Wednesday, June 30, 2010


I have been slowly catching up with the fourth season of “The Tudors,” and finally watched the concluding episode last night. Henry VIII died—none too soon, probably, for those who still risked incurring his wrath, in the unlikely event that there were any left around. His underage and sickly son, Edward VI, inherited the throne, but died after a few strife and calumny-filled years. The disputed succession went for a nine-day stint to Lady Jane Gray, summarily executed for her pains, then to the vicious Catholic, “Bloody” Mary, who reigned for five terrible years before she died and left England in the hands of her sister, Elizabeth I.

I don’t know whether another season is planned, to cover those subsequent reigns before the Tudors were succeeded by the Stuarts (the two Charles and two James, interrupted briefly by the “Commonwealth” under the Cromwells.) There should be, given the ample supply of bloody intrigue—not to mention the temporarily stabilizing reign of Elizabeth who expanded her country’s power beyond anything seen before. The series was so well done, give or take a few liberties with history, that another season would be welcome. But I set out to write about one lamentable aspect of the 16th century reign of Henry VIII that was unsparingly re-enacted on the 21st century television screen: its brutality.

Whoever thought that strapping a living human being to a stake atop a cord of wood and setting it alight was an acceptable punishment for one’s religious belief, or that such treatment was sanctioned by a merciful God? In at least two episodes of “The Tudors,” we were treated to the spectacle of heretics dying this agonizing death, to the delight of crowds gathered to witness the event. Almost worse was the casual ease with which sentences were dealt out, by men with agendas that were inspired more often by politics than by religion. The lives of human beings, as convincingly portrayed in these historical dramas, counted for little more than pawns on an arcane chess-board of court intrigue.

Burning at the stake was primarily reserved, of course, for those “heretics” who were beginning to embrace a new Christianity in the form of Protestantism. For those daring to challenge the monarch’s absolute authority or swept up in the swirling intrigue that surrounded the throne, there was imprisonment in the Tower of London, the torture chamber, and the execution block. And such kind treatment was reserved for nobles. For more grievous, or more common offenders, there was the ritual of hanging, drawing and quartering, whereby the victim was hanged, cut down before death, publically mutilated and disemboweled, and cut literally into quarters. It took a while, it seems, before death came to the rescue.

This was my country, half a millennium ago. But the history of human brutality predates this period by far and, sadly, still shows no sign of coming to an end. From the human sacrifice of pre-history to the bloody spectacle of Christians slaughtered by wild animals for the sport of Roman emperors and citizens, from Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen to Cambodia and Rwanda and Bosnia, the brutality continues unabated.

So what is it about us human beings? In part, of course, it’s about enmity, about righteousness—whether political or religious. It’s sometimes about perceived territorial imperatives, about worldly resources and possessions. About “Lebensraum.” It can simply be about difference and prejudice. Or indeed a combination or exploitation of these factors. But too often it ends in the same way—in brutality and mass slaughter. And too often it is accompanied by sadistic pleasure, not merely a tolerance but a delight in the infliction of pain and the spilling of blood. On a small scale, we delight in watching it on our movie or television screens.

It may seem trite to be pointing these things out, but I wondered as I watched the horrors play out on “The Tudors”—was this instructive, or demeaning of my own humanity? Instructive, yes, in that it brings me to these words, to this understanding and appraisal of my own complicity in the common brutality of our species. I am at once horrified and spell-bound. I am sickened by the knowledge that human beings can do such things to other human beings; but also by the knowledge that I share the DNA of both Henry and his torturers and executioners. When I feel the anger boil within, as I sometimes do, as I assume most human beings do, am I somehow in touch with that DNA, that shameful heritage of hatred and brutality?

The Buddha teaches us to do no harm. He does not suggest, I think, that evil is inherent in the human species—nor certainly that it is absent. I like the realism of the Buddhist teachings: that awareness brings with it discernment, and that discernment brings increasing skill in doing those things that have good results and avoiding those that don’t. The actions of that English king and those around him, back in 16th century England, led their world deeper and deeper into the pit of fateful consequences. Sadly, here in the 21st century, we persist in the same delusional folly, that brutality is needed to secure power.

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