Admiring the great thinkers of the past has become morally hazardous.
Praise Immanuel Kant and you might be reminded that he believed that ‘Humanity is at its greatest perfection in the race of the whites’ and ‘the yellow Indians do have a meagre talent’.
Laud Aristotle and you’ll have to explain how a genuine sage could have thought that ‘the male is by nature superior and the female inferior – the male ruler and the female subject’.
Write a eulogy to David Hume as I recently did here and you will be attacked for singing the praises of someone who wrote in 1753-54: ‘I am apt to suspect the Negroes and in general all other species of men … to be naturally inferior to the whites.’
We seem to be caught in a dilemma.
We can’t just dismiss the unacceptable prejudices of the past as unimportant.
But if we think that holding morally objectionable views disqualifies anyone from being considered a great thinker or a political leader then there’s hardly anyone from history left.
The problem does not go away if you exclude dead white establishment males.
Racism was common in the women’s suffrage movement on both sides of the Atlantic.
The American suffragette Carrie Chapman Catt said that: ‘White supremacy will be strengthened – not weakened – by women’s suffrage.’
Emmeline Pankhurst – her British sister in the struggle – became a vociferous supporter of colonialism – denying that it was ‘something to decry and something to be ashamed of’ and insisting instead that ‘it is a great thing to be the inheritors of an empire like ours’.
Both sexism and xenophobia have been common in the trade union movement all in the name of defending the rights of workers – male – non-immigrant workers that is.
However the idea that racist, sexist or otherwise bigoted views automatically disqualify a historical figure from admiration is misguided.
Anyone who cannot bring themselves to admire such a historical figure betrays a profound lack of understanding about just how socially conditioned all our minds are – even the greatest.
Because the prejudice seems so self-evidently wrong they just cannot imagine how anyone could fail to see this without being depraved.
Their outrage arrogantly supposes that they are so virtuous that they would never be so immoral – even when everyone around them was blind to the injustice.
We should know better.
The most troubling lesson of the Third Reich is that it was supported largely by ordinary people who would have led blameless lives had they not by chance lived through particular toxic times.
Any confidence we might have that we would not have done the same is without foundation as we now know what people then did not know.
Going along with Nazism is unimaginable today because we need no imagination to understand just what the consequences were.