Should a Man Be Inspired by History?

by Brett & Kate McKay on November 9, 2011 · 150 comments

in A Man's Life

The Art of Manliness makes no secret of the fact that we draw inspiration from the past in order to help modern men live better lives. We particularly pick up tips from my grandfather’s generation, as thinking about his life was one of the catalysts for starting the site.

After four years of blogging, I’ve gathered that not everyone is particularly keen on that approach.

Whenever we do a post that lays out lessons from the lives of great men or from the so-called “Greatest Generation,” it invariably attracts comments like:

“X famous man wasn’t so great. He was a drunk/adulterer/slave owner…[fill in the blank with the perceived tragic flaw].”


“The Greatest Generation…pffft! Those racist/sexist/homophobes weren’t any better than anyone else.”

It seems that in our cynical age being inspired by men of the past has gone out of style along with having heroes or ideals of any sort.

But this wasn’t always so. And today we’d like to make a case for finding inspiration in those who have come before.

A Brief History of History

When you think about history, you may conjure up a memory of a boring class in high school or college in which you had to memorize a bunch of dates and names and battles. Thus, you likely feel that history is a rather straightforward business—a just the facts, ma’am subject.

But as its name suggests, history is simply a story, and who is telling that story and how they tell it makes all the difference in the world.

Thus the story that gets handed down to each generation and how we feel about that story is always changing. History is quite a malleable thing and can be, and indeed is, shaped and re-shaped all the time.

For many centuries, history was looked at as a subject that was important to learn, and its importance was derived from the way it could be used to teach young people vital lessons about who they were and how to live. For the ancient Greeks, history’s purpose was to teach morality. Plutarch, the famous Greek historian, explicitly stated that his intent in writing the Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans was to provide moral instruction to his reader.

This conception of history as moral instruction held firm in the West up through the 19th century. If you look at books for young folks from  the 1800′s, they’re packed with examples from the lives of great men on how to do great deeds, be successful, and become honorable citizens. Some historical figures were portrayed as heroes, men to emulate, and some were portrayed as villains–their lives served as lessons to the student of mistakes not to repeat.

This was also a time of great reverence and respect for the nation’s leaders. Take a look at the eulogies written after the death of George Washington, for example. They’re amazingly flowery and over-the-top, making him out to be a saint of unassailably sterling character.

But in the wake of disillusionment that arose after WWI, historians of the 1920s began to reexamine history and its dominating figures and events with a much more cynical eye. Writer William Woodward invented the word “debunk” during this time (riffing on the practice of “delousing” soldiers in WWI), and picked George Washington as the object of his de-bunkification. Woodward painted Washington not as a dashing hero, but as grossly incompetent, boorishly clumsy, and greedy for fame and money.

The trend of debunking the traditional view of history accelerated in the 1960s, when new historians sought to tell the stories of women, minorities, and other groups that had all but been ignored for centuries. As their untold stories emerged, some historians also took another look at the way traditional history had been portrayed, examining the standard narratives from a new angle, and arguing that what was once seen as good and heroic, really wasn’t so noble after all. Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States is the most popular example of this approach to history.

A good illustration of the transformation in how we view and use history can be found in a very interesting article about the ways in which the modern Boy Scout handbook has changed since it was first published in 1911. Author Kathleen Arnn describes how in the original handbook, the young reader learns about:

“America’s great moments through the heroes who lived them: George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Boone, Betsy Ross, Johnny Appleseed, and most of all, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is a hero among heroes, a central figure in the handbook’s discussions of patriotism and of virtue. He is “in heart, brain, and character, not only one of our greatest Americans, but one of the world’s greatest men.” The manual relays the whole story of his life, from his lowly beginnings that taught him the value of hard work, to his education, and to his presidency and untimely death.”

In the modern edition, references to great men of the past have almost entirely disappeared:

“There are, by my count, four heroes in the book. They are the founders of Scouting: British founder Robert Baden Powell, the naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, outdoorsman Daniel Carter Beard, and James E. West, who led the BSA through its first 30 years. Each gets a sentence and a picture. American heroes, so numerous and colorful in the original handbook, are almost absent. Washington and Lincoln are each mentioned one time. Here is their sentence: ‘We remember the sacrifices and achievements of Americans with federal holidays, including observances of the birthdays of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’”

While “revisionist history” gets a bad name, it’s a needed thing; the revision of history by each generation and storyteller has been going on since the beginning of time. Our views of history change, and should change, as we learn new facts and hear new perspectives.

However, as with most cultural movements, in a well-intentioned attempt to dislodge the pendulum from being stuck too far in one direction, the weight swung too far in the other.

These days the stuff of Zinn is standard fare in college classrooms, and history is rarely used as inspirational material. If you talk about a good aspect of a great man or generation, you are expected to immediately follow up with a list of their flaws and mistakes as well. If you don’t, you’re seen as a rube who has swallowed the traditional version of history and isn’t in on the new “secret” information that has been revealed. The self-satisfaction of those who consider themselves in the know and like to give you the “real scoop” is invariably palpable.

Thus the fact that we present the good bits about the lives of great men without cataloging their failings is a source of irritation for some who read the blog. (And this isn’t a liberal vs. conservative thing by the way: we get “Theodore Roosevelt was a socialist and Lincoln was a tyrant!” along with “Churchill was a racist and Hemingway was a misogynist!” in equal measure.)

But we don’t concentrate on the achievements and wisdom of history’s great men because we are ignorant of their blemishes, or of history as a whole. Kate taught college history, and I studied classical history as an undergrad, and we read many history books each year. We’re by no means professional historians, but we’re hardly uneducated dolts either.

In actuality, the more we read about history, the more it inspires us. Because we approach our studies with a certain frame of mind.

A Mature Mindset

When you’re a kid, you tend to see things in black and white. Heroes are super good. Bad people are rotten to the core.

