social Class, Private vs Public Jobs, True Love, People Believe What They Want to Believe, Altruism
  • Pirates of Penzance  (1879 - the fifth collaboration, and a similarly wild success. Penzance was first performed on Broadway, in New York City, in an attempt to thwart the US "copyright pirates")
    Philosophical Issues: Is there an Absolute Duty to Comply with Contracts? Should Military Leaders Have Military Knowledge?
  • The Mikado (1885 - the ninth collaboration, continuing their successful run)
    Philosophical Issue: Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
  • Utopia, Limited (1893 - the thirteenth. It was only a modest success, and with the failure of their next play, their last success together.)
    Philosophical Issue:  The Ideal Utopian Form of Government, Imperialism, Jingoism (extreme nationalism), “Progress” Based on British Model (only Better :^), The Folly of Nation Building

Trial by Jury (1875) - For breach of promise of marriage 

Gilbert illustrates how nepotism may be the key to getting ahead in life. And how marital fidelity may be violated. Also how really good lawyers are the ones who trick the legal system into declaring "innocent" those who are actually guilty.

The JUDGE explains how he obtained his position:

… I was, as many young barristers are, An impecunious party. … [with never] a chance Of addressing a British Jury.… So I fell in love with a rich attorney's Elderly, ugly daughter.

The rich attorney, he jumped with joy / And replied to my fond professions: / "You shall reap the reward of your pluck, my boy, / At the Bailey and Middlesex sessions. / You'll soon get used to her looks," said he, / "And a very nice girl you will find her! / She may very well pass for forty-three / In the dusk, with a light behind her."
The rich attorney was good as his word;  / The briefs came trooping gaily, / And every day my voice was heard / At the Sessions or Ancient Bailey.

All thieves who could my fees afford / Relied on my orations.  / And many a burglar I've restored / To his friends and his relations.

At length I became rich. / An incubus then I thought her. / So I threw over that rich attorney's / Elderly, ugly daughter. / The rich attorney my character high / Tried vainly to disparage. / And now, if you please, / I'm ready to try / This Breach of Promise of Marriage!
Gilbert satirizes the idea of a bias-free trial. He has an observer express favoritism to the pretty "broken-hearted bride" plaintiff, clearly sexism, -- then he has a court officer meaninglessly repeat the (already violated) rule against bias:
Oh, listen to the plaintiff's case: / Observe the features of her face--/ The broken-hearted bride. / Condole with her distress of mind. 
From bias free of every kind, / This trial must be tried! 
Then the disfavor towards the "ruffianly" defendant, sexism again, and again the rule against bias:
And when, amid the plaintiff's shrieks, / The ruffianly defendant speaks-- / Upon the other side; / What he may say you needn't mind:
From bias free of every kind, /This trial must be tried!
The trial drags on for quite a while, with the pretty Plaintiff flirting with the Jury, the Court Officers, and, especially, the Judge. Then, the JUDGE (tossing his books and papers about):
All the legal furies seize you! / No proposal seems to please you. / I can't sit up here all day, / I must shortly get away.
Put your briefs upon the shelf, ' I will marry her myself!

PROBLEM SOLVED! Many (perhaps all) the Gilbert and Sullivan comic operas end abruptly, with a broad-stroke surprise ending that (if you are willing to believe it) solves a very complex problem.

The key here, is that ALL the participants are happy with the ending. The plaintiff gets to marry the Judge, a man with higher standing  than the defendant. The defendant gets out from under his breach of promise of marriage. And, of course, the Judge gets a pretty, young wife!

HMS Pinafore (1878) - The (un)importance of social class 

Does true love triumph over social class? Does the private sector reward hard work and excellence, while the public sector rewards party loyalty? This operetta starts with a problem of true love. A lowly sailor loves his Captain's daughter, and the feeling is mutual. However, the Captain has promised his daughter's hand to the his ultimate boss, the First Lord of the Admiralty.

