This amusing quote contains the key to why so many of the most fascinating historical characters are either outright villains or at least morally ambiguous. Many of the “great men” of history were capable of both magnanimous deeds and cold-blooded slaughter, who succeeded in their schemes by adopting their own private moral universe and imposing it on all around them. Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and even Hitler and Stalin, were visionaries as well as military leaders, and all believed that they were capable of creating a vastly better civilization, once opposition to their designs had been thoroughly repressed.
The history of the errors of mankind, all things considered, is more valuable and interesting than that of their discoveries. Truth is uniform and narrow . . . But error is endlessly diversified; it has no reality, but is the pure and simple creation of the mind that invents it. In this field the soul has room enough to expand herself, to display all her boundless faculties, and all her beautiful and interesting extravagancies and absurdities. —Benjamin Franklin
Those of us who would love to use history help teach good character in our students need to take a broad view of the situation. It is easy to find inspiring heroes at first pass: Alfred the Great, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln come to mind. But the range of unambiguously good characters, outside of the fields of missionary and charity work and is fairly slim. Politics, discovery, and military conquest are seldom the province of saints, and the moral lessons that history teaches are often complex. The most interesting history stories feature plenty of decadence, cowardice and adversity. The bravest and most irrepressible souls often have character flaws a mile wide. The most noble and patriotic characters often meet with ingratitude and bad ends.
Students who clearly understand the difference between good and evil, and most essentially, understand man’s tendency toward sin, have some chance of making sense of history, where as those who are only capable of doing a “cost-benefit” analysis of historical events and characters will come up empty. Truth may be “uniform and narrow”, but it is our only reliable guide.
This post is part of the Quotable Wisdom Link-up by the bloggers of iHomeschool Network.