I Used To Think “Ship-of-State” Metaphors Were Silly, But They Actually Have A Point

February 20, 2009

Ramesh Ponnuru to a classmate of mine, Matt Zeitlin: “Aren’t you that impetuous young whippersnapper?” It became a different kind of funny when I realized that’s actually the name of his blog. He seems to do a better job of being a blogger than I do, which isn’t hard, considering that I still don’t know how I feel about this as a medium. (This also means that Northwestern’s undergraduate-political-blogging output is something like 1/10th or so of Yale’s: look out, you Mafiosi, here we come!)

This is all by way of saying both, “Hi, Matt! (And if you can’t decipher the initials, I’m the Classics major in that course on Modernist poetry.)” and “I actually sort of know this guy who I’m about to take issue with.” Now, while I’ll confess that National Review‘s “Top 25 Conservative [insert-culture-item-here]” lists tend to leave me at least vaguely puzzled, and while I don’t remember much of Master and Commander other than it was long, I enjoyed watching it, but have never desired to do so a second time, I don’t think his critique of their interpretation quite works. He writes:

“I shouldn’t have to explain why a state – which is a set of legal and institutional arrangements designed (ideally) for the mutual advantage of its citizens – shouldn’t adopt the values of a war ship. The fact a certain set of values and assumptions makes sense in a institutional setting where the goal is to kill and destroy is a good argument for why they don’t make sense in society at large.”

Now, what was in the NRO blurb was this:

“It imagines the [H.M.S.] Surprise as a coherent society in which stability is underwritten by custom and every man knows his duty and his place.”

The problem here is that the goal of the H.M.S. Surprise, at least insofar as most of the movie is concerned (this is, of course, based on a hazy memory) is not “to kill and destroy” so much as it is to survive. It’s a warship, yes, so destruction has something to do with its purpose, but the threats it faces come less frequently from the French than from nature and chance. And in those instances too-perhaps those instances in particular-custom and duty play important roles in survival

So if one looks at the film from a different angle-where it is not merely the story of a warship in pursuit, but also a ship, housed and run by a society in miniature doing its damnedest to stay afloat, you needn’t limit the lessons and attitudes that allow it to do so to an aircraft carrier; when the Surprise is a ship trying to stay afloat, it becomes (just like that!) an allegorical society/government in miniature. And such an allegory has its value to conservatism – I refer you to this passage from Oakeshott’s “Political Education” that I’ve basically used this entire post as an excuse to quote:

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination. The enterprise is to keep afloat on an even keel; the sea is both friend and enemy; and the seamanship consists in using the resources of a traditional manner of behaviour in order to make a friend of every hostile occasion.”

It is, of course, the situation in which the Surprise finds herself. And it may well have been that Miller’s write-up would have been better suited to reference Oakeshott (but then again, referencing Oakeshott means you expect everyone to have read him; and I’d daresay Burke sells more books – then again, I don’t know that I’d expect an Oakeshott reference on the Corner too often). But I digress. The point isn’t that I can close-read Master and Commander to fit my politics; it’s that the movie happens to parallel Oakeshott’s metaphor quite well: which is to say that it expands it into over two hours and lets us watch it in living color. In times of crisis, society survives by relying on what it knows, or at least knows best; but understanding some semblance of order and structure; by behaving within bounds that have already been tested by history. And,

“If the doctrine deprives us of a model laid up in heaven to which we should approximate our behaviour, at least it does not lead us into a morass where very choice is equally good or equally to be deplored.”

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2 Responses to “I Used To Think “Ship-of-State” Metaphors Were Silly, But They Actually Have A Point”


  1. What, Northwestern is comin’ after Yale?

    Bring it on.

  2. JL Wall Says:

    Well, I think the strategy is actually to pester Yalies until y’all decide to come after us, preferably timed for the middle of winter so we can circle around and cut your supply lines with ease.


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