It was Fyodor Dostoevsky who wrote, “Man’s greatest failing is a constant lack of moral sense.” Ironically, it was Dostoevsky’s own lack of moral sense that Penn Russian and East European Studies professor Kevin Platt prompted me and my peers to reflect on in “Masterpieces of 19th Century Russian Literature” as we concluded reading “Crime and Punishment.”
Dostoevsky was a pretty racist, anti-semitic, xenophobic guy, Platt pointed out, and yet, we still read and enjoy his work. Platt raised the following question: How should we deal with great works by ethically dubious people or communities, even in the past?
The age-old question of whether we can separate art from artist, craft from creator, has become all the more topical in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Following the removal of Steven Wynn’s name from campus, History of Education professor Jonathan Zimmerman argued in a recent op-ed for amending the plaque on Benjamin Franklin’s famous statue to include the title, “OWNER OF SLAVES.”
An intriguing proposition, but one which my partiality toward Ben Franklin disposes me against. Still, my realization that Franklin owned slaves, though it should not have been unexpected, was rather disappointing.
When I read Franklin’s autobiography last summer, I found in him a deeply admirable figure and, if I'm to afford myself the compliment, a kindred spirit. After all, Franklin and I were both born in Boston and journeyed to Philadelphia to mark our respective leaps into adulthood. Besides, we even share a Myers-Briggs personality type, ENTP; the parallels are uncanny.
Although they lived some 1700 years apart, Franklin has a few things in common with Seneca, the ancient Stoic philosopher I recently came to revere after reading his moral essay, “On the Shortness of Life.”
In a conversation with Comparative Literature Chair Emily Wilson, who recently became the first woman to translate Homer’s “Odyssey” to English and who has also authored an acclaimed biography of Seneca, she commented on how eminently quotable both Franklin and Seneca are. Wilson also pointed out that Franklin and Seneca share another, more unfortunate commonality: they were both slave-owners.
In fact, owning slaves was hardly Seneca’s only moral failing. After all, Seneca — who produced enlightening works on moral philosophy; who argued that austerity and self-mastery are critical and poverty useful for striving for virtue while defeating the lure of ‘the passions;’ who wrote, “It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil” — was the mastermind behind some of the emperor Nero’s most bloody, power-hungry political maneuvers, and was at one point positioned at the very top of Roman imperial society, until Nero decided to have him killed.
“We’re kind of stuck with our past,” Platt tells me over a coffee. “We have to figure out how to derive certain kinds of positive ideas from it in order to instantiate them in the future, and that turns us back to things like Seneca and Dostoevsky.”
The quotability of Franklin, or Seneca, or even Dostoevsky means many of their phrases circulate disembodied, ready for a reader to absorb these kernels of knowledge without bothering to examine their context.
“We want to idealize, we want to heroize, we want to think if we’re going to study either figures or literature from the past, they must be 100 percent good,” Wilson told me. “And I actually think you learn more both about our society and about history if you’re aware that … all societies are flawed.”
I realize that my disappointment at discovering Seneca’s or Franklin’s flaws suggests I’ve succumbed to the heroization trap already. “We have to judge individuals against the standards of their period,” Platt observes. After all, the author of a work can be regarded as a creation himself, authored by the prevailing forces of his time and place.
Viewed this way, we can wish that Dostoevsky were as progressive as Tolstoy and some of his other contemporaries, but we should nonetheless be more willing to excuse Dostoevsky’s prejudices and relish the genius of his work.
We might wish that Seneca could’ve been a sage example of the Stoic philosophy he preached, but we can recognize that his failure to attain fulfillment by pursuing money and power is telling in its own right. And, as Wilson puts it, “In the case of Seneca he repeatedly says … I’m trying to be a doctor but I’m sick myself.”
Finally, we must acknowledge that Ben Franklin did own slaves through his life — but this is more of a reflection on his time period. Far less common was Franklin’s ability to re-evaluate his attitudes toward slavery, becoming instead an influential abolitionist, building schools for black children.
In Wilson's words, "Truth matters in itself." This statement ought apply as fully to the (fallen) heroes of our time as to the mythologized figures of antiquity. It ought to spur us to weigh the gravest of one's sins but not to neglect the most illuminating or admirable of their contributions.
As Dostoevsky, an Orthodox Christian, would likely inform us, we're all sinners. The more secular, universal iteration of this notion may be that we're all human. Perhaps the only real sin is refusing to find any good in people on account of the inevitable presence of the bad.