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A Shameless Worship of Heroes

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Posted (edited)

I feel this is less about identifying the clay in the feet of the great person, and more about the schadenfreude of the crowd, or the cynical reader who cannot countenance the idea of greatness without impinging upon his insecurities.

There are people who prefer reading Paul Johnson's Intellectuals over Will Durant's books. That says more about the reader than the subject, because the hero-worship or idolatry of the masses, and the consequent scapegoating is a larger and more relevant phenomenon than the foibles of a certain individual.

Edited by The Heretic
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Interesting essay, Paulus. At the risk of taking Durant's quote out of context, it seems to me he is suggesting not that we worship persons of genius as moral exemplars, but simply adulate their genius and their accomplishments. I disagree that we should "bow down before" genius "as an act of God," but I take his point. I think this cuts to the point:

Perhaps Foucault was uttering a truism when he said that we think of an author not as a person, but as systems of ideas, a cultural product and an array of social meanings (an example would be an artist like Picasso, that whenever we think of him we think him as a synonym of cubism, of rebellion in art, of even art itself maybe; but what about the man Picasso, the asshole Picasso?)

Yeah, I guess I think of great artists, thinkers, etc. something like that. I wonder if that's wrong, or if I'm missing something. Picasso is a good example. I really don't know that much about Picasso the person, because that side of him never interested me. What interested me always was his art, which is worthy of adulation. It's luminous genius. As to Picasso the person … I vaguely have recalled reading, here and there, that he was a bit of an asshole, and that his children complained that he refused to see them when he was painting. Well, so what?

I'm not sure why we should think that a genius should have a good moral character. Does this mean we should think that a non-genius is likely to have a poor moral character? I don't see the connection between genius, or even merely great skill, and personal character. I don't think there is one; or, if there is, I think history attests that the person of genius, if anything, is more likely to be tormented; perhaps, like Van Gogh, they are all too painfully aware of the basic hideousness of the world, and of of their own human limitations outside their respective fields of genius.

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Posted (edited)

I feel this is less about identifying the clay in the feet of the great person, and more about the schadenfreude of the crowd, or the cynical reader who cannot countenance the idea of greatness without impinging upon his insecurities.

Yes, it is in fact a cynical essay (which was the object or motive of it) rather than a exhaustive and impartial overview of the life of great minds, and more focused in creating controversy, although the intention was not schadenfreude, actually it was more of a pretentious self defense of my erratic behavior, or any persons erratic behavior and attitudes, by showing than even great minds were fallible as human beings. And also the dissapointment was real, at least when I read more in detail the biographies of some of the geniuses mentioned, I was saddened, perhaps naively, but it was a real experience and it says more about my myth construction than anything. So I was curious about why we create the ideals of geniuses as flawless and above the average man in every respect.

There are people who prefer reading Paul Johnson's Intellectuals over Will Durant's books. That says more about the reader than the subject, because the hero-worship or idolatry of the masses, and the consequent scapegoating is a larger and more relevant phenomenon than the foibles of a certain individual.

I have not read Johnson's book but I read some reviews and I understand your point now, I am fond of Durant nevertheless because I sympathize with the "blind" praise of genius. Nevertheless I was curious about how do we then critique those we admire without being interpreted as someone cynical or difamatory, and it does not says also something of oneself too to consider the faillings of the great minds as little errors or foibles as you called them (which I had to search the definition haha). Do we search inconsistencies of character, or do we minimize their mistakes? Is it possible to review genius between the approachs taken by Johnson and Durant?

Edit: Davidm I did not notice your reply

Yes, I was not implying a strong connection, rather the idea was more of how we admire and forget the humanity of those whom we admire, based on personal experience and the observation I have made of other people's admiration. The connection is frail, since I suppose after brief reflection anyone can notice that it is a mistake to think genius as perfect humans. I think the writing of the essay was also influenced by a judgment that Russell did of Leibniz that got stuck in my head, something like Leibniz was a man of great genius, but as a human being he wasn't so great. But if one is interested in mathematics, philosophy or thought, is unimportant wheteher Leibniz was a good person or not, maybe the moral character is just a reminder that genius is human and not divine.

