by Kevin Kwilinski
In her essay “Of Heroes, Villains, and Valets”( published in On Looking into the Abyss: Untimely Thoughts on Culture and Society), American historian Gertude Himmelfarb begins with the quote, “No man is a hero to his valet.” This quote was attributed to the Duke of Condé during the reign of Louis XIV. Himmelfarb then quotes the philosopher George Hegel who expounds upon the quote, “No man is a hero to his valet, not because the former is no hero, but because the latter is a valet.”
In our current age these quotes evoke images from the television show Downton Abbey as the valet Bates brushes lint off the shoulder of the Earl of Grantham. If we have learned anything from Downton Abbey it is that being in service was not to be looked down upon. It was a respectable position. So we see these quotations not as a critique of the valet in a negative sense but instead as recognizing one of the virtues of a valet. That virtue is temperance. The valet pledges to have a high degree of self control. In spite of the intimate access to the person being served, the valet doesn’t allow himself to become too familiar. The valet performs his duties without judgement on the character of his employer. The valet is objectively aware of the good and the bad acts of his actor but, by choice, subjectively oblivious. Through self control the valet prevents, or at least seriously limits, his drawing of any conclusion on the subject. This self induced compartmentalization allows the valet to perform his duties over the long-term.
Although the posture of the valet is acceptable for the ambitions of the valet, Himmelfarb recognizes it as a poor posture for historical analysis. She writes, “The problem with a valet-like conception of history is not only its denigration of greatness and heroism but also its denigration of individuality and freedom.” Himmelfarb was wary of that which she points out had been a concern of Tocqueville. That concern reflected a tendency in democratic periods for historians to attribute the events of history to other causes as opposed to the volitional acts of men. She quotes Tocqueville from his work Democracy in America,
“A cause so vast that it acts at the same time on millions of men, and so strong that it bends them all together in the same direction, may easily seem irresistible. Seeing that one does yield to it, one is very near believing that one cannot stand up to it.
Thus historians who live in democratic times do not only refuse to admit that some citizens may influence the destiny of a people, but also take away from the people themselves the faculty of modifying their own lot and make them depend either on an inflexible providence or on a kind of blind fatality.”
Tocqueville and Himmelfarb saw a contrast to periods of aristocracy where the free will of an aristocrat was rightly blamed or praised by the historians of that time for an outcome. Himmelfarb goes on to explain why this concerned her,
“Indeed, without will and freedom, there can be no virtue and vice. And without virtue and vice, there can be no heroes and villains. There can only be valets—valets who recognize no heroes whether of good or of evil, who recognize no greatness of any kind: no momentous events in history, no superior works of art, literature, or philosophy, no essential distinction between the trivial and the important. If such a valet mentality prevailed, we would all, the most humble and the most eminent of us, be diminished by it.”
In our present age, we also should be concerned, not just for a proper telling of history by the professional historians of our day but for our own perception of events and actions. We see today a willingness by many to view the world as valets, choosing to not make judgements about the actions of the objects of their political affections. However unlike the valet for whom this act is a virtue, for us it is a dereliction of duty. By compartmentalizing the actions of our politicians we deny their free will and we revise the story of who they are in society. We further deny that character, being formed for good or bad by the repetition of good or bad acts over time, has a high probability of predicting a person’s future behavior. And as we give such license to others we risk the tendency to also give such license to ourselves.
Regardless of the outcome of our current election, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard demanding more from our leaders. Not seeking more perfection but seeking more goodness. Not seeking more celebrity, but seeking more humanity. Not seeking an image of success but seeking an image that reflects the ideals for which we each strive.