Great people are often lousy persons. The makers of history reach the top by climbing all over lesser and more polite individuals. Or as the Norwegian humorist Odd Børretzen once put it: While the rest of us quietly await our turn, the Napoleons of history trample in, with muddy boots on, knocking over chairs and tables and demand being served coffee and cake. But even though they cut in line and leave nothing but crumbles for us, we admire their accomplishments.
Moody, rude, paranoid, self-righteous and vindictive, Isaac Newton could have gone down in history as a minor villain. Instead this nasty piece of work is held in high esteem. His scientific genius and important discoveries obviously distinguish him from your common thug. But should he therefore be held to a different standard? Do people who accomplish things deserve to be given some moral slack?
Thomas Hurka thinks so. Driven individuals might treat other people less than gently; but if their single-minded preoccupation yields good results, then we can surely forgive a little rudeness. Who would argue that Newton’s law of gravity, in the long run, was not worth some sore toes? What he lacked in politeness, he made up for with greatness.
Hurka argues as if history will excuse any questionable means by which great goals are reached. In hindsight, it might look as if this is what history does. Today, no-one resent Caravaggio (as many did in the 17th century) for his petty behaviour. Today, most art loving people simply admire him (as few did back then) for his paintings. But have we really excused the former because of the latter? For reasons I will return to, I think not. (If history somehow had decided that the paintings in the long run are more important than the not-so-good things that made them possible, then history must, somehow, have compared the two things, and, somehow, have found that the good consequences outweigh the not-so-good means. But how on earth could such a comparison ever be made? What has happened, I think, is rather that the means simply have vanished from our field of vision. History has rather forgotten than forgiven, I believe.) But let me first point out some of the more obvious problems with Hurka's reasoning.
Hurka is careful not to allow geniuses to do anything just because they are geniuses. They cannot get away with trampling on people for no good reason. Trampling on others is justified only if it somehow contributes to their artistic or scientific excellence, or if their unsociable behaviour is a necessary side effect of the dedication they need to give their art or science in order to achieve such excellence.
Perhaps, Hurka suggests, the dedication needed just isn’t compatible with being too concerned with other people (therefore, in order for great things to keep happening, we might need to give these people some slack). Perhaps, indeed. This is an empirical hypothesis. But however are we to test its truth-value? There might be some connection between dedication and unsociable behaviour -- and there might be none. Or perhaps there is such a connection in some cases, but not in others. And how do we distinguish the faux pas that somehow did contribute to Caravaggio's and Newton’s accomplishments from their inexcusable misdemeanours? How do we decide which were necessary and which were not? This distinction is crucial to Hurka’s argument, but I see no practical application of it.
Another problem is this: An artist might behave like a jerk, but if this somehow contributes to, say, his revolutionising the history of modern art, then his nastiness is, as it were, compensated for. But if he does not accomplish anything great, then his nastiness is not compensated for, and he simply is a jerk. So what should we do? Just wait for the end result (or the historical verdict) before making up our minds about the actions of ambitious people? If so, we might have to sit back for a loooong time: Rembrandt was regarded as a merely skilled painter until some hundred years after his death.
And what are we to say to aspiring artists? Should we encourage talented people to behave like jerks, in the hope that this will eventually enable them to do great work? Wouldn’t that inevitably entail encouraging a lot of people to behave like jerks who never will accomplish much of anything, because it simply is impossible to tell in advance who will produce something invaluable
Apart from these (we might say) practical objections, there are philosophical ones too. This one, for instance: Can history ever forgive anything? (This is not the trivial point that History is not a real agent; I am suggesting that it never is up to the whims of history to decide what is forgivable or not.)