As you get older, you start to see things in shades of gray. You learn that people are more complicated and complex than you once knew. This maturing perspective has its drawbacks—it’s harder to be passionate about things and have heroes when you know they’re not perfect, but it’s also essential to learning, growing, progressing, and being effective in the world.

Men who cannot be inspired by history are stuck in the black and white children’s view of the world. A famous man can have a multitude of great traits, but if he also had a big flaw, then nothing can be learned from him. Out goes the baby with the bathwater.

But we’re big believers in holding onto to that slippery baby. The reason we focus on the good aspects of the lives of great men on the site is not because we are unaware of their flaws, but because the purpose of the articles is not to provide a full biographical sketch, but to discover what these men did right and explore what honorable manliness looks like. They’re specifically about the good bits. Maturity means knowing the time and place for things; you don’t enumerate a man’s failings when giving his eulogy, for example. Again, it does not mean you’re ignorant of those failings, but that you choose to focus on certain aspects at certain times for certain purposes

A mature mindset also involves the ability to be inspired by the good bits despite the bad bits and realizing that one does not necessarily negate the other. The mature man does not turn his eyes from a historical figure’s flaws, but he does not let those flaws eclipse the lessons to be learned from the person’s life. He is able to sift the wheat from the chaff.

How does a man gain this sifting ability? He is able to view historical figures just as he views himself. He himself has a great many flaws—and yet he loves himself all the same! When he thinks about himself, he thinks of his good qualities, and would never say that the mistakes he’s made blot out his redeeming characteristics. This is also how men see those they love. A man’s father might have made some mistakes, but he still speaks of him as a great man and seeks to emulate the things he did right.

The reason we can be so generous with ourselves is that we seek to understand our mistakes with rationalizations like, “Well, that was my view then, but it’s changed now.” “Everyone was doing that at the time.” “I just got caught up with what was happening.” “I was depressed then.” “I couldn’t have gotten the job if I hadn’t said that.” “I didn’t know all the facts at that time.” And yet all these mitigating factors apply not just to you, but to all the men of history!


Ironically, those who are unable to see the flaws of great men more generously through the prism of the person’s circumstances, tend to be those who also disparage their accomplishments, chalking them merely up to, well, circumstances.

For example, if you praise the frugality of my grandfather’s generation, someone will retort that Gramps was only able to avoid debt because of things like the GI Bill and low housing prices. They argue that the Greatest Generation was only great because of the advantages they enjoyed that we are no longer privy to.

But greatness is not begotten from circumstances, but from how those circumstances are used and turned to a man’s favor. Or in other words, while Gramps may have enjoyed lower housing costs, he was also quite happy about living in a 750 square foot house in Levittown as opposed to a 4,000 square foot McMansion (the average home size has more than doubled since the 1950s).

As Frederick Douglass put it:

“I do not think much of the good luck theory of self-made men. It is worth but little attention and has no practical value. An apple carelessly flung into a crowd may hit one person, or it may hit another, or it may hit nobody. The probabilities are precisely the same in this accident theory of self-made men. It divorces a man from his own achievements, contemplates him as a being of chance and leaves him without will, motive, ambition and aspiration. Yet the accident theory is among the most popular theories of individual success. It has about it the air of mystery which the multitudes so well like, and withal, it does something to mar the complacency of the successful.”

And of course it isn’t hard to see in hindsight the advantages others enjoyed that led to their success. And yet I can easily see how my grandchildren could point to numerous advantages that we have…and yet how little we turned those advantages to our favor and let things go to pot.

And this really gets to the crux of my generation’s tendency to disparage the past–we don’t feel like we’re doing too hot, and we want to believe that our lack of accomplishments is due to circumstances entirely outside of our control. Douglass again:

“It is one of the easiest and commonest things in the world for a successful man to be followed in his career through life and to have constantly pointed out this or that particular stroke of good fortune which fixed his destiny and made him successful. If not ourselves great, we like to explain why others are so. We are stingy in our praise to merit, but generous in our praise to chance. Besides, a man feels himself measurably great when he can point out the precise moment and circumstance which made his neighbor great. He easily fancies that the slight difference between himself and his friend is simply one of luck. It was his friend who was lucky, but it might easily have been himself. Then too, the next best thing to success is a valid apology for non-success. Detraction is, to many, a delicious morsel.”

A man can be showered with numerous opportunities, and yet squander them all away. Circumstances help, but personal responsibility and agency determine our fate.

And this is why a man should study and let himself be inspired by history! It can teach him how to turn his own opportunities into success and character.

My generation tends to believe that everyone is special and that no one is better than anyone else. “Every generation is just the same,” they say. But while it’s true that every generation has its own strengths and weaknesses, what those particular strengths and weaknesses consist of is unique. And if we humble ourselves, we can work on our weaknesses by learning from the strengths of the men of the past, just as we hope that our grandchildren will learn from the things that we’re doing right.


{ 150 comments… read them below or add one }

101 Kyle S November 11, 2011 at 3:18 am

I’m currently in college studying history, and the program focuses heavily on historiography, which is the study of history/ historic records. There is one phrase that stands out to me as something that needs to be remembered whenever one is studying history (and I’m not yelling just emphasizing):

Whatever piece of recorded history you are looking at was recorded by someone. That person chose what to write about and what NOT to write about. They chose which words to use and, for things like essays and books, what thesis they wanted to try to prove. This can clearly be seen with those people who were trying to debunk earlier histories. They had an agenda to show “the other side of history.” In order to get the most out of studying history, one must try to understand the motivations and circumstances of the person who wrote that history.

102 Filippo November 11, 2011 at 5:22 am

It is true that nowadays historical revisionism tends to “debunk” some figures from the past who were once considered great examples to be followed. The device most generally used is to “uncover” their bad habits and their faults. In my opinion, the problem of this kind of “negative revisionism” is that it starts from the assumption that if I admire a person I must admire everything of him/her. This is a rather childish approach, that I compare to the very beginning of a love affair, when a person literally idolatrizes his/her partner. So, if somebody uncovers the fact that this famous person of the past had his faults (like virtually everybody) , the result “should” be disappointment instead of admiration.
For instance: 1) I like reading roman philosopher Seneca; 2) Seneca in his life had his faults (he officially approved some of the misdeeds of infamous emperor Nero); 3) then, I should “forget” all the positive aspects of Seneca’s writings and consider him a bad person.
This is clearly a false syllogism. I like Seneca for what he wrote and preached, and for the coerence with which he lived most of his life. And I’m NOT saying that his faults were rather his times’ faults (this would be too simplicistic). I simply admit that he was a man, and that he wrote great things that can be admired and taken as an example ; but he was not a god. So we need to take him and admire him – and read his books as a GREAT example – but this does not mean that we don’t acknowledge his weaknesses.
Another example from the Bible: king David was a great man and a great king. But he had his faults (he fell in love with another man’s wife, and he had that guy killed in battle in order to have her for himself). But this should not prevent us from consider him a great king.
Thanks to everybody for their comments.

103 Davy Haynes November 11, 2011 at 6:08 am

Brett and Kate, this article is right on the money. It is really unfortunate that so many people today, as Douglas so well said, explain away their lack of success due to an absence of luck. No one seems responsible for anything anymore–it’s always some else’s fault. Of course the real truth is if one stops complaining and blaming, and gets down to some real old-fashioned, nose to the grindstone work, one creates their own ‘luck.’
Thanks for your wonderful article.

104 Kenneth Johnston November 11, 2011 at 6:59 am

What is that they say…Pity the Nation that has no heroes; Shame on the Nation who forgets theirs.

105 Justin November 11, 2011 at 8:08 am

I have seen many people debate historic topics in completely black and white terms. Neither wants to view the subject in terms of gray or admit the subject had both virtues and flaws. It is very tiresome, not to mention inaccurate. Besides, avoiding another person’s mistakes is half the reason we have history books in the first place. I agree with the statement that this is another example of moral relativity where nothing means anything, no one is right or wrong, and there are no standards by which anyone can be judged.

106 John Hosie November 11, 2011 at 9:22 am

Loved this article.

I am bothered by the way elements in this society take it on themselves to point out all the faults of our icons of the past, and have little or no appreciation for the positive aspects of their lives. I believe we are all born into a flawed world, and are also tarnished by the Original Sin, In many respects, those bigger-than-life men and women of the past had tremendous obstacles to overcome just to survive. Their accomplishments were achieved in a different time and culture than where we are today. It isn’t that the negatives a person might have had shouldn’t be recognized. The important thing is to realize that in spite of all of their flaws and the challenges they had to overcome, they still achieved great things.

I have an ancester, for instance, who was a pretty crude character by all accounts. He lived in a wilderness area of New York in the early 1700′s – outside of what is now the Binghamton/Corning/Elmira area. It was snowing hard and his Indian wife went into labor. The snow was deep and still falling. He had ordered a cradle from a craftsman some miles away back in the early fall, but he hadn’t yet picked it up. So he bundled himself up, packed up some supplies and headed out walking to the carpenter’s house. A few days later, he returned with the cradle on his back. He was greeted by the midwife when he entered his home, brushed himself off and went to see his sleeping wife and child, bring the cradle with him and placing it gently next to her bed. He found bedding and furs, to keep the child warm, and went to pick up the baby, but he saw something entirely unexpected. There wasn’t a baby nestled in against his wife. There were two! So without waking her, he packed up and headed back out into the wilderness striking out for the carpenter’s again, and carrying the cradle on his back. This time when he returned home, he had a cradle large enough for two!!!

The politically correct elements in our society might have pointed otu the fact he wasn’t there for his child’s birth. They might have complained that he had traded with a local tribe for his wife. They might have pointed out that he left his wife for so long while she really needed him to be there with her. They might have pointed to his flawed character. But I see a heroic man who risked his life and a great deal for the safety and comfort of his family,

107 Logan Monday November 11, 2011 at 9:53 am

I agree on all points, well said. My grandfather told me that, “The Good Lord helps those who helps themselves.” In sum, luck can come our way through hard work and smart decisions.

108 Daniel Miller November 11, 2011 at 10:21 am

This is, hands down, my favorite article to ever grace this site. Sharing it with every one that I know. Thanks for the great perspective!

109 Richard Willaims November 11, 2011 at 10:25 am

The small-minded critics of our Nation’s heroes sit in ergonomic chairs at their cushioned keyboards in air-conditioned offices with every modern convenience at their beck and call and critique a generation of men who were truly well-educated and well-read; self-made giants who were, in every sense of the concept, renaissance men. Men who could farm, write brilliant treatises on government, history, and philosophy, lead men into battle, track a deer for miles, kill it with a black powder rifle, field dress it, and carry it home for their evening meal. Men who carved a nation out of a raw wilderness and founded the greatest republic in the history of the world. Men who risked their personal fortunes, liberty, and lives so that they could pass on a great republic to future generations. In comparison, most of their soft, flabby, lazy, critics would starve to death if Wal-Mart closed for a week. They can’t think, write or speak without a computer or a teleprompter. They can’t build an argument, much less a nation. Their writing often consists of cutting and pasting words from the templates of their ruling class masters; hoping someone will notice and invite them to some stuffy academic American bash-fest seminar where the greatest challenge of the day will be to stay awake.

110 Jesse November 11, 2011 at 10:55 am

The way I see it even great historical figures were still men and women, still human. That is to say imperfect. But just because they’re just as flawed as we are does not make the merit of their achievements any less worthy of praise and admiration. I highly doubt Albert Einstein was great at weightlifting but that doesn’t mean I’m going to use that as a basis to discredit his work in the field of physics. Same with the Greatest Generation, as a whole they were probably more racist, homophobic and sexist than we are today but that shouldn’t detract from the fact they helped liberate Europe and Asia.

