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 }

1 Alex Barbolish November 9, 2011 at 6:25 pm

I one hundred percent agree. As a history student myself, I find that people tend to view historical figures more negatively when they try to apply 21st century moral standards to the conduct of an 18th, 19th, or even early 20th century man. Yes, so and so may have been a racist back in 1830, but so was a substantial portion of the population. Not that that fact makes racism or any other negative quality OK, but it was simply a characteristic of the time, not necessarily something deviant. George Washington owning slaves, while perhaps somewhat hypocritical, does not detract from the fact that he led our country to victory against the British and was the only president unanimously elected.

2 Jon Glueckstein November 9, 2011 at 6:29 pm

People who don’t appreciate the history of manliness aren’t manly enough to be here!

3 Rob November 9, 2011 at 6:33 pm

Seriously, stop it. I really don’t see how you two are doing this so well. I mean really. The articles are concise, clear, and make sense. It’s too good… well, almost.

“…personal responsibility and agency determine our fate.”
My girl and I talk about luck a lot. How we are just circumstance to it, how it determines our fate, how we would have never met had it not been for luck. These things are all true, I can feel them as deep in me as my breath and blood, I am very very lucky to be where I am.
But you two are right in this, I would have never made it to where I am, what little of it that I stand on, with out agency, industry, and responsibility. Luck helps, but it does no work for you. So screw luck. I will gladly have it, but my hands and mind and voice are the tools I can control.

4 Matthew November 9, 2011 at 6:35 pm

Amen. I am all about some history. I’ve long believed that even if you can’t remember a rabble of names, places, and events, you should be able to generally understand your place in history, a timeline of at least correct sequence of what came before you. Understanding history, especially history from the past 150 years forward, saps a decent bit of the confusion out of trying to understand the present.
And as to the issue of “oh, we can’t learn from him, he was a drunk and an asshole”. Find me anyone, living or dead, who was not deeply flawed in many areas of character or behavior. We should not ignore those aspects of them at all, but they shouldn’t be thrown out of study because they held some seemingly backward views in a time when certain social views…were just backwards. And its also very gratifying to come across a quote from a man in a time when women were treated as inferiors where he dislikes the notion and hopes in the future, society can see them as equal. It makes me believe that we have hope for the things we wish to change about our own times.
And damn it, that’s part of being a man: having flaws and working diligently and with humility to improve oneself.

Rant over. Thank you for a great article once again, AOM.

5 JR November 9, 2011 at 6:38 pm

One of your best articles in a long time! This is truth right here and a truth not enough men realize. I get tired of people dismissing a historical figure because they don’t have the same political beliefs as them. Like the TR thing. “TR ruined the country, blah, blah, blah.” Yeah, TR was uber-progressive and I’m quite conservative but while I disagree with his political beliefs, I am inspired by who he was as a MAN. And I’m mature enough to separate those things out.

6 Laurinda November 9, 2011 at 6:40 pm

“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.”

Well said and such a timely post in light of the Joe P scandal at Penn state.

7 Kevin Daley November 9, 2011 at 6:40 pm

Excellent article!

I know I’ve criticized AoM many times in the past for an ideal view of history, but I definitely agree with this as well.

I think the lesson here is that we shouldn’t take a historical figure and say, well Churchill painted every day and Churchill was a great man, therefore painting every day makes you a better person. Sure, Churchill /was/ a great man, and in no small part because he engaged that side of his mind, but I for one think a better way to /phrase/ it would be:
“Winston Churchill understood that it was important to engage the artistic side of his mind, allowing him to shift focus from his daily drudgery and build creativity and character. If it weren’t for this, he admitted, he wouldn’t have had the energy to win WWII. Furthermore, studies show that…”

And that’s exactly how the /good/ AoM articles (i.e. most of them) tend to phrase things, but at the time of commenting I seemed to remember that sometimes this formula of combining well-founded historical endorsements IN MODERATION, with real, compelling arguments to back them up, is not adhered to. I seem to recall there was one article about the definition of “educated”, which, while it was well-written and informative, lacked any real evidence to support its premise, which was based entirely on an old quotation. I can’t speak for the other commenters here who’ve brought these points up, but that’s the only sort of thing I was criticizing.

But these are good points for sure, and I wonder how anyone who refuses to learn from the great men of history whatsoever can learn from other people today, who are not so great but equally informative.

8 H.A. November 9, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Laurinda – Because knowingly allowing a man to sexual exploit and abuse underage “At-risk” boys is just a little flaw.

9 Shea Fite November 9, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Great word. How I now understand how much I missed in school.

10 Michael November 9, 2011 at 6:49 pm

Well said. I get a lot of enjoyment out of this website, but I rarely comment. One thing that has often confused/bothered me is how some people are so quick to throw negative/contradictory comments out there seemingly just for the sake of tearing down a good post. This is such a well-meaning, inspiring site that I can’t wrap my head around some people’s cynicism. Obviously everyone is not going to agree with everything being written, but why not just have the maturity to examine the information with an open mind, absorb the pieces that are relevant/inspiring/etc, and leave the rest? How else can we expand our own minds?

It seems that, for some people, acknowledging that there have been great men in this world – men that have made more of themselves than us – is to admit our own shortcomings, and is viewed as a personal attack. This is sad to me, as it is impossible for anyone to grow and improve without first realizing those areas that require improvement. What better way to do that then to look at all of the GOOD that certain men were able to accomplish and say “what is stopping me from being able to accomplish just as much”?

I know that I have a heck of a long way to go in my own development, and if I can take any direction from anyone – past or present, perfect of imperfect – that can help me to grow, I’m all about it.

Thanks for another great post.

I know that I have a heck of a long way to go in my own development, and if I can take any direction from anyone – past or present, perfect of imperfect – that can help me to grow, I’m all about it.

Thanks for another great post.

11 Robert November 9, 2011 at 6:55 pm

While I agree with the general theme of this article, I do think it is important not to immediately dismiss historians such as Howard Zinn or James Loewen (“Lies my Teacher told me”). Historians such as these two should have a place in a man’s understanding of this country and how it came to be what it is. A healthy balance of respect and reverence for our historical figures and a keen and clear understanding of many of the policies enacted throughout American history should be sought. As you stated, being a slaveowner, drunkard, or womanizer should not detract from the enormity of the accomplishments of some of these men. However, with the desire to become a more educated and well-spoken individual, one really should seek out truths about figures like Columbus that we so quickly take for granted as a product of our early education. A well educated man not only is aware of the great deeds of his countrymen, but can quietly acknowledge the atrocities as well.

12 Dylan November 9, 2011 at 6:55 pm

I think you hit the nail on the head when you talked about how our generation wants to believe that we’re all equal–they can’t believe that anyone has ever done anything better than they did. And if you said “X did it better,” then they get very angry. And it’s because we’re ashamed because deep down we know we haven’t done anything all that significant. Not that we won’t ever, or aren’t capable of it, but if we have any hope of doing so, we’re going to have to be open to learning from all sources.

