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 Ends V.92) had the nickname “Felix,” which in Latin means “The Fortunate.”

Herodotus tells us (III.40) that Polycrates enjoyed so much success that he began to be afraid that he might unwittingly be offending the gods.  He knew that pride was the greatest of all sins; and, in his consternation, he wrote to his friend Amasis, the King of Egypt, to ask for guidance.  Amasis wrote back to him and said that he was alarmed at Polycrates’s constant good fortune:  “For I have never yet heard of a man who after an unbroken run of luck was not finally brought to complete ruin.”  Amasis’s suggestion was for Polycrates to throw away something precious; in this way, he might interrupt his good fortune with a countervailing incidence of misfortune.

And so Polycrates did exactly this; he took his favorite signet ring, a ring of great value, and threw it into the sea.  About five days later, a fisherman of Samos happened to catch a large fish, and thought it would make a good present for Polycrates; he gave it to him, and when his attendants cut it open in preparation for consumption, they found the signet ring in its belly.  When Amasis heard about this, he knew that Polycrates was doomed; for he believed the story was an ominous sign that some men could not escape their destiny.  So it turned out to be:  for he was later deposed and executed by one of the satraps of the Persian king Darius.

But we have strayed a bit from our subject.  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]

No one knew Cicero better than Petrarch, and I consider his views to have far more credibility than the man who showed nothing but uncritical adulation.  Anyone can worship; but it takes a penetrating and independent mind to make an honest appraisal of strengths and weaknesses.  Petrarch further relates how this old man was offended by Petrarch’s noting of Cicero’s faults:

But the old man stood his ground, more stubbornly even than before.  He was so blinded by love of his hero and by the brightness of his name that he preferred to praise him even when he was in the wrong…He would not be thought to condemn anything at all in so great a man.  And when we asked him if he found it impossible to believe that Cicero had made mistakes, he would close his eyes and turn his face away and exclaim with a groan, as if he had been smitten, “Alas!  Alas!  Is my beloved Cicero accused of doing wrong?”

As I see it, this kind of attitude shows more superficiality than it does insight.  Why would anyone feel discomfort at being reminded of the faults of his heroes?  For me, knowing my heroes have warts is far more inspiring than imagining them as demigods.  No one would ever be able to measure up to such a standard; such an attitude transforms our heroes into cartoon characters.  Petrarch’s final thoughts strike just the right balance:

What could I say, I who am myself so great an admirer of Cicero’s genius?…

I have dealt familiarly with these great geniuses, and perhaps boldly, but lovingly, but sorrowfully, but truthfully, I think…The fact is that I still grieve over the fate of these great men; but I do not lament their faults any the less because of that.

This is a mature, balanced understanding, born of exhaustive study and intimate acquaintance with the great man’s writings.  I have to say that I can relate to Petrarch’s feelings of regret and grief.  I have lived with Cicero’s Stoic Paradoxes, On Duties, and On Moral Ends for many years; I feel as if I am a pupil of the old consul himself.  In a way, I am.  I am staggered by his profound knowledge of philosophical subjects, his worldly wisdom, his soaring eloquence, and his tender solicitude towards others.

Yet, like Petrarch, I am sometimes dismayed by Cicero’s inability to see how the republic had evolved in his final years, and by his apparently pointless political quarrels with men more powerful than he.  As I stood at Tusculum recently, I could not but help feel sorrow that the old man did not live out his final years there in peace and quiet, as he should have.  Instead, he chose to enter political fights that led directly to his death.  I do not condemn him, for every man is driven by his own personal demons; I only feel sorrow at his fate, which seems undeserved for so great a man.  It reminds me of something said beautifully by the historian Velleius Paterculus:

Adeo natura a rectis in prava, a pravis in vitia, a vitiis in praecipitia pevenitur. [II.10]

This means, “Thus does nature evolve from the morally good to the corrupt, from the corrupt to vice, and from there to the pit of vices.”

A point that is perhaps related to our theme is this:  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.

I am about to read a new biography of the baseball player Ty Cobb, and hope that the author will judge him more by the standards of his own era, than by ours.  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.  I love them, warts and all, and hope I will have the wisdom to know when to hold my tongue in judgment.

Read more in On Duties: