Ancient eastern kings acted on this principle, when they made a rule of never appearing in public before the people, for fear they might by so doing impair the kind of religious awe with which they were regarded by their subjects.
They were quite right in supposing that, if they mingled freely with the people, they would be seen to be mere ordinary mortals and lose the mysterious grandeur with which popular ignorance had invested them. In modern times also it has been remarked in the history of the Great Rebellion in England, and in other cases, that the loyalty of the outlying provinces was stronger than that of the capital. The Londoners continually saw Charles I and were familiar with all his weaknesses.
They therefore had less respect for him than the men of Devon and Cornwall, who knew nothing of him as a man and looked up to him as the hereditary representative of the divine right of kings. The same considerations explain the amount of truth there is in the saying that no man is a hero to his valet. A celebrated statesman or soldier is known to the general public as he appears when riding in a splendid uniform at the head of his troops, or sitting in state at the opera, the observed of all observers. The greater numbers of people, who never see him at all, think of him as negotiating some important treaty, or driving the enemy before him with his victorious sword, and forget that in most respects he is only a man like themselves. The valet, on the contrary, sees in his famous master not the warrior or the statesman, but the man. Even the greatest heroes are subject to indigestion, colds in the head, fits of peevishness, and all the other ignoble ailments that flesh is heir to.
Their personal attendants are well aware of this, and seeing them in their weaker moments are unable to share in the foolish ideas of the multitude, who in their imagination regard their heroes as something more than ordinary mortals. But, after all, it is quite possible for sensible valets to recognize the heroism of a real hero. If a man is really great, those who are most familiar with him admire him most, unless they are too base to be capable of admiring what is great and good.
Thus, although his ignorant wife, Xanthippe, treated him with contempt, Socrates was most deeply revered by those of his followers who were most familiar with him. Familiarity does not breed contempt except when the man with whom we are familiar really deserves contempt, or when, though he really deserves respect, we are incapable of appreciating his admirable qualities. The proverb we are considering is also applicable to things.
Undertakers have no feeling of dread or reverence in the presence of dead bodies, and the sexton treats a human skull with no more regard than he would show to a stone. The inhabitants of mountainous countries are often without any admiration for the splendid scenery that attracts tourists from the ends of the world. Especially wonderful is the power by which familiarity breeds contempt for danger. The old hunter, without his pulse beating any quicker, sees a wild beast, the sight of which would strike a townsman dumb with terror.
In war, most soldiers, after the first two or three engagements, get quite used to the dangers with which they are continually threatened. Nelson could say without the least exaggeration that his sailors regarded shot and shell no more than peas. The same indifference to the dangers of war is produced by familiarity even in the case of peaceful non-combatants. Amid all the deafening din of the German bombardment during the second word war, the men and women of Paris found that they could calmly go about their ordinary avocations. They walked with little fear through streets within the range of fire to view from some high eminence the grand pyrotechnic display, only taking the precaution to throw themselves flat on the ground when a shell seemed to be coming dangerously near. This precaution, which was after a time dictated rather by habit than fear, suggested a practical joke to the Paris street boys, who, when they saw a richly-dressed gentleman in a muddy place, would call out “a shell,” “a shell,” in order that he might fall flat in the mud according to the usual practice, and soil his fine clothes. In this way the thunder of the heaviest siege artillery of Germany provided a new diversion to the street boys of Paris.