During the interview, a listener raised a pertinent question. She mentioned a long series of artists who have benefited artistically from terrible afflictions. She wanted to know whether their works somehow justify the suffering they experienced? Here is Hurka's response:
Let's say someone like Mickey Rourke has to go through periods of suffering in order to become a better actor. I would say that that suffering was redeemed, if you want to use that word, by the fact that it led to something more valuable later.How can he say something like that? It is not inconceivable that Rourke himself could end up viewing his own suffering as redeemed in this fashion, in which case Hurka's statement would be less problematic; but I see no way in which Hurka can decide that the suffering is so redeemed. Hurka seems to take for granted that Rourke’s periods of suffering would be redeemed if they led to something more valuable later. But is this really granted? What if Rourke himself thought otherwise? What if Rourke claimed that nothing could redeem his sufferings? Imagine that he, precisely because of the sufferings that eventually made him the greatest actor in the world, continued to curse the day he was born for the rest of his life? Is there any objective point of view from which we can say who’s right and who’s wrong on this matter? I don’t think there is a question of being right and wrong here at all. Mickey Rourke simply is the only person entitled to say what, if anything, could possibly redeem his painful experiences. Try, if you may, to imagine Hurka telling Rourke on his deathbed that, never mind Rourke’s own opinion, his periods of deep misery had in fact been redeemed by his periods of great acting. How would that be received -- as a comfort?
But, say that Rourke was happy to say that his misery was redeemed by his later career. His wife, let us imagine, is less forgiving. She keeps complaining about the anguish he caused her when he was being a bad guy making himself that great actor. What could Rourke say in his defense to get morally excused by her
If he really was the greatest, then it would still be a violation of her rights, but it can be justified in the long run by what it made possible….Again the objections are obvious. Is really Hurka in a position to forgive a husband his violation of his wife’s rights? Or is his point rather that the wife should forgive her husband on these grounds? If so, how is Hurka in a position to make that judgement? "Only those who suffer the wrongdoings of others are entitled to forgive," Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov. That is what forgiveness means. There is no non-afflicted or objective point of view from which we can assess whether an action is forgivable or not. Only the victims are entitled to judge whether damage done by a some artist should be forgiven because of the beautiful art the wrongdoings made possible.
Consider the infamous case of Paul Gauguin abandoning wife and children in order to go to Tahiti to paint. Upon hearing about this some might say “What a terrible ting to do,” and think it would have been better had he stayed at home, even though his negligence proved to be decisive for the history of modern art. I understand, to some extent, why some would think so; but in the end I do not share their sentiment. What I say is closer to: “What a terrible thing to do, but thank God! Had he not gone, he never would have made those wonderful paintings!”
It is not necessarily insensitive to say that, I think. (Is it not rather parallel to being happy for the knowledge we have of certain medicines, but at the same time being horrified by the way that knowledge was obtained? “How could anyone do such a thing,” we say when hearing about certain medical experiments from the past, “those people should have been prosecuted”; but still we have few scruples taking advantage of the knowledge when we do have it.)
We are not a contemporaries of Gauguin, and I think that is an important difference. We are talking about incidents from a distant past. We never will meet his family, and are unlikely to offend anyone by concentrating on the man's art. In fact, I guess, we are more likely to anger his contemporary descendants by doing anything else. But, of course, it could have been distasteful if we, back then, had encouraged Gauguin to abandon his family for his career (Gauguin was a nasty piece of work, so for all I know his family could have been happy to see the back of him). And I believe that Mme. Gauguin would have been justifiably offended, if her heartache had been ignored just like that. Imagine that Mme. Gauguin confided to me, pouring her heart out in despair, and I couldn't stop praising her husband's talents...! Or if I, paraphrasing Hurka, had replied something like this:
"Yes, he was a lousy husband; yes, he trampled all over you and your children; yes, he violated your rights and your marriage -- but we must take care not to end up as moralistic monomaniacs. There are other kinds of value too, you know. Look at your husband's whole life -- not just his meanness, but also the vast number of great works he went on to produce. When you realise that your suffering was necessary to make that contribution to the History of Mankind possible, we can both agree that we shouldn't make such a big deal outta that, don't you think?"