Why Pirate Tales are Good for the Psyche

While reading Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, that many of Tom’s heroes were pirates and brigands rather struck me.  In many respects, Twain well reproduces the feelings, thoughts, and thirst for adventure found among boys of Tom’s age.  Yet, one cannot help but feel that the long periods of time spent without supervision and the affection for pirates is outdated.  Despite The Pirates of the Caribbean series of films, pirates don’t seem to hold the imagination of Americans as they once did.  Why is this the case?

Pirate howard Pyle

Fulton Oursler’s Father Flanagan of Boys Town (published in 1949) contains the opinion that America’s crime problems can be connected to how much the people celebrate outlaws.  Children in the much more orderly society of Great Britain prefer stories about police and other persons who uphold the law.  Essentially, Oursler contends that reading about outlaws encourages Americans to become outlaws themselves–in much the same way as people now argue that violent video games encourage people to be violent.

 There might be a little truth to that, but the author fails to account for the fact that there are four types of law: eternal, divine, natural, and human or positive.  St. Thomas Aquinas states that eternal law is unknowable for human beings save for what is revealed in revelation, i.e. divine law.  So, all law derives from God, and human beings–in following the law–obey God.  Yet, divine law is above natural law and natural above human law.  One hopes that lawmakers look to divine and natural law in order to fashion positive law in a prudential fashion, i.e. one can’t make all sins crimes–summa ius, summa iniuria.

Sadly, in this fallen world of ours, not all positive law is good.  I don’t really have to give examples of how tyrannies have trampled upon human rights, as they are all too well known.  In Britain, Bobby may be admired and loved by British children.  In Mexico, however, the police shake down civilians for bribes.  In Vietnam, the police will haul citizens to jail for wrong-think.  Police only deserve our respect when they do not serve as the government arm of oppression.  Under oppressive regimes, the outlaw deserves all praise.  A nation which becomes over-reliant on the state and the police becomes a nation of rabbits, as Alexander Solzhenitsyn dubs Russians in The Gulag Archipelago.

In the case of America, we have always had an anarchic spirit, but as anarchy dedicated to rights and liberty.  We might tar and feather tax collectors or dump tea into Boston Harbor, but only because we are taxed without representation.  As a Pre-Revolutionary War refrain went:

In freedom, we’re born,

And, in freedom, we’ll live.

Our purses are ready.

Steady, boys, steady!

Not as slaves, but as freemen

our money we’ll give!

In short time, the British would dub all Patriots as outlaws and traitors.  In the same way, the North dubbed the South as a country of rebels and traitors.  In all cases, one must cling to what one believes is right despite what the government calls you.  If your government is good, so much the better: you can retain your rights in peace.  If it’s tyrannical, one could do worse than to hoist the black flag against a tyrant.  If there is one good lesson pirates have to teach, it lies in that people can survive not only without the government but opposed to it.  One’s manhood counts for something even if not rewarded or supported by the state.  But, ’tis true, that and daring might be the only good lessons offered by pirates!

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2 thoughts on “Why Pirate Tales are Good for the Psyche

  1. Gaheret says:

    You know, this issue has always troubled me, maybe more than the similar heroic vikings, Old West outlaws, “cool thieves” and mafia antiheroes. In truth, I love the rebel/public enemy kind of story (I think that´s the main appeal for kids like Tom, to be chased, to be surrounded, to be on your own against the world, to have only your band of brothers), and the Robin Hood or (Ainsworth´s) Turpin ideals. I similarly liked Salgari´s Sandokan as a child, but since my early teens I became a convinced anti-pirate in all the seas of literature. I think it was Victor Hugo´s poem about them kidnapping a young nun or Espronceda´s Promethean Pirate Song which opened my eyes at 15.

    That is because as much as fiction likes to present a lot of heroic Captain Bloods, Sandokans, Jack Sparrows and Black Corsairs who are chivalrous and brave, almost every fictional pirate is still taking the goods and lifes of others as a way of living (the real ones are a gallery of human monsters). That, in the name of misunderstood freedom and with the help of loyal partners in crime whose loyalty is consequently more of a vice than a virtue. Tragic backstories, vaguely villanous merchants and public officials, to spare the lifes of those who fought well, to give some occasional diamond to a beggar, to fight worst villains, don´t really justify that sort of thing. Since then, I´ll rather join imaginary forces with the british detective, the American superhero, the Star Wars kind of rebel, the knight or even the Aladdin who steals out of hunger, or non-pirates like the Iron Corsair, who preys on other pirates. That, or sail with a more shady and clearly villanous pirate or thief, like those of Stevenson.

    Speaking of which, we had a very interesting, contradictory and strange corsary in Spain: have you heard about Amaro Rodríguez Felipe Machado, also known as Amaro Pargo? He enganged in some very dubious practices of corsary war and slave trade, yet he was (at times) a devout Catholic and a nobleman, and he even had a close friendship with a nun now in process of Beatification. Quite a complex life.

    • I can see what you mean: the best pirates are those written about in fiction, while the real ones tended to be downright evil. In most cases, it is better to be on the side of order than the side of chaos–even if the side of order is somewhat evil. Acting outside of the law can only be justified in situations where government is wholly tyrannical.

      I had not heard about Amaro Pargo before. He does sound very interesting. I’ll have to read about him. He was a privateer, and those tended to be more civilized than out and out pirates: privateers had to answer to the authority which gave them a letter of marque after all.

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