It was in a high school Latin class when I first recognized Julius Caesar was a mensch. When you’re a teenager you enjoy schadenfreude but old Caesar wrote: “Consuesse enim deos immortales, quo gravius homines ex commutatione rerum doleant, quos pro scelere eorum ulcisci velint, his secundiores interdum res et diuturniorem impunitatem concedere.’
(The immortal gods are wont to allow those persons whom they wish to punish for their guilt sometimes a greater prosperity and longer impunity, in order that they may suffer the more severely from a reverse of circumstances.)
In other words; “they’ll get theirs, meanwhile, it’s back to business.”
Why does such a glossy and rebarbative vengeance-fantasy have anything to do with mensches? According to Leo Rosten a mensch is “someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being ‘a real mensch’ is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.”
I understood Caesar as a pagan mensch who, in a world without the New Testament saw that the lives of the wealthy and powerful may often be a setup. This is rectitude. It helps us to remember in our envy that not all is what it seems.
Of course Caesar wrote in a time and place without the concept of or belief in divine forgiveness. The breath taking radicalism of Christianity was still far off.
My biggest sin is envy. I haven’t yet killed anyone—not directly, though I pay taxes in a murderous empire. I’m not guilty of bearing false witness though I do gossip occasionally. But “fuck it” I covet my neighbor’s ox which I take to mean his entire status. I need all the help I can get to resist bug eyed tongue lolling covetousness and resentment. I am, as Molly Ivins once said of George H. W. Bush “deeply shallow” and I can admit it.
Caesar was the first writer to give me a jab to the ribs about the matter. I liked his fatalism. I didn’t care at all about Silas Marner (we still read read George Eliot in the tenth grade back in those days) and I thought MacBeth was both lugubrious and simple. Give me gods who take their time. Assure me the high and mighty are being tested and the cards are stacked against them. I could get behind that.
Meanwhile it’s back to business. Envy is the snake around my heart. In weak moments I make up excuses. I’d a disabled childhood; I’ve experienced more than my fair share of discrimination; in the literary world lots of poets and prose writers have more goodies than I do.
I like a good pagan mensch. I like it when Jesus says: “the poor ye will always have with ye, but you won’t always have me” which is most certainly pagan menschism though I’m never quite sure I know what it means.