“We are to judge the actions of men by the light we have, but men by the light they have.”
What a true and important thing to remember, especially when seeking to evaluate and understand other men. Whether historical figures or contemporary leaders, all men that you ever study will end up revealing what seem to be large errors of thought and action. What do we think when a seemingly good man (often very good) does something that seems just terribly wrong?
Well, here we have at least two thoughts about the matter. First, we must look at the actions of men and evaluate them according to what we believe is right. As we have come to firm persuasion and light of truth, we must not abandon that truth lightly, regardless of whose actions or words would contradict it. Is your belief tested by an opposing view from a man whom you respect? Are you going simply to change your mind, then, because of that? How deeply do you really believe it? Right is right and wrong is wrong. Truth doesn’t change regardless of who stands with or against it. Let us look at what men do and not be afraid to conclude that a man has done wrong when it is plainly so.
But at the same time, can we make the distinction between judging a man’s wrong actions and wholly condemning the man himself? Is that possible? Many good men lived and labored hundreds of years ago in times and places very different from ours today. The world of their day had many assumptions that we do not share now. It sometimes takes a very advanced way of thinking to see beyond the assumptions that are shared by virtually everyone around you, even when those assumptions are wrong. Many good men followed the assumptions that guided the slavery system for centuries before it was brought to an end. Almost all men everywhere believed in the idea of state religion for centuries and centuries. The idea of religious freedom was thought to be a necessary precursor of chaos and anarchy. How many other widespread ideas would we today consider to be very wrong? And yet good men lived within those times and did not always see past these ideas. Had they lived in our day, when these ideas have been combated and proven false, they would see better, but they did not have the same privilege as we do today. And what would you have done if you had been in their shoes? Do we not prove ourselves very arrogant to think that we would always have seen through all the wrongs that so few men did? We must be the most enlightened and purist souls that ever lived!
And realize, too, perhaps most importantly of all, that there are certainly large wrongs of your day that you have not yet seen. Perhaps you have seen some. I imagine you have. But what will men think of us in a hundred years, looking back and evaluating us. Will they not see great errors in our thought that will have been exposed by their day? Or will we be the first generation without such failures? How we judge others will be the standard by which we our judge. If we wish to be thought of fairly, let us do the same, then, to other men.