The year is 66BC. In a place that would become modern day Spain, a 33-year-old magistrate was out walking with friends. Despite being an ambitious and competent man, he was near the bottom of the Roman political ladder. While out on their walk, the magistrate and his friends came across a statue. They craned their necks upwards to look upon the captured likeness of the proud and godlike Alexander the Great. Alexander had died aged 32, a year younger than our magistrate, and in the time he had walked the Earth, he had conquered the known world. Upon realising this, the magistrate began to weep and let out a sorrowful sigh. His friends were a bit confused at their friend’s sudden tears and when asked, he replied ‘Do you think I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?’. Despite his apparently obscure position as a magistrate in a peripheral province of the Roman Empire, nearly everyone has heard his name: Julius Caesar.
Today, we’re more prone to revising our history; we criticise past leaders and deface their monuments. Not all of this is unworthy nor uncharacteristic of our country. After all, iconoclasm is not new to the British. While some were shocked by the Colston statue being torn down, few were defending the man himself and his slaving ways. Nonetheless, when statues to Churchill are graffitied and there are those on Twitter ironically and apparently obliviously calling him a fascist, I have to wonder about the intention of the attacks. Is it criticism that aims to point out flaws which can be remedied or is it destructive and self-righteous attitudes that would rather tear things down instead of committing to the hard labour of building something up?
I was having this very talk with an American friend of mine who takes issue with the celebration of Columbus across the US. In his mind, Columbus was a ‘genocidal maniac’ hated by his crew and – despite his importance to history – he shouldn’t be viewed as anything more or less than my friend’s description. Uncritically holding up figures of the past is almost as bad as cherry picking a person’s best qualities. Instead, my friend argued, we need to teach the whole truth about our great figures. It’s a fair point and one that I can get on board with, but I would still rather have the approach of finding figures that exemplify the values we want to cultivate in our society and celebrating them. That doesn’t mean keeping men like Columbus and Colston as figures to be celebrated and memorialised with statues. Rather, a revision of history should bring to light other figures or provide a holistic understanding of characters like Churchill.
In an essay titled A Sky Without Eagles, one author puts forward the idea that where once people had ideals to look up to – eagles that would draw that gaze upwards – now we have a sky without eagles. This leaves us trudging forward, dejectedly looking down at our feet. Revising our history doesn’t mean we need to tear down greatness itself – if we share values then we should celebrate people who emulate and live up to those values. Going back to the American context, perhaps instead of spitefully trading barbs over General Lee and Columbus, more effort could be put into celebrating titanic figures like Frederick Douglass and Thurgood Marshall. Not without faults of their own, these individuals had the character and courage necessary to fundamentally shape their country for the better – and should be honoured because of it.
The Great figures of the past are not all saints. They shouldn’t be celebrated because of their perfection – rather they are celebrated because they’re not perfect. They were human beings plagued with the same issues of arrogance, illness, and insecurity that we all face. They’re honoured – and should be honoured – because they were human beings who struggled and fell and failed yet through heroic efforts, they demonstrate what we can achieve if we put our minds to it. The Greeks understood this when they enshrined the wrathful Achilles and the deceitful Odysseus as heroes – they’re not saintly but they are Great in their own way.
My goal with this article isn’t to spew some American Dream-esque nonsense. Interestingly, the first time that the phrase ‘American Dream’ was used was actually to describe it failing. No, my goal with this article is encourage you to read about and celebrate the great figures of the past. Their lives are odes to that indomitable aspect of the human spirit, the aspect that overcomes and achieves excellence. Whether you look to Queen Elizabeth I navigating a weak and divided country through turbulent challenges against Europe’s superpower or Konrad Adenauer rebuilding a shattered and morally crippled Germany into a country that was not simply accepted but welcomed by the international community, there are some individuals worthy of biographies and statues.
One of the writers that got me into politics when I was younger, strangely enough, was Machiavelli. His name is now associated with slimy and manipulative politicians and his reputation with fictional characters doesn’t just start with Frank Underwood but dates back to Shakespearean plays. Nonetheless, if you read what Machiavelli actually says, he has a particular view of greatness. Pick up The Prince and you’ll find a handbook that celebrates notoriously dark figures like Agathocles and Cesare Borgia. His point with many of these people is that they were successful so therefore there’s something to learn from them. Take a closer look however and you notice that he thinks murderous usurpers like Agathocles can’t be considered ‘great’ because his pursuit of power was done for his own indulgences. Romulus, on the other hand, murdered his own brother but in doing so, he founded Rome. The act accuses, the results excuse. True greatness, Machiavelli argues, comes from serving the greater good and other people but not from living up to some pious ideal. My point here is that if we tear down everything great simply because it’s not perfect, we risk tearing down greatness itself. At that point we’re left with a sky without eagles.
Discover what you value in life and consider what we as a country should value. Find individuals from history that exemplify those values and do so to the benefit of others. When you find such an individual, perhaps you’ve found someone worthy of the title ‘Great’. Use these figures to cultivate such values in your own life and, perhaps, your community. Perhaps – just maybe – that person you found ought to have a statue so that you and others like you can look up to it and be reminded that within the human spirit is the capacity for greatness.