Monday, 6 April 2009

What is Greatness?

What is greatness? How do we recognise great men (and women)?
  • Was Napoleon a great man? 
  • Was Indira Gandhi a great leader? 
  • Is Barack Obama great? 
  • Can we consider Louis Pasteur, Aurobindo or Tiger Woods great in the same way as history portrays Ramesses the Great or Alexander the Great? 
  • Will 25th century people read about George Bush the Great or Osama Bin Laden the Great?

Different Approaches to Understanding Greatness - The Great Man Theory

Photo source: Wikimedia commons 'The Secret of England's Greatness' (Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor) by Thomas John Barker

One way to understand greatness is to read about the greatness of ‘great’ people. This is the ‘Great man theory’ of history that explains history as the impact of great humans or heroes. 

They are seen as extremely influential individuals who use their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, powers of persuasion, or other gifts to achieve significant historical impact. 

Most of religious, political, social, historical writings fall in this category. Hagiography, which deals with biographies of leaders (both religious and secular), is mostly this attempt to idealize humans into greatness. But hagiography is nowadays a pejorative term for uncritical eulogizing and polishing humans into demigods.

We don’t know how animals behave in this respect, but this approach to greatness is common to almost all human cultures. 

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Portraying humans as ‘great’ and almost divine can be found from the ancient Lalitavistara Sutra of Hinayana Buddhism, which describes the divinity of Buddha, through the great Indian epics like the Ramayana, where Rama is popularly interpreted as being divine. The Scottish Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1899), ("The history of the world is but the biography of great men.") symbolizes this view.

The main benefit in this approach is that by examining the lives and deeds of the great and the heroic, we could discover something about our dormant potentials, our true nature. The assumption here is that a human being is more than a biological machine for food processing, moving around, and satisfying hormonal and other urges. The shortcoming here is that people start taking things literally. They see historical events as being tied directly to the individual decisions and actions of great persons. The clock strikes nine forty five, Lenin begins the Russian Revolution or Alexander the Great conquers the
‘known’ world and then in an instant the world changes. The establishment in every human society encourages this approach, as there is an element of social control in the great man theory.

The cryptic message to ordinary mortals often is 

“You can idolize the great ones, worship them but don’t think of becoming like them. Just continue being obedient, hard-working taxpaying citizens. Leave greatness to us, your leaders.”

Revisionist Approach to Understanding Greatness

Photo source: Guide Horse at Wikimedia commons

The revisionist approach sees the Great Man Theory as primitive, childish and hopelessly unscientific. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) the English social scientist sums up this approach by saying 
You must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown....Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.“ 
Leo Tolstoy also criticizes this historical approach in his monumental epic War and Peace.

Societal, economic, technological and environmental factors are seen as just as or even more significant than political factors or the impact of single persons in shaping history. 

New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt argues that societies and not just authors play roles in creating works of art rather than authors alone. Greenblatt tries to explain the genius of Shakespeare as a product of ‘collective negotiation and exchange’ with events, circumstances and persons around him.

Isaac Newton writes in a letter to Robert Hooke 

If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants”.

Photo source:

The Revisionist approach is usually favoured by those not in power and often minorities. Feminists, ethnographers, African voices, persecuted minorities question accepted views. Indian historians nowadays challenge British official version of British rule in India by exposing planned distortions. The Nobel Prize winner
Amartya Sen debunks many historical reasons of famines and other calamities in India in his work.

The revisionist approach to understanding greatness has some shortcomings. What agenda does the revisionists have? What if there isn’t much written stuff to revise? 

Ramesh Chandra Majumdar, doyen of Indian historians, complained in Ancient India (1968), 
One of the gravest defects of Indian culture, which defies rational explanation, is the aversion of the Indian to writing history.” 

This refusal to ascribe great importance to political history is ever present in India. Kalhana, author of Rajatarngini, a twelfth-century history of the kings of Kashmir, began his book by saying, 
‘Who but a poet can bring back the past in sweet composition, and what can make it intelligible if his art cannot?’ 
Is this because for Indian civilization exploration and speculation concerns higher matters, especially of the realm of the soul or because Indian civilization has always had a healthy distrust of “Great” leaders and the political establishment?

Other Approach to Understanding Greatness

What about approaching greatness by describing what it is not. This is the neti-neti approach of Jnana Yoga (wisdom yoga) and Advaita Vedanta in Hinduism, Apophatic or negative theology in Christianity (which attempts to achieve unity with the Divine Good by gaining knowledge of what God is not) or Lahoot salbi
in Islam (especially Sufism).

Is an early start, the recipe for greatness? 

PET scans of math prodigies show that they typically think using long-term working memory. So do experienced waiters in restaurants, as they can hold the orders of even twenty customers in memory for long times. But experienced waiters do now become Mozarts or Tiger Woods.

Is it that someone recognizes that a person is special or extraordinarily talented? 

Does this mean that Mozart or Tiger Woods would not have become great without the obsessive mentoring of their fathers or that Barack Obama wouldn’t have succeeded without his mother’s inspirational mentoring? Lots of child prodigies never succeed. 

Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.
But is genius greatness?

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Greatness is not fame – hardly anyone would consider a celebrity like Paris Hilton as great. It is not a position of leadership - Veerappan the Tamil bandit and Idi Amin are both famous but hardly greatness.