Edited by Paulus
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Posted

For those who don't know, foibles is what cats in Davidm's neighborhood sometimes cough up.

:kitty: "Cough! Cough! I gots foibles!"

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Also how much is says about ourselves this creation and worship of idols, for, being imaginative, could there be a sign of immortality in every admiration, that is to say, when we admire someone as great as Borges, do we omit, intentionally his most (in)humane qualities, for doing so keeps him saintly and above death, a proxy for our own survival after death ...

I am not so sure about the suggested notion of a proxy, but there could well be some wish - but maybe more intense and, therefore, more like a desire - that the goodness in greatness might somehow persist, extending beyond death; youths might typically imagine themselves as being recognized for some eventual great achievement such that their names/persons would be renowned even long after their own deaths; however, when that sort of acclaim later seems unlikely to be achievable, maybe the notion of what is being referred to as the immortality of greatness becomes associated with the notion that the uncelebrated if not unrecognized goodness of the unacclaimed person affords at least a persisting importance if not actual immortality.

Relatedly, if severely gross, offensive imperfection is so often to be found proximal to greatness or goodness in persons such that heroes are constructed only by minimizing or ignoring the grossness which also constitutes the person of the would-be hero, then the genuine dark side in the practice of hero-construction and hero-worship is made most significantly manifest in the vociferous objections raised against the notion of the banality of evil.

No doubt there are some persons who relish the fact that even great people are badly imperfect; that relishing would have it that the imperfections detract from the goodness or the greatness when, in fact, the imperfections only indicate that the person might well have been even better or greater than he or she is or was. Even if one says that imperfections diminish the person, the goodness within or done by the person is not similarly diminished even if better goodness or greatness could have come to fruition.

But this moves the discussion beyond heroes to every person, and this is where the notion of the banality of evil comes to the fore, because it is the seemingly even relatively small imperfections which are to be faced and their rectification sought if only so that goodness and even greatness might be better or more plentiful.

Another problem with hero-worship is the importance it gives to acclaim. There is goodness done for the sake of an other (sometimes put forth in terms of goodness for the sake of goodness or goodness for its own sake), and then there is goodness done with a hope of being noticed, praised, maybe even acclaimed. Even the hero who is good purely for the sake of an other can recognize that it can be important - and a good thing - for others to recognize and acclaim the goodness done, even if that acclaim ends up seeming to be more for the acting person, the hero, rather than for the goodness; the fact is that humans are affected by role models, but the goodness done for the sake of an other and without interest in achieving acclaim is a shy goodness such that the person who acts for the sake of an other will in some way seek to temper the inclination towards personal acclaim/hero-construction/worship by directing the celebration/appreciation away from himself or herself and to the goodness itself with the hope that others will be better suited to contributing more to the construction of goodness instead of to the lazier effort of constructing heroes.

Michael

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Posted

For those who don't know, foibles is what cats in Davidm's neighborhood sometimes cough up.

:kitty: "Cough! Cough! I gots foibles!"

:lol:

For Paulus's benefit, as no doubt he's likely mystified by this, "foibles" is how a typical New Yorker would pronounce "furballs."

Actually, that's not so true anymore, as the classic New Yawker accent is fading into history as the city because more ethnically diverse.

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Posted (edited)

Michael, thanks for that very thoughtful reply, I will read it in detail and comment shortly, hopefully not drunk because of new years eve.

snapback.pngDaveT, on 31 December 2014 - 07:00 AM, said:

For those who don't know, foibles is what cats in Davidm's neighborhood sometimes cough up.

:kitty: "Cough! Cough! I gots foibles!"

:lol:

For Paulus's benefit, as no doubt he's likely mystified by this, "foibles" is how a typical New Yorker would pronounce "furballs."

Actually, that's not so true anymore, as the classic New Yawker accent is fading into history as the city because more ethnically diverse.

I was indeed confused, I did not know if it was private joke or the like, because since I left the galileans have also adopted smilies as identities or something haha.

Edited by Paulus

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Posted

And old-time Noo Yawkers pronounce "forget about it" as one word, "Fugghedaboutit!" The tabloids, I believe, still use that very word in print.

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Contrary to Durant, I do not think we should "bow down" before genius as "an act of God." And certainly, there is no necessary connection between genius and what we would (conventionally) call "good moral character." I add the word "conventionally" in parentheses because not everyone will agree on what good moral character is.

This "bow down" bit reminds me of a passage in Ayn Rand's novel The Fountainhead (which I still think is a good work, despite its flaws; Rand's only truly good work, though riddled with the usual agitprop and amateurish philosophizing). Dominique Francon is telling Gail Wynand about how everything that is good in the world is the result of ten or twelve geniuses who have contingently and fortuitously appeared throughout history like pearls in the muck. Had those people not lived, she says, we'd all still be dwelling in caves, or whatnot. This is the "Atlas Shrugged" view of history; that there were and are a few intellectual Atlases here and there, and should they get pissed off at not being sufficiently adulated, they will shrug, and reduce our world, full of second-handers, to rack and ruin. Of course that's the theme of Rand's (terrible) novel, "Atlas Shrugged."

Opposing this idea is the notion that our discoveries and advances, such as they are (each advance we make seems to be attended by a flock of problems that we never had before) are in some sense inevitable. If Newton had died young, would someone else have discovered (or invented) what he discovered (or invented)? What about Einstein? Or, in a field other than science, if Picasso had never lived, would someone have invented Cubism and become "like" Picasso, if not exactly Picasso? The "inevitabalist" would say that other individuals, or groups of individuals, would have ultimately discovered/made these advances.

We can be skeptical of the "inevitability" argument, but we can also be skeptical of the "Atlas" argument. If somebody exactly like Picasso had been born just a hundred years earlier than Picasso was born, there is zero chance he would have created Picasso-like art. This is because all art (and scientific advances as well) is, in a certain sense, "in the air" at the time of their creation; i.e., they are not solely the product of the fermenting genius of a sole innovator, but are spawned and nurtured in a particular cultural and intellectual environment. If when Einstein was born and matured there had not been prior to him Newton, Galileo, the Michelson-Morley experiments, Faraday, and so many others, then there would have been no Einstein, either; i.e., no theory of relativity, no birth of quantum physics, and so on. Einstein might still have been Einstein, but without the other shoulders to stand on, he would not have been what we take today to be Einstein the Genius.

If we are going to adulate genius qua genius, perhaps we ought to look to those wise old owls the ancient Greeks, who postulated so many bold and provocative ideas (many wrong, of course) but did so, as it were, without shoulders to stand on.

Of course, the "inevitability" argument is as open to challenge as the "Atlas" argument. The best challenge I have read is by Norman Swartz in Chapter Five of his book: Beyond Experience: Metaphysical Theories and Philosophical Constraints. The chapter is Underdeterminism (II)

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As Swartz writes in the above-linked book chapter:

Galileo, Brahe, and Kepler paved the way for Newton. But it was Newton alone who made the breakthrough of conceiving not of the Earth attracting the falling object, but of both the Earth and the falling object attracting one another. No one before Newton ever imagined that an object's falling and accelerating toward the Earth was reciprocated by the Earth's accelerating (but so minutely as to be imperceptible) toward the falling object. This was no minor change in a long-standing theory. Newton's rethinking the situation was breathtaking in its audacity. It was not even remotely to be conceived as being 'read off' of Nature. And it is by no means clear that anyone else ever would have replicated Newton's conjecture had Newton himself not authored it. Newton had been born prematurely; as an infant his head had to be supported by a cervical collar; he was a sickly youth ([49]). Had he not lived to adulthood, the modern scientific/industrial era may not have come into being.

