Historical Lectures and Addresses/Heroes

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Heroes  (1898) 
by Mandell Creighton
An address given to the Social and Political Education League on 4 November 1898.

Any attempt to meditate on the records of the past, with a view to using the results for guidance in the present, at once raises questions which are incapable of solution. It is impossible to appraise human activity by any fixed standard or to determine its limitations. On the one hand, we feel that great events or great movements are only intelligible when described in the terms of individual endeavour; on the other hand, there are times when we begin to doubt if their appropriation by individuals can after all be justified. There is no doubt that we can only understand ideas when they are exhibited in their application to actual life. In themselves they are abstract, remote, inoperative. They only show their power as they excite our interest; and they claim that interest only when they are set forth in the actions or aspirations of men like ourselves. Indeed, it is not too much to say that all our mental possessions come to us in the first instance by the process of imitation. The child appropriates its mother's sayings, and adopts unconsciously its mother's attitude towards life. This is the source of its learning long before it pays any attention to its mother's precepts or ideas. So far as these precepts are adopted, they are adopted as the record of a process which has been already completed.

Thus, all ideas concerning life come to the individual somehow or other in a personal form. What is true of our individual life forms a habit of mind which we cannot lay aside when we step into a sphere which is beyond our individual experience. We know that truth is ineffective unless it is applied by a person. When we look back upon the past, we do not want to discover a truth or an idea apart from a person, nor can we tolerate a person except as expressing an idea or a truth. This, I take it, is the reason why we are always anxious to discover heroes or great men. The search for such beings is therefore inevitable, for it corresponds to the facts of human nature and expresses a profound truth. But it sometimes raises difficulties and suggests questionings about the nature of human judgment When we find that the reputations, the aims, and the motives of prominent personages in the past are still matters of debate, we begin to doubt the possibility of the existence of any principles on which such judgment can proceed. It is still a question whether Mary Queen of Scots was a profligate intriguer or an injured martyr. The proposal to split the difference meets with little approval; partisanship is almost as heated nowadays as it was in her own times, though the practical reasons, which, it might be thought, can alone create partisans, have long since disappeared. Still, people like to deal with heroines or villains, and abhor more ordinary characters. They like their pictures to be painted in vivid colours, and will have no neutral tints. This desire is natural enough, but it is adverse to the formation of a right judgment.

Great men are so called either because they expressed great ideas or because they did great actions. The danger in dealing with them is lest we clothe them too entirely with the idea, or associate them too absolutely with the action; indeed, we often make vast assumptions solely for the purpose of giving convenient names to things. There is no doubt about the greatness of an idea; it must be associated with some name, and the man who bears the name becomes accordingly great. There is no question that an important event occurred; some one must have done it; so the immediate agent has all the credit. Then, as soon as a man has been voted a great man, it is necessary that he be maintained in all things at the level of his imputed greatness.

This ordinary and obvious method of procedure is open to two dangers. First, it is possible, on one side, that the truth of the idea or the value of the act should suffer from the frailties of the individual with whom it is associated, and that great historic impulses should be made repugnant to some minds by the temper of their foremost exponent. For instance, there are people who fail to do justice to the intellectual and spiritual value of the Reformation movement in Germany, because of Luther's deficiency in the higher æsthetic perceptions.

Secondly, there is a danger that the real character of the hero should disappear before the persistent attempt to read him into a formula. This is a great loss, for there is nothing more dangerous, in political speculation or political teaching, than the attempt to transcend the actual facts of human life, or disregard the limitations of human frailty. Nothing is more misleading than a picture of impossible consistency. We cannot take Henry II. as a sagacious law-giver without reflecting that he had an ungovernable temper; and it is well worth remembering that the great Duke of Marlborough, for all his courage in the field, trembled before his wife.

We must not confuse the great results of history with the issues of individual lives. Both of them are written for our learning, but they are written in different books. Do not let us mix the contents of the two volumes.