Finally we should remember we look to historical figures for examples of greatness and the bright potential of humankind so that we may learn from their exemplary behavior to better ourselves. We’re not looking for perfect figures for apotheosis.

111 Evan R November 11, 2011 at 11:19 am

I pretty much agree with most points in this article, and its good to see at least some men are on the same page. We can comment on the lack of character of many men today, but the question still remains: What can we DO about it? Do we just try individually to be the best man we can, and raise our kids to be better? Or should we try for a faster method that might bring about social change sooner? I am always the optimist, looking on the brighter side, but even I can say we (as a generation and as men) have a lot of work to do.

I agree that many 18-30 year old males are just older boys, not men. Some of us drop out of school, some of us get “higher” degrees, but still waste our time going to parties, never maturing. Many see musicians and athletes and want the wealth that they have, unconsciously emulating them and poisoning our own lives with their low morals. Countless hours are wasted on video games, sports events, getting high, watching tv, and surfing the net. There was a statistic that said the average American will waste 14 years in front of the tv before he dies. This was before the internet started monopolizing our time…

Since the divorce rate is (or was lately) higher than ever before (around 40-50%) many of us come from broken homes, and have no example of what a good marriage is. Even if we are lucky enough to have a good example, many of our friends do not, and can (and probably will) give us bad relationship advice.

The increase of liberalism came at the cost of rules and structure. With the old ways of doing things gone, our values as a community have been compromised. Be it religion or family or politics, this country is slipping, and something has to change…

112 ngdoms November 11, 2011 at 12:35 pm

I don’t think we should get hung up on marriage…plenty of marriages were shames and i would infer that a decent percentage of them are still shames. The important thing is for people to have healthy relationships so that young people can see how they operate as adults and learn from them…not just stay in a marriage because of some outdated social contract.

Also as to the older boys and not men: this is just a natural process that was bound to happen when college becomes too expensive: people are working part time to help pay for classes and are not getting their education completed until their late 20s. Healthcare costs too much so they can’t afford their own at a young age and their for have to rely on their parents…this is what happens when you price out essential services while lower the medium income of americans over the past decade…..people can’t afford stuff they use to be able to afford, so they have to lean on their elders more than ever. Its not that men and women don’t want to get jobs…its that there are not enough jobs out there let alone jobs that will allow you to afford to pay off your student loans, get health insurance, buy a house, and a car, etc. etc…..these factors all are in play that keep the young male and female people in a state of adolescence.

We are victims of progress (i use that word, victim, in jest), many things that people were expected to know or do 50, 100, 200 years ago is worthless to 99% of men out there today. It is a new world and we have to learn how to gleam lessons from today and how to operate as true men in today’s world, not try to bring ourselves back to a glorified past that more than likely was not as great as you remembered. So i ask: how can we improve on the virtues that we hold dear in today’s world? It is not impossible, we just have to learn from the past but realize their world doesn’t apply to ours, we have to move forward.

The biggest lesson good history can teach us is how people from different generations solved problems, and as we see that just because things change, doesn’t make the problems impossible to solve, we just have to adjust to the way the world is now and move forward from there…to me that is an exciting prospect. Besides…nobody likes a cynic.

despite our problems I will take living today over living 50, 100, 200, etc. years ago: at least now women and (most) minorities are treated more equally, social stigmas such as divorce, mental handicaps and “being gay” are not holding people back like they use to, and generally we are more socially progressive as a nation despite what some people would like to see. The only thing constant in the world is change, you can decide if that is a frightening or exciting prospect.

113 Evan R November 11, 2011 at 12:36 pm

Just read the “Baby and the Bathwater” article from 2009, and it covers a lot of what I was trying to say. I encourage everyone to read it, it cuts right to the heart of some important underlying issues in today’s society.

-I will definitely be digging up some older posts to read in the near future.

114 q&a November 11, 2011 at 1:30 pm

While I agree with you on some of the points you are a making and I am definitely a fan of your blog. I think your argument is playing fast and lose with it’s generalizations. I think the real crux of most people who believe in the importance of revising history is that by the very act of raising someone to the level of great person, you are advocating their superiority. Generally, our mention of “great people” does not provide a caveat such as they were great in a specific field, but rather we apply great in an overall sense which does a disservice to all parties involved. In essence, if people did a better job discussing specific great attributes a lot of the revisionist sentiment would likely disappear. All reference to “great people” should include a footnote, because they/we are all products of our environment. I am not saying we shouldn’t have heroes, but I am saying that hero worship without proper context has very real embedded dangers. People do not like to read the small print so the fact that Churchill was racist or that GW was a slaver owner is glossed over in lieu of their other accomplishments. This might not mean much to the average Anglo person, but might make a world of difference to any people direct affected by the negative aspects of our heroes legacies.

On a somewhat related note, you can say that it is an intersection of personal qualities (industriousness, intelligence, etc.) and good luck, in my humble opinion you might be understating the impact that positive outcomes have on magnifying personal qualities.

I think a great example of all the pitfalls of hero worship is what is happening at Penn State.

115 q&a November 11, 2011 at 1:33 pm

By the way, Evan R might want to take a look at a history book before getting all nostalgic about the past. It wasn’t all leave it to beever.

116 Eric November 11, 2011 at 1:48 pm

Great post to consider on Veteran’s Day. My grandfather grew up dirt floor poor in the Great Depression, fought in WWII, crash landed into Nazi territory, and survived 9 months in prison camp. He had to bury one baby and almost lost his wife to cancer in the ’50s. A jet fighter crashed into his house in the country. His cattle ranch failed and he had to sell it off. In the midst of all this, he still strove through the hardship and made some amazing accomplishments. He started the first Young Life group in his area, ended up being very successful in selling insurance and later real estate, made an impact on people under the Iron Curtain by smuggling Bibles to them, and faithfully serving the Lord his whole life. Opportunities are provided by circumstance, but the circumstances do not define what you choose to do with them.

