Friday, March 27, 2009


encomium [ěn-KO-mē-əm]
n. a formal expression of high praise; eulogy

[From Greek enkōmion, en- ("in") + kōmos ("celebration")]

Originally an encomium was a Greek choral song honoring the hero of the Olympic Games and sung at the victory celebration at the end of the Games. The Greek writers Simonides of Ceos and Pindar wrote some of the earliest of these original encomia. The term later took on the broader meaning of any composition of a laudatory nature. While an encomium may be heaped on someone living or dead, if someone gives you a eulogy (it literally means "good word"), you are no longer alive. If the eulogy at a memorial service is given informally, it is not an encomium.

In this article from American Heritage magazine, Geoffrey C. Ward reviews Richard Goodwin's memoir of Goodwin's time in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. When he parted the Johnson White House -- over Vietnam -- Ward quotes Johnson's high praise for Goodwin from the memoir:
In reluctantly accepting Goodwin’s resignation, Johnson was lavish in his praise: “I know that the unique opportunity to serve your country during these years has been a blessing to you, for it has given you the means of applying your brilliant talents to the problems that beset your fellow men. It has also been a blessing for the country—for within the high councils of government you have articulated with great force and persuasion man’s hunger for justice and his hopes for a better life.” “It was the most extravagant and eloquent tribute I ever received,” Goodwin notes, “before or since.” He has every right to be proud of this encomium, signed by the demanding President for whom he labored so effectively, but the reader can’t help wondering if LBJ actually wrote it.

In his controversial book about Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position, Christopher Hitchens takes after the famous nun for her cordial relations with some vicious dictators and their families. Here, Hitchens quotes Mother Teresa praising Michèle Duvalier, the wife of Haiti's despot, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier:
'Madame President is someone who feels, who knows, who wishes to demonstrate her love not only with words but also with concrete and tangible actions.' ... in her time, (Mother Teresa) had 'never seen the poor people being so familiar with their head of state as they were with her. It was a beautiful lesson for me.'

Hitchens suggests that the founder of the Missionaries of Charity was cozy with brutal killers like the Duvaliers, and never critical of their terrible deeds, because she personally gained from them; and they were kind to her in return, because she afforded them much-needed good publicity:
In return for these and other favours, Mother Teresa was awarded the Haitian Legion d'honneur. And her simple testimony, in warm encomium of the ruling couple, was shown on state-run television every night for at least a week.

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