13 Wilson November 9, 2011 at 7:22 pm

I agree completely, great post.

“Those who fail to learn from the mistakes of their predecessors are destined to repeat them.”

Keep up the good work

14 David Y November 9, 2011 at 7:34 pm

At the time of our founding, we had leaders such as Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, John and Sam Adams, Madison, Hamilton, Paine, and the list could go on for a long time. Today, our population is 100 times as large. Do we have leaders now that can compare to them? Yes they were flawed because they were human. We should not view them as more than they were. But, let us not overlook their virtues because of the flaws.

They were also products of their times. Things that we know to be wrong were often considered to be right then. Even some founders who owned slaves felt it was wrong, and worked to find ways to end it. Sadly, it took a terrible war to do so.

As I read history, I am often struck about how themes that people debated and argued over in the past sound so much like the things we debate and argue over now.

As you say, we should be inspired by history. Let us also learn from it by studying it fully. Not, just from a simple black or white perspective.

It may be tempting to condemn people of the past for things we view differently now.
But, when people in the future look at things we currently believe to be good and just, they may shake their heads and wonder how could anyone be like that.

15 Scott November 9, 2011 at 7:45 pm

You tell ‘em, Brett.

16 Steve November 9, 2011 at 8:01 pm

The more I read about one of my great personal heroes, Theodore Roosevelt, the more I realize I disagree with a great deal of his positions. I don’t think TR was great because of his views. What made Roosevelt great (IMO) was that he had conviction and practiced what he preached. He was honest, hard working, and brilliant.

If the man were running for president today I don’t know if I would vote for him based on his views. I would definitely admire him for standing behind his beliefs to the end.

Realizing that your heroes are flawed can sometimes come as a shock. I also think that it helps us realize that they are human and it makes us realize that we can also aspire to greatness.

17 Robert November 9, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Great article Brett! The farther I get from my teens, the more I loathe the negative view of history/our ancestors/having heroes/etc. Part of success might be luck, but you can’t be lucky if you sit around expecting everything to be handed to you!

18 Chad November 9, 2011 at 8:06 pm

“Who controls the past, now controls the future– who controls the present, now controls the past.”

We do have to be as objective as possible in our study of history, otherwise, we may just be blindly swallowing the propaganda fed to us by those who simply wish to profit by us.

19 chris November 9, 2011 at 8:10 pm

As a woman, wife and mother (of a son) who reads this blog I have to say I really like this article. Heck, I like most of them! While we have more history behind us than any other generation, rather than looking at it as a negative, as so many do, it should be viewed as a positive – a chance to learn, grow and improve. Unfortunately, the liberal left are trying to bury that history, rewrite it and disparage the great men of past times by only pointing out flaws and neglecting to view them in the scope of the social settings in which they were living (as stated by David W – they were products of their times – they didn’t know our modern-day views – it would have been an impossibility unless they possessed a time machine). There is a lot to be learned and if you look closely at what is happening in our society today (consider OWS and the anti-semitic sentiments which are arising) you can clearly see that some people have not been taught their history very well or choose to ignore it and/or not assign value to those who have presented a strong, and moral face on those issues which sadly, are seemingly being repeated.

20 molina November 9, 2011 at 8:14 pm

I understand the author’s argument here. Men in general need inspirational men to emulate. but I hesitate to introduce certain figures to my children as celebrated heroes. For example, Christopher Columbus did an amazing thing. he sailed across an ocean with little idea of what was on the other side and survived. He then founded an island after which he attempted to destroy and exploit. Which side do we focus on?
Rather than look to the celebrated men in history that everyone knows, I like naming the local figures that have done much for the community. I understand that these local heroes don’t have the same excitement as some of the more traditional heroes, but I think using them is a much more realistic approach to life. In other words, be like someone who inspires you that is tangible, rather than some figure that is larger than life.

21 Andrew November 9, 2011 at 8:15 pm

To AoM keep up the good work, i look forward to your posts, when statues are named after cynics, then you should think about changing. Those that make negative comments are missing out on great treasures that we can learn from our Grandfathers generation and from others in history.
My Grandfather passed away before I was born, he lived on a small island south of Australia – Tasmania. On his passport his occupation is listed as trapper, he loved playing sport (cricket) and got the opportunity to travel to England in 1934 a trip taking months by ship to play cricket for an Australian bush side, besides the photo’s that’s about all i know, i would have loved the chance to listen to his stories firsthand, i know in that era if you wanted something, you had to do it yourself (hunt,farm, make, repair etc). Please keep the grandfather stories coming, there’s a lot for us to learn.

22 Eric November 9, 2011 at 8:24 pm

I must concur; yes, I may have a bias as a man of history, but still, this is an important thing to state. Yes, our predecessors have flaws; show me a man who never has? Throughout history, it is important to take a look at the defining people of the entirety of human history, and see the examples of virtues they have given us. Well written, well deserved, and important.

23 James Hood November 9, 2011 at 8:41 pm

It is easy to become infatuated, disregarding or minimizing flaws based on automatic feelings, and then to subsequently make judgement errors. Same with reverse-infatuation.

24 Annie November 9, 2011 at 9:01 pm

Love this. Thanks for the thoughtful post. I’m chuckling at the haters!

25 Ryan November 9, 2011 at 9:17 pm

While the flaws of past great figures of history seem clearly visible to us, it should remind us that the flaws of ourselves and our time are nigh invisible to our eye as theirs were to them. The great thing about learning history is that, in some ways, these figures critique our own time and allow us to see our flaws in their strengths. Case in point, great Generals pour over ancient battles so that they could learn not only the errors of the past, but through the victories long gone, correct the wrong thinking in their own campaigns.

26 Victor Quesada November 9, 2011 at 9:36 pm

It is very important to read about historical figures, but also to read about them in the context of their time. How men (and women) deal with their circumstances can only be fully understood in the light of those circumstances.

Also, I have always made it a point to look for the good in people. My father is a wonderful man whose best qualities I wish to emulate, and whose worst I would gladly leave behind.

This discerning nature should be basic to all adults in all fields. Who wouldn’t like food that is not only healthy but delicious, or a truck that is powerful but also fuel efficient. There are trade offs in every field, but in some cases excellence should be striven for by taking the best of both worlds and leaving the mediocre or negative behind.

27 W.S. November 9, 2011 at 9:44 pm

Thanks for posting this. From reading texts a hundred or more years ago, it seems as if our great-grandparents had a greater cultural connection, greater inspiration, and greater sympathy with their own great-grandparents before them, than what men today have.