There are two objects possible to us in studying the records of the past—two distinct sources of instruction, in two different directions. One is to discover the great lines of human progress; to see the course it followed, and to determine the guiding principles which inspired its advance. This is a scientific study of human development, and owes its value to the completeness of our conception of the end of social life. We must recognise that this conception is constantly being modified by the tendencies of current aspirations, which are themselves seriously affected by contemporary political ideas. Thus, sixty years ago, the success of the ideas of the French Revolution constituted them a standard for judging the past, and a starting-point for criticising the future. The events of 1870 affected this standard insensibly, and perhaps undeservedly. It is curious to note the effects of this reaction on the historical judgment of the work and character of Napoleon I., an effect nowhere more conspicuous than in the country which owes so much to his genius. The discovery of unknown portions of the globe, and the consequent struggles for colonisation, have introduced an enlarged conception of future possibilities which is seriously affecting our former ideas of the end of progress. The growth of the Russian Empire has revealed characteristics of Slavonic civilisation which may still further modify our conception. Thus, the basis of a scientific study of history is continually being enlarged. The ideas which enter into it become more abstract as they become larger, and, as they become more abstract, they become less personal.

The other side of the study of history is the recognition that, be things as they may, they were the result of human effort, the product of man's endeavour to do the best that he could for himself. We, who are workers in the present, wish to fortify ourselves by a feeling of sympathy with the great workers of the past. Reverence for great names is the secular side of the ecclesiastical doctrine of the Communion of Saints. No man can stand alone; he wishes to feel that some prophet's mantle has fallen upon his shoulders, that he has a source of inspiration for his own efforts; that he is engaged in a continuous work, which will pass on to others who follow him. Thus he needs heroes for the purpose of his personal edification. This is a laudable aspiration; but it is one which we must satisfy at our own risk. Inspiration is different from imitation. We must see that when we let ourselves be inspired by the luminous idea of a great character, we take it in its purest form, free from the exaggerations which seemed necessary in times of more direct conflict, and free from the modes of expression which were due to temporary causes.

I have said that we cannot safely read any man into a formula. We cannot associate him entirely with one object, without losing much of the significance of his life. I am not sure that the methods of contemporary fiction do not seriously affect our judgments of men of the past. Certainly Sir Walter Scott exerted great influence on the methods of historical writing. The highly analytical novel which prevails at present accustoms us to a habit of regarding a man as typical of some particular mood, or affording the means of exhibiting some nice situation. We may rebel against this mode of treatment, and wish to know what the hero ate and drank, and how he made his money, when he was not engaged in analysing himself to the too sympathetic heroine. Yet, none the less, we are compelled to take him as he is put before us; and we accept the conclusions of the one volume as complete, forgetting that it would require a whole library of volumes to exhibit on the same scale the other motives which were working on his life and character at the same time, and which all had their share in producing the result which is ascribed to one motive only.

Fiction, however, is artificial, and may work in its own sphere, according to its own rules, which it is our business to appreciate at their proper worth. But history deals with real men and real events; if we would learn their lessons rightly, we must not impose artificial limitations.

There are, then, two motives which should weigh with us in our selection of a hero. First, that he worked for principles which we believe to be fruitful, and which are our own by virtue of that belief. This is, so to say, the scientific basis of our choice. But when this has been determined there remains the second point—that our hero should also be the inspirer of our own action, and, as such, should be capable of imitation. Here, I think, we frequently find ourselves beset with difficulties.

The man lived in an age which is not our age, and his methods cannot be our methods. His position was not our position, and the forces which were at his command are not at our command. We have to translate him into other terms before we can use him for our purposes. There is great danger that in this process the hero should entirely disappear. Roughly speaking, we feel that we need instruction in two things—wisdom and virtue. Men who are called great are so called because they succeeded in some object which they set before themselves. Success means in all things an adaptation of means to ends, and in studying this process we can generally trace the dexterity, if not the wisdom, of the hero whom we are considering. But frequently his virtue is not equally conspicuous. We sorrowfully admit that the hero's methods are beyond our power in these days when law-courts are punctilious; and, indeed, were such that we have no wish to follow them, even if the law-courts made larger allowances than they do for the exigencies of public-spirited policy.

Our first duty, therefore, seems to be to make allowances for the spirit of the age. But, after we have done so, we begin to have an uncomfortable feeling that our view of the spirit of the age has been constructed from no better grounds than our hero's actions. He did such and such a thing; it succeeded; men applauded his success; therefore they saw nothing to blame in the moral ideas from which he acted. But men's moral ideas have always been much the same. Advance in morality only means stricter enforcement of the moral law, not a greater knowledge of its contents. The hero knew the moral law, but dispensed himself from its observance for his own purposes.

