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
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.