Historical revisionism is dangerous because not only does it invent falsehoods about the past, but it also destroys any feeling of inspiration from the successes of others, deconstructs those who would be venerated as heroes, and severs the link between us and our fathers. It is hard to learn from those who came before us if we follow “the olden days were fundamentally evil” as our mantra. It would be far better, as those who lived in the past also did, to embrace our heritage, not only learning from their mistakes but also repeating what they did right. The notion that past generations were fundamentally wrong about everything should be questioned. If one weighs the moral character, personal values and great deeds of past men fairly, he can see them both for the good and bad they did. Perhaps the men of the past were right about far more things than it is fashionable to give them credit for, and merit fair reconsideration as to how many of their “flaws” may have actually been virtues, and how many contemporary “virtues” may actually be flaws.

“In the first place [Barfield] made short work of what I have called my “chronological snobbery,” the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also “a period,” and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”

-C.S. Lewis

28 Craig Hargrove November 9, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Great article. The history of great men have pulled me through many periods of my life. I would argue that knowing their flaws only increased the amount of appreciation I felt for them. If I want perfect heroes I will read a fiction novel. Give me Teddy or Abe any day.

29 TubbyMike November 9, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Congratulations on a considered and well argued article. Given that I’m an armchair historian, don’t take anything I say as true. Also, since my acestors were on the losing side in the War of Independence / Revolution, I’ll steer clear of the American heroes. However, to support your argument, let’s look at Churchill. Yes, by our standards he was a racist and in today’s language he was also a functional alcoholic. That didn’t stop him from being the spiritual backbone of our tiny island exactly when we needed it. He understood the reality of the situation when other, arguably, more qualified men did not. He also spoke to the people of Britain with candour in terms they could understand: to paraphrase, “I have nothing to offer you except blood, sweat, toil and tears”. No glossy platitudes there! Yes, the man had flaws, but his achievements mean I live the life I do today and his steel and foresight are worth studying.
As for revisionist history, we should beware accepting one side or the other without question. This, I think is key. Question everything about history as told to you by another, since the victor often rewrites history. There are “historians” that deny the Holocaust and these people represent the repugnant side of revisionism in my opinion. On the other hand, recent revisions to the history of the Crimean War has brought to light the actions of Mary Seacole, a black nurse at the front, who was all but airbrushed out because of her colour. Now, thanks to revisionism, she appears to have been more like the popular notion of Florence Nightingale than Florence Nightingale and her (Seacole’s) contribution has only recently been recognised by the lay person.
I suspect that history is like any other subject that may have been ‘told’ to us that as rational humans we need to apply intellectual discrimination to the ‘facts’ and to form our own opinion based upon the lessons we’re able to learn.
Thanks Brett and Kate for a stimulating article.

30 TubbyMike November 9, 2011 at 9:51 pm

Congratulations on a considered and well argued article. Given that I’m an armchair historian, don’t take anything I say as true. Also, since my acestors were on the losing side in the War of Independence / Revolution, I’ll steer clear of the American heroes. However, to support your argument, let’s look at Churchill. Yes, by our standards he was a racist and in today’s language he was also a functional alcoholic. That didn’t stop him from being the spiritual backbone of our tiny island exactly when we needed it. He understood the reality of the situation when other, arguably, more qualified men did not. He also spoke to the people of Britain with candour in terms they could understand: to paraphrase, “I have nothing to offer you except blood, sweat, toil and tears”. No glossy platitudes there! Yes, the man had flaws, but his achievements mean I live the life I do today and his steel and foresight are worth studying.
As for revisionist history, we should beware accepting one side or the other without question. This, I think is key. Question everything about history as told to you by another, since the victor often rewrites history. There are “historians” that deny the Holocaust and these people represent the repugnant side of revisionism in my opinion. On the other hand, recent revisions to the history of the Crimean War has brought to light the actions of Mary Seacole, a black nurse at the front, who was all but airbrushed out because of her colour. Now, thanks to revisionism, she appears to have been more like the popular notion of Florence Nightingale than Florence Nightingale and her (Seacole’s) contribution has only recently been recognised by the lay person.
I suspect that history is like any other subject that may have been ‘told’ to us that as rational humans we need to apply intellectual to the ‘facts’ and to form our own opinion based upon the lessons we’re able to learn.
Thanks Brett and Kate for a stimulating article.

31 W.S. November 9, 2011 at 10:00 pm


Good point. I agree that we should not call people who are no longer alive to defend their views “products of their time,” but judge everything they did, for good or ill, by universal standards. After all, it would seem that if any generation could be called “products of their time,” it would be ours, lacking the solid spine of manliness that existed in our grandparents (hence the need for this blog), while at the same time endlessly accusing those very same past men of being “products of their time” themselves.

32 Heath Holden November 9, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Great read. Thanks

33 Edward Domain November 9, 2011 at 10:08 pm

I love this site and am a student of history myself; I regularly look to great men in the past for inspiration- in history both ancient and more recent.

The doom & gloom crowd will always be that- doom & gloom and unable to see past their own prejudices and tend to view men of the past through a modern lense and not the lense of the time in which they lived.

Keep up the good work!

P.S. I knew I would love AoM when I visited the first time and kept seeing stuff about my all time hero, Theodore Roosevelt

34 Joel November 9, 2011 at 10:37 pm

First off, I love the website! The posts on here are almost always thought provoking, inspiring, and challenging. I love it. This is one of the only blogs I actually follow regularly. I also appreciate the way that you incorporate historical figures into your posts as examples to be followed. The good characteristics of the historical figures you highlight should most certainly be emulated by modern man. We should look to history for insights into the human condition and as an inspiration.

That being said, revisionist history is also helpful. It sheds a human light on the seemingly mythological characters from the history books of yesteryear. It can also inspire us to work through our own seemingly impossible handicaps.

The end of the article reminded me of one of Jim Collins’ books. He studied a few truly great companies to see what factors tied them together. He talks about how the CEO’s of these companies react to their circumstances. When their company does well, they attribute their success to their staff and good fortune/circumstances. When their companies under perform, they don’t blame their circumstances. They blame themselves. They then look internally to see where the problem lies. This way they can change their behavior.

Our generation can do great things. We just need to stop blaming our circumstances.

35 dallasstorms November 10, 2011 at 12:19 am

“…The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interred with their bones…” Marc Antony at Caesars Funeral.
In order to form a more realistic vision of history’s great men (and common men) it is important and neccesary that we look at them from every possible angle, to comprehend their successes and, just as importantly, their flaws. The sucesses of men of bygone eras can serve an important purpose as far as inspiration go, but to truly better ourselves, we must take the great things done by men of the past and buld on their successes by overcoming their failures as manifest in ourselves. This is the path forward, ever building, ever improving. Unfortunately, we seem to live in an age in which information is so parsed, so picked- through and categorized that people will find the side they prefer and obsess over it and regurgitate it whatever chance they get ad nauseum. If we can let go of the obsessive need to be right, perhaps we can overcome our difficulties and move forward.