117 ngdoms November 11, 2011 at 2:51 pm

i think an argument can be made that history books, biographies, etc. should be revised on the basis of new facts coming to light. Also there is a difference between someone being a product of their times and glossing over some major character deficiencies. As q&a mentioned about jopa and penn state: when the facts come out and the parties are settled on who knew what and how much and when…. it won’t be necessarily appropriate to bring up the incident at his funeral…but any responsible news organization would have to mention the incident when writing his obit.

Historians owe it to the people who read their work to not shy from the less glorified details of a person’s life, a real man will be able to separate the bad traits from the good and move on from there. We do people (and esp children) a disservice to think that they just won’t understand the nuance of a person of history. So i guess i agree with the stance that the world is one big shade of grey and we might as well get use to it.

I think its also important to realize that historians and people in general suffer from a confirmation bias: i.e. they make up the conclusion and then look for the facts to support. History jumps it does not crawl…the large events in the world and the major actions of the individual players are oftentimes taken in the context of “what that person was doing and how that effected this MAJOR event”. I always thought it would be interesting to read the newspapers or journals of those living through major historical events and see how their views differ from the historical take from many years removed.

118 Nate November 11, 2011 at 3:08 pm

I think we can chalk the extremely overblown desire to lionize or demonize men and women from the past to the polarization of our society (speaking from a strictly American perspective). We have become a society of poles, where the idea that ‘if you are not with me you are against me’ has become despairingly common. The idea that a person can accomplish great things, worthy of emulation, and still have glaring defects means that the person from the other end of our society, who is vehemently opposed to your point of view might not be the reprobate that you make them out to be. This sort of absolutism is nothing more than the fabrication of narrow minded individuals.

119 Lucius November 11, 2011 at 5:49 pm

I believe that discounting a man on the basis of their flaws denotes a “winner take all” mentality. Any person can be a hero in spite of his flaws, or–and I think this more likely–because of his flaws. The mark of greatness is the courage shown in the face of adversity, rather than what is actially achieved. I’d like to suggest Hemmingway’’s “Old Man and the Sea” as a fine example of how the struggle is more important than the victory. Then again, Hemmingway was a drunk that killed himself.

120 Louis November 12, 2011 at 7:46 am

I have just been reading about the tributes paid to ancient Roman heros (who received recognition for not only military victories but for other acts of bravery and civic duty). These men were, in part, honored by seating them on a throne behind which sat a slave in regular rough clothing occasionally whispering in their ears “Remember, you are just a man”. On the chariot on which they rode at the head of a procession through the streets, there was a small bell. The sound of the bell ringing was a reminder that prisoner and the gallows-bound were lead through the streets as a bell was sounded.
Is this true? I really don’t know but I like to think that it points out to even though a person may raise to greatness, they still have human flaws and that to forget those is the greatest human weakness
History is filled with tales of great men. What we don’t see nearly as much is that great deeds are performed by men with flaws as well. In many ways, this should be a comfort to us mere mortals – we can all rise above our base nature. It should also be a reminder – to all of us – that no one is truly great all of the time. It is also a reminder that no matter how high we rise, our greatest achievement or service is always under scrutiny.
So I say continue to honor the greatness of the deeds of men; focus on those unfortunately brief moments of heroism and bravery but do not belittle the deeds and the entire life of someone who was only human.

121 Ryan November 12, 2011 at 9:39 am

I’m a history major as well. If there is one thing I can add it is that when analyzing history, you must view the situation within the social constructs of that time period and culture. The Greeks left behind a pretty great civilization, but were misogynistic slave owners. Putting modern morality on ancients (or even “the greatest generation”) is unfair and incorrect from a historical standpoint, otherwise its simply cultural relativism.

122 Damberson November 12, 2011 at 1:15 pm

Perhaps the less savory details of a historical figure’s life were not anyone’s business, unless those details are what made them historical. If we obsessed over pedantic trivialities, then we wouldn’t learn much over history.

Imagine if we applied the same level of criticism to great scientists! Albert Einstein’s contributions would be dismissed due to his promiscuous and scandalous affairs.

It is never the critic who counts.

123 Tim S. November 12, 2011 at 2:56 pm

Thanks for the post, Brett and Kate.

I think the imperfections of great men only adds to their greatness. If they were perfect to begin with, their greatness would hardly be awe-inspiring.

124 Dave November 13, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Interesting;y, while the word ‘history’ had become associated with ‘story’ by the Middle Ages, its original Greek root is much more notable : historia “a learning or knowing by inquiry; an account of one’s inquiries, history, record, narrative,” from historein “inquire,” from histor “wise man, judge”

If one thinks of ‘history’ as inquiries undertaken by the wise, it gives a quite different perspective on how one might learn from it.

125 Edin November 13, 2011 at 3:31 pm

Great article. Inspiring. I enjoyed reading it. Thanks, Brett and Kate.
By the way, I wish I lived before. Sometime in history. At least, before 60′s. Our time is almost unbearable. Everything changed. Everything went bad. Nothing is like It used to be. Men, women, kids, teachers… Families and marriages are destroyed. No more parental or any authority. No more respect for anybody. No heroes. No principles and ideals. No integrity. No honor. No faith. No more patriarchal men who gently, but firmly, uphold the social and moral order. Since their decline, society has gone insane. But I am full of hope that the patriarch will rise again. To bring law and order to this suffering and messed up world…

126 Ken F. November 13, 2011 at 3:53 pm

Brett and Kate, I commend you on a passionate, heartfelt and insightful post. There is, at present, a palpable sense of national malaise and unearned entitlement that can be felt across this great country of ours. It shows itself in political conventions, television, media, the legal system, advertising, in schools and churches, everywhere. Our country is indeed “great” because of all the sacrifice, courage, wisdom, and yes, mistakes that have been made by our forefathers. If we, as a whole, continue to turn our backs on all the things that have made this country so special and venture into the future with such a displaced moral ambiguity towards not only ourselves, but our children, where will we end up? As a footnote of generational failure in the history books we seem to so easily disdain? As my father would have told me, we are better than that. Keep up the great work, Brett and Kate. We need websites and informational hubs like this far more, I fear, than the majority of us realize it.