We cannot determine the condition of the popular conscience before he acted; and, indeed, the conception of any organised expression of the popular conscience is a very modern idea, and is still peculiar to the Anglo-Saxon race. But, this I think we may say, that if a man was superior to his fellows in wisdom, we may demand that he should be also superior in virtue. If not, we can scarcely be justified in counting him a great man, except on the bald assumption that anything that is done is great simply because it is done, and, consequently, that the acquisition and use of force for any purpose whatever constitutes the sole title to greatness.

This brings me to a question concerning great men which must be answered before we can determine their position. Do we call men great because they direct human endeavour, or because they express it? Is the great man to be regarded as a pioneer or as a capable official? The moment we begin to make apologies for him, we tend to degrade him from the former of these positions to the latter. There are always rulers, ministers and generals. Sometimes things have to be done, and the man who happens to have to do them at that time happens to succeed. After all, in a conflict there are only two parties—one must win, the other must lose. It is no such great merit that any given man was on the winning side. The merit does not lie in the individual leader, but in the nation or cause which he leads. It is obvious that a man's position in affairs was due, in the first instance, to his choice of a profession; his rise was due to his capacity in discharging the work of daily routine till this proved capacity secured him the foremost place. This is the history of the official. Wherein lies his responsibility? What is his contribution to human welfare? If he only does the thing that is expected of him, as opportunity arises; if he merely obeys current sentiment, it is clear that no great merit attaches to him personally. The moving force is the desire of the community, of which he has simply been the mouthpiece and the executor. But this sceptical position can scarcely be maintained concerning any leader in times when great decisions had to be taken. Those decisions were always prompted by one or more men endowed with clear vision and steadfast faith, inspired by a profound belief in the destinies of their country and in the necessity of maintaining it in a position to fulfil that destiny. Thus I cannot find a hero who does not at the bottom rest upon a transcendental basis. I cannot imagine one's heart being deeply stirred by the eulogy, "He steadfastly pursued the greatest happiness of the greatest number". This would be an excellent tribute to the capable official, but would not constitute a hero. I know that there are many who would wish to see it otherwise, but I can only record our present sentiment in the matter. However, whatever view we take on this point, we find our hero inextricably involved in moral consideration. If he disastrously affected public morality, I do now see how the spirit of the age is to save him.

I admit that we are now dealing with a matter in which it is difficult to find a common standard or measurement. Supposing it is granted that territorial acquisition is desirable for a country's greatness and prosperity, I cannot determine the ratio between square miles of territory and moral elevation. Is a statesman who has annexed a province to be regarded as so great a benefactor that his proceedings in so doing are above criticism? If not, how is the question to be determined? I cannot tell how much bloodshed and how much lying are allowable per square mile. Either you must take the acquisition as justifying the means taken to acquire it, or, while you pocket the acquisition, you must gibbet sky-high the villain who won it for you, or you must lay down a principle that no acquisition is to be made by methods which are contrary to right principles or morality. The same considerations apply to all other objects of political endeavour, whether the concern domestic politics or international politics. There must somehow be a standard which is capable of universal application. We cannot only praise a man for accomplishing something of which we approve, unless we can also approve of the way in which he has done it. This is hard doctrine, and threatens to make short work of heroes altogether. We shrink from applying strict moral judgments to great men or to great events, because we feel, somehow or other, that size and scale introduce a real difference. It is rather difficult to justify this impression, which is indeed somewhat rudimentary.

There is a difference between public and private morality; but I do not know that any analysis has yet succeeded in determining what that difference is. It is clear that the difference does not lie in the moral principles which regulate human conduct, but in the difficulty of applying them, with sufficient accuracy, in a sphere where ordinary guides and secondary motives do not exist. In our own affairs, moral principles are enforced by known sanctions, and are embodied in the opinion which surrounds us. It is easier to be moral when the result of our actions is apparent; it becomes more difficult when the consequences are removed from view. The ordinary man has a higher moral standard in his relations towards his family and household than he has to those whom he employs in his factory or workshop. He exercises more care in forming a wise opinion about the conduct of his own business than he does about the business of the State. If I extend this obvious principle to the consideration of the dangers which beset great men in high position, I trust you will not think that I am unduly introducing casuistry into the domain of morals. Casuistry arises in private life through the difficulty of determining what principles of conduct ought to be dominant in a case where the primary issue is difficult to determine. In private life the best advice is to avoid, if possible, complicated situations—to behave, that is, with such uniform simplicity and straightforwardness that you are not involved in dilemmas which require recondite lore for their solution. But the life of a ruler or of a statesman is always complicated, and he cannot simplify problems at his pleasure. A statesman, undoubtedly, is responsible for his choice of a profession. Hereditary rulers have not even that amount of responsibility. Both of them have very little choice in determining the questions which they have to face. The great complexity of public affairs is continually forcing a statesman to deal with a matter which he would prefer not to deal with, and to put aside some other object which is near his heart. His moral enthusiasm may be prepared to flow in a particular direction, but he finds himself dragged in another direction, and has not time to gather his moral enthusiasm together and carry it with him. When he has settled this troublesome matter, he will resume his morality, and apply it diligently to his great primary purpose. The desired opportunity rarely occurs.

