207. The family (VII)
Updated: Apr 12
Before civilisation arrived in ancient Hellas, pirates marauded up and down the coast—so they say; and it was only when the cities began to build walls that piracy receded. Sometime later, of course, it was up to Julius Caesar, once held hostage by pirates, to cleanse the Mediterranean of the barbarous crews. The pirate is an ambiguous figure, for, though he is regarded as the “bad guy”, he always walks the thin line between loveable rogue and villain. Long John Silver encapsulates this aspect of the pirate perfectly; he is a cruel man, yet he has genuine charm and affection for Jim Hawkins—we cannot say we despise him, not entirely.
Per the Greeks, the pirate belongs to the dynamic kultur period in any social lifecycle. He forms a voluntary association of men—a direct democracy, Swiss-style—that sets out to gain, by any means, what all men desire: gold, rum, and girls. Direct democracy is the spirit of the vigilante, the type of man who gets together with his mates to bombard the local nonce with bottles as he leaves court. The pirate obeys the primal and natural hierarchy: captains can be deposed by “the black spot” and traitorous crew walk the plank. The pirate captain is liable to say: “As for the King and his excisemen, they are but a crew of pirates themselves; granted, they have a few more guns and ships than I, for now anyways. The situation be changeable, me hearty.”
This Hobbesian recognition that the Leviathan is just a band of thugs is authentic anarchy. The king is that man who can lead freemen; and if he cannot, he is not the true king. The sovereign, traditionally, would contract pirates as freelance freemen; the privateer was essential to the rise of England, with Drake and Raleigh once national heroes. American libertarians still live in this spirit; and they maintain, quite correctly, that the Constitution entitles them to own fully outfitted fighting ships for purposes of privateering.
As for the contrabandieer, he smuggles the good stuff—rum and cocaine—because he refuses to accept the sovereign’s taxation if it strikes him as excessive. A freeman makes no girlish “petition” to the sovereign, he simply sets out to do what he wants and will see if the state has the wherewithal to stop him—if it does not, as Carl Schmitt observed, it is no sovereign. The pirate is a practical empiricist in statecraft; he has little time for religion, just like any libertarian or Nietzschean, he thinks it is a con for women and children.
Piratical Han Solo in Star Wars is the real leading man, in the first film anyway; he is a charmer and charismatic—unlike the wet and boyish Luke Skywalker—and he has no need for the light side or the dark side, all religious mumbo-jumbo to him. When menaced, he shoots first and asks question later; yet he would never kill for an ideological or spiritual cause—he has no fanaticism, he is neither pious nor diabolical. The pirate is the masculine pragmatist, always ready with a joke to tease you: will he really make you walk the plank, or is it banter? There is a thrill to the uncertainty; it is flirtatious, hence the ladies adore a pirate—a swashbuckler. The pirate, from Blackbeard to Long John Silver to Jack Sparrow, remains a realistic masculine archetype on screen; not a golden hero, but quite like most men in the audience.
Can the rogue be spiritual? The black of the pirate flag represents wisdom in the European occult tradition; further, the skull and crossbones represents Mithras, god of the legions—a masculine solar cult; and the eyepatch on the Jolly Roger recalls the all-seeing eye. It is said that the initiates of Mithras sometimes took to piracy, particularly in the service of Indo-Aryan Persia, in the classical world. This spiritual sensibility will always be secondary to the pirate’s masculine pragmatism, yet it is always there.