Ross Douthat: A Call for National Repentance

Speaking Ill of Hugh Hefner

Oct 01, 2017
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It has been a custom since the Renaissance and the rediscovery of the works of the Stoic philosopher Diogenes Laertius not to speak ill of the dead, a custom transferred through the Latin proverb de mortuis nil nisi bonum, ‘of the dead, say nothing but good’.

Many have wrongly assumed that this is a Christian custom.

There is much confusion on the subject.  Christians are charged not to take vengeance upon their enemies, and to avoid language tending to the same.  However, to avoid describing the consequences of a life lived in rebellion to God simply because of the passing of a man, and an particular one of malign influence, would observe a stricture that is foreign to Christian teaching and moral practice.

There is a fine example of speaking well of one’s personal enemy in 2 Samuel 1.  The Puritan author Matthew Henry, in his Commentary on David’s words of eulogy, writes this of David:

“A man of an excellent spirit, in four things:—

(1.) He was very generous to Saul, his sworn enemy. Saul was his father-in-law, his sovereign, and the anointed of the Lord; and therefore, though he had done him a great deal of wrong, David does not wreak his revenge upon his memory when he is in his grave; but like a good man, and a man of honour, [1.] He conceals his faults; and, though there was no preventing their appearance in his history, yet they should not appear in this elegy. Charity teaches us to make the best we can of every body and to say nothing of those of whom we can say no good, especially when they are gone. De mortuis nil nisi bonum—Say nothing but good concerning the dead. We ought to deny ourselves the satisfaction of making personal reflections upon those who have been injurious to us, much more drawing their character thence, as if every man must of necessity be a bad man that has done ill by us. Let the corrupt part of the memory be buried with the corrupt part of the man—earth to earth, ashes to ashes; let the blemish be hidden and a veil drawn over the deformity. [2.] He celebrates that which was praiseworthy in him. He does not commend him for that which he was not, says nothing of his piety or fidelity.”

But Hugh Hefner is not like Saul.  He is not most people’s personal enemy, nor someone annointed by God.  He is however a figure of huge cultural significance, who has touched the lives of many, and at the same time a figure of a life of folly.

Ross Douthat, to my mind, has done his journalistic profession great credit by cutting through the propaganda surrounding Hugh Hefner and giving a very candid portrait of a life that was spoiled.  But his larger purpose is that of a nonpartisan social analysis that is effectively a call for national repentance.

“Now that death has taken him, we should examine our own sins. Liberals should ask why their crusade for freedom and equality found itself with such a captain, and what his legacy says about their cause. Conservatives should ask how their crusade for faith and family and community ended up so Hefnerian itself — with a conservative news network that seems to have been run on Playboy Mansion principles and a conservative party that just elected a playboy as our president.”

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