Archive for the ‘Abezier Coppe’ Category

Thanks to the graphic novel and movie V for Vendetta, many members of the Occupy movement sport Guy Fawkes masks. However, while the often-repeated line about Fawkes being the only person to enter Parliament with honorable intentions is good for a laugh, Fawkes is a poor symbol for the movement. In fact, with his plans to restore a Catholic monarchy, Fawkes was a reactionary, and would probably disapprove of the movement if he were alive to see it. Instead, I wonder why no one has looked deeper into some of Fawke’s contemporaries – specifically, the Puritans.

At first, the suggestion sounds ridiculous. Puritans have been the object of ridicule for centuries, from Shakespeare’s Malvolio in Twelfth Night to H. L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Moreover, at least since the 1960s, to describe some as “Puritanical” has been one of the deepest insults possible. The adjective suggests someone who is humorless and repressed to the point of obsession.

Remember, however, that history is written by the victors – and that, with Charles II’s restoration of the monarchy, the Puritans became the losers. The truth is, our view of the Puritans is about as accurate as an investment banker’s view of the counter-culture of four decades ago.

Yes, many Puritans fit the modern stereotype. But many others did not. Historically, all “Puritan” meant was an extreme form of Protestantism. During the seventeenth century, there were dozens of different schools of Puritanism. The Diggers, Ranters, Levellers, Muggeltonians, the early Quakers – these are only some of the different sects of Puritanism you could find in the early to mid 1600s, and many of them disagreed strongly with each other.

What all Puritans had in common was a deep belief in the essentials of Protestantism: the idea that each person had to work out their own salvation for themselves. This belief led them to question the authorities of their day, both the religious and the secular ones. In fact, since in Anglicanism, the monarch is the head of the church, at the time, there was no real distinction between the religious and the secular (which was one of the circumstances to which many Puritans objected).

The result of much of their questioning sounds very familiar today. Universal suffrage? Votes for women? Communal responsibility for the sick, poor, and the elderly? All these ideas were first raised in the English-speaking world by the Puritans. Some sects went even further, experimenting with communal living and denouncing the evils of property and hierarchy, becoming so much of a threat that less radical Puritans like Oliver Cromwell suppressed them, and called in the troops to disperse some of their experiments with communes.

Admittedly, to the modern mind, their ideas had some strange twists. Living in a religious age in which most people believed that the civic order was ordained by heaven, they did not reject religion so much as reinterpret it. Some Puritans, like the Diggers, recast the Biblical Fall, not as the literal disobedience of Adam and Even to God’s commandment, but as a metaphor for the rise of social hierarchy. Others, like the Ranters, went even further, declaring that all humans were naturally innocent, and that sin was merely the corrupting result of conforming to the social order, which could be removed by everyone giving in to their natural inclinations. The idea that society could do without Christianity seems to have occurred to very few of them.

This religious orientation aside, most of the radical Puritan’s beliefs would sound instantly familiar to most moderns, especially the activists. You could even say with some justification that the shaping of our modern world and its values and aspirations began with movements like The Diggers and The Levellers.

Instead of choosing a figure like Guy Fawkes for a hero, today’s activists might try taking a look at people like Gerrard Winstanley, the intellectual leader of the Diggers, or Abezier Coppe, the prominent Ranter. If their original works are hard to find, you can at least read about them in the works of historians like Christopher Hill, or hear them summarized in some of the songs of English folksinger Leon Rosselson, such as “The World Turned Upside Down” or “Abezier Coppe.” In doing so, you will regain part of the English-speaking world’s heritage that anyone interested in improving society should know about — because, believe it or not, we’ve been here before.

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According to English song-writer Leon Rosselson, the seventeenth century radical Abezier Coppe was arrested for blasphemy after repeatedly declaring that he didn’t believe in sin. Found guilty, he recanted, acknowledging that the sins his accusers might be prone to – “greed, tyranny, hypocrisy and pride” – really were sins after all. A neat reversal, I’ve always thought, considering the circumstances.

This week, I’m feeling about anger the same way that Abezier Coppe felt about sin. After years of carefully regulating my temper, I got angry recently. And you know what? I was right to do so.

I trace the distrust of my temper to a pickup baseball game when I was in elementary school. Another boy was cheating, and refused to admit what he was doing. He owned the bat and ball, he kept saying, so he could do what he want. Furious, I threw the ball at him, screaming he could go. I wasn’t aiming at him or anyone else, but the ball hit the girl on the catcher’s mound on the head.

She wasn’t hurt, but she left and so did the boy who owned the bat and ball. But I was so appalled at what I had done that, after half an hour of hiding, I marched over to the girl’s house and confessed to her mother what I had done. To my surprise, her mother hugged and forgave me, and nothing more came of the matter.

Except this: I told myself that I would never let myself get so blindly angry ever again. And, aside from a few sharp words, I kept that promise. I cultivated an easy-going attitude, one more prone to humor and sarcasm than anger – so successfully that the few times I did snap at someone, they were surprised. As several people told me after, they hadn’t known that I was capable of anger.

Later, I found another reason for avoiding anger. I realized that I was born moderately privileged, and that anger could be a means of invoking that privilege if I wasn’t careful.

So I told myself that a mature person resists giving way to anger. When I grew annoyed, I’d go out and do some heavy exercise, or at least some strenuous chores around the house. Almost always, I sat down calmer afterwards. Just as the only sins that Abezier Coppe acknowledged were those of the privileged, the only targets I allowed for my anger were abstract social ones and the people who defended them – and even then I felt uneasy and did my best to see more than one side to everything.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I got angry for the first time in several years. I’m not going to give a play by play, but, after having someone inflict three out of the four of Abezier Coppe’s acknowledged sins on me (there was no greed that I could see), I told her what I thought of her bullying, thoroughly and in the bluntest terms I could muster.

What surprised me was that I wasn’t ashamed of my anger, and that I didn’t let it control me. Instead, I restrained it until there was no reason not to express it, and, having expressed it, felt no inclination to do anything further except mutter for a couple of days. Even more importantly, for the brief time I was angry, I felt perfectly justified.

I realize now there is a world of difference between a boy’s ability to restrain his emotions and a middle-aged man’s. Not only that, but in some circumstances, anger is the only sane response. At times, to suppress it would mean acquiescing to the unacceptable.

Does that mean that I have any right to go berserk, or to cultivate anger and keep acting on it for weeks or months? Of course not. Some limits still apply. But it does mean that a shadowy part of myself is not nearly as scary as I had long imagined, and – occasionally, at least – is justified and deserves to be expressed.

The price of this knowledge may be steep, but I suspect now that a similar incident would have come sooner or later anyway. At least in the circumstances I can say I learned something:

I’ll never be afraid of my temper ever again. Nor will I have any further doubts about my ability to control it.

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