36 Paul November 10, 2011 at 12:21 am

This article has nailed my personal philosophy on the head. It also has crystallized the reason I love this site above all others. I am a huge history lover for the sake of such great inspiration gathered from lives fully lived, whose beginning and end can be seen.
I have drawn great wisdom from those who have gone before us, Jonathon Edwards, Martin Luther, Abraham Lincoln, C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine just to name a few. Once one is able to see that truth and wisdom are not bound by time or geographical location, one is free to soar through the halls of history to glean the gems it has guarded for the genuine seeker.
At almost 39, I am still a huge believer in having heroes. I have matured from the naive youth that once saw Abraham Lincoln, amongst many others, as a flawless giant, to recognizing he has his shortcomings like us all and still be able to appreciate him.
I also find this site to be full of a mixture of great history and great wisdom. I had to laugh at the comment by Jason, as he is missing the point of this site. I think it is cool to see how men have gone on before us, given insight by both a man and a woman. The Lord has brought together a couple gifted to share their insights about all things manly, which coincide so well together, creating a place that both men AND women enjoy, despite the name of the website. I do not see pseudointellectuals but, a genuine camaraderie amongst people that enjoy and learn from the past, in order to better live in the present.
Continue doing what you do well and we will continue reading!

37 DaShui November 10, 2011 at 12:29 am

It’s only certain historical figures are allowed to get deconstructed. Discuss MLK’s private life and you might get sent to reeducation.

38 Pat November 10, 2011 at 12:39 am

Great article.

People disparaging achievement in any way and based on any excuse they can. It surely has happened in the past and is happening now – hello Occupy Wall Streeters – if people simply fixed their gaze to achieve for themselves they would be more successful and have a happier life because they had made something of themselves by themselves.

Want to be inspired by achievement read Morris’ biography series of TR, Van Duren’s work on Franklin, Grant’s Memoirs and the most recent biography of Washington. All these men had challenges, serious flaws and unsavory aspects of their characters and achieved. Surely the basis for their successes can be found in our modern world today. I bet there will also be opportunities to achieve for our grandchildren and our great grandchildren, if they are willing to look for and work towards them.

I will take our flawed US historical figures over most of those who nitpick these achievements in hindsight.

39 Brandon M. Dennis November 10, 2011 at 1:02 am

Your blog was refreshing, and is a theme I often bring forward at Living in Seattle, I can count on one hand the number of people I have ever met who have anything good to say about the past before 1960. The reasons, as you mention, amount to racism, chauvinism and so on, as if that pantheon of sins are the only ones to have ever existed.

I believe that, having vilified the few sins in that progressive pantheon to the point of them becoming a taboo, we have exchanged them for new ones that had been conquered by the Greatest Generation. Hard work, chastity, self-control, graciousness, humility, having a sound-mind–these have been exchanged for dependency, laziness, lavish hedonism, pride (everything I do is ok, how dare you judge my life choices, etc.), gossip journalism, and so on. While the evils of the past are evil, always will be evil and should never be excused, the greatness of the past is as great today as it was then, and yet our culture has forgotten how to attain it.

40 Jonathan November 10, 2011 at 3:33 am

I could not agree more. If we are not inspiered by history, what does inspire us. There are few in the current generation by which to be inspired. At least from amoral and ethical perspective. If our goal is fame we have a wealth of inspiration, however fame is not accomplishment. If we disregard history then our expectations, of what makes a man great, diminishes to the point that leaders are no longer great but merely like everyone else. Who wants that?

Excellent article.

41 Sam Anderson November 10, 2011 at 4:29 am

I feel relax to read the whole article and it motivates me a lot that the same things are in me to take interest on history which is idol for whole man kind. Glad to come across to this blog and feels so confident that i am not the only who are taking interest in history milestones.

42 The Dutch Dastard November 10, 2011 at 6:34 am

Great article again. It just goes to show that there’s is almost always a lesson to be learned, regardless of the nature of the subject of the story. We often learn important facts by enduring bad things.

On the ‘black and white’ front, i recently heard news that gave me something to think about. I learned that during WWII my great grandfather was a member of the NSB (for all intents and purposes a Nazi). That is of course a nasty thing to find out, but you can’t really be surprised about it. A great number of people were Nazi’s, so you can’t be shocked that one of your family was one. The thing that made me think however, was that he also hid a Jewish family in his attic for the entire war.

The questions that arise:
- Was he only a member for purposes of liaison, and therefore ‘good’?
- Was he a Nazi, but didn’t think Jews should be exterminated?
- Was he a Nazi, and used the Jews to ‘prove his innocence’ if the war went sour?

Sadly, i never met the man (nor my grandfather) to ask them about it, but it brings the ‘black and white’ issue véry close to home.

43 FlossBoss November 10, 2011 at 7:00 am


For me, perhaps the best reason to be a student of history is keep ourselves from making the same mistakes over again. King Solomon wrote, ‘What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.’ (Ecc 1:9)

It is only when we study and understand history (and the nature of man) that we can apply those principals to current situations and find appropriate solutions. I wish Ben Bernake was a better historian…

44 Don Matthews November 10, 2011 at 7:22 am

Received your recent article via email from a subscribing friend, and will add your website to my favorites…you touched on so many points that ignited a strong need for a personal response, but I will keep it short for now; the Greatest Generation did not give themselves the name, it was placed upon them by others…they were normal people with typical human flaws, trying to live their lives until faced with a threat to world peace and life as they knew it. They all, to a man, stepped forward in light of potential personal sacrifice, to fight for the right to continue to live their lives in peace and freedom. They left their friends and family and were victorious over a mad tyrant that would have us all speaking German today. That is what made them the Greatest Generation.

45 JFPisa November 10, 2011 at 7:47 am

Excellent article. Particularly like the comment about the Boy Scout handbook and the revisionist history that took place in the 1960′s. Tragic how this nation has gotten so far away from its glorious roots. It’s hard for me to say, but culture in our country, this nation is is sadly out of whack and, unfortunately, I see very little change coming in the future.

46 Regina November 10, 2011 at 8:13 am

I wonder what would happen if we were to pick apart Todd Beamer’s life, his teen years, his movie collection, his domestic failings. Would we still call him a hero? What is a hero? What is a great man? Is it a perfect man with an impeccable resume of great deeds? Surely not. I think a great man overcomes Self and thus leaves a great impact on history. Beamer for example, overcame self preservation and fear, and saves countless lives while losing his own. Back in history, John Hancock gave up wealth and prestige (or potential lost them all) to make a statement to our oppressors. When you’re teaching children about these heroic figures in history, must you START by shattering their images? Those who would do so strike me as just a little to glib and giddy as they go about self appointed Reality Check. Wasn’t it C. S. Lewis who said that it’s right an proper to teach children history as heroic saga, and as adults they can sort out the Real Man from the hero?

