In Praise of Greatness

I was trying to put my finger on what annoys me about current analysis of society and history and today the answer occurred to me: respect (or the lack of it) for greatness. Reading the biographies of great individuals is both humbling and uplifting. You quickly come to understand that nobody becomes great without making scores of mistakes and dozens of questionable decisions. And all great men have serious character flaws and usually lopsided personalities. They are not great in spite of these imperfections, but BECAUSE of them.

Greatness requires energy, passion and decisiveness. A great person will often roll over opponents and generally antagonize the less energetic, passionate and decisive folk who make up the bulk of non-great humanity. The mere scope of the great man's activities provides plenty fodder for criticism. To be great is to be misunderstood.

The modern world hates great men. In fact, it hates the idea of greatness. Hordes of graduate students spend their wasted days and wasted nights raking through the garbage for sordid details from the lives of great men that they can use in their dissertations. Their professors repackage the stuff for articles and commentary on the History Channel, where they all dearly love the game of historical gotcha.

Sometimes the blemishes are more than just details. Washington's incident at the Monongahela, Jefferson's amorous indiscretion, Lincoln's depression, and Roosevelt's perfidity today would all be disqualifications for public office. In fact, these four of our greatest presidents would probably be looking at jail time. All of us small folk can feel bigger by pulling bigger men down closer to our level. We like heroes who are as common as we are, who have done nothing great but - maybe consequently - are without reproach. We like people sort of like ourselves, but if we are like most people, most people like us are not great and anyway the life unprofaned by a sin or mistake is probably not worth studying or emulating. Being boring is a sin in and of itself in my book.

Two other things I find stupid are that we increasingly mistake celebrity for eminence and we want to "grade" greatness on a curve. Popularity doesn't make someone great and grading on the curve makes no sense at all. If you lack the opportunity to become great, that's it. You are not great. Saying that someone is great, considering his or her circumstances, is like calling someone the world's shortest giant. Try pitching a tent and selling tickets to that one.

It takes an intelligent man to be cynical, and it takes a wise one not to be. We can look at the totality of a great life and pronounce it great, even if it is littered with imperfections and perhaps tarnished by some downright dreadful behavior. Jefferson's epithet "Author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia". Is there anything that this man could have done that would negate these achievements? Or consider the case of Nelson Mandela, perhaps the greatest men alive today. Do we judge him by his unfortunate choice of a spouse or his earlier terrorist activity, or by the greatness he showed in bringing his country together?

So let's just cut it out and move beyond merely intelligent and cynical and look at the whole. There are great men in every generation. Sometimes we will find them on our side, sometimes in opposition. There are two wrong ways to set standards. The one is so low that nobody can fail. The other is so high that nobody can succeed. Cynical smart guys like to whipsaw between these two with an air of worldly wisdom and by their standards they can't find any great men. The truth is if you can't think of anyone you consider great, the fault lies not with others, but with you.

So I am interested. In the opinion of our esteemed readers, who in your living memory (so even us older fellas can't go too far back.) was/is great? I will start with my top five (no order): Nelson Mandela, Pope John Paul, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Jan Nowak Jezioranski.

Posted by Jack at May 25, 2005 11:55 AM