RALPH RACKSTRAW (lowly seaman): I love the captains’ daughter - alas above my station. Captains’ daughters don’t marry foremast jacks. 
CAPTAIN: My daughter Josephine, the fairest flower, is sought in marriage by Sir Joseph Porter, K.C.B, first Lord of the Admiralty.  (Knight Commander of the Bath) 
JOSEPHINE: I cannot love him. The object of my love is but a humble sailor aboard your own ship.
SIR JOSEPH – Explains how he obtained his position.

When I was a lad I served a term / As office boy to an Attorney's firm. / I cleaned the windows and I swept the floor, / And I polished up the handle of the big front door. / I polished up that handle so carefullee, / That now I am the Ruler of the Queen's Navee! 
... They gave me the post of a junior clerk. / I served the writs with a smile so bland, / And I copied all the letters in a big round hand. / I copied all the letters in a hand so free, / That now I am the Ruler of the Queen's Navee! 
… I wore clean collars and a brand-new suit / For the pass examination at the Institute. / That pass examination did so well for me, / That now I am the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!  
... Of legal knowledge I acquired such a grip, that they took me into the partnership. (The only ship that I ever had seen.) / … I grew so rich that I was sent / By a pocket borough into Parliament./ I always voted at my party's call, / And I never thought of thinking for myself at all./ I thought so little, they rewarded me / By making me the Ruler of the Queen's Navee!  
Now landsmen all, whoever you may be, / If you want to rise to the top of the tree, / If your soul isn't fettered to an office stool, / Be careful to be guided by this golden rule. / Stick close to your desks and never go to sea, / And you all may be rulers of the Queen's Navee! 
 Back to the true love problem. It falls to Buttercup, a "Bumboat woman" who sells tobacco and other supplies to sailors, to help resolve everything. She begins with a seemingly random bunch of unrelated truths, then gets to the main point:
Things are seldom what they seem, / Skim milk masquerades as cream; / … Black sheep dwell in every fold;  All that glitters is not gold; / … Gild the farthing if you will, / Yet it is a farthing still.  / … Wink is often good as nod; / Spoils the child who spares the rod.… 
A many years ago, When I was young and charming, / As some of you may know, I practiced baby-farming. / Two tender babes I nursed: One was of low condition, / The other, upper crust, A regular patrician.  
Oh, bitter is my cup! However could I do it? / I mixed those children up, And not a creature knew it! In time each little waif Forsook his foster-mother, / The well born babe was Ralph. / Your Captain was the other! A many years ago. 
 Sir Joseph sums it all up, and quickly resolves the issue:
JOSEPH: Then I am to understand that Captain Corcoran and Ralph were exchanged in childhood's happy hour? Ralph is really the Captain, / and the Captain is Ralph?
Ralph and the Captain switch positions. Josephine (now a seaman’s daughter) is in a social class too low to marry Sir Joseph. Therefore, Josephine and (newly promoted) Captain Ralph are free to marry!

PROBLEM SOLVED! But only if we (the audience) are willing to accept the word of an old woman about something that happened many years ago. The characters in the story accept because it is to their advantage to do so. Sir Joseph avoids the dishonor of being turned down by Josephine, who stands much lower than he on the social scale. Josephine gets to marry her true love, who is now a Captain, and he gets to marry Josephine. The former Captain, now a lowly seaman seems to get the short end of the stick. Had his daughter married Sir Joseph, nepotism might have raised him still higher in rank. on the other hand, his kin-altruism for his daughter, motivates his acquiescence, 