127 ngdoms November 13, 2011 at 4:23 pm

I’m sure as an older white male you would love to live back before the 1960s, that way women knew when to shut up, minorities kept to their neighborhoods and you didn’t have to feel guilty about being a racist sexist pig.

i am just talking in generalities….but it just makes me slap my head when i hear people wanting to go live back in time because it was “better”. Well guess what, you can’t, so go out there and make your time on earth better NOW for those around you instead of whining about how horrible is out there in the present. Nothing manly about those sentiments, you play with the cards you are dealt with so buckle up and go make something happen. i find your nostalgia and glorification of the past to be insulting to the advances in social and economic progress of all. Funny how it is always older white men who have this feeling.

128 Claude Warner November 13, 2011 at 4:27 pm

I live in South Africa, the home of the globally revered Nelson Mandela.

Yet he, like all men, famous or not, is human with faults (to which he readily admits).

Should we therefore disregard the role he played in leading a peaceful transition to democracy?

And if so, then who would be worthy of an absolutist view of an “acceptable” role model? The answer is simple – nobody.

But if that is our worldview, where does that leave us? How do we motivate ourselves to live a meaningful if all men are “brute beasts”, or do we become as Henri Nouwen writes “a convulsive generation”, having no conviction, meaning or purpose, other than to attack those who do?

Surely, surely we can learn to distinguish what is noble and what is base, to sort the wheat from the chaff, and having done that, to courageously (not dogmatically) hold that perspective.

Lukewarmness does not become a man.

129 Edin November 14, 2011 at 4:54 am

Ugly words, ngdoms… I am sorry you think so. Although your second paragraph makes sense. A lot of sense. Great advice. Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind.
By the way, I am a 33 yo. man (yes, I am white) and would you believe I am even in the minority. In two ways. Wow…

130 Andy Thornton November 14, 2011 at 7:56 am

I think I find inspiration in some of their words and deeds and adopt them into my own philosophy. We are all flawed to some degree, knowing that and working to get over them by learning from the past is just another way to move forward.

131 montanaclay November 14, 2011 at 9:56 am

Wow ngdoms, that much angst over this post? Where does Bret say he wants society to go retro back to pre 60′s? He is writting about MEN, not a time. There were great men in every time and all had faults. You are helping prove his point that a person can not discuss people in histoy without being accused to be a rube or worse. And blaming the cost of health care for the reason a male stays a boy, instead of growing into a man? Really? A man takes care of the essentials for his family, a boy buys a playstation, big screen tvs and has a $500 a month car payment, and look, no money left over if the kids get sick, but what the heck, my neighbors will pay for it! But why even talk health care. This is not a political site, so the current debate can be discussed on other websites. You obviously arent interested in traditional gentlemanliness values, courtesy, being well dressed, being knowledgable and standing on your own 2 feet. So why visit the site?

132 ngdoms November 14, 2011 at 1:37 pm

That wasn’t a discussion he was having…it was actively wishing to live in another time so he wouldn’t have to deal with the trappings of the present. Talk about the great men of the past all you want, I personally wish i could meet a great many of the men myself. The point is that wishing to live in another time pretty much eliminates the work that goes into improving the current lot of someones life, when you wish for something to happen i guess i find it a selfish way to try and get what you want without having to do the hard work. When i hear someone tell me they think the 1910s would have been a great time…all i think to myself is “to whom”?

And the “whom” i find to be a very specific set of people.

You are damn right I’m going to place blame on a lot of outside factors as to why both men and women have an extended adolescence, it isn’t because they just suddenly became more immature and stupid overnight. When one cannot get a job out of college to support his/herself or family than they sure as hell are not going to act like adults. I was lucky enough to get into a career that payed well and i have been on my own since college and well off as it is. Others are not, but that is because they have to deal with an economy that at this point has been shedding manufacturing and skilled position jobs for the past 30 years, you know what jobs are replacing them? Low paying service sector jobs that don’t offer health insurance let alone a decent wage to su[pport a family. Now you can go ahead and blame the man all you want for his own shortcomings but trust me if there were more jobs out there paying 50k a year with full benefits then you would see a lot more people living alone and “gasp” growing up because they have to!

We can blame parents all we want, and some probably can be placed on the previous few generations for living up to expectations but the fact of the matter that society has failed the youth of this country for the past 30 plus years by increasing tuition to the point where people cannot afford to live on their own because for all intents and purposes the cost of college for most is the size of the average persons first mortgage! These are costs that no one 50 years ago had to deal with and combined with stagnant wages we get a whole generation of kids who cannot afford to buy a house or settle down because they wouldn’t be able to simply afford it!

Now i can hear the arguments now “personally responsibly” and such. Of course everyone digs their own beds but when the options are crappy low paying job 1 or crappy low paying job 2 then you can see what kind of pickle these people are in. There are no jobs out there, people don’t go without work for 2 years because they are raking in the unemployment benefits, those barely pay the basic bills let alone have extra money left over to party it up.

I don’t know what the answer is but it sure isn’t just blaming the parents and blaming the kids or blaming video games or movies or the internet, if people can take care of themselves independently then they will grow up and become more autonomous and be able to conduct themselves accordingly. Just teaching these values we wish to have is not enough, it goes all out the window when you are fighting to survive on your own, manly values are a luxury for those who have their economic priorities settled.

