‘I am coming to believe that laws are the prime cause of unhappiness. It is not merely a case of born under one law, required another to obey — you know the lines: I have no memory for verse. No, sir: it is born under half a dozen, required another fifty to obey. There are parallel sets of laws in different keys that have nothing to do with one another and that are even downright contradictory. You, now — you wish to do something that the Articles of War and (as you explained to me) the rules of generosity forbid, but that your present notion of the moral law and your present notion of the point of honour require. This is but one instance of what is as common as breathing. Buridan’s ass died of misery between equidistant mangers, drawn first by one and then by the other. Then again, with a slight difference, there are these double loyalties — another great source of torment.’
‘Upon my word, I cannot see what you mean by double loyalty. You can only have one King. And a mean’s heart can only be in one place at a time, unless he is a scrub.’
‘What nonsense you do talk, to be sure,’ said Stephen. ‘What “balls”, as you sea-officers say: it is a matter of common observation that a man may be sincerely attached to two women at once — to three, to four, to a surprising number of women. However,’ he said, ‘no doubt you know more of these things than I. No: what I had in mind were those wider loyalties, those more general conflicts — the candid American, for example, before the issue became envenomed; the unimpassioned Jacobite in ’45; Catholic priests in France today — Frenchmen of many complexions, in and out of France. So much pain; and the more honest the man the worse the pain. but there at least the conflict is direct: it seems to me that the greater mass of confusion and distress must arise from these less evident divergencies — the moral law, the civil, military, common laws, the code of honour, custom, the rules of practical life, of civility, of amorous conversation, gallantry, to say nothing of Christianity for those that practise it. All sometimes, indeed generally, at variance; none ever in an entirely harmonious relation to the rest; and a man is perpetually required to choose one rather than another, perhaps (in his particular case) its contrary. It is as though our strings were each tuned according to a completely separate system — it is as though the poor ass were surrounded by four and twenty mangers.’
‘You are an antinomian,’ said Jack.
‘I am a pragmatist,’ said Stephen.
Master and Commander – Patrick O’Brian