University of Pittsburgh, Summer Term 1997
Philosophy 0330: Political Philosophy
Ben Eggleston, Instructor

Melville, Billy Budd

I. Background Information

Herman Melville was born in New York City in 1819 and from 1841 to 1844 experienced life at sea on whaling, trading, and naval ships. Drawing on these experiences, he quickly became a popular author, though his reputation soon began to decline, with the publication of Moby Dick in 1851. He wrote Billy Budd in the last years of his life, finishing it months before his death in 1891. The book remained unpublished until 1924, when it appeared as Billy Budd, Foretopman.

In the first five chapters of Billy Budd, the title character is introduced as a sailor on a British trading ship—a handsome, cheerful, and honest fellow, generally enjoyed and admired by his peers. He is also very simple, naïve, and altogether unselfconscious, “little more than a sort of upright barbarian.” Due to his obvious strength and general physical presence, he is impressed, or drafted, into the British navy to serve as a foretopman on the Indomitable, a “seventy-four” (a ship with seventy-four guns) involved in Britain’s war with France. As the naval narrative begins, it’s the summer of 1797, and mutinies in April and May—one, at the Nore (not far from London), known as the Great Mutiny—have made British captains particularly keen to maintain discipline.

II. Reading Assignment

III. Study Questions

  1. What occasions Billy to seek the advice of the veteran mainmastman? What does the old man tell him?
  2. The accusation which Vere tells Claggart to repeat, and which he does repeat, is that Billy has been secretly inciting other sailors to mutiny. Hoes does Billy react and respond to the accusation?
  3. What is the “primitive basis” on which Melville says Vere was “not authorized to determine the matter”?
  4. Why was Vere intent on disposing of the matter quickly?
  5. What does Vere mean when he says that the blow’s “consequence is to be judged not otherwise than as the striker’s deed”? How else could the consequence (Claggart’s death) be thought of, which Vere is implicitly arguing against?
  6. According to Vere, why should Billy’s case be judged according to martial law instead of according to “natural justice”?
  7. What does Vere say will happen if Billy’s case is not judged strictly according to martial law?

IV. Outline of Topics to be Covered in Class

  1. Who was Melville?
  2. chapters VI–X: background
    1. Vere
    2. Claggart
  3. chapters XX-XXII: Billy’s crime and punishment