Why We Should Forgive The Faults Of Our Heroes

There comes a time in the life of every son or daughter when they begin to see their parents as flawed mortals.  Before this, they are still under the spell of their upbringing; they see their parents more as imposing authority figures than as anything else.  I am not sure exactly when, or how, this transition takes place; for some it may be one event, for others it may be a series of events, or an incremental process.  But it does happen, and the son begins to see the father as the human being he is, in all his definitive defects and foibles.

It is the same, or should be the same, for our historical heroes.  We admire our heroes for their superlative qualities of personality; but we should love them for their flaws and defects.  The former qualities are instructive, but the latter are what make us love them.  I do not see this as something to be regretted; I see it as a necessary and vital extension of the rhythm of life.  Who would want to be perfect?  Who can expect to enjoy a life so charmed that it becomes nothing more than a string of successes?  The wise man will shun such a life; he knows that Fortune has a way of averaging things out, of balancing good with bad, so that dizzying success will be followed by catastrophic failure.  This is how it turned out to be for Polycrates of Samos, whom Cicero says (On Moral EndsV.92) had the nickname “Felix,” which in Latin means “The Fortunate.”

We must love our heroes for their flaws and their faults; their weaknesses remind us of our own, and inspire us with the knowledge that even flawed men can rise to greatness.  I never quite understood the position of those who think their heroes should be perfect.  Perhaps they themselves lack confidence in themselves, and feel that the flaws of their heroes somehow reflect on them.  Or perhaps they prefer the superficial nature of things, and are unwilling to learn the real nature of men’s characters.  There were few men who have loved Cicero more than Petrarch; one could say that the father of humanism owed more to Cicero than any other author.  Petrarch personally sought out and discovered hundreds of the old consul’s letters that were buried in forgotten libraries.  Yet even he was irritated by the unbalanced adulation of the old consul by one of his friends.  Of course Cicero was a great man; I can say this as one of his devoted students, as a man who has labored for years to translate his works for a modern audience.

Yet even the old consul had his flaws; and no honest translator or biographer can overlook them.  In a letter to one Pulice di Vicenza (Familares XXIV.2), Petrarch expands on his views, which he expressed at a meeting with some friends:

Still, there is nothing in this world that is absolutely perfect; never has the man existed in whom the critic, were he ever so lenient, would see nothing at all to reprehend.  So it chanced that while I expressed admiration for Cicero, almost without reservation, as a man whom I loved and honored above all others, and amazement too at his golden eloquence and heavenly genius, I found at the same time a little fault with his fickleness and inconsistency, traits that are revealed everywhere in his life and works.  At once I saw that all who were present were astonished at so unusual an opinion, and one among them especially so. [Trans. by J.H. Robinson]

We should not be too quick to judge our heroes by the standards of our own time.  Our exemplars needs to be studied in the context of their age, location, culture, and background.  We do a great injustice to historical figures if we judge them by contemporary standards.  Will any great man survive such scrutiny?  What will our own descendants say about us?  I can only hope that they will make allowances for our limitations of culture and perspective.  As I see it, it is better to judge of a man’s character by looking at how his opinions evolved over time.  A random sample of opinion will not do; we must look at evolutions of thought, spread out over time.  Some men grow into greatness; some are able to rise to certain occasions, and become greater as a result.  For it is a common pitfall among men to judge others harshly while overlooking the extensive list of their own flaws.  As Velleius Paterculus again warns:

Adeo familiare est hominibus omnia sibi ignoscere, nihil aliis remittere, et invidiam rerum non ad causam, sed ad voluntatem personasque dirigere.  [II.30]

This means, “All men are in the habit of being unmindful of their own foibles, and allowing for none in others; they spew their anger not at the real causes of things, but at people and perceived intentions.”  This is a statement I am very much inclined to agree with.  I try not to be too quick to judge others, especially historical figures; for they are products of conditions and circumstances that I, far remote from their era, can only dimly perceive.

[source: quintuscurtius]
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