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Imperfect, but Great

October 7, 2016

To what extent do the personal lives, indiscretions, or malign beliefs of “great” men of history invalidate their accomplishments? As a culture, we revere our leaders and inventors, yet it has been a trend for decades to disparage America’s “founding fathers” because of their racism or support of/participation in Slavery, undermining the appreciation of their accomplishments and the reverence for the individuals. We crave “heroes” to inspire us, like Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi, Thomas Edison, or any American Founding Father – yet the more we scrutinize these “great” people, the more we find that they had their own faults, shortcomings, and vices – some of them surprisingly repugnant…

Is it right to revere an individual as a hero for their massive contributions to society, even if they also did bad things or were racist? Should we use some utilitarian measure of their net contribution to society to determine if they are worthy of praise and reverence? Is “Hero Worship” wrong? Or just naive and immature?

In this Salon article (http://www.salon.com/2011/06/07/bad_people_great_books/) , the “bad” lives of “great” authors are discussed, including those of T.S. Elliot (anti-semite), Ezra Pound (Fascist), and Charles Dickens (cruel to his wife) – and what the implications are for their writings and our appreciation thereof:

“Still, there’s much to be said for getting past this form of hero worship. Bad eggs like Naipaul aside, most writers, like most people, are a mixture of the reprehensible and the admirable. Our own personal lives require that we learn to love people flaws and all. When you idealize someone, you can’t truly know him or her, and that makes real, adult love impossible.

Most people begin figuring out how to do this in their teens. It’s not an easy transition. Suddenly, every bad quality in our parents — people who were like gods to us as children — becomes a glaring, intolerable betrayal. They must be repudiated! We don’t realize until years later that this is the first step on the long road to seeing our parents as they really are and forgiving them for being human.

Similarly, needing to believe that your favorite author lived in an exemplary way, embodying all the virtues of his best work, is an adolescent desire, passionate but ultimately unfair. Learning the truth is disillusioning at first, but enlightening in the end. Part of the sadly underrated process of growing up is realizing that people, the world and life are no less beautiful and amazing for being imperfect.”

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