Is greatness only about reaching the top? Think about the students who were the top of your class. Were they great? 

“I'm not the greatest; I'm the double greatest. Not only do I knock 'em out, I pick the round.” 
- said Muhammed Ali, the boxer.

It can’t be having your name written in history books. The cemetery of La Recoleta in Buenos Aires, Argentina has very impressive two or three storied ornate tombs of rich and famous people like generals and presidents, but the majority of visitors walk past them to visit the relatively simple grave of Eva Perón, whom they consider to be great. 

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Is greatness predestined? 

In Roman mythology, every person had a unique destiny or purpose in life. A tutelary deity or spirit, Genius (looking like a handsome naked winged Roman youth) was assigned to each man (Juno to a woman), like a patron saint or Istadevata in Hinduism. So the genius inspired and guided the individual towards fulfilling this unique destiny or mission. Socrates (in Plato’s Apology of Socrates) said that he had a daimonion (meaning a “divine something” inside him. It was a voice warning him against mistakes but never telling him what to do. For Socrates this daimonion is not a personal presence (daimon or daemon) but rather a sign or a thing.

So greatness comes from within and no one can make another person great. Bad news for elite universities! 

Is it the fact that Socrates chose to listen to his ‘voice’ and not disregard it or drown it in booze or entertainment that makes him great?

How Great People See Greatness

Is greatness sincere commitment to a certain cause or vision, so that you forget about your own benefits and concerns? Winston Churchill, considered the greatest Briton of all times sees it as a responsibility - “Responsibility is the price of greatness.” 

Is Gandhi, with many human failings though, considered great because of this commitment ‘to the greater good’? 
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” – Gandhi.
Is greatness a glimpse of something beyond the accepted and ordinary that can be brought about by inner transformation? 
 Nelson Mandela achieved greatness by personal transformation and says - 

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?
Is greatness about rising above the mediocre? 

But the manner of rising above mediocrity is also crucial. 
There are countless ways of attaining greatness, but any road to reaching one's maximum potential must be built on a bedrock of respect for the individual, a commitment to excellence, and a rejection of mediocrity.” Says Buck Rogers, the American Science fiction hero. 
“To become truly great, one has to stand with people, not above them.” Marleen Charles de Montesquieu (French Politican and Philosopher, 1689-1755)
  • Greatness is not ascribed or inherited. It is an individual choice - "The proof of one's greatness lies in the performance of great deeds, not in being born as the son of an illustrious father.” – teaches the Bhagavad Gita.
  • Greatness has a moral dimension, a willingness to be good. William Shakespeare guides us “He is not great who is not greatly good.” 
Martina Navratilova, the Czech born American Tennis champion teaches us 
“The mark of great sportsmen is not how good they are at their best, but how good they are at their worst.” 
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The ever saucy Mark Twain (who was a happily married family man and had lots of famous friends) brings a humorous twist to being good “Be good and you will be lonely”.

  • Greatness has a spiritual dimension such that achieving spiritual potential may lead to greatness. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the American essayist, philosopher and poet, who got great inspiration from the Indian Vedas and the Bhagavad Gita teaches us “A great man is always willing to be little”, “Great men are they who see that the spiritual is stronger than material force, that thoughts rule the world.
  • Yet greatness cannot be achieved by plan or desire for greatness. “Men achieve a certain greatness unawares, when working to another aim.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Does greatness need humility and not being engrossed in oneself, so characteristic of people who want to be great? “To be simple is to be great” says Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

George Bernard Shaw adds his thoughts: 
Forget about likes and dislikes. They are of no consequence. Just do what must be done. This may not be happiness but it is greatness.
  • Napoleon Bonaparte links greatness with the human longing for continuing one’s existence and immortality - “Greatness be nothing unless it be lasting.” 
  • Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reminds that not everyone can be great – “Everything great and intelligent is in the minority”.

The wisdom of the Bible brings a healthy perspective to greatness – 

“Great men are not always wise: neither do the aged understand judgment. Job 32:9”

Do you wish to be great?


Jill Henderson said...

Lots of intriguing idea. Enjoyed reading. We were discussing this topic with students only last week. It seems that worldly recognition and honours go to the wrong people sometimes and real greatness is unrecognised.

Thomas P. said...

Very insightful and thought provoking. I like the ideas you presented, and any time you cause the reader to think is a good thing.

A. Simon said...

It's true that greatness can be understood in many ways. By questioning and taking a critical approach, we see things in perspective. I liked thinking about this topic.

Andron said...

Many good thoughts here. I still can't decide if Napoleon was a great man after all.

Exec. Dustan said...

Among politicians we see so many who aspire to greatness. George Bush must've thought himself as great. If not deeds, they have great egos. Good post.

Reata O said...

Awesome. I'd be really disappointed if people in 200 years time would read about Bush the Great.Ugh!

Ram Bansal, The Theosoph said...

Greatness in human history is of two types - one captured through power as by Alexander and Akbar in India, and the other real greatness is bestowed by great deeds. Greats of the second category are rare because the society rarely recognises their greatness.
In my opinion, great is the person who does something important to take the human civilization to higher heights on platform of morality.

H said...

Greatness through recognition seems too material to be the right path. Trying to be great is probably a sign that you will not be. The drive for achievement could reveal itself a thermometer.

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