Wood for the Trees: A ‘Man of his Time’
A ‘Man of his Time’
One of the many fascinations of history is trying to work out what was the
motivation of those who made it. The possibilities can be many and various but historians all warn us not to project our own values and perceptions onto those who lived in the past. Quite often the observation that ‘he was a man of his time’ is used to explain and sometimes justify actions that most feel to be abhorrent in a contemporary context. There seems to be some kind of limit placed on the applicability of this observation since it is never used to justify or explain, for instance, the activities of Hitler or Stalin. We are given the impression that the further back in time we go the more alien the dominant ideologies of morality and politics become. Certainly any attempt to ‘judge’ the actions of historical characters by anachronistically using our own values is problematic but we do see evidence of universal ethical sensibilities throughout history. What are we to make of this paradox?
To examine this question we’ll use The Crusades of the Middle Ages as it remains a prime example of a raging debate about the motivations of the participants that shows no sign of a resolution. Some historians insist on Christian piety as being the prime motivating force whilst others point to the Pope’s desire to unite Christendom under his hegemony or yet others highlight the need of minor sons of the nobility to create their own fiefdoms. Some consider the Crusades as an early precursor of imperialism motivated purely by plunder and power. Not that all or some of these are necessarily incompatible with each other but we do know that they often came into conflict, a factor that would ultimately be one of the reasons leading to the downfall of the Crusader States. It would be naïve to deny that the ideologies and values of the historians concerned play a role in the conclusions they reach despite the manifest importance of guarding against this. It would be equally naïve to believe the motivation of a Crusader to be that which he declared it to be – hypocrisy seems to have thrived within every historical period. Psychologically we also all have a tendency to rationalise our actions, if we feel uneasy about them, in an effort to avoid guilt. In other words our motivation may be unclear to ourselves. We may be able to agree on what was done historically but given the above complexities can we ever be sure why those involved acted as they did?
Many of us enjoy historical biographies which ultimately focus on the question of motivation. No one biography will ever completely coincide with another – if they did the whole exercise would be rendered meaningless. Different crusaders had different motivations which were expressed within a context created by their superiors who in turn reacted to circumstances which led to an inevitable clash of warrior cultures and their imperial ambitions. Two of the most famous of these warriors were Richard I of the Angevin Empire and Saladin of the Ayyubid Empire. Their reputations have fluctuated down the centuries and many biographers have seen both similarities and profound differences in their character and motivation. They were obviously both ‘men of their time’ but one became notorious for brutality and the other is often seen as one of the originators of ‘the chivalric code’. We might ascribe this to their divergent cultural backgrounds but it does weaken the stereotype of what it means to be ‘a man of your time’. Any acknowledgement of acts of compassion, righteousness, mutual respect or regret also weakens the concept of historical figures merely being the conditioned products of their time.
It may be that only a few have ever stepped back from the values of their culture to acquire a more objective perspective (as, of course, socialists claim to be able to do) but in terms of our evolution as a species the historical record is very recent. Our communal and social predilections and the feelings of compassion and empathy that this engenders have often come into conflict with the cultural values of authoritarianism, exploitation and hierarchy. In an attempt to excuse or explain the actions of those in history it is never enough to point to perceived historical/cultural limitations. This can so often lead to unfounded conclusions concerning ‘human nature’ and give those who seek to excuse the excesses of capitalism a readymade formula of despair. We so often hear phrases like: ‘there’s always been warfare’ or there’ll always be hierarchies of wealth and power’ which are clearly projections of contemporary prejudice and historical ignorance onto the motivations of those in the past and this in turn masquerades as an example of not doing so by invoking the importance of not making moral judgements; in other words the formulation of ‘a man of his time’ is itself a projection of contemporary values. It implies that contemporary values are somehow superior to those of the past. It might be that the moral and political aspirations of mankind have remained much the same but have been viciously suppressed by the emergence of private property and its power elites. Will we ever be able to explain or excuse the actions of Tony Blair, George Bush Jnr. or Osama Bin Ladin by saying that they were merely ‘men of their time’?