47 mike November 10, 2011 at 8:16 am

I think it’s no coincidence, however, that downgrading the achievements of our founding fathers, and the degradation of our society go hand in hand.

48 A. P. M. of Scoiety November 10, 2011 at 8:27 am

Great article, do not concern yourself with the little people who make those derogatory comments. They cannot inspire to and have no knowledge of what it means to be great. They cannot see it in themselves and project that hatred of themselves on others who strive to be great. Keep up the good work keep being inspired by our past generations and keep holding yourself to expectations that would make those lesser souls pee their pants.

49 Lynn David Newton November 10, 2011 at 9:01 am

In an increasingly illiterate world, and in a country that is becoming detached and distant from its roots, despite the infinite amount of information available to people, I’ve seen culture and history die before my eyes, most rapidly in the last twenty years, though it’s been going on a long times. The days of high art are simply gone. Today there are professional baseball players who don’t even know who Lou Gehrig is. Don’t even ask about whether the average person is familiar with art, music, poetry, theater, literature, religious and political thought, or the social movements that brought us to where we are today.

Speaking as a writer/musician who reads several thousand pages of US history per year here.

50 John Weiss November 10, 2011 at 9:14 am

I like reading about real people. I purposefully look for their failings first before I want to know about their successes. If they never failed… then it kind of cheapens their accomplishment for me. To me, how can you be brave without full knowledge of the consequences of your failure. A green 18 year old rushing into a fight is stupid, not brave. An old sarge, jumping into the fray again after seeing countless other men die, but never had a scratch himself, isn’t brave to me neither. It is the one who went to the hospital in critical condition but still actively seeks rightousness. That is who I admire. The person who can fall… then get up. Because I fall so many times and its quite scary to get up again. Seeing someone else who was able to do it, that’s something.

51 John Weiss November 10, 2011 at 9:17 am

maybe I was too harsh on my last comment. The sarge who saw others die but still fights is still brave to me… lol

52 Paul November 10, 2011 at 9:19 am

I could not agree more!

Your articles on history and great men we can learn from are at the very heart of what makes this site great. How to shine a shoe or fold a handkerchief articles have their place, but they will not a great man make!

The idea that we can just discount great acts or great achievements based on personal failings is utterly naive. Are they ‘holding out for a hero’ who can win a world war/ free an opressed community AND remember his anniversary? Come on people!!

53 Fritz November 10, 2011 at 9:20 am

I think you’e dead on with this. You have to be able to see things in shades of gray. Virtually all great figures had some chink in their armor that you could potentially use to dismiss their accomplishments. However, their personal faults should be used to show how great they actually were. These guys from history that we look up to are only human. And as such they make mistakes and have faults just like the rest of us. What’s inspiring is not only that they achieved what they did, but that they did so while all the while,on some level, being just regular guys.

For example, Ayrton Senna (arguably the best formula 1 race car driver ever) was a legend in his time. He was about being really good at one thing. He brought a level of dedication to his driving that went above and beyond. However, he was highly criticized during his career. Despite those criticisms, whether valid or not, he was able to do on the track what no one else could. Yes, he was talented, but it was the dedication to his craft that helped him achieve what he did. And that’s what we should be inspired by, regardless of the fact that he wasn’t perfect. You watch the trailer of his biographical movie here ( bottom of page), andcan’t help but feel inspired.

54 Blake November 10, 2011 at 9:22 am

I agree completely.

55 Jordan November 10, 2011 at 9:37 am

I simply do not understand my own generation and its lack of respect for the importance of history. We have the greatest men who ever lived before us captured down to pages to learn from their mistakes and emulate what made them great. I feel our society is so “in the now” that it makes the mistake of ignoring the greats of the past. All of the kings and leaders all the way down to everyday great men are there for brain picking and understanding. WE have the capability to know more than ever before with a brain that wants to know less and less it seems.

56 Louis November 10, 2011 at 9:40 am

Well, personally I feel the greatest flaw from my generation (Y generation, gentlemen, I am from the 1990′s) is that they tend to judge people more and more on a numerical basis.

Intelligence? Grades and IQ
Looks? 1-100
Ability to love? Check his income
Fitness? Oh, look, we got a fitness test for that.

Sure, gradings and such makes categorising simpler, yet, we are so used to numbers judging, I fear we lose the ability to differentiate a great man and a “guy” as time progress.

I hope more of my peers will look back upon great men of history, and not judge them on flaws or numbers, but on strength, honor and morals.

57 RSL30 November 10, 2011 at 9:42 am

Great article. Individuals need to be understood in their historical context. You cannot remove them from that context and then hold them up to moral/social standards that have evolved to the point they are in the present day. I was a history major in undergrad and we referred to this type of comparison as presentism. I always considered it the cardinal sin of historical analysis.

58 Bill November 10, 2011 at 9:44 am

Brett, how true! I am amazed how many men (and women) in their 20′s, 30″s and beyond will turn their back on someone after they make one mistake. We all blow it from time to time, we all sin… yet, people no longer know how to look beyond the negative and seek the positive in someone. I think a lot of that has to do with everything you mention in the article. Of course all our heroes have flaws, what makes them heroes is that ability to move beyond their flaws and failures and seek to do what is right and necessary at the time.

59 Mark Wright November 10, 2011 at 9:53 am

I am in complete agreement with this article. I am a bit older than you (I’m 58) and your grandfather’s generation was my father’s generation. Those men and women who did great things, suffered tragedies, overcame tragic world events… they did so not because they were any better than the current generation or had more “manliness.” They did so because it’s how they were taught to deal with life. Sadly, in general, my generation has taken little from these prior generations in terms of fortitude, morals, ethics and integrity and done a very poor job of transferring those attributes to your generation and the following one. Not that we don’t have hero quality people these days, but the “me/my/mine” attitude of many today has replaced the more pervasive, “others” attitude of prior generations. Again, GREAT article.

60 Yvonne Root November 10, 2011 at 10:06 am

This article reminds me somewhat of the dismay I felt when I first learned that my father was not perfect. It wasn’t any big, earthshaking episode or transgression by Dad. It was a simple realization on my part that Daddies make mistakes, Daddies blunder, Daddies sometimes say or do something they should never have said or done.

Of course the same people who were heroic, wise, kind, or whatever good trait we want to hold them to were also cowards, stupid, mean and whatever bad trait man can sink to. They were, after all, people.

Personally, I LOVE the way your website looks to the past for inspiration in the present.

61 Jeff R. November 10, 2011 at 10:08 am

Great, thoughtful article as always.

To play devil’s advocate for a moment: to some extent, a common criticism of “idealistic” history has to do with not necessarily WHAT is taught, but rather HOW it is taught. I’m 28, and I recognize now that as a child I was often taught narrow, limited views of history that were presented as complete, accurate and objective. There are complex educational and cultural motives and systems at play here, but I think this does us a great disservice. Children are spoon-fed ideology as truth instead of being taught to analyze information.

