On Being Inspired By History

Earlier this week, an article titled “Should a Man Be Inspired by History?” ran at the Art of Manliness site. I thought the author could have been a little more forceful in his defense of the value of deriving moral instruction from great figures of the past, but on the whole it was a very good piece.

Here is the key passage for me:

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!

What McKay is advocating here is approaching history with a attitude tempered by the Christian virtues of humility and charity, although he doesn’t use that terminology.

I made a similar argument in an article for the Journal of Faith and the Academy a year or two ago. In my experience, most history-bashers fail to be humble and charitable when they examine the past, often because they’re in the grip of a Progressive ideology, what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” Some others refuse to recognize the value of studying the past because of sloth; in other words, they know that if they concede the past to be a gold mine of moral instruction, it might place some sort of moral obligation on them to study it, and they just can’t be bothered to do that. They prefer to be cultural amnesiacs.

The Art of Manliness site tends to focus on figures from American history when seeking inspiration from history. I prefer reaching farther back to the pre-Enlightenment West in most cases. I just read the story of Horatius at the Bridge from my son’s Famous Men of Rome book the other day, and so help me, I couldn’t help but be a little inspired by that. I look forward to many more such moments reading Plutarch and other historians not blinded by materialist ideology or the canons of political correctness.

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About Dr. J

I am Professor of Humanities at Faulkner University, where I chair the Department of Humanities and direct online M.A. and Ph.D. programs based on the Great Books of Western Civilization. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy and a member of the faculty at Liberty Classroom.
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