The Daily Stoic: “We judge a society by the monuments it puts up.”

From the website Daily Stoic: Ancient wisdom for everyday life:

It was Malraux who said that we judge a society by the monuments it puts up.

So imagine a society that puts up statues to tyrants, to someone who nearly succeeded in tearing an empire apart, who did horrible, inexplicably cruel things, even by the standards of their own time.

Can you imagine that? Can you imagine the reign of Domitian? Or the reign of Commodus?

Can you imagine when the fear wore off, the collective insanity that enabled and was complicit with their evil, what the Romans did next?

They sawed off the head of Domitian’s statue. After the death of Commodus, when his terror had ceased, the Senate issued the following decree:

From him who was a foe of his fatherland let his honours be taken away; let the honours of the murderer be taken away; let the murderer be dragged in the dust. . . .

Is that destroying history? Or is it simply the obvious response of a freed people with a conscience?

Of course, the past is complicated. Very few people or causes who are displayed in bronze or iron or stone are entirely good. To judge history by the standards of the present is tricky business. But that fact that something is hard and complicated does not absolve us of the responsibility of solving for it.

Rome was able to tear down the monuments of its worst villains. Here, in America and in the rest of the world, we have more tools at our disposal besides belatedly angry destruction. We can still study and learn about these people in our history books and our schools (just as we do for Commodus and Hitler and others). We can move abhorrent monuments to museums. We can take them off public property, remove them from their prominent places in front of courthouses and capitals which are supposed to be the people’s house. All people. . . .

You can make good arguments about Marcus Aurelius. There are good arguments about the good Churchill did. There are good arguments about Jefferson and Washington and others. And only a coward is afraid of having an argument.

The same is not true for Nathan Bedford Forrest. Jefferson Davis was a fool. Robert E. Lee betrayed his prior service and his country when he raised arms against it, and sent a generation of men to their deaths in a rebellion over the worst cause for which men have ever rebelled, in a war that he should have had no hope of winning.

Let the statues of the foe come down. Let their celebration become dust.

And finally, put up better statues—in your homes and in our public spaces—that reflect the kind of society we want to become.

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