Should Men Be Inspired By History?

When you think about history, what’s first to come to mind? For many people it is a timeline of events and wars. If so, then there are no feats or stories that inspire men into action beyond the battle field. What if we were inspired by not just one but all of human history? Could this be more appealing than tales of glory in combat?

History is male dominated, but it’s important for men to be inspired by history. Men need to learn about the struggles that women have faced and continue to face in order to help them fight against sexism. Read more in detail here: is history male dominated.

The Art of Manliness makes no apologies for looking to the past for inspiration in order to assist current men live better lives. We pay special attention to advice from my grandfather’s generation, since thinking about his life was one of the driving forces for the creation of the site.

After four years of blogging, I’ve learned that that technique isn’t popular with everyone.

Whenever we publish an article that draws lessons from the lives of great men or the so-called “Greatest Generation,” we always get feedback like this:

“X well-known figure wasn’t all that fantastic.” He was a drunk/adulterer/slave owner…[insert imagined sad fault here].”

Or-

“The Greatest Generation…pfft!” says the narrator. Those racists, sexists, and homophobes were no better than the rest of us.”

In our jaded day, it seems that being inspired by persons of the past, as well as having heroes or goals of any kind, has fallen out of favor.

This wasn’t always the case, however. And now we’d want to make the case for looking to the past for inspiration.

George Washington portrait.

History in Condensed Form

When you think about history, you may recall a tedious high school or college history class where you had to remember a lot of dates, people, and conflicts. As a result, you probably think of history as a rather basic subject—just the facts, ma’am.

But, as the name implies, history is only a tale, and who is telling it and how they are presenting it makes all the difference.

As a result, the tale that is passed down to each generation, as well as our feelings about it, are continually changing. History is a very fluid concept that may be formed and reshaped at any moment.

For many centuries, history was seen as an essential topic to study, with its value stemming from its ability to teach young people crucial lessons about who they were and how to live. History’s function for the ancient Greeks was to teach virtue. Plutarch, the renowned Greek historian, said plainly that his goal in writing the Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans was to teach his readers moral lessons.

This view of history as moral education persisted in the West until the nineteenth century. When you look at books for young people from the 1800s, you’ll find plenty of examples from the lives of great individuals on how to achieve great things, succeed, and be decent citizens. Some historical individuals were shown as heroes, men to aspire to, while others were depicted as villains, whose lives served as examples of errors not to repeat.

This was also a moment when the nation’s leaders were held in high regard. Take, for example, the eulogies published after George Washington’s death. They’re really flowery and over-the-top, portraying him as an unquestionably upright saint.

 

However, historians in the 1920s started to study history and its dominant personalities and events with a much more skeptical eye as a result of the disillusionment that occurred following WWI. During this period, writer William Woodward coined the term “debunk” (a play on the practice of “delousing” troops during WWI), and chose George Washington as the subject of his de-bunkification. Washington was shown by Woodward as terribly inept, boorishly clumsy, and eager for fame and money, not as a dashing hero.

In the 1960s, as new historians tried to convey the tales of women, minorities, and other groups who had been almost neglected for decades, the trend of refuting the conventional view of history intensified. As their hidden experiences surfaced, some historians reexamined how conventional history had been depicted, analyzing the usual narratives from a fresh perspective and saying that what was originally thought to be virtuous and heroic wasn’t that noble after all. The most well-known example of this approach to history is Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States.

A very fascinating essay on the ways in which the current Boy Scout handbook has evolved since it was originally published in 1911 is an excellent example of the changes in how we interpret and utilize history. In the original manual, author Kathleen Arnn recounts how the young reader learns about:

“George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Boone, Betsy Ross, Johnny Appleseed, and most importantly, Abraham Lincoln, recount America’s great moments through the eyes of the heroes who lived them: George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Boone, Betsy Ross, Johnny Appleseed, and most importantly, Abraham Lincoln.” Lincoln is a hero among heroes, and the handbook’s themes on patriotism and morality center on him. He is “not just one of our finest Americans, but one of the world’s greatest men” in heart, intelligence, and character. From his humble origins, where he learned the importance of hard labor, through his schooling, presidency, and untimely death, the handbook tells the whole tale of his life.”

References to former great men have almost fully vanished in the contemporary edition:

“There are four heroes in the novel, according to my count.” The pioneers of Scouting include British founder Robert Baden Powell, naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton, outdoorsman Daniel Carter Beard, and James E. West, the BSA’s first 30 years’ leader. Each person receives a statement and a drawing. The original handbook’s many and colorful American heroes are essentially non-existent. Each of Washington and Lincoln is mentioned once. ‘With federal holidays, including observances of the birthdays of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., we celebrate the sacrifices and accomplishments of Americans.’

While “revisionist history” has a bad rep, it’s a necessary practice; each generation and storyteller has been revising history from the dawn of time. As we discover new information and hear fresh opinions, our ideas on history change and should evolve.

However, as with most cultural shifts, the weight swung too far in the other way in an effort to release the pendulum from being trapped too far in one direction.

 

Zinn’s work is now conventional fare in college courses, and history is seldom utilized as a source of inspiration. When you speak about a great individual or generation’s positive qualities, you’re expected to instantly follow up with a list of their defects and errors. If you don’t, you’ll be labeled a knucklehead who believes the old version of history and isn’t aware of the new “hidden” knowledge. The pride of individuals who feel themselves to be in the know and enjoy giving you the “true scoop” is always evident.

As a result, some readers are irritated by the fact that we offer the positive aspects of great men’s lives without chronicling their flaws. (This isn’t a liberal vs. conservative issue; we hear “Theodore Roosevelt was a communist and Lincoln was a tyrant!” in equal measure, as well as “Churchill was a racist and Hemingway was a sexist!”)

