On the fallacy of infallibility

By Malinda Seneviratne

(May 26, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ was masterpiece in terms on political theatre for it gives us many, many insights into the complex web of political relations and the play of political forces. I first read the play when I was about 13 years and at the time, in the simple and simplistic black-and-white of a young boy’s perception of right and wrong and crime and punishment, Brutus was villain and Antonyhero. Years later, my father, an English graduate, read me a different ‘Julius Caesar’ when I was preparing for an examination on Shakespeare. In his version, Brutus’ intent was not wrong, his method was and as for Antony, he was a demagogue; a classic model for all demagogues to mimic and seek to emulate.

That’s another story. The abiding fascination of Shakespeare is that he can be read in so many different ways and each reading can reveal something one might have missed earlier. And sometimes one doesn’t have to actually read to remember and thereby read differently. I have read the following line of Mark Antony’s oration many times, I’ve heard it in stage productions and films but did not realize its political significance until early this morning.

But yesterday the word of Caesar might have stood against the world; now lies he there and none so poor to do him reverence.

Yes, Antony was a classic demagogue, but that’s not important. He was saying something very profound here and in a way he was pointing to his fate as well. That day, as he wept over Caesar’s body, he was The Hero. When he perished, though, he was little more than a sentimental wimp and diminished many times from the man who in one speech turned Brutus, hailed as hero a few minutes before, into a villain whose blood was sought by a citizenry transformed by rhetoric into mob.

We all die. This we all know. This is perhaps why the only sustainable village-level social organization is, paradoxically, the maranaadaara samithiya (funeral-assistance society). Alexander the Great, we are told, wanted his funeral to be a tribute to this inevitability, to the fact that we take nothing when we go and no power on earth can grant immortality to anyone.

This is the one thing that we all forget or else postpone thinking about. The Bhagavad Gita makes the wry observation, for example, that the strangest thing is that even though thousands upon thousands of creatures perish every single moment we all act as though convinced that death will not visit us today.

I am thinking of Caesars. Kings. Corporate heads. It is not that the less powerful or the powerless do not operate as though immortal, but that the powerful can do so much and destroy so much by consciously or unconsciously forgetting their mortality.

Last week, my friend Revatha Silva wrote what I consider to be the most thoughtful essay on the phenomenon called Sanath Jayasuriya and a good wake-up call to all of us, especially those who are so ready to vilify Sanath without acknowledge the part they played in making him who he is including the frailties he’s acquired over the years. Revatha recommended the lyrics penned by Sunil Ariyaratne for Nanda Malini: poojasanaye oba hinduwa obata pudana me lokayamai heta obata erehi vee negitinne. (This world that elevates you, sets you on pedestal and genuflects is the same world that tomorrow will rise up against you).

There’s a yesterday for all men and women who are powerful today. There is a tomorrow too. There will come a day when they will have to think of a ‘yesterday’ when their word counted and indeed could have stood against the world, a day when they lie somewhere, nondescript and irrelevant, so unrecognizable that no one would step forward to revere or even acknowledge.

If all men reflected on the immutable truths called birth, decay and death, common to all beings, all things (anicca vatha sankara), they would learn the virtue of humility and be more effective in whatever they do. Refusal, on the other hand is a product of arrogance and ignorance, both key ingredients of downfall.

When a poor man is afflicted with one or more of the sathara agathi (the four pathways to destruction), greed (lobha), hatred (dosa), delusion (moha) and fear (bhaya), he causes harm, but only to a small circle of people. When a leader suffers from these conditions, larger entities are affected. When Caesars are arrogant, are delusional and given to immortality posturing, nations perish.