Last week a friend was describing his first day at boarding school. As a shy new boy he had awaited the housemaster at evening prayers. When this august figure, the fount of authority in that little community of 50 boys, had walked into the dining room, he had been booed and jeered by the entire house. What my friend saw was the breakdown of established but malfunctioning authority, and he found it liberating.
His story made me reflect on my own experience at the same school a few years earlier. One summer evening three friends and I decided to play tennis in the gloaming. That might sound innocent but we knew we were breaking a rule by going out of the house after “lock-up”. On our way back, we were spotted by a master out on an evening walk, or possibly patrol. He reported us to our housemaster, who read us the riot act, suggesting that we might have been visiting a brothel in the neighbouring town (a revealingly exotic thought, which I think had never occurred to any of us except him). He then unleashed the full force of the law by referring the matter on to the headmaster, the only institutional eminence entitled to use corporal punishment.
In the end our goody-goody disciplinary records and sheer implausibility as troublemakers spared us the cane. The headmaster, with pained piety, told us we had betrayed the trust vested in us and ordered that we be kept in detention for three long summer Saturday afternoons. Much more important than the essay I was set to write under the heading “Progress depends on the unreasonable man” were my reflections on the unreasonableness of an authority that was based on fear, not mutual respect, that offered no opportunity for a fair hearing, and ended up undermining itself.
About the same time another event confirmed the emptiness of this kind of authority. There was one obnoxious boy in our house, an arrogant bully, and a collective decision was taken to show him what we thought of him. He was frogmarched to the bathrooms, wearing the full regalia of the pompous self-selecting body of school prefects, placed in a bath and soaked.
Once more our housemaster rolled out his routine of bluster and referral to higher authority. The boys responsible for this outrage were to go directly to the headmaster. I think the headmaster was expecting to see two or three miscreants; he was not prepared for the unblinking stare of half the assembly of 70 scholars, from squeaky-voiced 13-year-olds to young men about to enter university.
There was strength in numbers, not just physical strength but moral strength, and we knew he could not touch us. All he could do was deliver a hollow sermon on how the boys who were meant to be the school’s intellectual elite had “behaved like wild animals”. He did not ask why a group of intelligent boys had wanted to inflict a public (but not physically painful) humiliation on one of their number.
Here was an authority that did not want to listen; that had a set repertoire of threats and clichés; that was interested mainly in upholding itself and that did not mind harming the innocent. I think the resentment generated in me by this has never really simmered down.
Nowadays few make connections between the authoritarian set-ups of private schools and authoritarian political regimes; but writers of the 1930s such as George Orwell (who happened to go to the same school that my friend and I attended) and WH Auden were not shy about drawing the parallels. In his bitter autobiographical essay “Such, such were the joys”, Orwell describes his time at St Cyprian’s prep school: “Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong who deserved to win and who always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and who did lose, everlastingly.” Auden in The Prolific and the Devourer (1939) states roundly that “every English boy of the middle class spends five years … as a citizen of a totalitarian state”.
Some authoritarian or totalitarian regimes seem able to sustain their bankrupt rule for ages. But they will fall, eventually. In the Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690), the philosopher John Locke provided the moral argument: “Whenever the legislators endeavour to take away and destroy the property of the people, or reduce them to slavery under arbitrary law, they put themselves in a state of war with the people who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience”.
The promise of last year’s Arab spring was the self-absolution from obedience to arbitrary law of long-oppressed peoples. However uncertainly it may be playing out – and with terrible violence in Syria – there is surely still something, with fear and trembling, to celebrate.
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