Thursday, May 6, 2010

Telling It Like It Is

The American tendency to issue political jeremiads was noted by journalist Wen Stephenson in a recent New York Times Magazine. Stephenson regards many of the speeches of Martin Luther King, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama as jeremiads.  Jeremiah, the Hebrew priest and prophet of the 5th and 6th centuries BC, was only one of several historical figures who gave their names to diatribes of one sort or another.

Just to set the record straight a jeremiad is a prolonged complaint or cautionary harangue, especially one that chides people for failing to live up to their own principles.  Jeremiah, who issued his jeremiads in Jerusalem, complained about the Jews’ sexual immorality, social injustice, ingratitude to God, and many other faults that got his goat.  He predicted dire consequences as punishment, including captivity by Babylon, and he turned out to be right about that.

Another kind of harangue is a philippic, which is also a tirade full of bitter condemnation.  The name came from Philip II, king of Macedon, who in this case was the object of denunciation. In 351 BC Demosthenes objected to Philip’s aggressive military conquest of Greek areas and repeatedly gave him what-for. Demosthenes is the guy who taught himself to be a great orator by talking with pebbles in his mouth, which makes you wonder whether his philippics were completely intelligible.

Another type of criticism is described as thersitical, named for Thersites, a loud-mouthed, profane, and abusive Greek in the Trojan War, who railed against everyone, especially Agamemnon, Ulysses, and Achilles. Achilles really didn’t take criticism well, finally had enough, and knocked Thersites in the head so hard that his teeth fell out and he died. 

A Cassandra is a predictor of fortune and disaster, especially one who isn’t taken seriously. It is the name of the daughter of the Trojan king Priam.  She had been granted the power of prophecy by Apollo, who fancied her, but when she spurned his advances, he decreed that no one would believe her predictions.  And they didn’t.

Finally, among those who gave their names to critical comments, was Zoilus, a Greek grammarian and literary critic in the 4th century BC.  Grammarians are known to be cranky, and Zoilus was no exception, heaping severe criticism on Homer and Plato, among others, for failing to write good Greek.  A zoilism is any carping and harsh criticism of another person.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou takes jeremiads, philippics, and other gloomy prophecies with a grain of salt (or salt-substitute).

            Repent!  The end is near!
            So said the Voice of Doom.
            Alas, I didn’t hear
            Him say the end of whom. 


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