"In history the way of annihilation is invariably
prepared by inward degeneration. . . . Only then
can a shock from the outside put an end to the whole."
Discussion of treason has become almost impossible without quoting Sir John Harington's famous couplet, "Treason doth never prosper, what's the reason? / For if it prosper, none dare call it treason." Lacey Baldwin Smith quotes it as the epigraph of the first chapter of his learned and entertaining study of treason in 16th-century England, and various snatches of the lines have been used for several book titles in recent years. The popularity of Harington's poem may be due not only to the seeming ubiquity of betrayal in the 20th century but also to the revival of the world view that it reveals.
Harington's cynical insight contains a statement about human nature and, more deeply, about truth: men will not condemn the victors, even if their victory is won by treachery. Hermann Goering, among other celebrities of the 20th century, understood this precept; when asked by the official psychiatrist at the Nuremberg trials to write something appropriate on the copy of his indictment for war crimes, the former Reichsmarshall scribbled, "The victor will always be the judge, and the vanquished the accused."
Harington's lines also suggest that the...