Wrestling with the Dead

“The truth of history has been much corrupted by these encomiastic
essays; for many circumstances were recorded in them which never existed.”

Cicero, On Oratory and Orators (55 B.C.)

An encomium is, literally, a speech delivered in the course of a feast, and those who make speeches to feasting men are naturally inclined to praise the occasion of the feast.  For if the occasion is not praiseworthy, the feasters are fools.  A speech delivered at a wedding normally stresses the joys of matrimony and the most amiable qualities of both bridegroom and bride.  A speech delivered at a birthday party normally flatters the guest of honor, and seeks to reassure him that he is fortunate to be so far advanced in years. A certain amount of good-natured ribbing may be tolerated, but everyone understands that, on festive occasions, strict objectivity and searching candor would be in the worst possible taste.

The “encomiastic essays” to which Cicero refers were funeral orations, or what we would call eulogies. The literal meaning of eulogy is “good word,” and to eulogize a man is, of course, to speak well of him.  In Cicero’s day, de mortuis nil nici bonum was the motto of every funeral orator, and so it very generally remains.  The phrase of course means “say nothing but good of the dead,” even if this leaves you with very little to say.

Perhaps this is one reason the eulogists at Roman funerals so often went beyond discretion and reticence, and wreathed the dearly departed with glorious fabrications.  Cicero tells us that funeral orators were wont to embellish their eulogies with imaginary achievements, fictitious titles and spurious genealogies.  And because the texts of these eulogies were often preserved, and were in time accepted by historians as honest reports, history was “much corrupted.”

The word dyslogy is not so often used as the word eulogy, which is surprising when you consider that the practice is so much more common.  Its literal meaning is, of course, “bad word,” so that to deliver a dyslogy is to dwell on a man’s faults, and likely to augment this catalogue with any number of plausible inventions.  If eulogies are the flowers that men bring to a feast, dyslogies are the weeds that they sow every other minute of the day.

“The world with calumny abounds,
The whitest virtue slander wounds;
There are those whose joy is, night and day,
To talk a character away:
Eager from rout to rout they haste,
To blast the generous and the chaste,
And, hunting reputations down,
Proclaim their triumphs through the town.”*

Since eulogies are rare and “calumny abounds,” we must suppose that history has been more often corrupted by slanders than by what I just called glorious fabrications.  The reason is not far to find, for as another poet puts it,

“There is a lust in man no charm can tame,
Of loudly publishing his neighbor’s shame.”

The root of this lust is envy, the natural hatred that every man feels for anyone who outshines him. I personally believe the poet goes too far when he says this lust cannot be tamed, but I know as surely as I know anything that it cannot be slain. If I lack a reputation or have lost it, it requires great spiritual discipline not to seek revenge against virtue by “hunting reputations down.”

All of us know about petty backbiting—how good it feels to bite, and how bad it feels to be bitten. But above this gutter gossip, there is a higher gossip in which the reputations of history are “talked away.” In this higher gossip, heroes are defamed, heroines are slandered, and successful civilizations are calumniated with a litany of sins.  The dreary dislogy is forever the same: he is no better than I, and all his glory, when correctly perceived, is naught but the stain of his many sins.  Good men are scoundrels and great men are fiends!

Today, much of this higher gossip is wrestling with the dead, or what the ancients called cum larvis luctari.  The phrase actually translates as “wrestle with ghosts,” and this was a sort of wrestling no honorable ancient would do.***  When they said “say nothing but good of the dead,” they meant it would be cowardly to continue a feud with a man who had passed beyond the grave.  As Montagne described it in his essay “Cowardice is the Mother of Cruelty,” to wrestle with the dead

“is to bite one’s thumb at a blind man, to rail at one who is deaf, to wound a man who has no feeling, rather than to run the hazard of his resentment.”

Perhaps the toughs who nowadays make a show of wrestling with the dead should recall that dead men have sons, and that the wrestling might get tougher if they wake the sons’ resentment.


*) The verses are attributed to Aleander Pope, but I have yet to find them under his name.  They seem to have first appeared, unsigned, in Town and Country Magazine (1774).

**)  These lines were most likely written by the seventeenth-century anatomist William Harvey (1578-1657).  Perhaps this is what drove him into the retirement where he discovered circulation of the blood.

“There is a lust in man no charm can tame,
Of loudly publishing his neighbor’s shame:
On eagle’s wings immortal scandals fly;
While virtuous actions are but born and die.
Slander the worst of poisons ever finds
An easy entrance in ignoble minds.”

**) Gaius Assinus Pollio (75 B.C.-A.D. 4) was a Roman soldier and historian who withheld his libel against the Roman senator Lucius Munatius Plancus (87 B.C.-15 B.C.) until the older man was dead.  Many saw this as cowardly and said “it was only for hobgoblins to wrestle with the dead.” (See Montaigne’s essay “Cowardice the Mother of Cruelty.”)



8 thoughts on “Wrestling with the Dead

  1. What say you of the Dead?

    Their current-state status?


    Unconscious knowing nothing?

    Or conscious wresting with Guilt Itself – Themselves, for having sacrificed their children on alters – leaving behind civilizational forensic evidence of their child murders? Perhaps wresting with the idea of vicarious redemption? – how that invoice payment didn’t quite work out?

    Since we go there soon to experience our own evidence, I am not mocking here..

    No evidence required. Speculation all.


    • I suppose one might actually wrestle with the dead, although the closest I have come to this is wrestling with what they set down in books when they were still alive and kicking. But that is a genuine encounter with the past. The wrestlers I condemn stage mock combat with straw men who can’t fight back. I’ve never read Jung’s Sermons, but it sounds as if his dead reside in the sub-conscience, and that whatever they may be, they are not only images or notions. Indeed, it sounds as if they might fight back.

    • If one may hypothetically be called upon to deliver Comey’s future dyslogy, please note the following quip may be available through special licensing agreement from the estate of the late Christopher Hitchens. Alleged quip delivered around the closing 9:45 minute mark (Hitchens on Jerry Falwell’s Death: Hannity & Colmes (16-May-2007). Link not provided for brevity.

      Drumroll …………………….

      …………. “If you gave Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox.”

      OK. Now that I’m guilty of opprobrious language, I have to emergency self-administer the prescribed Roman dosage of Hail Mary’s and Our Father’s before I expire.

      Maybe a more lighthearted approach would be to have Derek Zoolander deliver my and Comey’s eugoogly. A eugoogalizer being one who speaks at funerals.

      • Hitchens teaches us that verbal facility is a dangerous gift, especially when it is wed to ideological zeal, as it was in his case. We do not excuse a physical beating because the man who delivers the beating is so very strong, but we very often forgive a verbal beating because the man who delivers it is so very clever. I didn’t greatly admire Falwell’s politics, but I’ve come to understand that he was, personally, a man whom any just person would respect. Perhaps Hitchens exhibited personal virtues, but I never heard of any. My impression is that he was a nasty man with a sharp tongue and fashionable politics. I don’t like what Comey has done, but I’m not sure his character is worse than mine. The main difference may be that my character flaws are not televised.

      • Well said.

        Additionally. Many are somewhere along a polarized gradient ideologically, belief-speaking, … in opposition. Sometimes beliefs in opposition motivate violence. The Hitchens God debates were to me morally instructive, exposing the strengths and weaknesses of opposing moral ideas. If firmly in one camp, the opposing side appeared immoral. Hitchens later interviews as cancer eroded his energy and appearance showed humility coming through and reflections on the meaning of life and love. Admittedly Not for everyone’s taste (Hitchens as moral instructor).

  2. Pingback: Wrestling with the Dead | Reaction Times

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