We don’t focus on the accomplishments and wisdom of history’s great individuals, though, since we are unaware of their flaws or of history as a whole. We read a lot of history books each year since Kate taught college history and I studied classical history as an undergrad. We’re not historians by any stretch of the imagination, but we’re also not illiterates.

In reality, the more history we read, the more it inspires us. Because we have a certain mindset when it comes to our education.

Teddy Theodore Roosevelt giving speech with pointing fingers.

A Mindset of Experience

You tend to perceive things in black and white when you’re a youngster. Heroes are fantastic. People who are bad are rotten to the core.

As you get older, you begin to perceive things in grayscale. You discover that individuals are much more sophisticated and complex than you previously thought. It’s tougher to be enthusiastic about things and have heroes when you know they’re not perfect, but it’s also necessary for learning, developing, advancing, and being useful in the world.

Men who are unable to be inspired by history are trapped in the worldview of black and white children. A prominent individual may have many positive characteristics, but if he also had a major defect, there is nothing to learn from him. The bathwater is thrown out with the infant.

We, on the other hand, believe in clinging to that slick infant. The reason we emphasize on the positive parts of great men’s life on the site is not because we are oblivious of their imperfections, but because the objective of the articles is to find what these individuals did right and examine what honorable manliness looks like, not to present a comprehensive biographical picture. They’re just interested in the excellent stuff. You don’t detail a man’s flaws while delivering his eulogy, for example. Maturity entails understanding when and when to do things. Again, this does not imply that you are unaware of your flaws; rather, you choose to concentrate on certain elements at specific times for specific goals.

 

A mature attitude also includes the capacity to be inspired by the positive aspects despite the negative aspects, and understanding that one does not always imply the other. The mature man does not avert his gaze away from the imperfections of a historical figure, but he also does not allow those defects to overshadow the lessons to be gleaned from the person’s life. He has the ability to separate wheat from chaff.

What does it take for a guy to develop this filtering ability? He has the ability to see historical characters in the same way that he sees himself. Despite the fact that he has several defects, he likes himself! He thinks of his excellent traits when he thinks of himself, and he would never suggest that his faults wipe out his redeeming qualities. This is how males perceive the women they care about. Even if a guy’s father committed faults, he is still regarded as a remarkable man and strives to mimic the things he did correctly.

We can be so generous with ourselves because we try to justify our blunders with rationalizations like, “Well, that was my opinion at the time, but it’s changed now.” “At the time, everyone was doing it.” “I was simply swept up in what was going on.” “At the time, I was sad.” “If I hadn’t said it, I wouldn’t have gotten the job.” “At the time, I didn’t have all the information.” Despite this, all of these mitigating variables apply to all males throughout history!

Vintage airmen planning and writing on paper about strategy.

But…But!

Ironically, people who are unable to perceive great men’s shortcomings more generously through the lens of their circumstances are also those who denigrate their achievements, attributing them to, well, circumstances.

If you commend my grandfather’s generation’s frugality, for example, someone would counter that Gramps was only able to escape debt because of things like the GI Bill and cheap house costs. They contend that the Greatest Generation was exceptional mainly because of the advantages they had that we no longer have.

Greatness, on the other hand, is determined not by circumstances, but by how those circumstances are utilised and turned to a man’s advantage. In other words, although Gramps benefited from cheaper housing expenses, he was also content to live in a 750-square-foot Levittown home rather than a 4,000-square-foot McMansion (the average home size has more than doubled since the 1950s).

Frederick Douglass stated it like way:

“I’m not a fan of the self-made man’s good luck hypothesis. It is unworthy of your time and has no practical use. An apple thrown carelessly into a crowd might strike one person, another, or no one at all. In this self-made men’s accident hypothesis, the odds are exactly the same. It separates a man from his own accomplishments, considers him a random person, and deprives him of will, motivation, desire, and aspiration. Despite this, the accident hypothesis is one of the most widely accepted explanations of personal achievement. It has that aura of mystery that the masses like, and it also serves to shake up the successful’s complacency.”

 

Of course, with retrospect, it’s easy to recognize the advantages others had that contributed to their success. Nonetheless, I can see how my grandkids may point to countless advantages we have…and how little we used those advantages to our advantage and allowed things go to hell.

And this is at the heart of my generation’s disdain for the past: we don’t feel like we’re doing all that well, and we want to think that our lack of successes is due to circumstances outside our control. Douglass once more:

“It is one of the simplest and most frequent things in the world for a successful guy to be followed throughout his career and to be continuously pointed out this or that precise stroke of good fortune that determined his fate and made him successful.” If we aren’t terrific ourselves, we prefer to explain why others are. We are frugal when it comes to praising merit, but liberal when it comes to praising chance. Furthermore, when a guy can pinpoint the exact time and event that made his neighbor wonderful, he feels immeasurably fantastic. He readily believes that the little disparity between himself and his buddy is due to chance. It was his buddy who was fortunate, but it might have easily been him. Then there’s a justified apologies for failure, which is the next best thing to victory. Detraction is a delectable treat for many.”

A guy might be surrounded by innumerable possibilities and yet waste them all. Circumstances assist, but our destiny is determined by our own responsibility and activity.

And this is why a guy should study history and allow it to inspire him! It has the potential to educate him how to transform his own chances into success and character.

My generation believes that everyone is unique and that no one is superior than another. They claim that “every generation is the same.” While it is true that each generation has its own set of strengths and shortcomings, each generation’s strengths and flaws are distinct. And, if we’re modest enough, we can improve on our flaws by learning from the strengths of prior men, just as we hope our grandkids will learn from the things we’re doing well.

 

 

 

The “why do we need to study history” is a question that has been asked by many. The answer is because it is important to understand the mistakes of the past so that we can learn from them and not repeat them in the future.

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