More Reflections On Billy Budd

I just finished re-reading the chapter of Billy Budd where Captain Vere and the three jurors of his selection discuss the capital case in which Billy is the accused. Actually, it is not really a discussion. It is more of a one-sided dialouge by Captain Vere. He understands his three subordinates misgivings about convicting Billy, and he admits to feeling them also. However, he explains to the jurors that, despite their "natural" feelings, their allegiance and duty is first and foremost to the king, and the rule of law. As comparison, he notes that in battle, a soldier does his duty, regardless of his feelings on the morality of the war. Captain Vere argues in favor of putting the responsibility toward "secular" law above personal moral convictions. This is painful to read. I can sense the pain of these simple and rightous people who know that Billy is innocent, but feel that they must sacrifice him to do their duty. In one sense, and perhaps at the base of it all, the soldiers are abandoning their spiritual beliefs, or at least allowing them to be transcended by their stately duty. Is this because they are afraid of the consequence to themselves if they do not do their duty? Perhaps, and if so, they are acting selfishly. Or, are they afraid of the consequence to their country? Even so, acting against what they believe to be morally right could be seen as an act of selfishness. They are not courageous enough to allow morality to outweigh their "duty". I think that Captain Vere realizes that he is doing the wrong thing at some level. However, he has difficulty in understanding what is truly right and wrong. Is it right to sacrifice Billy for the good of the country? Is it acceptable for him to condemn Billy in actuality, if he spiritually believes in the rightousness and innocence of the sailor? His actions reflect that he weighs the understanding of his duty above his own natural feelings. Yet, it clearly haunts him afterwards. We know this because his final words are "Billy Budd".


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