That is not to say someone who is having trouble leaving the nest cannot have these values, they most certainly can, what i am arguing is that when you put all these external pressures on people that we have now, it makes it much more difficult for them to self improve and prosper so that they can rise above their petty faults and become a better man and person. I think we would do better to realize what we can do besides proclaiming that it is all the parents fault or entertainment.

Sorry for the harshness of my words i am a very passionate person on these subjects i only wish i could type better to explain, cheers.

133 Johnny November 14, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Good post, Ngdoms.

When I first started reading this article, I (metaphorically) rolled my eyes and said, “oh, great, more cheesy, apologetic hero worshiping. Then I continued and found a good, well-balanced article.

I’d just like to say two things about your perception of today’s generation, and these old textbooks you seem to enjoy so much:
A lot of these morality tales were deliberately embellished to make the men seem FLAWLESS HEROES. You mention “black and white” as a way of perceiving things and how that’s unfair. Agreed. But how about how these men are presented to schoolchildren?

I won’t even start about Christopher Columbus, the story which I was told 25 years ago is just so totally wrong/bordering on propaganda . . . you get my point. No WONDER people are disillusioned.

We can also admire people for what they did, and think about what times they did it in. If you examine everything and say, OK, that was good, and this was good, but this was bad, this was stupid, you’ll be a better historian, but you’re probably not going to walk away with a sense of “gee, that man was a real superman.”

The more I learn, the more I’ll learn from HISTORY ITSELF, rather than IDOLIZING “great” men. . . because that’s all they were. Men. Not perfect. Flawed.

134 Kate McKay November 14, 2011 at 10:40 pm

“because that’s all they were. Men.”

You see, that’s where we differ. We see men (and women) as magnificent creatures of infinite potential. Not perfect, but godlike in their potential. And so it is right and good to idolize great men, despite their flaws. If a person has done more with their life than the vast majority of people who live and die and make no significant mark on the world whatsoever, that is heroic. That is worth idolizing.

And yes, you can examine everything about history and still walk away saying, “Gee, that man was a superman.” If you accomplish more than 99% of human, you are superhuman.

As far as ngdoms rant goes, blaming the economy for young people’s failure to launch does not hold up to scrutiny…from history. In the Great Depression, people were worse off than we are now, but historians will remark about how fast young people grew up and acted like adults, not how arrested their development was. And although we are currently in an economic downturn, we’re better off than we were for almost all of human history. And yet there was no problem with young people not growing up for the last few thousand years. If you grew up in the 19th century you might have worked in the coal mines for a tiny wage and certainly no health insurance, and yet you would have been very mature from a very young age. All of which is to say that a quick study of history will show that there is no correlation between a bad economy and extended adolescence.

Indeed, while you argue that manly values are a “luxury” most philosophers throughout time argued the opposite–that actually it is luxury that eats away at manly values. Virtues spring from dealing with difficulty and hardship and rising to the occasion. In good times it is harder to improve oneself, for there is no challenge and thus friction.

135 Johnny November 15, 2011 at 4:10 am

Interesting response. Thank you.

Please bear in mind that I’m not a humanist. Idolizing men is a religious issue for me, and I prefer not to talk about it on those grounds. We’ll have to agree to disagree on this point.

I certainly have no problem with self improvement. It’s good that we try to be as good as we can. In certain situations men rise up to the occasion or fail, and the age-old question, which you covered yourself, was basically whether people make situations or situations make men. While I agree with you that luxury can be a hindrance, and that an extended adolescence is bad, we ARE products of our environments. The men in WWII were just like us, but they HAD a WWII to fight IN. A necessary war with very little moral ambiguity. From the point of view of becoming, “supermen” the time they lived in was an advantage!

As regarding your response to ngdoms, I believe it’s unfair to compare 19th century Wales to the children of baby boomers, or slightly later. My parent’s generation had it lucky when it came to finding jobs (my parents are in their 60′s now). That’s a fact. You could graduate with a high school diploma and find a decent job. That generation got used to that and now has a generation of kids that are living in a time when getting a Master’s Degree doesn’t guarantee anything! I think a bit of compassion is called for. (Compassion is always called for.)

I’d just also like say again that the guys who have gold make history books. Propaganda is a serious problem. Facts are facts, and sometimes they’re inconvenient and unsavory. Much of my response to the article, and my viewpoint now, comes from remembering what I was taught in school from my textbooks. The text was written from a certain perspective that reflects the viewpoint of the people who wrote history in the past, the “winners”. People now, thanks in part to the internet, are a lot more knowledgeable, suspicious and less likely to blindly accept the “TRUTH” handed down to them. Sometimes this means learning things about their heroes that is unfortunate. For example, Thomas Jefferson was a great man, no doubt. He lived in the times that he did, so he was also a slave owner and had completely inappropriate relationships with his slaves. Does that diminish his value to history or politics? No. Ideas themselves should be judged according to their intellectual merit, but people’s actions and behaviours can and should be judged. We can take what we find useful from history, but everything should be taken with a grain of salt.

It’s my opinion that history, while having some incredible moments of uncompromising integrity, honesty, courage, etc that people can learn from, also seems to have more cautionary tales than great moments like these. People need to be aware that they’re not perfect and no person is, and that they should be very discerning about who they model their behavior on, and where they got their information from.

Part of my perspective is part of my religious conviction and I’m sorry that it entered my first post. I believe that we actually agree more than we disagree.

Have a great day, and thank you!

136 Johnny November 15, 2011 at 4:55 am

Thanks for your response!

I spent a long time writing a response, but maybe there was some computer problem.

Oh well.

137 Chad Burgess November 16, 2011 at 10:19 am

I have a degree in history, will complete a Masters degree in Secondary Education with an emphasis on history in May, and am currently working as a historic interpreter at a historic home and museum. In other words, I know a little about history. I could not agree more with this article! All men, even those who have achieved greatness, possess flaws. However, this is not a bad thing. It should be inspirational and enlightening to know that we are capable of accomplishing greatness in spite of our shortcomings.