But not only is public business complicated, it is also abstract; and the more important it is, the more abstract it tends to become. Large political problems have to be worked out in a sort of political algebra—purely human interests tend to disappear. Just as a surgeon must perform an operation mechanically, according to the rules of his art, and would only be unmanned if he had before him the issues at stake on the individual life, so a statesman rapidly loses sight, in a complicated matter, of the primary considerations in which that matter originated. One step leads to another, and on each occasion for action, he can merely survey the chess-board and make the best move possible.

Again, a statesman is necessarily pledged to be the representative of a cause or a party. Of course he is responsible for espousing that cause or that party. He does so at first because he agrees with its fundamental ideas; but he is soon constrained to recognise the limitations imposed upon him by party loyalty. Frequently he cannot face the problem before him simply in itself. He has to ask not only what is the best and wisest thing to do, but the further and more difficult question: How will it, if done, affect my party as a whole? It may be said that this is an unworthy attitude to assume; that a man ought to quit a position in which he feels that he cannot act up to the best he knows. This, however, is really impossible in human affairs. In accepting a post of responsibility, the true man cuts himself off from the possibility of retreat. Dante was right in holding up to exceptional shame him who "made the great refusal". We cannot refuse to do our duty to the best of our power when things wear a threatening aspect. Oft-times a statesman is bound to cling to power, not because he wishes it, but because his abandonment of it would cause a disastrous reaction.

It is seldom in the conduct of affairs that a man can do his best; he is generally driven to pursue the second best as being the only practicable course. Few statesmen are ever free to express all their aspirations. The utmost that can be expected of them is that, when they are compelled to act or speak on a lower level than they wish, they should do it badly. I cannot help saying that I think I see this tendency growing amongst public men in England, and I hail it as a hopeful sign.

Again, a ruler or a statesman is necessarily always placed in a position the inconveniences of which we personally may have some experience. He is a trustee acting in behalf of the nation, which may be regarded as a corporation; it has an enormous capital which he must preserve and increase. A man may be open-handed in the management of his own affairs, but niggardly as a trustee. He may be hopeful and trustful where he is personally concerned, but cautious and slow to move when the interests of others are at stake. For himself he may be forbearing, but for his country he must exact the uttermost farthing. It is this which makes the application of moral principles still more difficult in international affairs. In personal matters, we are helped by the moral atmosphere in which we live, and by the operation of moral judgments which are freely applied to us by those with whom we have to do. International morality has no such sanctions. A successful statesman is not troubled by the unfavourable opinion of his modes of action expressed by those whom he has vanquished. He is very much a law unto himself; he has little to help him to appreciate the future results of his policy; he is exposed to the temptation of thinking that success once achieved palliates all the methods taken to achieve it. The only direct consideration that can tend to check him in pursuing devious courses is that deceit, when detected, begets distrust. But this need not trouble him much. In ordinary life we show our reprobation of a treacherous dealer by refusing to deal with him any more; but a nation has to be dealt with whether we like it or not. It is difficult for a statesman, however upright, not to deal with other countries according to the character which their diplomacy has shown in the past. Such a necessity, in the case of any one country, tends to lower the standard universally.

I fear that I have drawn a sorrowful picture of the difficulties and dangers which beset the statesman's path. Perhaps it is lucky that he does not see them all at once. Few men, I imagine, who became great started on their career with the intention of becoming so. That intention generally accompanies the unsuccessful. The secret of real greatness seems to be a happy knack of doing things as they come in your way; and they rarely present themselves in the form which careful preparation would enable you to deal with.