It seems we often are trying to raise good Americans instead of good humans, and I think that is not always good.

My own personal gripe is about being misled by those who had the ability and position to mold my mind.

As an adult, I can let go of this and move on in a positive way. We can glean great truth and inspiration from historical legends. While it is clearly not within the scope of this article, I’d rather spend my time getting to know about the figures who are intimately connected to my personhood (family, friends and local community members). They are infinitely more influential and inspirational than anyone who will ever be mentioned in a history book.

62 S.W. November 10, 2011 at 10:09 am

I appreciate your addressing the true nature of history. I was a history major (graduated three years ago) and rarely had an easy time explaining the nature of historical study to people. Even those who liked history weren’t too keen on the idea that it isn’t set in stone; there are some concrete facts, but the narrative of a person, event, culture, etc is in the perspective of the person. There’s a reason historians get into inconclusive shouting matches at conferences (well, aside from being blowhards). History is debatable. You can get just as easily get inspiration from it as you can a sense of “we’re so much better now.”

63 Samuel Warren November 10, 2011 at 10:13 am

This article is spot on.

If you are using someone as an example to live by, you obviously need to take the good and not live by the bad. When children especially learn about someone who is considered a hero, if you impart to those children every bad thing that hero did, won’t that child attempt to live by the same standard?

At a young age it is important for children to see the good side of things. This gives them hope. Once they are older I believe it is important that you share the whole picture. This gives them wisdom.

64 Daren Redekopp November 10, 2011 at 10:48 am

The point is illustrated in cases like Bill Gates, who, as Malcolm Gladwell points out, had the most unique of opportunities, but also the most extraordinary work ethic. As for the white-washed portrayal of past heroes, one of the things that has always fascinated me about the four gospels is their unflinching depiction of the disciples virtues and flaws, alongside of Jesus’ being exactly who he is in every situation, despite how popular or unpopular his words & deeds might have been at the time.

65 S.W. November 10, 2011 at 10:50 am

Reading this got me thinking about my own cynicism, which developed, naturally, in college. Basically, the more I studied history, and various other social sciences, the more I scrutinized and cast my heroes aside, especially if he/she was a cultural icon. Anytime someone mentioned who they thought was the greatest president or an ingenious writer or whatever, I’d scoff as a knee jerk reaction. I could see WHY they admired those people, but they were ignoring major flaws, or were simply ignorant of them. I developed a know-it-all superiority complex. It’s sad to think about now.

I felt people deified certain people and ignored their humanity. If you wanted to solidify your opinion, invoke Lincoln, or Jefferson, or Kennedy, or Roosevelt. Quote them, and people will suddenly realize you’re right. Their names can become part of the tired rhetorical toolbox. It felt cheap to me, and to fight back I would snarkily bring up flaws. Which, sadly, is also a tired rhetorical tool.

I agree with the idea that flaws do not, and should not, ruin messages of inspiration. People are flawed. I now look at those flaws as a way to humanize historical figures, which I feel is important.

66 tim_lebsack November 10, 2011 at 10:51 am

We are not just students of history, We are history, each of us.
I believe that in the future we will be asked, perhaps commanded, to forgive everyone, even those who mirror our own faults.

67 Johnathon November 10, 2011 at 11:00 am

What you said about giving other people the same form of criticism that we give ourselves reminds me of what C.S. Lewis said about loving and forgiving other people. I’m sure you’ve read the book this is from because you’ve referenced it before in another article somewhere. So as you know he says,

“In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know that I am a very nasty one. I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing.”

To hold others to a standard which we do not hold ourselves to is hypocritical at best, malicious at worst. Thank you for expressing this problem with historical criticism, I also have been struggling with it for some time.

68 Carlos Infante November 10, 2011 at 11:10 am

I’m a great believer in learning from history and even though we can criticize the great men of history because of their flaws, these should not outweigh their deeds. Like us they are human, but they did things that made them great. I ask all of you, what have you done in your lives that makes you great?

69 JIm November 10, 2011 at 11:11 am

Beautifully written. We look back on previous times as simpler times when in fact they were just as complex and in many ways more difficult. The men and women who faced the challenges posed by that complexity and those difficulties, were human with all the associated frailties and idiosyncrasies that status conveys. Those who succeeded did indeed have warts and personal characteristics that were not as pure as the wind driven snow. But they persevered and provide wonderful examples of the power of determination.

70 Thomas Feeny November 10, 2011 at 11:21 am

AMEN BROTHER! Could not have said it any better. Let us not forget that every great man is 1st and foremost, just a man. He is considered great by his responses to his circumstances. Yes many of the American founders were slave owners, but they fought under adverse conditions that we could not imangine to win independance from tyranny and lay the foundation of this great country. Abraham Lincoln was very bigoted toward blacks yet prosecuted a war which lead to the end of slavery in this land. Every ‘hero’ has his flaws. Let us admire and emulate his strengths and learn from his weaknesses.

71 Ian November 10, 2011 at 11:45 am

It’s Postmodernism’s fault. To hell with that horror.

72 Jordan M. Poss November 10, 2011 at 11:51 am

Excellent article. While earning my MA in History I was a teaching assistant and through grading undergraduate papers I ran into this attitude all the time. Thanks to that experience I’m always keenly aware of what C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield termed “chronological snobbery.” Per Lewis: “Barfield . . . destroyed forever two elements in my own thought. In the first place he made short work of what I have called my ‘chronological snobbery,’ the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited. You must find why it went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood. From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.” (From Surprised by Joy)

73 David W November 10, 2011 at 11:54 am

And this is why you’re one of my favorite writers (or writing team!).

“But greatness is not begotten from circumstances, but from how those circumstances are used and turned to a man’s favor.” Exactly this.

It’s amazing to think that a child with a cellphone has more knowledge and technology in her fingertips than the US Presidents had 15 years ago. The possibilities (and circumstances) are in our favor! This is our time to build history.

It’s easy to be cynical, but it takes a more critical analysis to offer insight. Of course, you may be getting my deepest praise because I am an ardent history lover.

74 Korey November 10, 2011 at 12:09 pm

Brett, I totally agree with you here. It would seem that today we live in a society that is hellbent on destroying people regardless of what they offer. You can see this on any sports show…find a week where (fill in the blank) quarterback did great one week, then has an off week the next, and they’re getting skewered. I don’t know if it’s lack of their own accomplishment or resentment of how the “everyone’s a winner” mentality has finally gotten us, because not everyone is a winner. As I’m approaching 40, I see how I have changed, everything was black and white, and now I didn’t realize there were so many shades of gray. Sure, my grandad was full of his own flaws, but is still someone I can look up to with pride and judge my own life against. He got his family through the depression, WWII, and then some. He still had what he needed right up until his death. He depended on no one and made his own way in life, provided for his children, grand children, great grand children and wife of 62 years. Clearly his way of life wouldn’t totally work in this day and age, but there are parts of it that I continue to learn from and measure myself against, and try to be a better man because of it. I totally get where you are coming from in these articles and really appreciate that there are others out there who feel the same way. How can we expect to grow and achieve if we only focus on the negative? Grandad didn’t see it like that, and I’ll be damned if I will either. Keep up the good work, AOM for life!

