Misfortunes of Elphin

Aristocracy is government by the best, once we recognize them. The opposite is not democracy but kakistocracy — government by the worst. That the worst are the least suitable, most corrupt, unscrupulous and shameless, is generally conceded. But I read this Greek-founded word, kakistocracy, in a political blog, and guessed that some things might not be conceded.

Thomas Love Peacock revived the term in his marvellous novel, The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829): a recreation of the Welsh mediaeval past, from its poetry. A learned and patient man, notwithstanding his friendship with Shelley — and well-acquainted with Greek as well as Welsh — he used the term thoughtfully. But in more recent revivals it is used to be merely clever, by, for instance, those who wish to demonize Donald Trump. The word is flung out of places like Twitter. It is just a word.

When it first appeared, it was in a sermon to Parliament during the Civil War — the English one of the 17th century. It was part of a long meditation on “the peace of Jerusalem,” and why we should pray for it. The preacher, Paul Gosnold, did mention “sticking and medling,” and being “stung with a perpetuall itch of changing and innovating,” among the political characteristics he disapproved; and naturally he touched upon the deteriorating  scene of 1644. But his interest was with prayer — collectively and nationally — not with advancing a programme.

“It is the greatest torment to be depriv’d of Heaven, so it is not the least of pleasures to be freed of Hell,” he said, in repeating the wise Richard Hooker. His homily is full of literary echoes.

It is hard for us to imagine a world in which “the peace of Jerusalem” could be conceived in such a divine, cosmic way; in which men had more, much more, to fear than death. Public safety could not be reduced to public health.