Judging Historical Figures

A Picture of Howard Zinn

As an author of historical fiction and historian, the question of how to juxtapose historical figures against my ethics is common. Now, the first way I judge historical figures is by their own standards. That is whether and to what degree they were hypocrites. The next way I judge figures is whether or not their morals and ethics were, generally, kind and decent. Leonidas of Sparta may not have been a hypocrite but he thought fourteen-year-olds stabbing each other to death was virtuous and glorious and saw true virtues such as meekness and mercy as weak. The culture of his city-state was, objectively, evil. The fairly recent show, Vikings, portrayed the medieval Norse pirates as noble savages whose crimes were less than their merits. Okay, a people whose normative ethics fail to preclude murder, slavery, rape, and larceny and often engage in these things against powerless peasants in villages is evil in every possible way. It is shocking that they would portray people who, in the normative, saw nothing wrong with rape as proto-feminists.

Talking about historical proto-feminists. That’s an area which is very poorly done. Hypatia is a frequent example but she ran the Eton College for the Roman Empire teaching slaveholding imperialists subjects that never contradicted their slaveholding imperialism. Femimism was impossible before the concept of rights arose in the 17th century so no one before 1600 could possibly, ever, have been a feminist. If you’re going to apply contemporary ethics anachonistically to historical figures, you can’t just judge them for their stance on gender but everything else. You can’t call Hypatia a feminist without also realizing that according to most other current ethics, she was a sociopath. As far as the attempt to paint her assassination by a religous mob as an ancient analog to the Scopes Trial, it wasn’t. That is also an anachronism because there was no conflict between science and religion or between liberal academics and conservative fundamentalists. Not only was Hypatia not a feminist, she wasn’t a left-leaning intellectual. If you’re mentally ill and homeless in 5th century Alexandria, the church will give you a meal and a cot while the neoplatonists (Hypatia’s religion) won’t and their library is filled with plutocrats and scrolls you’re too illiterate to read. The Library of Alexandria was callous to human suffering while the church, for all of its glaring flaws, was not.

The foremost moral virtue in historical fiction seems to be the degree to which they conform to our current ethics. Specifically, the political, deontological, ones. In the movie Titanic, Rose is seen as a rebel against her Edwardian society while she is more a conformist to the Clinton-era society watching her. In a movie whose merchandise was undoubtedly produced by sweatshop labor in the third-world, a much more radical message would have included an indictment of the labor conditions of the 1910s poor. Instead, it sent the message that the poor were happy despite the sweatshops and tenaments they were fated to upon disembarking. It was a jingoistic celebration of 1990s cultural values and proclaiming Fukuyama’s myth of “The End of History” as true in an ironic act of ethnocentrism and hubris. Rose doesn’t help anyone or the environment nor is she concerned with colonialism or war or racism. The only person she cares about is herself and despite being rich, she sees her problems as worse than the people doomed to sweatshops she dances with in third-class. If virtue ethics are able to be considered contemporary, historical figures aren’t judged by them. Rose, Hypatia, and the rest fail miserably. They are only judged by a few political, deontological, ethics.

Which is all to say that the values by which we judge historical figures tend to be out of context and emphasize whatever topic is most associated with said historical figure. Rich Edwardian women are associated with strict standards of ettiquite and social rules so Rose was a commentary on those despite the world she was living in being far more vast than that. The result is a huge distortion of the truth and a message that does injustice to many people then, in the 1990s, and now. The world the movie was set in and the world the movie was produced in both had sweatshop workers and by portraying the 1910s sweatshop workers as jolly to juxtapose them against the villianous rich people, one ends up endorsing the cruel system of the sweatshops of the 1990s by tacitly implying the life of a sweatshop worker is fun. Hypatia wasn’t a feminist and her life was evil but her novelty is being a ancient but powerful woman therefore she is associated with a movement she had nothing to do with: feminism. She is also seen as a martyr for academia and modern academia treats her assassination as if it were Jerry Falwell versus Neil DeGrasse Tyson which fails to recognize the cautionary lesson which is the intelligensia should avoid becoming a metaphorical Bloomsbury Group and should orient their brainpower to people far below the intelligensia. It echoes with laid off factory workers supporting Trump and resenting the Ivy League.

History should be an intersectional and less analytically Marxist version of Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the World”. The question of judging historical figures is usually asked in the context of negatively judging them in cases of famous attrocity like Columbus. Yet, that is not the full scope of judging people. It is judging them according to a handful of deontological, political, ethics. Judgments should consider the full character of a person. Between a 1950s housewife and 950s Norse witch, one of them was against slavery and, at least in the normative, believed in degrees of meekness and mercy. Modern media would forget the Norse slavery and sociopathic piracy to focus on an out-of-context aspect of their life which didn’t represent a political value. That is unfair to the memories of good people with backward political views and the victims of sadistic systems oppression like ancient slavery and pillaging villages.

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