Instruments To Plague Us
There came the devil of tobacco and the devil of chocolate, who avenged the Indies against Spain, for they have done more harm by introducing among us those powders and smoke and chocolate cups and chocolate beaters than the King had ever done through Columbus and Cortés and Almagreo and Pizarro.
For it was better and cleaner and more honourable to be killed by a musket ball or a lance than by snuffing and belching and dizziness and fever.
–from El Entometido y la Dueña y el Soplon by Francisco De Quevedo, 1628
The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us. —King Lear, Act V scene iii
We all have vices. Some minor, like chocolate and tobacco; some marginally more serious, like narcotics and strong drink; and some that can wreck lives, like cruelty and avarice. However, we are but infants playing in the fields of vice in comparison to some of the more notably vicious.
Of all the monsters of vice thrown up by Imperial Rome–Tiberius, Caligula, Nero, Caracalla (described by Gibbon as the common enemy of mankind) etc–my favourite is Heliogabalus, who had all the vices of his predecessors, absent the cruelty. According to Gibbon:
To confound the order of the season and climate, to sport with the passions and prejudices of his subjects, and to subvert every law of nature and decency, were in the number of his most delicious amusements. A long train of concubines, and a rapid succession of wives, among whom was a vestal virgin, ravished by force from her sacred asylum, were insufficient to satisfy the impotence of his passions.
The master of the Roman world affected to copy the manners and dress of the female sex, preferring the distaff to the sceptre, and dishonoured the principle dignities of the empire by distributing them among his numerous lovers; one of whom was publicly invested with the title and authority of the emperor’s, or, as he more properly styled himself, the empress’s husband.
It may seem probable, the vices and follies of Heliogabalus have been adorned by fancy, and blackened by prejudice. Yet, confining ourselves to the public scenes displayed before the Roman people, and attested by grave and contemporary historians, their inexpressible infamy surpasses that of any other age or country
—Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Vol. 1, Chapter 6.
Gibbon elaborated (in one of his voluminous and delightful footnotes) that Heliogabalus lived for the pleasures ‘of the bed and the table’. Favourite concubines and catamites were showered with gold and villas. Likewise, favourite chefs. However, should a chef create a sauce or a dish that displeased the emperor, he would be cast into the palace dungeons, there to dine solely on the unsatisfactory sauce or dish until he came up with one that pleased the emperor.
Infinitely more ugly in character and vice was Gilles de Rais, Marshal of France and monster, whose vice was molesting and killing children for pleasure. In his 1971 biography of Gilles de Rais, Jean Benedetti tells how the children who fell into de Rais’s hands were put to death:
“[The boy] was pampered and dressed in better clothes than he had ever known. The evening began with a large meal and heavy drinking, particularly hippocras, which acted as a stimulant. The boy was then taken to an upper room to which only Gilles and his immediate circle were admitted. There he was confronted with the true nature of his situation. The shock thus produced on the boy was an initial source of pleasure for Gilles.”
In his own confession, Gilles testified that “when the said children were dead, he kissed them and those who had the most handsome limbs and heads he held up to admire them, and had their bodies cruelly cut open and took delight at the sight of their inner organs; and very often when the children were dying he sat on their stomachs and took pleasure in seeing them die and laughed…”
The exact figure is unknown but de Rais is thought to have murdered between 200 and 600 children. In 1440, de Rais was convicted, hanged and his body burned.
William Gladstone’s guilty pleasure was pornography. But it caused great guilt that Gladstone attempted to extirpate by self-flagellation and cruising the late-night streets of Soho and Central London seeking out prostitutes to ‘save’. While Gladstone was a sincere and committed Christian, his night-time activities caused some merriment and some suspicion.
In his diaries, Gladstone freely admitted that he found himself very attracted to many of the young girls he encountered. He never succumbed to the attraction but resorted to self-whipping instead. It’s hard to decide what Gladsone’s vice actually was: pride? masochism? sanctimony? lust? hypocrisy? paternalistic condescension?
Francis Thompson, author of the poem The Hound of Heaven had that most straight-forward of vices: an addiction to opium. His enslavement by the poppy led to the life of a homeless vagrant on the streets of London. He was ‘discovered’ after he sent poetry to the magazine Merrie England. He was sought out by the editors of Merrie England, Wilfrid and Alice Meynell and rescued from the verge of starvation and self-destruction.
The egregious Bono’s vices are self-adoration, hypocrisy, a devotion to double-standards and a relentless addiction to publicity. Ditto the loathsome Sting. At least Bono has spared us the details of his sex life and refrained from mangling John Dowland.
Let’s have verse on vice, vices and viciousness.
Here’s one on a vice I suspect many of us share:
Look at old Morrison!
Isn’t he wonderful?
Fit as a fiddle
And tight as a tick;
And spouting his stories–
Just listen a minute
And laugh yourself sick.
Same with the other chaps:
Bloody good company,
Never let anyone
Drink on his own;
Out of your parish
Or widowed or derelict–
Once you’re in here
You’re no longer alone.
Different for Weatherby,
Struck with incontinence
Mute in his wheelchair
And ready to go;
Different for Hooper,
Put back on the oxygen,
Breathing, but breathing
Did what we could, of course,
While there was anything;
Best to remember ’em
Not as they are,
But as they used to be,
Chattering, chaffing and…
You go and eat
And I’ll stay at the bar.