75 Dean November 10, 2011 at 12:11 pm

What an excellent article! I’m looking forward to sharing this with my sixteen year-old son, it will make for a great conversation starter.

76 JJ November 10, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Thank you for writing this. I could feel the passion in your words and it is always wonderful to hear someone be passionate about history. There are always those that want to focus on the bad, that Themistocles was kicked out of Athens and he was a tyrant, but he also had the vision and leadership to build the greatest navy in the world at that time which helped defeat the Persians. There is good and bad; often, the bad serves a better lesson than the good.

77 Jory November 10, 2011 at 12:40 pm

I disagree. You have to look at the flaws as well to get to know the person. If you werevto look at just the good stuff people like; hitler Che guerverra, Castro, Saddam, pol pot, Stalin, Mao, Lenin, Stalin, the men who were responsible for the Sioux massacre seem like good men. How about the occupy movement that’s happening. They don’t seem bad until you find out people are getting raped.

Some evil people have good traits, that doesn’t make them good though.

78 Chris November 10, 2011 at 2:12 pm

One of the mistakes I see made by people today is they judge a historical figure not by the standards and circumstances of that persons time, but by the standards of modern life.

79 lady brett November 10, 2011 at 2:20 pm

good article. i definitely support the “holding onto the slippery baby” approach (great phrase), and i think you explained it well! a few notes, though:

i think a lot is related to context. here it makes perfect sense to focus on the inspirational aspects. however, i do not think that ignoring the faults of history is an acceptable approach to, say, teaching history – that is how people come to know nothing of it, and often to be so surprised when they *do* hear bad things about their heroes that they give up on the whole of it.

i also think “He himself has a great many flaws—and yet he loves himself all the same!” is a wonderful comparison for how to view others! however, i will take issue with the idea that a man would love himself simply because he can rationalize away his flaws; that does not seem honorable to me. i hope that the case would be that he can see his mistakes and flaws, recognize them honestly as such, and love himself despite them – because of his strengths, and because he knows he is working to change those flaws.

“A man can be showered with numerous opportunities, and yet squander them all away. Circumstances help, but personal responsibility and agency determine our fate.” the first sentence is undeniably true, but i take issue with the second. it is often be the case, but it is also sometimes the case that personal responsibility and agency are not sufficient to overcome circumstances.

80 David November 10, 2011 at 2:31 pm

Thank you for another well written and balanced article!! We have become very judgemental as a nation. I concerns me to listen to and read all of the negative and demeaning comments we are exposed to on a daily basis. Each generation has it’s own set of morals (though I am not sure my generation has any moral direction whatsoever). All past and future generations will have their “shining moments” as well as moments of darkness and despair. It is essential for us to look to the past, examine the men who have done great things, and learn from them. Study not only at their successes, but also their failures and shortcomings. We are all human, we all sin. I would venture to say that every one of us could be called a liar or thief (or sorse) at one time or another. As the Bible states “let he who has not sinned cast the first stone”. We are all a selfish, foul, sinfull mess. All men are capable of evil. In order to succeed in the future we need to learn from the lessons of the past, both good and bad. The “heros” of our day will most likely be beaten down with some form of criticism as ideals and attitudes change in the future. A true man, a “manly man” will look to the positive for inspiration and examine the negative in order to avoid making a mistake himself.

81 Ben Cope November 10, 2011 at 2:52 pm

I read Zinn last year in high school. How sad… His final chapter read a lot like the Communist Manifesto. And His theory on the cold was so sadly misled it was humorous.

This is why I love my history class here at USNA, we don’t really bother with that stuff. Granted, we don’t ignore flaws, but revisionsit history is not given credence it does not deserve. Also… Professors are more up to date on history when it comes to recently un-classified documents.

82 John November 10, 2011 at 3:17 pm

One of the best yet from this site. Keep up the good work…

The context of this discussion with respect to history was great; the context of this discussion with respect to avoiding personal responsibility was brilliant, and parallels an argument I have been making for some time. This is particularly interesting with all of the occupy movements taking place. Although they started out with plausible objectives (personal opinion removed), they seem to have morphed into this group of victims that want to blame somebody for their current situation(s), in hopes that somebody else will fix it. I wonder if that is what gramps was waiting for during the “greatest era ever”.

83 John November 10, 2011 at 3:18 pm

PS, maybe we should send them all a link here.

84 Brucifer November 10, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Slavish adoration of men of the past is one thing that must be avoided. For example, the other glossed-over part of the so-called “Greatest Generation” who ‘heroically’ fought in WWII, was that most of them were draftees, not enlistees! Yet, as a professional Futurist, I find it an annoying trend in some circles to denigrate certain men from our past … by our oh-so-enlightened *present* sensibilities. Get real! Gods know how future generations will judge US! Thus, it is spurious and ignorant to denigrate someone like Jefferson, “because he kept slaves.” He … and we … are simply products of our times. It is also spurious and ignorant to form revisionist histories to fit present political-correctness patterns. Historical scholarship is currently rife with that crap. For example, it is taken as gospel by many of those teaching history to our students these days, that smallpox was deliberately spread to the Amerindian population through infected blankets. This, despite any shred of credible evidence! (evidence is another thing that eludes many present-day historians) And as any good Futurist will tell you, you simply cannot make good sense of your present or your future, without a good working-knowledge of your past.

85 alfred871 November 10, 2011 at 4:11 pm

I am doing a virtual standing ovation right now! Loved the article!

86 Daryl November 10, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Bang on! History is the greatest of teachers.

87 Tim November 10, 2011 at 5:20 pm

Great post! I think it really aarticulates the way most of us feel.

88 Matt DeBlass November 10, 2011 at 6:38 pm

It’s strange how so much of our current popular media celebrates the “antihero,” while at the same time when we look at the great men and women of the past (or of the present even) we say “but he was a drunk, or a womanizer or prejudiced about X, Y or Z.” Yeah, they were flawed human beings, some of them were complete jerks in person, but when the time came they stepped up and did the job, just like a lot of our cinematic “bad boy” heroes.
How well would any of us stand up in the light of historical scrutiny? We all have our failings, some of them can be pretty big, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn something positive from our forebears, or from each other.

