Bust of Demosthenes, Roman copy after a Greek Hellenistic original; copy of Polyeuktos, c.a. 280 BC, via the British Museum.

When I was an undergraduate, one of my teachers used to talk only half-seriously about “Great Losers in American History,” beginning with Aaron Burr. It’s not a theme that George Patton would have warmed to. As the general said to the troops, “Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.” No doubt that’s true—and not just in the U.S.—when it comes to choosing leaders. Yet even Americans evince a certain fascination for failure. Ahab or Gatsby or Willy Loman, anyone?

When the defeated goes down fighting, moreover, when he...

 

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