Interesting, interesting stuff.

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Posted

Great thread! See how much good you've done in returning, :paulus: ? :)

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Surely this dilemma (if that's what it is) only persists if you think that greatness is objective. I prefer a subjective view of greatness: if experiencing the work keeps alive in me a belief that I may one day still achieve something great, then the work is great to me. The personal characteristics of the artist/author only matter to the extent that they affect that. And of course any possibility of greatness from me us just as subjective. If I thought nazism was great but found that reading Heidegger did not inspire belief that I could go on to greater heights of nazism, then of course I would have no further use for his books even if all I hear from others is that he was the greatest c20 philosopher.

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I think the best example of this sentiment in the literature is surely Heidegger and whether his philosophy survives his Nazism. ... if philosophers still differ on the merits of the conclusions of great thinkers then behaviour is perhaps not such a bad litmus test, given the limited time we have in life.

Let us assume that Heidegger's Nazism follows from - is consistent with - his philosophy. The question which immediately follows regards whether Nazism follows inescapably from his philosophy. Arendt and Levinas saw value in Heidegger's philosophy. Clearly, they did not think Nazism followed inescapably from that philosophy; hence, according to Arendt and Levinas, what was objectionable or repulsive was any and all behavior on Heidegger's part which was consonant with the Nazi position.

However, let us assume that Arendt and Levinas were wrong and that Nazism followed inescapably from Heidegger's philosophy. We are still left with two courses for response:

1) Any philosophy which with rational necessity results in repulsive yet rational behavior is a philosophy which should be reviled, with (that) rationality cast off into oblivion (hopefully only temporarily -- meaning the underlying assumptions of the repulsive philosophy are later to be shown as non-necessary and, therefore, philosophically problematic). The point here is that philosophy is ultimately to be related to the behaviors which are supposed to be products of the philosophy (behavior as litmus test).

2) Despite its ultimate repulsiveness, there can still be valuable insights or aspects within the philosophy. Their especial value will be found in finding alternative ways of utilizing those thoughts and thereby, in effect, denying the to that point apparent rational necessity which demands the repulsive rational behavior. In other words, even if Heidegger's philosophy were to lead inexorably to Nazism, there could still be thoughts worth cherry-picking. That is correct: cherry-picking can most certainly be a virtue.

Michael

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Posted (edited)

The average liberal is incapable of enjoying books like Ender's Game, just because that book's writer, Orson Scott Card, is some kind of a bigot. Supposedly supports the banning of homosexual marriage, or some shitte.

Of course, I grew up ignorant of this bigotry, and 11 year old me thought that Ender's Game was quite brilliant, in the top 10 of the best scifi books ever. After finding out about the author's proclivities, as an adult, I re-read the book with a wary eye - and found it to be still one of the 10 greatest scifi books ever.

H. P. Lovecraft was a horrid racist, more so than just the standard trope that everyone back in the day was a racist. Certainly some of his works do contain subtle lectures on the dangers of race-mixing (Dunwich Horror, Shadow over Innsmouth). Does that mean we should throw out the entirety of Lovecraft's work, and pretend that he had zero impact on horror fiction? No, he was a master at portraying horror as the fear of the unknown alien "other."

Frank Miller wrote some of the best works in comic book history, but if I tried to get an autograph from him, he'd tell me something spiteful and mean.

What does that tell you? There is no moral litmus test writers or artists need to pass in order to create their works. Since it is neither necessary for a sculptor to be beautiful in order to create beautiful art, nor is it necessary for the moralist to possess the very virtue she theorizes about, then the philosopher does not need to be a saint, and nor does the artist need to be an enlightened person.

Edited by The Heretic
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Posted (edited)

Wow there have been so many replies that I am aghast haha, I did not expect such welcoming to my reappearance, especially when the topic selected, intentionally, is not as well argued and documented as the future ones I intend to do (as I hope made clear in the note to this topic).

