“That man had oak and triple bronze about his heart
who first commended to the savage sea his fragile craft,
and took no fear in struggles of the winds …
“What tread of death could he have feared
who with dry eyes beheld within the deep its monsters,
who saw the wild waves and ill-famed cliffs …?”
— Horace, Odes, I.3 (Translation by Jeffrey Kaimowitz)
When the Roman poet Horace wrote those words, he was referring to some unknown figure of prehistory. Who could it have been, the first man to attempt such a crazy thing as to set out upon seas of undetermined breadth for destinations that might not even exist?
In modern times, we have a name for that man: Christopher Columbus. This is why it was so disappointing this summer to see several Republican senators move to scratch Columbus Day as a federal holiday and replace it with Juneteenth. Thankfully, that effort failed. Yet questions remain as its Oct. 12 date creeps closer: Does America still have a place for Columbus Day?
No, my concern isn’t simply due to the whole Italian affinity for Columbus, nor is it a cynical effort to keep the federal workforce at home, where it will do less damage (though that is a plus). It is trendy now to condemn all historical figures by default, especially the ones whose sins were evident. But there’s a middle ground between canonization and unqualified condemnation, and most of the people we revere deserve a place within that space.
Historical figures were as complicated in their own times as we are today. That none of our heroes were perfect should be obvious. But further still, it should be obvious that we only honor them for their great accomplishments and virtues, not because we admire their vices and sins or want others to imitate them.
As irritating as it is to see Columbus blamed for the entire catalog of wrongs that the arrival of Europeans in the Americas caused for natives over hundreds of years, he does indeed deserve blame for his own sins. These are evident from the historical record, even if it is frequently misrepresented to make him look even worse than he was.
Even so, we never created Columbus Day to celebrate whatever evils he did, caused, or allowed. We honor Columbus for his singular and still-incredible act of bravery in sailing westward to an almost certain death — a courageous act that Horace had alluded to some 1,500 years earlier. His spirit of bold exploration has inspired others in the time since, and it will continue to do so, propelling humanity to the planets and someday to the stars.
Likewise, we don’t honor George Washington for the fact that he, like so many of his peers, owned slaves, but rather because, unlike his peers, he won a war against great odds and then relinquished power peacefully when he didn’t have to. I would sooner submit Washington to the judgment of the relatively sane George III, that he proved to be “the greatest man in the world” in his day, than to that of any of today’s social justice crowd.
We honor Thomas Jefferson for the bold and eloquent words and ideals he expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which towered above the social norms of his day, not because his own personal life fell far short of what even he knew to be right. We honor Abraham Lincoln not because he made some racist jokes and declared a distaste for miscegenation (at least for rhetorical purposes) during the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but because he persisted, unfazed, through a bloody war that held the nation together and ended slavery, then paid the ultimate price for his efforts.
Here we have, I think, a safe and consistent standard for distinguishing civic heroes from those who gained their fame through infamy and genocide, whether that means the Confederate rebellion, the Russian Revolution, or the Spanish Inquisition. We must avoid judging the people of the past for their failure to live by our modern mores. To do otherwise would be to follow our modern intellectuals and journalists into the logical and ethical heresy of presentism.
A funny thing about presentism: It never occurs to anyone today how the people of the future will surely rise up and condemn us in similar fashion. Perhaps the people of the year 2320 will damn us all as meat-eaters, or as lawless rioters, or as pet owners, or for allowing abortions, or for freaking out (they will have the benefit of hindsight, remember) over global warming. And then perhaps the people of 2520 will feel the opposite way about some or all of those things. Maybe they will even extol us and condemn the people of 2320 for all the same reasons.
In each case, should the people of the future refuse to honor those who achieved great things in our time: the Steve Jobses and Elon Musks, and whoever else manages to make a positive contribution to today’s mess? Will they, too, have a right to condemn their forebears while enjoying the fruits of their accomplishments?
If presentism laid bare our guilt, who could endure it? If it reigns for any length of time as a moral philosophy, then no figure would ever survive historical scrutiny for long. To what examples could we ever look?
Or should Horace, the emancipated son of a slave, have lazily dismissed the first seafarer as someone who had probably owned slaves? Had he done that, we would be without one of the more memorable and profound poetic images about the advancement of human civilization and its benefits.