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July 18, 2018


When Thomas Merton died, his closest lifelong friend, the poet Robert Lax, cabled from Greece to Merton's monastery one word -- "Sad." Merton's secretary said that Lax's cable was the most moving of the many the monastery had received.

In our grief -- because something important perished this week -- words seem to contract and expand. Your post here examines so well such an important facet of what the president has exploited -- our loss of collective memory. Exodus begins, after all, with Joseph's death and a new king who "knew not Joseph." The king seems to fill the political vacuum created by his society's forgetting. And all the words, whether about collective memory or xenophobia or the state of our public life, seem to contract in grief today.

The president even exploits the coarsening of our language. "Sad" for him, of course, is phony pity and signals his dismissal of his calumny's object. But the past has its revenge on the present: Pharaoh didn't know Joseph, but neither did Lax know Trump. One can still be sad. And maybe grief, based on a living past, can lend its life to the present.

The Greek historian Polybius, writing in the second century B.C.E., would agree with your assessment of democracy and the failure of collective memory: The people "convert the state into a democracy instead of an oligarchy and themselves assume the superintendence and charge of affairs. Then so long as any people survive who endured the evils of oligarchical rule, they can regard their present form of government as a blessing and treasure the privileges of equality and freedom of speech. But as soon as a new generation has succeeded and the democracy falls into the hands of the grandchildren of its founders, they have become by this time so accustomed to equality and freedom of speech that they cease to value them and seek to raise themselves above their fellow-citizens, and it is noticeable that the people most liable to this temptation are the rich." (Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, Penguin Edition, p. 309.)

My gosh.

Thanks, Peter, for that excellent and, yes, *sad* comment about Merton's death, grief, and the erosion of language in the hands of people like our current president. And thanks too for the sobering quote from Polybius. Gosh, indeed.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.