10

I'm trying to understand this quotation:

Eulogy, n.: Praise of a person who has either the advantages of wealth and power, or the consideration to be dead.

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)

I'm not a connoisseur of English literature. So I don't understand why he said this. I understand that eulogies may be given as part of funeral services, but:

  1. What does Bierce's definition mean?
  2. Is this a clever phrase?
  3. Is it sarcasm?
  4. Why did he compare 'the advantages of wealth and power' and 'the consideration to be dead'?
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    Did you look up "eulogy" in a real (non-satirical) dictionary? Also, "catch salt" is not an English idiom. – Kyle Strand Oct 2 '17 at 17:19
  • @KyleStrand Yes, I did. It seems my topic name is not a clear. I need to know "What is the Eulogy in the opinion of Bierce?" Is it right English? And yes, I don't know English idioms. – oshliaer Oct 2 '17 at 17:22
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    Okay, I've submitted an edit that may help (assuming it is approved). I would recommend not using idioms if you're not sure they'll be understood :) – Kyle Strand Oct 2 '17 at 18:12
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    consideration here means something like "decency, concern for other people". He wasn't much liked but he had the decency to die. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Oct 2 '17 at 19:27
  • @Tᴚoɯɐuo This is very perceptive! – oshliaer Oct 3 '17 at 5:13
29

As the other answer has described, this is sarcasm, but it doesn't really explain the meaning. First, eulogy has two meanings, it also means a praise about a person recently deceased (an obituary is only a notice of death, with a short biography and maybe facts about their life while a eulogy is a tribute to the late person). But it can also mean a tribute to people still living. So:

Somebody only really gets such praise in two cases. First, if they are wealthy and powerful. In this case, the eulogy is implied to be mendaciously flattering in order to gain favor from the important person.

Second, if a person, not really liked and loved by their fellow people, finally drops dead, so that all the others can finally have their joy. This eulogy is just as mendacious as the first one, as there was nothing to be praised in the first place. The only thing worth praising about this fellow is that they're now dead.

So, in the end, as Bierce posits it with a dark twist: all eulogies are lies. If the recipient is still alive, we only make the eulogy to please them, not because it's true. And if they're dead, we only make the eulogy to mask the fact that we didn't care about them, but we're happy to see them go finally.

  • I see. If the person was a rich or a tyrant we praise his. Like Jobs or Stalin? I'm stuck a little. Today is not my day. – oshliaer Oct 2 '17 at 9:24
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    Yes. Basically, Bierce says (but remember, this isn't a dictionary definition, it's literary sarcasm) that it works both ways. All eulogies are lying because, if the person is still alive, we only make the eulogy to please them, not because it's true. And if they're dead, we only make the eulogy to mask the fact that we didn't care about them, but we're happy to see them go finally. Read more of Bierce (An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge and other works), you'll see how black his style was. :-) – Gábor Oct 2 '17 at 9:28
  • @Darren, there isn't an accepted answer (perhaps there was 30 minutes ago?), but this answer is the best one as I'm writing. It has a "disadvantage" of being written later, which can mean fewer votes. – Toby Speight Oct 2 '17 at 14:15
  • @DarrenRinger according to timeline, there's no accepted answer, unless you mean "the highest vote" as "accepted" (which is not) – Andrew T. Oct 2 '17 at 14:37
  • @Gábor your last edit is great! It's that I expected. – oshliaer Oct 2 '17 at 17:33
27

That is an excerpt from Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, a mordant, acerbic work that satirized the society of his day.

The quote is definitely sarcastic, as are all the definitions in the work. With eulogy, Bierce made fun of the wealthy and powerful people of society by conflating them with those who are dead. Now, a eulogy can be given for the living or the dead. But pretty much nobody gives a eulogy for an ordinary person. So the juxtaposition of the wealthy and powerful with the dead, and the humor that obtains from that association, is what Ambrose Bierce was aiming for here.

Here's another example from that work, similarly drawing two seemingly disparate ideas together with a single yoke:

piano n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.

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    'De mortuis nil nisi bonum' Is it? – oshliaer Oct 2 '17 at 5:11
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    @oshliaer Not especially. Bierce was just trying to come up with a clever definition of the words in his dictionary, more successfully with some than others. For example "ABROAD, adj. At war with savages and idiots. To be a Frenchman abroad is to be miserable; to be an American abroad is to make others miserable." It's pretty funny, even for Americans (or at least the ones with a good sense of humor). – Andrew Oct 2 '17 at 6:41
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    @oshliaer Yes, the last part of the satirical "definition" is indeed poking fun at the idea of De mortuis nil nisi bonum. – Kyle Strand Oct 2 '17 at 17:17
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    The dictionary definition of eulogy doesn't require the target of the speech to be dead. But, IMO, he's actually comparing unctuous praise of a live person (due to his wealth and power) to a eulogy. – davidbak Oct 2 '17 at 23:52
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    @davidbak: A eulogy can be given for the living or the dead. But pretty much nobody gives a eulogy for an ordinary person. So the juxtaposition of the wealthy and powerful with the dead is what Ambrose Bierce was aiming for here. Note that the OP had already looked up the definition. – Robusto Oct 3 '17 at 0:00

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