I have personal experience of such misplaced glorification. After reading about the human rights campaign that brought down the colonial Congo Free State in the 1900s, I became fascinated by the leader of the movement, Edmund Deane Morel. I quoted him endlessly to my friends and I aspired to achieve his conviction and selfless dedication to good causes. Unfortunately, one day I read an article that revealed he was a hideous racist. I could no longer see this man as an idol.
Let’s be clear about this, historical figures that we may esteem existed in a time very different to our own. No matter how enlightened many of them seemed to be on the topics of human rights, governance or other matters, they will have also held many of the prejudices that were rife in their day. The Founding Fathers of the United States, for instance, have an almost god-like status in America, held up as examples for any modern politician due to their emphasis on small government and republican integrity. Undoubtedly, the men who founded the USA were statesmen and great intellectuals, but many were also disdainful of democracy, deeming it a system which gave ‘inferior’ groups such as women, slaves and the poor a say in government, thus leading to anarchy. By the same token, Winston Churchill may be admired by many, especially in Britain, as an example of bravery in the face of evil. Yet he also held views on imperialism and class which may well make your average Brit feel rather uncomfortable.
It could be argued that since these prejudices were commonplace during the era in which these figured existed, we should accept them as inevitable and continue to emulate the figure in question. However, this approach prevents us from truly understanding a figure by dismissing a large part of their world-view. Abraham Lincoln ended slavery, but he also believed whites and blacks could and should never be equal. If we say the latter was inevitable whilst focusing solely on the former, we fail to acknowledge the complexities of 19th century thought and the way people back then actually saw the world. Lincoln abhorred slavery, but his view on race was more complex than is commonly believed.
So what? You may ask. Surely there’s no real peril in aspiring to be like a historical figure, albeit one who is slightly white-washed? Of course trying to mirror William Wilberforce’s dedication doesn’t automatically imply that you will reject people of the Catholic faith or refute women’s right to vote as he did. There’s no danger in having historical heroes, but it does make for bad history. How are we to truly understand how societies change and evolve if certain figures of the period remain irreproachable? How can we try and understand how American government truly changed if we declare that the writers of the Constitution had it all right from the very start?
Perhaps the conclusion to draw is that there isn’t anything dangerous about having a historical hero, if a figure from the long-distant past inspires people today to do good things, then that can only be a good thing. However, if we are too idealistic about such people, we risk inhibiting our understanding of the mindset of past generations. Perhaps it is best to love the virtues demonstrated by your favourite historical figure rather than the figure themselves. Or better yet, discover more about them. Admire their good points but also realise that they were a creature of their times and cannot be transplanted into today’s world. If anything, it is more fascinating to learn from a real human being, with flaws and prejudice as well as noble values, than an angel.