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Sunday, February 9, 2014

Black Sails 1.3: John Milton and Marcus Aurelius

As I noted last week, Black Sails turns out to be an astonishingly literate series, literally.   Previously, the erudite Captain Flint cited Homer to good effect.   Last night, he brings Miranda - with whom he has a long term stable relationship - a copy of a book by John Milton.  Later, Miranda in turn recommends a tract by the stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

It's tempting to suppose Flint's gift to Miranda was Paradise Lost, given that all of the action is, after all, taking place in a paradise, which, moreover, is ever on the verge of being lost to libertine violence, personal and social, and which was again in high profile last night.  But given the politically libertarian philosophy of Flint and the better of the pirates, not to mention my own devotion to the First Amendment (to the point of thinking the FCC should be abolished), I'm going to go with the Milton being his Areopagitica, the brilliant polemic in favor of free speech and press which says that truth and falsity should be left to fight it out in the marketplace of ideas, where, given the rationality of human beings, truth will eventually win.  In this sage schema, the worst thing a government or anyone can do is censor, which might be well hobble the expression of truth and prevent it from entering the marketplace of ideas for its contest with falsity.

Indeed, Milton's Areopagitica was read by both Thomas Jefferson and John Madison, and undoubtedly figured in the very construction of our First Amendment.  So what better place to situate Milton's political masterpiece than in the new world, in colonial America, in the stirrings of what would become the U.S.A.

Aurelius's Mediations and his tenure as Roman Empire tells a related story.  A sage philosopher, the epitome of Plato's philosopher king, Aurelius tragically inserted his personal feelings as father into his philosophy about how to best serve, and named his son as Roman Emperor, ending the excellent tradition of picking the best person as successor.  The lesson, that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, is also one which we as well as our pirates would do well to keep in mind.

What makes Black Sails so remarkable is that it mixes this heady and powerful philosophy with lots of good and bad loving and action.  The series so far has mostly resisted the cliches of pirates in fiction, and we see that again in 1.3 with Flint's devoted relationship with Miranda, and Eleanor's strong sense of self and purpose.

After watching Black Sails last night, my wife and I saw Captain Phillips, the movie detailing what actually happened off the coast of Somalia in 2009, when pirates attacked Phillips' ship.  Superb acting by Tom Hanks as Phillips and everyone else in this movie.  But, whew, pirates have fallen a long way down since those halcyon, fictional days of Black Sails.

See also Black Sails: Literate and Raunchy Piracy


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