Skip to main content

Not to Praise Him

“Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.”

Thus begins the famous speech of Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.  It is a speech often used as an example of fiery and perfectly-constructed political rhetoric – but today I would like to push that to one side and instead focus on just the second sentence of the speech, and what it can tell us about the nature of eulogising and the curiously inflexible nature of history.

“I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”, says Antony, as if the two not only can but in fact should be kept separate.  After death, it is suggested, we can safely put aside our biases, stop blindly praising and consider every aspect of a person’s life, come to a full understanding of the person in question.

This is as far from the truth as it is possible to fathom.  In the course of his speech Antony repeatedly calls Caesar “great”; he describes “his sacred blood”.  He concludes: “Here was a Caesar! When comes such another?”  This is hardly the balanced and comprehensive view Antony had seemed to advocate, as we can clearly see from the fact that “such another”, Caesar’s adopted son, would arrive on the scene almost instantly and gain sole control of almost the entire world in less than twenty years.

In this case, of course, the bias is deliberate.  But Antony’s speech, which so contradicts his own introduction, is a fine example of the way in which death in fact only exacerbates our unthinking and biased judgements.  In the wake of a “good man’s” death, nobody wishes to pierce the atmosphere with reminders of his failings.  Equally nobody is willing to attract opprobrium by pointing out the good deeds of a “bad man”.

In the case of those people who are considered bad or evil, the eulogy is an uneasy concession to tradition, a nod to the genuine grief of a mourning family.  All around, the wheels are rolling in the opposite direction.  For most others, the eulogy is the natural starting point of a process which crystallises rich and complex human lives, laden with subtlety and confusion, into either a plus or a minus on the ledger of history.

When I speak of history, I do not mean historians – whose occupation it is to embrace these subtleties and understand the intricacies of past lives.  Virtually every person in the world has some slight knowledge of or interest in history; the number of historians among them, people who hold a balanced perspective, is painfully low.  There is an awful lot of history and very few people who are willing to inspect it closely.  There are enough ambiguities in the present without searching for more in the past; when we look behind us we want to see more clearly than when we look ahead.  The reality is that this is impossible: the past is the same world and the same indecipherably complex human nature.

Nevertheless, that is what we want and so that is what we get.  For an overwhelming majority of people, history is reassuringly black and white: we remember Julius Caesar for his feats of conquest and his control of a great empire, not for his erosion of the values of a five hundred year old republic.  We remember Gandhi for his nonviolence and his part in freeing India, not for his almost inhumane adherence to principles which saw him, according to a 1949 George Orwell essay, “willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor.”

History does not allow us shades of grey.  It is from the process of history as most people see it that the shockingly reductive terms “good man” and “bad man” originate.  There is no room for “he did good things, but…”, or vice versa.  The word “but”, indicative as it is of a second layer, a nuance, is not needed at all.  We have two vastly different descriptors and no middle ground.

In an astonishingly vitriolic opinion piece written three weeks after the death of Jason Moran, John Silvester saw no subtlety and pulled no punches.  “In death he was accorded qualities he did not readily reveal in life.” He dismisses as “downright fools” anybody who “tried to suggest that he was anything but a dim thug. … The truth is Moran was born into a life of violence and crime – and revelled in it.  He showed no signs of wanting to change.”  Finally he concludes with unchecked, unbalanced condemnation: “there was nothing romantic about Jason Moran.  He died aged 35.  He was no great loss.”

Fifteen days had passed.  But this is common history at work – after our death we are conveyed to the world, and to future generations, as not a person, complex and real, but as a sum total, and that is that.  We are not granted a mark out of ten.  As we go about our lives, it is worth remembering that, to the question “how will history judge us?”, there are only two possible answers.