Thank you for a great article.

138 Robert November 16, 2011 at 3:14 pm

I think a lot of people here are missing the point and conflating a bunch of issues that aren’t addressed in the article. Maybe I’m reading a different article, but it seems like Brett is pushing a balanced, gray study of history that still allows for learning from great men “heroes,” who were still very much human but did great things anyway. I don’t get the impression anywhere that he’s defending blind hero worship, just saying we’ve gone too far in the other direction from where we were in the 50′s when Washington couldn’t lie, etc. I can’t help but point to the following bit from the above article in response to those accusing the McKays of blind Hero worship a la 1950′s America:

“When you’re a kid, you tend to see things in black and white. Heroes are super good. Bad people are rotten to the core.

As you get older, you start to see things in shades of gray. You learn that people are more complicated and complex than you once knew. This maturing perspective has its drawbacks—it’s harder to be passionate about things and have heroes when you know they’re not perfect, but it’s also essential to learning, growing, progressing, and being effective in the world.

Men who cannot be inspired by history are stuck in the black and white children’s view of the world. A famous man can have a multitude of great traits, but if he also had a big flaw, then nothing can be learned from him. Out goes the baby with the bathwater.”

139 Mike November 16, 2011 at 8:45 pm

Excellent article. I just downloaded The Rise of Roosevelt on my Nook and was thinking about all the negative comments your articles about him get.

140 Joh November 17, 2011 at 8:04 am

Though I see where you are coming from the one thing I’d disagree with is in Western Civ historiography the Middle Ages were more about teaching morality because historians of the time would focus on one solider who was living up the the Christian faith. The Greek and the Roman’s were not looking at morality. Herodotus really wanted to understand the past he believed that you have to engage in some sort of historical evidence. Thucydides took a similar approach. Yet both Thucydides and Herodotus believed that the Gods were involved to help or hurt one side or another. The Roman’s were similar, but were more moving to lessing the affects of the gods and the writing of “true” history.

As for the article well written and I agree with you Brett that we can look up to our heroes even with their faults because they are human. I’m sure there are people we look up to now that 50 or 100 years from now and people will wonder why looked up to them.

141 DW November 17, 2011 at 2:52 pm

The cynicism of modern-day historians is aggravating, especially when it comes to men Americans honor and love. It’s like they want to make sure no one thinks anyone is great, when sometimes some people are just better.

I recently wrote a long historical article on my blog, specifically about generations and how greatness must arise or the nation will fail. Check it out here.

142 RICHARD K. MUNRO November 22, 2011 at 12:42 am

GREAT ARTICLE. I haven’t read much on this blog (though I am familiar with it) but hatred of TR seems incredible to me. It is true that TR was more liberal than, Harding or Taft or Coolidge I also think he was a great and effective president. I consider him one of the top five presidents of all time. He was also a very manly man perhaps the manliest of all presidents along with Jackson, Washington, Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy. Whatever your opinion is of these man they were manly men.
I am writing on the anniversary of JFK’s tragic assassination and Stephen King has just published a book 11/22/63 about it. I believe it was a turning point in American history.

143 Jeff November 26, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Here is an article we did on the manly-man ancient Greek warrior Dioxippus –


144 bashir November 27, 2011 at 8:36 am

I think the imperfections of great men only adds to their greatness

145 Virginia December 4, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Brett and Kate,
You are amazing writers. You fleshed your point out beautifully. You have expressed so clearly what I have often felt about historical person’s as well as people of today. I have just never been able to put my finger exactly on it and appreciate you helping me to think about this more clearly and perhaps to convey the complexity of our fellow human beings better myself. Thank you.

146 Everett Hartman October 17, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Leo Tolstoy in War and Peace says, “The truth never presents itself to two people the same way.” Historical Research will always be deal with one’s perspective, whether it’s the subject’s or the historian’s!

147 Mike April 17, 2013 at 8:26 pm

This is a great article! As a recent History graduate, I have often been at odds with both other students and professors when it comes to varying interpretations of history. It is very in style at the moment to focus only on the flaws of many of our nation’s historical figures, while totally ignoring their positive attributes. This comes down to your “pendulum” analogy. What is shocking is the unwillingness many people have to consider a balanced approach, which takes into account both positive and negative characteristics. Of course, alot of that comes down to the issue of “generational snobbery”, and the commonly held belief that the youngest, newest generation is the most ‘enlightened’ and intelligent, something which is not unique to our time.

148 Jayo July 1, 2013 at 12:56 am

Good stuff. This article reminds me of my high school history class – an “accelerated” class you had to get special permission to take. The teacher summed up the theme of the class on the first day with the statement “History is like whiskey – it depends on who distills it”.

It can be very informative and interesting to examine how different historians interpret the same events from the “bias” of their own circumstances.

Just recently discovered this site and am thoroughly enjoying exploring the posts!

149 Larry Knight November 19, 2013 at 11:49 am

EXCELLENT article! To me, the fact that all great people have flaws, makes me all the more eager to learn from them. We all have defects. One who allows one’s flaws to become public knowledge, or whose flaws have been aired by detractors, to me, is much more worthy of my attention and respect, especially if that person has overcome one’s flaws.
One cannot expect perfection in others and then insist on one’s own imperfections to be excused and forgiven.
Fortunately, we do have the example of a Perfect Person – Jesus Christ. It’s quite interesting how some people will dismiss a hero like Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, or Billy Graham, because of documented mistakes, yet when they find out about Someone who doesn’t have any flaws, defects or imperfections of any kind, whatsoever, they will dismiss Him, too

150 John November 19, 2013 at 10:20 pm

Completely agree with this article. It was well crafted and explained many things I felt but could not articulate.

Great Job

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