About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Great Ones

by Steve Neumann

Last week I asked my Facebook friends if they’d rather be great or healthy. I purposely framed the question this way because many of the so-called great human beings of history have suffered from ill health, whether physical or psychological or both. Only one of my friends cautiously chose greatness — the majority went for health. A few chose health for the sake of longevity, while a few others admirably chose health with the intention of being able to help others achieve greatness. My droll cousin joked that being great involved too much pressure. I asked the question because it seems to me that greatness ain’t what it used to be. Those deemed great today seem to me to pale in comparison to the great ones of the past. But what is greatness anyway?

One particularly unhelpful definition is provided by my Merriam-Webster dictionary: “The quality of being great, distinguished, or eminent.” That’s about as helpful as asking the Magic 8-Ball. The nineteenth century Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle said that history was, essentially, the exploits of great men. He believed that their lives were the templates of their times, the molds out of which the most memorable products of history were produced. That gets us a little closer to a workable definition. But critics of Carlyle’s view are quick to point out that no man is an island, that each individual is inescapably ensconced in a web of relationships. Break a thread and the support for great deeds unravels. The main rival view to Carlyle’s is that history is driven by the little guy — or by countless little guys simply doing their thing every day. I suppose we could call this the Ant Colony Theory of Greatness. I think it’s self-evident that greatness doesn’t happen in a vacuum; but every flock also needs a shepherd, right?

The Roman philosopher Seneca is purported to have said that no great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness. I’m wondering if that’s part of the reason my friends were reluctant to give their assent to greatness. Madness isn’t generally considered a constituent of health. But there have been more modern considerations of the relationship between mental health and achievement, particularly creative achievement. Clinical psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison wrote about the connection in her 1993 book Touched with Fire, where she details what she believes is a curiously persistent correlation between what is now known as bipolar disorder and superlative artistic accomplishment.

Back in 2010, The New York Times ran a lengthy article about the apparent fact that a “thin line separates the temperament of a promising entrepreneur from a person who could use, as they say in psychiatry, a little help.” The article echoes Jamison’s theme of bipolar disorder being a surefire catalyst for significant undertakings. The main assertion is that a “hypomanic” state, and not full-blown mania, is fertile ground for productive creativity. As psychologist John D. Gartner puts it in the article: “If you’re manic, you think you’re Jesus. If you’re hypomanic, you think you are God’s gift to technology investing.” And the argument is that if you think you’re God’s gift to technology investing — or whatever your area of interest is — then there’s a good chance you may be correct.

Behavioral therapist and blogger Andrea Kuszewski highlights what seems to be the real demarcation line between profligate brigand and grandiose visionary: some executive control of one’s mental machinery. Even though the great ones share many of the characteristics of certain mental disorders, Kuszewski wisely points out that there is a critical difference between when “people notice the change in your behavior” and when “people are freaked out by the change in your behavior.” In other words, people can generally notice when you’re being productively creative and when you’re being destructively creative.

In addition to what might be termed the more incapacitating ailments of human mental health, there is a suite of traits with the ominous moniker of the Dark Triad that may complement the unquenchable energy that is born of the manic or hypomanic episodes. The Dark Triad is defined as a combination of Machiavellianism, narcissism and psychopathy. While these labels certainly bring to mind images of undesirable social behavior, psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman reports that the “traits that underlie the dark triad are best viewed as one particular social orientation toward others and may facilitate people’s goals.” Periods of boundless energy combined with productive creativity and social savvy is a potent formula.

So after giving it some thought over many cups of coffee, I came up with a definition that satisfies me, at least for the time being, while hopefully avoiding the labyrinthine issue of mental health. I think greatness is comprised of four basic elements: innovation, intentionality, notoriety and suffering. But even this requires a little unpacking.

First of all, the great ones of history planned to innovate. It was a conscious decision on their part to violate traditional mores, to break rules, to “conquer and overthrow the old boundary markers and old pieties,” as Nietzsche put it. Socrates, Jesus and the Buddha all deliberately formulated and disseminated teachings that ground the gears of their contemporaries. And remember, Jesus literally overthrew the money-changer’s table. Isaac Newton, with characteristic polymathic hunger, attempted to subdue physical reality by dint of his groundbreaking work with calculus, optics and gravitational theory. No small ambition there. Ludwig van Beethoven heroically strove to hurl the music of his time into the emotional stratosphere, motivating other euphonious giants such as Verdi and Wagner. Thomas Jefferson and the rest of his subversive associates defied centuries of monarchical rule, paving the way for the worldwide spread of democracy. Ezra Pound broke the Victorian pentameter and revolutionized modern poetry.