Pirates of Penzance  (1879) - A slave of duty

Gilbert satirizes two key issues in this comic opera.
  • Is there an Absolute Duty to Comply with Contracts? What if, as in the case of the main character of Penzance, Frederic, you were mistakenly apprenticed to a band of PIRATES? Frederic is a self-described "slave of duty", so his answer is "yes" (despite a paradoxical further complication). 
  • Should Military Leaders Have Military Knowledge? One would think so. Yet, perhaps academic knowledge is more important than actual military experience? 
Frederic's nursery maid, Ruth, who is now a member of the pirate band tells what happened:
When Frederic was a little lad he proved so brave and daring, / His father thought he’d ’prentice him to some career seafaring. / I was, alas! his nurserymaid, and so it fell to my lot / To take and bind the promising boy apprentice to a PILOT – …/ I was a stupid nurserymaid, on breakers always steering, And I did not catch the word aright, through being hard of hearing; …/ I took and bound this promising boy apprentice to a PIRATE. / A sad mistake it was to make and doom him to a vile lot. … 
A nurserymaid is not afraid of what you people call work, So I made up my mind to go as a kind of piratical maid-of-all-work. 
 We jump ahead to the day Frederic is 21 years old, and out of his pirate apprenticeship (or so we think): 
PIRATE KING. Yes, Frederic, from to-day you rank as a full-blown member of our band.  
FREDERIC: My friends, I thank you all … Today I am out of my indentures, and today I leave you forever … I have done my best for you. … It was my duty under my indentures, and I am the slave of duty. As a child I was regularly apprenticed to your band. It was through an error -- no matter, the mistake was ours, not yours, and I was in honor bound by it. … 
Oh! pity me, my beloved friends, for such is my sense of duty that, once out of my indentures, I shall feel myself bound to devote myself heart and soul to your extermination! … 
PIRATE: We don’t seem to make piracy pay. … 
FREDERIC: I know why, but, alas! I mustn’t tell you … 
PIRATE: Why not, my boy? It’s only half-past eleven, and you are one of us until the clock strikes twelve. 
FREDERIC: Well, then, it is my duty, as a pirate, to tell you that you are too tenderhearted. For instance, you make a point of never attacking a weaker party than yourselves, and when you attack a stronger party you invariably get thrashed. … 
Then, again, you make a point of never molesting an orphan [because you are orphans yourselves] and it has got about, and what is the consequence? Every one we capture says he’s an orphan. The last three ships we took proved to be manned entirely by orphans, and so we had to let them go. …
 Gilbert needs to satirize a military man, as he did with (Sir Joseph in Pinafore), so in comes the Major-General, candidly introducing himself:
I am the very model of a modern Major-General, / I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral, … / I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical, ... 
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical, / About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news – / With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse. / I’m very good at integral and differential calculus; / I know the scientific names of beings animalculous: / In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, I am the very model of a modern Major-General. … 
[He goes on recounting his academic knowledge in history, ancient languages, and other areas. However, let us skip to his Military knowledge.]
… In fact, when I know what is meant by “mamelon” and “ravelin”, / When I can tell at sight a Mauser rifle from a javelin, / When such affairs as sorties and surprises I’m more wary at, / And when I know precisely what is meant by “commissariat”, / When I have learnt what progress has been made in modern gunnery, When I know more of tactics than a novice in a nunnery;… 
For my military knowledge, though I’m plucky and adventury, / Has only been brought down to the beginning of the century; / But still, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral, / I am the very model of a modern Major-General. …
Frederic leaves the pirate band and tries to organize a Police raid on the Pirates. However, the Pirates sneak into town to inform him of a humorous paradox.
PIRATE: A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox, / We’ve quips and quibbles heard in flocks, but none to beat this paradox…You’ve lived twenty-one years, but, having been born in leap-year, on the twenty-ninth of February, if we go by birthdays, you’re only five and a little bit over!
FREDERIC: How quaint the ways of Paradox! / At common sense she gaily mocks! / Though counting in the usual way, / Years twenty-one I’ve been alive, / Yet, reckoning by my natal day, I am a little boy of five!  
PIRATE: The contract says you are indentured until your twenty-first BIRTHDAY (not YEAR). So you’ll be a Pirate until you live 84 years! …
 OOPS! So Frederic, forever the "slave of duty" is a Pirate again. How to resolve this issue?
… A struggle ensues between Pirates and Police, the Police are overcome and fall prostrate, … 
POLICE SARGENT: Your proud triumph will not be long-lived. 
PIRATE KING. Don’t say you are orphans, for we know that game. 
SARGENT: On your allegiance we’ve a stronger claim – We charge you yield, we charge you yield, In Queen Victoria’s name! 
KING. (baffled) You do? 
POLICE. We do! We charge you yield, In Queen Victoria’s name! 
KING. We yield at once, with humbled mien, Because, with all our faults, we love our Queen. [Sometimes read "with all HER faults ..." :^) 
RUTH: One moment! let me tell you who they are. They are no members of the common throng; They are all noblemen who have gone wrong.                    
PROBLEM SOLVED! Again, if we believe an old woman. But we DO, as do the characters in the comic opera, because we all love a happy ending.

