A Land of Thieves: 14 Quotes on Treachery and Treason

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In 1954, Edward R. Murrow observed: “No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices.” This year has borne this out, demonstrating how great swaths of the public can end up participating in acts of violence and treachery by simply doing nothing.

When every new atrocity is dismissed as “distraction” from some greater evil, outrage fatigue is bound to set in, discouraging and immobilizing us at the very time when activity and audacity are required. Before long you find yourself betraying your own values as a matter of course – sometimes before you’ve even had your morning coffee.

It shouldn’t be surprising that our literary forebears have lots to say about betrayal, treachery, and treason; these seeds of conflict serve as the basis for our most timeless fiction. What we forget all too easily is how tragedies like Julius Caesar and the like are meant to serve as a warning against human failings like corruption and violence – not as an excuse for them.

The following quotes make it quite clear: It’s every person’s job to do better, regardless of the fact that we’re only human after all.

John le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1974
“Treason is very much a matter of habit, Smiley decided.”

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights, 1847
“Treachery and violence are spears pointed at both ends: they wound those who resort to them, worse than their enemies.”

C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins, 1938
“In politics all abstract terms conceal treachery.”

George R.R. Martin, A Storm of Swords, 2000
“Three treasons you will know; One for blood, one for gold, and one for love.”

Victor Hugo, Ninety-Three, 1874
“I was confided to your loyalty and accepted by your treason; you offer my death to those to whom you had promised my life. Do you know who it is you are destroying here? It is yourself.”

Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” 1898
“Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard
Some do it with a bitter look
Some with a flattering word
The coward does it with a kiss
The brave man with a sword.”

William Blake, Jerusalem, 1804
“It is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend.”

Albert Camus, The Fall, 1956
“I used to advertise my loyalty and I don’t believe there is a single person I loved that I didn’t eventually betray.”

William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, 1599
“The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones.”

Anaïs Nin, Delta of Venus, 1977
“He, who had done more than any human being to draw her out of the caves of her secret, folded life, now threw her down into deeper recesses of fear and doubt. The fall was greater than she had ever known, because she had ventured so far into emotion and had abandoned herself to it.”

Anna Akhmatova, The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, 1992
“And you know, I agree to everything:
I will condemn, I will forget, I will give comfort to the enemy,
Darkness will be light and sin lovely.”

C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 1940
“For you will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.”

Isabel Allende, Daughter of Fortune, 1999
“Until a few months ago we had a code of honor, and even the worst ruffians behaved with decency. You could leave your gold in a tent with no guard and no one would touch it, but now all that has changed. The law of the jungle rules, the only ideology is greed. Don’t let yourself be parted from your weapons, and always travel in pairs or groups, because this is a land of thieves.”

John le Carré, The Looking Glass War, 1965
“Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.”