Sunday, November 21, 2010

Romanticism and Heroes

Being something of an fan of the history of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire, I took up and began to read, though not through the agency of a divine voice like St. Augustine, a book called Imperial Purple by Edgar Saltus, and was reminded again that there are those who feel excessive admiration for "great men of action" and wondered just why they do.

Saltus essentially drools over Julius Caesar, working himself into a seeming frenzy of adoration, and then proceeds to heap scorn on his chosen heir and adopted son, whom we know as Augustus Caesar.  This puzzles me.  In salivating over Julius, Saltus reminds me of Colleen McCullough, who did much the same in her entertaining books on ancient Rome, and Mary Renault, who may have worshipped Alexander the Great, in her fine novels regarding that remarkable figure, as well as her "non-fiction" effort breathlessly entitled The Nature of Alexander.

It's interesting that these authors glorify the characters and careers of men who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not millions while simultaneously criticizing, often in a very ad hominen fashion, their more sedate contemporaries.  For Saltus the opposite of his hero is the "cool politician" Augustus (which is how Gore Vidal once referred to him); McCullough selected Cicero as target for her barbs, and Renault chose Demosthenes and Aristotle.  Renault goes so far as to imply that Aristotle had some part in causing the death of Alexander (if her novels are any guide, she seemed disinclined to believe, as do others, that he caused his own death by self-destructive stupidity).

Augustus, Cicero, Demosthenes and Aristotle were certainly not warriors.  What glory they achieved didn't involve wholesale slaughter, at which Julius and Alexander excelled.  They didn't inspire men to race to their deaths or send others to theirs; they probably were not even loved by all but a few.  But we remember them nonetheless.  They are great figures of history.

To focus on Augustus, he was ruthless in his pursuit of power, and condemned hundreds to death in obtaining it.  He was a very poor soldier, and even frail, physically.  He managed, though, to give the Roman world decades of peace--something Julius never could do, and didn't seem particularly interested in doing.  Julius Caesar was certainly a brilliant man, as was Alexander, and neither were "mere" soldiers.  They each had many talents.  But they were also in some sense incapable of imparting peace or stability to the worlds they dominated, assuming they were concerned to do so, which is questionable.  The same could be said of another great romantic hero, Napoleon.  Augustus had enough sense to realize that he could wield almost absolute power without encouraging others to murder him, and had the wit to find a way to structure the state for that purpose.  Julius apparently was incapable of such an effort.

Why do many of us succumb to hero-worship of great military men?  I think we do so for emotional reasons, or perhaps more accurately psychological reasons.  If we paused enough to think, we would likely realize that no reasonable person could admire the devastation wrought by such men in pursuit of what was ultimately their personal glory, regardless of their skill and talents.  But we don't care to stop and think, in this and other things, far too often.  Romanticism is excessive by nature and its heroes are excessive as well.  Reason is skeptical of excess. 

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