The Mikado (1885) - The (Japanese) Town of Titipu

I only had a half-hour for my talk at The Villages Philosophy Club, so I had to leave out so many other examples, and cut short my treatment of The Mikado. The only issue I cover here is: Should the punishment fit the crime? Gilbert seems to favor harsh, yet humorous, punishment. Though the comic opera is set in Japan, Gilbert is clearly making fun of English society. Here, the Emperor of Japan states his philosophy:
My object all sublime I shall achieve in time / To let the punishment fit the crime – / The punishment fit the, crime; / And make each prisoner pent / Unwillingly represent / A source of innocent merriment! /Of innocent merriment!

… All prosy dull society sinners, /Who chatter and bleat and bore, / Are sent to hear sermons / From mystical Germans / Who preach from ten till four.

… The advertising quack who wearies / With tales of countless cures, / His teeth, I’ve enacted, / Shall all be extracted / By terrified amateurs.

… The billiard sharp whom any one catches, / His doom’s extremely hard – / He’s made to dwell – / In a dungeon cell / On a spot that’s always barred. / And there he plays extravagant matches – / In fitless finger-stalls / On a cloth UNTRUE / with a TWISTED cue / And ELIPTICAL billiard BALLS!

Utopia, Limited (1893) - The Flowers of Progress 

In theory, King Paramount is the Absolute Monarch of Utopia, an idyllic, though primitive, South Sea Island. The King rules with the assistance of two "Wise Men", and "The Public Exploder.".

The Public Exploder is a crazy guy who follows the King around carrying a Stick of Dynamite and Matches. He continually expresses his desire to do his job and blow the King to smithereens. However, he is sworn to do so only when the two Wise Men agree that the time has come.

Since the Wise Men are overly intellectual and wooly-brained, they never agree, so the King is safe, more or less, but he never can tell what may happen. This arrangement has resulted in a happy and healthy society, albeit primitive by British standards.

King Paramount is a great admirer of English Culture. He hires an English Governess for his youngest daughters and sends his eldest daughter to college in England.  She returns with "The Flowers of Progress", six highly esteemed English gentlemen who are tasked with making Utopia as advanced as England, and, they think, perhaps much better. The Flowers of Progress are:  Lord Dramaleigh (a British Lord Chamberlain),       Captain Fitzbattleaxe (First Life Guards),  Captain Sir Edward Corcoran, K.C.B. (of the Royal Navy),  Mr. Goldbury (a company promoter; afterwards Comptroller of the Utopian Household), and  Sir Bailey Barre, Q.C., M.P. Mr. Blushington (of the County Council).  

Of course, they make a total hash out of it! I don't have the time or energy to go into all the details, but the worst item of "progress" is the way they establish Limited Liability Corporations.

The advent of Limited Liability Corporations in England and elsewhere is clearly a key element in the rapid development and economic success of Western European countries in the 1800s. Unlike partnerships, where each partner is separately responsible for any losses of the enterprise, a Corporation imposes limited liability on individual Stockholders.

Mr. Goldbury, the company promoter put in charge of Utopian finances, comes to the "obvious" conclusion that, if limited liability is  Good Thing, the lower the liability limit the Better! So, they set the limit very, very low, at 18 pence.

Of course, a great many Corporations are immediately founded in what is, in effect "Utopia, Limited". However, shortly after they borrow money for their operations, and accept money from customers for promised products and services, they go BANKRUPT. All they have to lose is 18 pence!

This throws Utopia, Limited into revolt. What "essential element" of English governmental excellence is missing? Well, Princess Zara, the King's British-educated daughter comes up with the "obvious answer": "Government by political party"! OY. OY, OY!

Ira Glickstein

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