The great ones who intentionally innovate are bound to be notorious. Even if they don’t have public blowups like the cast of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, they still meet with considerable resistance merely by challenging the status quo. And, being the stubborn superchimps we humans are, we don’t like to be challenged. We don’t like to have our authority or our expertise scrutinized or doubted. But the great ones will undoubtedly be famous; otherwise we wouldn’t know they were great. And by “famous” I don’t mean the kind of fame one gets for simply being, well, famous — I’m looking at you, Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian, or the man with the 132lb scrotum that TLC plans to showcase on their network. I mean “fame” in the sense of being known or discussed and debated widely because of unique and substantive achievements, and not just as a means of mindless entertainment.

The notion of suffering is a bit more problematic. I suppose having a scrotum the size of another person would entail a good deal of suffering, both physical and psychological. But as horrifying as such a predicament may sound, this isn’t really the kind of suffering I have in mind. The suffering involved in greatness is either the impetus for, or an added burden to, the great ones’ projects. Not only is suffering the occasion for creation, it’s usually the result of some sacrifice. Cultural philosopher Rudolf Kassner once said “der weg von der innigkeit zur grösse geht durch das opfer,” which roughly means that the translation of one’s most poignantly intimate passion necessarily involves sacrifice — as well as the overcoming of the suffering it entails.

The great individuals of history felt that they had something in them that needed discharging, like a granular irritant inside an oyster. But one must pay for one’s pearls. The devil always gets his due, and the piper pipes all the way to the bank. Socrates was brought to trial by resentful Athenians and made to drink poisonous hemlock. Jesus was ridiculed, flogged and crucified. The Buddha believed that existence itself was suffering. Newton was prone to depression and other mental health maladies. Jefferson and his fellow revolutionaries were willing to sacrifice their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor.” And, irony of ironies, that musical magus Beethoven lost his hearing.

But who are the great ones of our age in the realms of ethics, knowledge and aesthetics? Which religious leaders, philosophers or politicians? Which scientists? Which artists? What about in the area of utility — which technologists? Or have we experienced such a dearth of greatness that we no longer know what it looks like? That would be a shame, because greatness inspires us. I don’t mean mere imitation, but the kind of inspiration born of competition, of the desire to outdo the great ones we esteem. We shouldn’t let ourselves be lulled to sleep on a sea of gently rolling swells of sameness and mediocrity. We need the occasional rogue wave.

I didn’t ask my Facebook friends the follow-up question of who they believed the greatest human beings were, since they didn’t seem all that keen on the concept of greatness itself. But I wanted to ask them, all theological allegiances aside, who was greater — Jesus or the Buddha; or whether Steve Jobs could be counted among the great ones. No, I thought I’d better get clear on what greatness is before I start taking contentious polls and risk being unfriended faster than the NSA can capture an email.


  1. Hi Steve,

    Interesting article, but I think I would disagree with you on a few points.

    I'm not sure the question, health or greatness, is particularly well-formed. What degree of health? What kind of ill-health? What kind and degree of greatness? I think the question only makes sense if you ask about a more specific scenario.

    I don't think suffering is necessary to be great, although it may have helped.

    Your example of Jefferson's suffering seems to me to be stretching it a bit. Willingness to die isn't really suffering. No doubt he had his own share of legitimate suffering just like everybody else, but in any case it doesn't seem clear to me that suffering is required for greatness.

    Neither do I think innovation is necessarily required. One could merely be very very talented. A great leader could simply be very charismatic and focused, not necessarily innovative. Usain Bolt is a great athlete, but I'm not sure if that's because he is innovative. But certainly I agree that innovation helps.

    I also very much disagree that all the greats are in the past. I think we as a species have a lamentable tendency to elevate the greats of the past and ignore the greats of the present. It seems to me that death and the passage of time serves to canonise past heroes, while those still living are all too mortal, accessible and fallible. Jesus and Buddha are just very extreme cases of this phenomenon.

    Statistics alone should cause us to doubt that those past greats are any more talented than the current ones. There are far more people alive today than were in Shakespeare's time, and far far more English language writers. Statistically, it is highly improbable that Shakespeare is "objectively" any greater than the writers of today. It's just that he's been put on a pedestal by years of education and received wisdom. (Not that I'm saying he's bad, by any means).

    For criteria we can actually measure objectively, such as athletics, the greatest tend to be relatively recent. This is partly due to improvements in education, improved understanding of the various fields, etc, but that doesn't take away from the results. In my view, those living today are among our very greatest.

    As far as innovation goes, think how much easier it was to be innovative in the dim past when there were fewer ideas already in existence. All the low-hanging fruit have been taken centuries ago. How much easier to emulate the achievements of Aristotle than those of Hawking, Einstein, Schrodinger et al.