I haven´t read all the replies but i'll will soon, I want now to just make clear something, that perhaps was not clear in my first post, and that is that I am not saying that one can, or should, discredit, abandon, reject or censure the ideas of a person (genius, great man, woman, etc.) because of his moral character, inmoral tendencies, despicable personality, and the rest*. I think is not serious, and is even intellectually harmful, to the individual and society at large, to focus (solely) on the character of the person when evaluating his/her ideas (although that character may be the origin and basis of the future genius ideas to come of that person, and if so, of historical curiosity); we should value those ideas, art, work, by themselves, in their own merit, regardless of whom, and how, were the parents of those ideas. The intention of my writing was more of a vague and personal reflection on those who make the great works and think the great ideas, a consideration of their global person (¿were they more unstable, more susceptible to moral error, than the common man? for example), and how do we appreciate them, idealize them, turn them into idols, and forget their more human aspect, aspects that, were they not geniuses and immortals, we would not forget so easily maybe.

Nevertheless I liked the point made by Hugo (if I understood you correctly) about practical reason, but it seems to me that that would depend on the genre or field in which those ideas are relevant and how their consistency with the founder or "preacher" of them was maintained or affirmed, for example an ethical philosopher would fall more on this suspicion than an author of horror fiction like Lovecraft perhaps. Nonetheless I still would not feel convinced to argue that those ideas could be potentially false or erroneus, even if they were dismissed by the geniuses themselves by their failure to live up to them, since there could be many reasons for that inconsistency, one being that spelled by Dr. Johnson: "Nothing is more unjust, however common, than to charge with hypocrisy him that expresses zeal for those virtues which he neglects to practice; since he may be sincerely convinced of the advantages of conquering his passions, without having yet obtained the victory, as a man may be confident of the advantages of a voyage, or a journey, without having courage or industry to undertake it, and may honestly recommend to others, those attempts which he neglects himself."

Anyways, it became a much more interesting topic than I expected at first because this is TGL... Here my brain throbs and hurts, something which I enjoy, and prefer much more, than getting my heart crushed as I had been of late by life :tongue1:.

I'll be back!

* We would probably end up eliminating half of the pantheon of geniuses if we used that as a rule for engaging an author or thinker.

Edited by Paulus
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Posted (edited)

Davidm, related to your post on newton, check this out:

More important for me was the totally false impression created by the documentary of Newton’s mathematical and scientific work. Anyone being introduced to Newton for the first time would come away with the impression that he revolutionised mathematics, physics and astronomy in a superhuman solo endeavour completely isolated from the rest of the late seventeenth century intellectual world.

We got presented with Newton in 1666 creating a completely new branch of mathematics, he only actually started it then and it took a number of years to develop. At no point was any other mathematician mentioned. The fact that Newton either, directly or indirectly, knew of and built on the previous work in this field of Kepler, Cavalieri, Fermat, Pascal, Descartes, van Schooten, Barrow and others was quietly swept under the carpet. Even worse no mention what so ever of Leibniz who independently developed the same mathematics almost at the same time from the same sources. This of course led eventually to the most notorious priority dispute in the history of science involving many of the leading mathematicians of Europe.

The same thing occurred with the presentation of his work in optics, no mention of Kepler, Schiener, Descartes, Grimaldi, Gregory, Hooke, Huygens or anybody for that matter. Isaac apparently did it all alone in isolation.

Peruse this interesting blog entry by an autodidact historian, presumably friend of John Wilkins from evolving thoughts, whose work focuses mostly on the history of science in the early modern period http://thonyc.wordpr...st-lone-genius/

Edited by Paulus
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Ah, that's a great essay, Paulus, thanks, and a real sharp rebuttal of the Swartz thesis on Newton. Who wrote that? I don't see a name anywhere, even in the "About" section.

Quite familiar with Wilkins, and read his blog whenever I can.

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