HOLCOMB: On Libertarianism From The High Seas


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There have been quite a few discussions recently online surrounding the resurgence of the 2003 film Master and Commander. While movies like Pirates of the Caribbean got all the box office acclaim and numerous sequel movies, the story behind Master and Commander has taken on a life of its own, particularly in today’s political climate.

GQ recently ran an article entitled, “Why Are So Many Guys Obsessed With Master and Commander?” I don’t dislike the points the author made, but it didn’t encapsulate the totality of why I particularly love the movie.

For those unaware, Master and Commander follows Russell Crowe’s character, Captain Jack Aubrey, as he captains the HMS Surprise in the year 1805 at the height of the Napoleonic Wars. They are on the far side of the world having to defend the British Empire from their smaller ship pitted against a much larger French vessel.

The movie isn’t so much about the battle scenes, but about the dynamics of leadership, glory, duty, and sacrifice, and yes, even libertarianism.

In the film, Aubrey’s best friend is the ship’s surgeon, Dr. Stephen Maturin. One of the most notable scenes that I remember vividly is the two main characters having a heated disagreement over the disobedience of one of the crew members.

Aubrey: “What would you have me do Stephen?

Maturin: “Tip the ship’s grog over the side.”

Aubrey: “Stop their grog?”

Maturin: “Nagle was drunk when he insulted Hollom, did you know that?”

Aubrey: “Stop 200 years of privilege and tradition? I’d rather have them three sheets to the wind than have a mutiny on my hands.”

Aubrey: “Stephen I profoundly respect your right to disagree with me here in this cabin, but I can only afford one rebel on this ship. I hate it when you talk of the service in this way it makes me so very low.”

“Do you think I want to flog Nagle? The man who stood beside me on the gunwale and hacked the ropes that sent his mate to his death? Under orders? Under MY orders? Do you not see? The only things that keep this wooden world together are hard work, discipline…”

Maturin: “Jack, the man failed to salute…” (attempting to de-emphasize the insubordination)

Aubrey: “Men must be governed! Often not wisely, I will grant you, but governed nonetheless.”

In the movie, Maturin is a naturalist, and an enlightened one at that. His greatest desire was to go visit the previously mysterious Galapagos Islands, but that mission was temporarily halted by Aubrey’s orders.

I would consider Maturin an early Darwinian, even though Charles Darwin was born in 1809, four years before this fictional movie is set. You can clearly see Maturin’s obsession with the natural and how the Enlightenment was beginning to take hold in the minds of Western people.

So, what does this have to do with Libertarianism. Well, in an age where most people view themselves as nothing more than atoms floating around in a cosmic sack of marbles with no definition, fluid in shape, and desiring the license to do anything they wish in the name of “freedom,” Captain Jack Aubrey reminds the viewer that there is structure, order, and hierarchy in all society.

“Men must be governed.”

I do not believe that any of us are truly autonomous. We are beholden to things that aren’t visible. We have communities, kinship, natural ties that bind people together through shared language, faith, history, and basic geography.

A more apt metaphor is that we are molecularly bound together with inescapable realities. That is the message Aubrey is trying to communicate to his best friend. Aubrey is bound by his duty and patriotism to God, King, and country.

In another scene, Aubrey is taking the men through drills, inspiring them by yelling at the top of his lungs:

Aubrey: “Do you want to see a guillotine in Picadilly?”

Crew: “No!”

Aubrey: “Want to call that raggedy-ass Napoleon your king?”

Crew: “No!”

Aubrey: “You want your children to sing the “La Marseillaise?”

Crew: “No!”

The Libertarian holds to the false notion that if everyone is just left alone, then everyone is better off. But their presupposition is entirely incorrect. All-consuming worldviews, like the Marxism of today and the godless secularism of the French Revolution facing Aubrey and his men, cannot and will not leave honest, hard-working, devoted conservatives and their families alone.

You must stand in the fight.

While they were on the far side of the world, “England is facing the threat of invasion,” Aubrey said, and continuing by reminding them that, “This ship is England.”

The best way to describe conservatism is this: we fight not because of hatred for what is in front of us, but out of love for what is behind us.

Our lives, livelihoods, and traditions are on the line in 21st-century America. We cannot cower in the face of the enemy. Sure, Libertarians can be our co-belligerents against the overreach of tyrannical government, but in the end, their worldview is retreatism. We cannot allow godless secularism to run unfettered under the guise of “just leave everyone alone.”

Evil must be vanquished. “Men must be governed” for their good, whether they know it or not.

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