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Feet of clay problem

What to do with historical bastardry in our heroes?

This is republished from my substack. Henceforth such posts – the equivalent of a magazine article or an essay – will appear first on the substack and then on the blog evolvingthoughts.au. After a distance of time, they will end up here. I’m finally in it for the money, folks.

The fact of the matter is that we do not, as historians or readers of serious history, go to the past for heroes. All people are flawed. Some are flawed irredeemably. Others have good and bad bits. Most of us are rather morally vapid, with occasional bursts of virtue and cleverness (or evil and stupidity). In fact, the very idea of heroes is something that should have been consigned to the distance past, with Hercules and Theseus. History is not a morality lesson

Recently, Huxley College at Western Washington University came under scrutiny for being named for a eugenicist and racist biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, Darwin’s friend. A hearing of the Board of Directors was convened, and their decision whether to de-name (a verb of which I was hitherto unaware) the college was in the affirmative. The main problem with this is that Huxley was neither a eugenicist nor a racist in the terms of his time. In fact, he was particularly liberal in his views, and denied the idea that biology determines ethics or value, which he derided as “a pigeon fancier’s polity” in his Evolution and Ethics.

This is what conservatives now call “cancelling”, and leftists call “de-platforming”. It is part of a wider culture conflict (let’s not dignify this with the term “war”). In Huxley’s case, the university is unjustified (but of course they can call any of their institutions what they like), but there are other cases: Hume was a racist. Locke was also. Darwin thought races were real in the Descent, and they were arrayed in degrees of civilisation. And so on.

A historian of philosophy or science must deal with these censures since they are written today with today’s standards, but it raises the problem of how to respond to feet of clay in the “great figures”, or canon, of a field or topic. Kant, Nietzsche, and many others expressed the social morés of their day – misogyny, racism, antisemitism – in ways that we now find appalling, and this may lead some to dismiss these thinkers.

It isn’t new. Heidegger’s Nazism is a case in point. Despite (or perhaps because) of his stance towards Nazi ideas, he made a number of perceptive observations. So how do we disambiguate the execrable from the excellent? One way is to say, “they were men of their time,” and cherry-pick the “good stuff” from their oeuvres. This won’t do. If you ignore the material that is repugnant today, you may miss some key foundations for understanding the so-called good stuff. I must admit that I don’t think Hume’s racism and Eurocentrism affects his arguments on the senses and induction, but one cannot presume this a priori.

And yet, neither can we ignore our past nor judge its actors the way we might judge someone in our own time horizon (say, the last century). So we are held between modern moral judgements and moral relativism, and neither is useful in proper appreciation of the past. If we are simply trying to understand the past, then there is no problem, but when we want to use the past, as we do in philosophy (and in science), the Feet of Clay problem rears its head in all its ugliness.

So is there a principle by which we can say we wish to retain this or that person’s despite their now obvious personal flaws? Consider the difference between Jan Smuts and Cecil Rhodes. Smuts wrote Holism and evolution but was a racialist and segregationist, though he was a fair thinker. Rhodes was both but was not much of a philosopher. We have “deplatformed” Rhodes, so should we do this with Smuts? And so on.

The fact of the matter is that we do not, as historians or readers of serious history, go to the past for heroes. All people are flawed. Some are flawed irredeemably. Others have good and bad bits. Most of us are rather morally vapid, with occasional bursts of virtue and cleverness (or evil and stupidity). In fact, the very idea of heroes is something that should have been consigned to the distance past, with Hercules and Theseus. History is not a morality lesson. Sorry, Carlyle.

For philosophers, history is often transparent. A certain type of philosophy, now mercifully declining, treats historical philosophers as if they were Cambridge dons sitting across the common room table in tweed. To fully understand Hume, Locke or any of the others mentioned above, or in despatches, a knowledge of their historical context is essential. Hume’s slavery-friendly view is not excused by his context any more than Heidegger’s Nazism is by his. We need not be full-on moral relativists, but we can still recognise a good, or at least interesting, argument when we encounter it; even if it is proposed and expounded by a morally culpable person. As an example, I recall having to consider the Divine Right of Kings argument by Locke’s contemporary Robert Filmer in his Patriarcha (1604). Now I find Filmer’s view oppressive and self-serving, and yet I must attend, as Locke did, to his arguments, if only because they make sense of Locke’s view in the Two treatises on government. Both Locke and Filmer are flawed individuals, and yet their work survives their flaws to some degree, although I would not make either of them heroes in philosophy. Locke’s famous Letter on Toleration expressly excludes the non-religious, as they had nothing to found their oaths upon, and were untrustworthy, a view America carries to this day. As if religion was a guarantee of moral reliability.

Similarly, the censorious approach (cancelling) towards artists who turn out to be white supremacists (Clapton), nationalists (Cleese), or misogynists (Lennon) in no way means that their work is any less than it was. It means they had feet of clay. We should not celebrate the person so much as their work. Darwin is a case in point — although he lived a morally empathetic (sympathetic, as he would say) life, nevertheless he was heir to the racialist superiority the British held of themselves (as did the French, the German principalities, and the various other cultural and political institutions of Europe). Does that invalidate his work? Of course not. But it does imbue us with a precautionary attitude: merely because Darwin said or did something in no way makes it right. Only saints offer that, and there aren’t any.


This is the first post of my Substack. After a suitable time, it will appear on my new site Evolving Thoughts redividus. Also, I will mine my old blog for text to revise and correct, which will then be posted here. Keep an eye out.

One Comment

  1. Hemidactylus Hemidactylus

    Hey John. Yeah his grandsons got into eugenics but as far as I can tell Bulldog never was. Just started reading a very new book that focuses on TH and Julian. This quote is apt: “Generations of twentieth-century Darwins and Huxleys crossed paths in and around the Eugenics Society in London, rebooting an idea born from Charles Darwin’s interest in artificial selection and folding it into Mendelian genetics on the one hand and modernist futurism, even progressivism, on the other. Thomas Henry Huxley was not so sure about this ambition to improve future humans. Julian Huxley was 100 per cent sure.” From The Huxleys by Alison Bashford

Argue

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