89 Tom King November 10, 2011 at 6:46 pm

Well written piece. I’ve had the same concerns about the historical revisionism. Reminds me of Orwell’s new history that Big Brother kept constantly rewriting to fit the current ideological narrative in 1984. We’ve had 1984-lite sweep through academia in the past 3 decades and it’s been every bit as damaging to this generation of kids as Orwell’s full on Big Brother dominated society because it is more subtle. We’ve taught our kids to be cynical, aloof and snobbish and lost much of the enthusiasm and drive the younger generation usually brings to our society. In many ways the self-made man coming out of this generation is even more admirable.

Teddy Roosevelt was right on many issues and wrong on some, but he was an admirable man and worthy of the trust we put in him when he became president. Teddy was once shot by a would-be assasin prior to giving a speech. He gave the speech with a bullet in him and finished it before going to the hospital. Now THAT is a man worth admiring.

90 Niko November 10, 2011 at 8:02 pm

The bigger problem I have with your numerous looks to people from the history is that it is unnecessary most of the time.
Your article about the standing table is a very good example for this.

It does not matter at all who used them in the past, the idea of standing more hours during the day has to be good by itself. We should never do something just because someone else has done it (even if he has a great name), an Idea, an article has to be valuable by itself and not in need of a great name! Of course it is all right to look more into the things big names provide since we know that they are reliable, but whenever possible we should let the idea speak for itself.

When I shave, I use an old safety-razor from my grampa, not because he used one, but because I get better results with it compared to modern multi bladed stuff.

I always try to listen to a political debate and look up who is who and from which party so I don’t get influenced by a name.

If no one cared, why is the uproar? Matticus answers that too: “Too many people these days read something and just automatically assume it’s true since the source seems authoritative.” Morons, I’d call them. Other people are sources of information, but you have to evaluate the information itself. It can be false not only because the source is lying, but also because he’s wrong. If you believe anything just because someone told you, you’re an easy target and you’ll be separated from your money.
[...]Scary? Not. You don’t have to know me to read my blog. My statements are true or false because of themselves. My stories are funny or boring because of themselves. Still, the social people have bad feeling if they don’t know someone. These mental schemes are remnants of the ages when we depended on certain people so we had to know them. “Ape subroutines” I call them.

91 Matt Krachunis November 10, 2011 at 8:31 pm

its articles like this that get me to read AOM. Fantastic article. This article should be the preface in every history book in America.

92 Fred B November 10, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Fine article. Perhaps a minor point, but one that I found irritating, is that you aren’t really talking about being inspired by history, but rather by figures from history. While recognizing the influence of “great men” – both for good and evil – on the human story, we must remember that Attila the Hun, Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Elizabeth I, Thomas Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, et. al., were actors who influenced their own times and the direction of the societies, cultures, economies, technologies, etc. that followed, but their ideas, actions and characters are not, in themselves, “History”.

That you have one of the most insightful blogs around is evidenced by the kind and quality of the responses generated, and that our reactions to your columns are at least as thought-provoking as your own words.

My own thought on some of the comments made on our present situation is that far too many of us have confused “equality of opportunity” with “equality of outcome”.


93 Mike M. November 10, 2011 at 8:36 pm

A truly brilliant essay.

It’s worth remembering something: All men should be judged by the standards of THEIR day, not ours. For in their eyes, we might not look so good ourselves. And there are very few truly evil men, merely men whose duties came into conflict.

94 Rich Ervin November 10, 2011 at 8:52 pm

I have found that my age (almost 56) has made it a lot easier to look past the faults of others and see their attributes. I find it much easier to cut the other guy some slack, since I have made so many mistakes myself. Trust to the grey; there is a whole lot more of that than clear cut black and white.

95 JC November 10, 2011 at 9:17 pm

I find no inspiration in myths or people who are perfect because I cannot relate to them – give me the flawed, the downtrodden, the drunk, etc. – those are people who I can relate to. People who achieve great things in spite of (or in the process of overcoming) flaws are inspiring. It means that perhaps I too can achieve great things. I don’t put Jefferson, Ford or Twain or anyone else on a pedestal, but I am willing to view their achievements in the context of their time and place – as I hope future generations will judge us.

96 ngdoms November 10, 2011 at 9:37 pm

great article and some great comments…except for those who have no idea what the occupy movement is about and decide to cast them as just lazy…because they are the lazy and criminal ones who almost destroyed the economy and then had their tax dollars bail themselves out…right?

the occupy movement wants nothing more than for the rich and power to get out of politics and to pay their share for the crap they pulled the last few years. No one is saying that you can’t get rich, they are saying you shouldn’t break the law and step on everyone else’s back to get there.

also if there so damn lazy and have problems go tell them where all the jobs are at so they can get back to work i would love to see how you men of means explain that one.

* theodorerex is a great man that i have admired, glad to see him get some love. Glad to see gladwell get a mention there too, his Outliers is a great book explaining how luck and ability = success in this country, not just ability (because no one gets to the top on their own, even roosevelt who had plenty of money and opportunity to read and travel at an age that 99% of the country had no access too…also admire ben frank…there is a man who truly came from nothing).

97 Jordan Howard November 10, 2011 at 10:17 pm

Bravo indeed. How could we possibly be expected to be great men without studying great men, both their successes and failures?

Thank you, ngdoms, for defending the Occupy movements. It’s not about begging for handouts, it’s about stopping the corruption of powerful people and breaking out of the complete control that corporations have over our lives. If that’s not a manly thing to stand up for, I’m not sure what is.

98 Shalom November 10, 2011 at 11:22 pm

I do understand, and appreciate, the heart of this post–it is indeed essential to reject cynicism, commit to ideals, and take a complete view of our fellow human beings as we look to them for learning.

The question is, at what point do a man’s mistakes and flaws outweigh his better qualities? At what point does being a man of one’s time stop being an excuse? I think some of what this post addresses really is myopic, self-interested cynicism–and some of it is people drawing that line in a different place from the writers of this blog. AoM draws the line in one place–I don’t think we’re going to be reading “Lessons in Manliness from the Life of Hitler” anytime soon–and others may have very good reasons for wanting to move the line one way or another. For example, many Native Americans have excellent reasons for considering an article about one of the founders of the US to be just as offensive as the never-gonna-happen Hitler example–and, therefore, an excellent reason to wonder why someone would give one a thumbs up and one a thumbs down.

This post perfectly addresses the issue of whether we should look to history for inspiration. The elephant in the room is which history.

99 Daniel November 10, 2011 at 11:22 pm

A good quote that is recited often by professors in my Masters program is this: “we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size.” We have the unique position of looking at events and people in history with knowledge and insight which people in the past did not have. Thus, it is often easy to judge people of the past for their shortcomings.

100 David D Nystrom November 11, 2011 at 1:17 am

I for one, am glad that my heros and the great achievers I admire are all flawed in some way. It gives me hope as a flawed individual, that I can still do better. If my heros and those I admire were absolutely perfect in every way, I would find their greatness much too difficult to aspire or related to.

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