    1. Actually, I think the dearth of greatness you perceive in the modern world is probably a symptom of how commonplace greatness has become.

      In the past, people had fewer opportunities, and were on the whole much more ignorant and superstitious. Genius was rare. Those rare few individuals were singled out as exceptional cases of greatness.

      These days, with more people, more knowledge, more education, greatness is everywhere. Genius is no longer a rare phenomenon.

      I honestly think that if we could take a young Newton and transport him across time to the modern day, then give him an education in modern physics, he would be no better than the top physicists we've got today, and potentially not even top tier at all.

    2. "I'm not sure the question, health or greatness, is particularly well-formed. What degree of health? What kind of ill-health? What kind and degree of greatness? I think the question only makes sense if you ask about a more specific scenario."

      Granted; if I were writing a paper on greatness, I'd have more room to explore it in depth.

      "Your example of Jefferson's suffering seems to me to be stretching it a bit. Willingness to die isn't really suffering."

      Well, this is *my* definition of greatness :) But I would argue that putting one's honor, possessions and very life in very real jeopardy, not knowing at all whether it will go good or ill, is a form of suffering.

      "I think we as a species have a lamentable tendency to elevate the greats of the past and ignore the greats of the present. "

      Who are the great ones of the present, in your opinion?

      "As far as innovation goes, think how much easier it was to be innovative in the dim past when there were fewer ideas already in existence. All the low-hanging fruit have been taken centuries ago. How much easier to emulate the achievements of Aristotle than those of Hawking, Einstein, Schrodinger et al."

      I'm not sure I follow you here. It seems to me it's harder to emulate an Aristotle (actually I would use Socrates/Plato as an example instead) than a Hawking or Schrödinger. And I think Einstein is the exception here. I'm no physicist, of course, but it seems to me that Einstein stood the status quo on its head more than the other two...

  2. Greatness is a selfish quest, and requires an individual. Individuality is more easily lost when is being forged on the sea of moral ambiguity we live in today. Today the contest is downward, ask how is greatness measured today? Give a Novel to politician, or a million to a lottery winner, develop what? A bomb, a cure for an illness? Hope? Greatness is and can only be a quest of and for the self, (Casua Sui), known usually only by the self and nearly guaranteed to destroy the creator, that is the sacrifice you see. The creator does not want this, it is what the ignorant many give him before they realize he/she has made gold. WC

  3. Greatness is a matter of perception.
    If you are searching for greatness, try looking at the Universe as truly One's own self. There is nothing more infinite, more powerful, more liberating, or more healthy than truth. =

  4. I've read that many of the writings of some ancient Greek materialist philosophers (e.g. Democritus) were destroyed. They might have been seen as greater otherwise.

    http://www.philoonline.org/library/smith_4_2.htm :

    For example, the leading supernaturalist of Greco-Roman times, Plato, seemed quite perturbed at the atomists’ line of thinking. As Aristoxenus reports in his Historical Notes: “Plato wished to burn all the writings of Democritus that he could collect, but Amyclas and Clinias the Pythagoreans prevented him, saying that there were no advantage in doing so, for already the books were widely circulated.” However, Plato need not have worried, since Julius Caesar accidentally burned Democritus’ books in 48 B.C.E.,13 which may have something to do with the fact that atomism was “overwhelmed” by Roman neoPlatonism by 300 C.E. All that was then left were fragments of the atomists’ writings and Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. It may not be entirely rhetorical to ask: Could it be that it is Caesar’s fault that western philosophy is a “series of footnotes to Plato,” as Whitehead said, rather than a naturalistic “series of footnotes to Democritus [and Leucippus]”?

    Plato, who mentions almost all the early philosophers, never once alludes to Democritus, not even where it is necessary to controvert him, obviously because he knew that he would then have to match himself against the prince of philosophers.

    1. I am going to be posthumously recognized for my greatness, but since I have no idea what will be important to the generations to come, nor which of my many accidental brilliances they will see as watershed moments in human history, I don't even need to worry about it. I'll just keep doing what to you, who are stuck in this backwater of time, looks like mediocre things. Ah, if you had only known.

    2. Oops, the second one was not supposed to be a reply. Just a joke.

  5. "It is not clear, though perhaps implicit in the remainder of your discussion, whether the POV in answering this is 1st or 3rd. From the 1st, there may not be a meaningful difference between the two ("I'm feeling great today,") But it seems you are more interest in the 3rd, or the dreaded verdict of history."

    Yes, I'm more interested in the 3rd person pov; unless of course one of my friends were to say that she felt that *she* was one of the "great ones"; then of course I'd ask her why she thought this.

  6. Thought you'd like this excerpt that in the end touches on the "Great Ones":


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.