Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “The Man That Was Used Up” was first published in 1839. The plot line of the story is as follows.
A narrator attempts to learn more about a famous war hero, Brevet Brigadier General John A.B.C. Smith. Smith has acquired a distinguished reputation as a war hero and Indian fighter. He is described as an powerful physical specimen with a “presence singularly commanding.” Those who have seen him say he is tall, broad-shouldered, and gifted with dark eyes of luminous intensity. Yet whenever our anonymous narrator attempts to find out specific details of Smith’s career or achievements, he receives only banal generalities from others. The lack of any tangible evidence to back up General Smith’s reputation feeds the narrator’s suspicions; he becomes convinced that there must be some concealed secret behind Smith’s prestige.
Eventually, our narrator is able to secure an audience with the great Brevet Brigadier General. What he finds is shocking. For the general is nothing more than a heap of prosthetic limbs that have to be laboriously pieced together by servants. Limbs, eyes, teeth, and other body parts must be literally screwed together. The general, it turns out, is nothing but an artificial mechanical contrivance, preserved in empty unity only by the diligence of attendants.
Now a tale like this can be interpreted in a variety of ways. I prefer to see it as a satirical mockery of the empty figure who, although lauded by his peers, nevertheless possesses few or no identifiable accomplishments. This Artificial Man is an adjunct to T.S. Eliot’s Hollow Man: his limbs are “screwed together” by the deceptions of the popular mind, and achieve only a mechanical, thoughtless locomotion. Behind his empty movements and gestures, there is nothing of substance. Some scholars say that Poe’s object was to expose General Winfield Scott, and this may or may not be true; but I do not think it matters much. What I do know is that his description of the Artificial Man is an apt metaphor for many “leaders” and figures in the public eye today. Such figures also flourish on social media, where being an anonymous provocateur and an attention-seeker has become a substitute for demonstrable accomplishment.
We may contrast the Artificial Man to the Man of Substance. The man of substance elevates not only himself and those around him with real achievements, he dignifies every job he undertakes. The Roman writer Valerius Maximus (III.7.ext.5) describes one such instance with the example of Epaminondas. He says that the great Theban’s political enemies once wished to insult him, and so assigned him a job that was considered degrading: the paving of roads. Valerius describes the assignment as the most unclean occupation for them: erat enim illud ministerium apud eos sordidissimum.
Epaminondas accepted the job and excelled at it. His intention was not just to make the roads better, but to make the office of road-paver better. He knew that a proper example would inspire those who followed him. So successfully did Epaminondas do his job, Valerius tells us, that this great man transformed what had been the lowest of assignments into that which was most sought after. Such is the resonant power of virtue in human affairs.
The same idea is conveyed by Valerius Maximus with another anecdote (III.7.ext.2). The Greek musician Antigenidas was once training a pupil who showed signs of promise but lacked popular acclaim. Antigenidas said to this student: Play to me and the Muses (Mihi cane et Musis). What he meant was that we should cast our gaze towards higher things. We should perform for the sake of those capable of appreciating the fruits of our labors, and for the Muses themselves. The chasing of empty acclaim means nothing. Yet for the Artificial Man, appearance is everything; he surrounds himself with empty statements, elusive and shape-shifting accomplishments, and platitudinous mists.
We contrast the ethic and aura of the Artificial Man with that of the Man of Substance. The Arab poet Abu Al Harith Ghalyan Ibn Uqba, more commonly known by the name Dhu Al Rumma, lived from around 696 to 735 A.D. His moniker (Dhu Al Rumma) essentially means “the worn-out rope man.” According to the biographer Ibn Khallikan, the nickname was given to him after he used the following line in one of his poems: “A stake fastened to a piece of an old rope [rumma] which had been used as a halter.” Dhu Al Rumma warned us to be wary of surface appearances, and to distrust reputations that could not be substantiated with tangible accomplishments. Of one unpleasant beauty named Maiya, he said:
On Maiya’s face is a varnish of beauty,
But be assured her dress conceals her ugliness.
Knowest thou not that the taste of water is bad,
And yet its color is clear and pure?
[Ibn Khallikan II.448]
So it could be said of the Artificial Man. This same sentiment was expressed in more eloquent fashion by a poem honoring the emir Abu Shuja Fatik The Great, who is more commonly known as Fatik Al Majnun. He was by birth a Greek, but was captured in infancy and raised in Palestine; he died in Cairo in A.D. 961. He acquired the surname Al Majnun (the madman) not because of mental instability, but because of his courage in battle. When he died, the great poet Al Mutanabbi composed a wonderful elegiac poem celebrating his virtues. It contains the following sublime verses:
I am weak on quitting my friends,
But if my soul hears of death and battle, I am strong.
I am increased in force by the wrath of the foe;
But if a friend even hint a reproach, I tremble with sorrow.
The stream of life is limpid for the fool,
For him who thinks not of the past and of the future,
For him who is blind to inevitable fate, and,
In the pursuit of vanity, yields to the delusions of hope.
Where is he who built the pyramids? What was his people?
What, his life? His death? Monuments remain for a time
After their founders; then ruin strikes them,
And they follow them to oblivion.
It is just as Sallust tells us: all things fade, but what remains is masculine virtue. The roads paved by Epaminondas endured forever, in physical form and in the memory of the grateful Thebans, not because the paving stones used were great, but because he was great. Know, then, that while the Artificial Man’s praises may linger on the lips of the fickle crowd, only the Man of Substance is capable of grasping Virtue’s outstretched hand and walking the paved stones of Her thoroughfares.
Read more about virtue and the consequences of moral corruption in the new translation of Sallust:
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