Merry Charismas

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   January 18, 2018

Some people are instantly likeable, some just the opposite. We hear much about “born leaders,” but most of us are probably born followers. And why not, so long as we’re being led in the right direction? That is the trouble. 

This quality called “charisma” (an expression relatively new to our modern vocabulary, though its roots can be traced to antiquity), undoubtedly exists but is unfortunately not distributed according to merit. Bad people can have it, with sometimes devastating results. And it has little to do with physical appearance. Ugly people may not usually get starring roles – but you’ll often find them directing the action.

Modern filming has indeed provided plentiful evidence of the histrionic devices that enabled demagogues such as Hitler and Mussolini to whip their audiences into a frenzy. And to a certain extent, these techniques can be taught. In fact, the art of oratory is known to have been highly respected in ancient Greece and Rome. 

A famous example of this art, made much more famous by Shakespeare’s depiction of it, was the speech given by Mark Anthony in the Roman Forum, after the assassination of Julius Caesar, in 44 B.C. Using the few known historical facts, Shakespeare was able to create a truly memorable scene. It was Shakespeare, not Anthony, who asked his audience to “lend me your ears,” who talked about having “come to bury Caesar, not to praise him” – and who then cleverly turned his speech from one honoring the assassins to a cry for vengeance against them.

I first learned about all this at school in England where, as no doubt still happens in classrooms around the world, we re-enacted some of the best scenes from the first three acts. (Why is the first half of great works so often so much better than the second? I feel the same way about the movie Gone With The Wind. After the intermission, you might as well leave.) Later, when for a mercifully short time, I taught English at an American high school, Julius Caesar actually happened to be featured in our curriculum, and I was able to inflict the same masterpiece upon a new generation.

Unfortunately, I myself didn’t have the charisma to be a very effective teacher. In fact, one of my justifications for giving up that unpromising career was that I thought others could be doing a much better job at it. And, with the wide availability of audio and video recording, there was no reason why their teaching talents could not now be available to large numbers of students, including mine.

Unfortunately, most of the teachers and lecturers to whom as a student I had been personally exposed were also lacking in charisma. When I finally started getting my own books published, I had an opportunity to express a little of my regret concerning this. In my third book of epigrams (Appreciate Me Now, and Avoid The Rush), in the place where a dedication usually goes, I wrote:

This book would have been dedicated to all the teachers 
who have inspired and encouraged me – if any of them ever had.

But personal magnetism is not a broadly dispensed gift, not even among those most obligated and committed to dealing with the public. My favorite story about its opposite, which we may call “negative charisma,” concerns four men and spans seventeen centuries. 

The first two characters lived in the 1st century A.D. They were the Roman poet Martial and someone he called “SabidiusMartial, the first writer of epigrams to be known by name. One of his pieces, numbered 32 in his collected works, may be translated thus (although it may have had more punch in the original Latin):

“I don’t like you, Sabidius. I’m not sure why, but I’m sure I don’t.”

We now leap to Oxford University in 17th-century England, to Christ Church College, where John Fell was the dean and Thomas Brown, later well-known as a poet, was a student. According to legend, Brown was about to be expelled, but the dean for some whimsical reason, offered  to cancel the expulsion, if Brown would then and there produce a translation of that 32nd epigram of Martial. Thereupon Brown saved himself by offering the following slightly personalized version, which has since then become a classic:

“I do not love thee, Dr. Fell – The reason why, I cannot tell,
But this I know, and know full well –
I do not love thee, Dr. Fell   


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