A few days ago at the library I picked up a pair of massive tomes on the history of ideas in Western civilization. Both purport to summarize the "hundred best" classic works of the past few thousand years. One book seems quite good, if a bit dry. The other, surprisingly, turns out to be full of personal invective and negativism, to a degree that makes it unreadable. What happened?

Brutal critiques of stupid movies and television shows are often entertaining. So are acerbic analyses of political folly, of business fraud, and of poorly written but popular books. And humor need not be limited to today's topics. A study of history and wisdom from ages past can be fun as well as serious, and can puncture foolish balloons with gusto, as Gibbon does in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

But petty comments and ad hominem attacks on contemporaries are far out of place in what aims to be a 500-page survey of "The Best" of all time. Scathingly negative remarks lower the author, distract from the content, and reduce the credibility of the entire work. Yes, authors are human; revenge is a natural human temptation; so is taking advantage of one's status to preach to an audience which has come to meet, indirectly, the wisest of the ancients. But it's hard to throw mud without getting it on oneself.

Better by far to remain quiet about one's pet peeves --- and in particular, avoid fingering one's enemies in print. Marcus Aurelius in the Meditations explicitly gives credit to individuals who have helped him, but avoids naming any names on the other side of the ledger. Today's enemies may well become tomorrow's friends. And each of us may hope to discover, in the future, that our judgments have matured and improved ... and that things which we were certain of have turned out to be more complex and multifaceted than we once imagined. Better to praise the good and be proved to have been too magnanimous, than to publicize scorn and later have to apologize to those we have wronged.

Monday, July 05, 1999 at 08:03:58 (EDT) = 1999-07-05

(see BigLessons)

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