Today is the Ides of March. It marks only one particularly memorable instance of a time someone was offered advice and did not take it.
There are almost infinite examples of this. Ever since people started to make predictions, their recipients started ignoring them.
“I always pass on good advice,” Oscar Wilde said. “It is the only thing to do with it. It is never any use to oneself.”
That’s what everyone does. Cassandra suggested to the Trojans that they look a gift horse in the mouth, and they shushed her. Laocoon did the same, and giant serpents surged out of the sea and shushed him. This should have suggested that he was saying something right, but, true to form, it did not. “I’m not going to listen to advice from a guy who was just torn apart by sea serpents,” the Trojans muttered, going back home to roll the wooden horse inside.
And of course, Julius Caesar. He took not listening to a whole new level.
It’s not just the rogue Soothsayer yelling “Beware the Ides of March.”
Absolutely everyone in Caesar's life, at least according to Shakespeare’s retelling, has some idea that things are about to go wrong. Comets go roaring across the sky. A lioness gives birth in the streets. Blood rains.
“And graves have yawn'd, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol...
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.”
If this were D.C., non-essential personnel would have been ordered to their homes at the first sign of cloud-warriors.
At some point, you'd think Caesar would opt not to go in to work, if only because the weather conditions were clearly terrible and there were ghosts gibbering in the streets, dead people roaming from their graves and blood raining from the sky. There are zombies around, for crying out loud. Receiving a crown from the people, or whatever else was on Julius’s schedule, can clearly wait. And nobody wants blood to get all over his good robe.
But it seems the Shakespearean Romans were used to those things.
Besides, it’s all about spin.
One man's Bleeding Statue of Doom is another man's Excellent Omen of Great Things.
So what if your wife dreamed that your statue spouted blood? A good spinmeister can explain that away. (“Maybe you’re drifting apart, Caesar. Maybe it’s a metaphor for her relationship with her father.”)
Told of the bleeding statues, Caesar’s colleague said it was a great sign: “It was a vision fair and fortunate
Your statue spouting blood in many pipes,
In which so many smiling Romans bathed,
Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck
Reviving blood, and that great men shall press
For tinctures, stains, relics and cognizance.”
Who is that guy? Get him on CNN! He can show us the strong indications that the Gingrich campaign is back on track.
Compared to the spin-masters, the soothsayers didn’t stand a chance.
All the Soothsayer could say was that he had the vague sense something bad might happen. The Spinmeister Absolutely, Positively Knew What Was What. What matter that he was wrong? Prophets are generally wrong. It’s something of an occupational hazard.
You get the sense from the Soothsayer’s few lines that messaging is not his forte. Soothsaying is all he really does with his time. (“Want to come down to the chariot race?” his friends ask. “Naw,” he says. “I’d rather stay in and soothsay.”) He knows nothing of PR and narrative. He’s gotten as far as picking a date, but that’s it. And even Harold Camping did that.
No, he never stood a chance. He admitted that he didn’t know what would happen — “None that I know will be; much that I fear may chance.” He didn’t have a Message. The words of the assassins were clear and distinct and colorful.
It's never been easy to heed the words of soothsayers. To begin with, everyone and his dog is always making predictions. Generally the dog’s are more accurate.
For every wild-eyed doom proclaimer who was right, there are hundreds upon hundreds who were wrong. The world so seldom ends. Catastrophes almost never occur on schedule.
Still, there’s always been a market for predictions. And it rewards accuracy less than color. The occasional soothsayer who is right that blood-spouting statues should keep you at home always loses to the guy who says, “this is an omen fair and favorable.”
Beware the Ides of March.