I once knew a man whose aim was to become a great conversationalist. For this purpose he spent his time in devising repartees, which he carefully entered in a notebook. His undergraduate friends—it is needless to say that he was an undergraduate—were never allowed to read the contents of the notebook, but they noticed that they never heard the repartees. Somehow, the conversational opening never offered itself. The only preparation for future greatness which I have ever seen seriously made was the cultivation of a careful habit of preserving and arranging letters, so that they could immediately be referred to. This had the advantage that it was a habit of general utility, and had a certain commercial value in case greatness was not attained.

I have been endeavouring to show that a preparation in the attainment of a firm hold upon moral principles, and a careful study of their application to large issues, is the most necessary and the most difficult element in a statesman's equipment. I think that an enlightened public opinion may do much to enforce this truth.

I have said that public morality differs from private morality, but that it is hard to determine in points of detail where the difference exactly lies. We may, however, judge about the general tendency of the actions of a great man. We may decide whether, beside the objects which he attained, he heightened or lowered the general consciousness of right. I do not mean by this that we must judge his actions as a public man, by reference to his private morality. No amount of testimony to good character can save a forger or a murderer from the penalty of his crime. We cannot in history extenuate deceit and fraud and treacherous bloodshed on grounds of general good intentions. We often praise a man too much for what we call his policy. The policy of a statesman is frequently the historian's summary of the general results which survived out of the many things which he did or attempted—it is sometimes doubtful if this so-called policy was prominently present in the consciousness of him to whom it was attributed.

I recently came across a remark—that any political reputation which survives for one hundred years survives because it is a peg on which historians hang their theories. This does not detract from a man's real greatness; for what higher position could he hope to fill than that of serving as a milestone in the great track of the world's progress? If that position be secured, the direction of the way, and the points between which he marks the distance, may be left for perpetual readjustment. We may measure progress by different standards in material attainments; but civilisation in its noblest form depends upon moral advance, and we look to a time when this will be more and more recognised.

Just as law advances by reported cases as much as by new enactments, so will civilisation advance by our judgments of men of the past as much as by the achievements of men in the present or the future. Therefore, I am of opinion that we should be careful in the selection of heroes for our admiration. We should recognise in their selection the full weight of moral considerations; we should remember that if we palliate their misdeeds, we are so far setting a bad example to their would-be successors. Great opportunities are always accompanied by great responsibilities. We do not by becoming more democratic make government more impersonal; we only identify the whole body of the people more entirely with its methods and its aims. Men must always be led by men, and leaders should always be saddled with any sense of the responsibility which attaches to leadership. There are great dangers attaching to the possession of power. Those who are entrusted with it soon discover how far-reaching those dangers are. It is a real support to them to feel that they will be judged by a higher standard than that of their immediate success. We often learn more from the contemplation of a man's feelings than we do from the recognition of his merits. I do not think that we are acting ungenerously to great men of the past if we attempt to take into account not merely their definite achievements, but their influence on the conscience of their time. Great men and small alike need to reminded that they should walk circumspectly.

It is an excellent feature of the present day that we express our national spirit in commemoration of great men and of great events. Let us be careful in so doing to speak the truth and nothing but the truth. The proposed commemoration of King Alfred seems to me of singular interest as illustrating some of the principles which I have been striving to enforce. Alfred is a national hero on many grounds; not only is he surrounded with a halo of romance, but his character is free from stain. He is a type of the consolidation of the English kingdom—he is familiar as a warrior, a statesman, and a legislator—but, more than all this, he was a man who united practical capacity with lofty aspirations for the moral well-being of his people. He set forth those aspirations by example as well as by precept, and has left a name which may be fairly said to be unexampled in the record of rulers. It is true that he lived a long time ago, and that we do not possess his correspondence, but we know the impression which he produced upon his people, and there is no reason for thinking that his correspondence, if published, would contain any compromising revelations. We may all profit by contemplating the possibilities which such a career and such a character disclose.

It is the human element which counts most in the long run; it is the character of the man, not the nature of his achievements, which gives abiding value to his work. History, if properly studied, tends to show that after all the great man was the good man, and that those only deserve our reverence and our imitation, who brought a good heart as well as a strong head or an iron hand to the service of mankind.