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Great Men of History

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Prince Otto von Bismarck noted that "What we learn from history is that no one learns from history." I contend that a major reason is that virtually no institution actually teaches history. Instead we get a corrupt mythology that reinforces the dominant ideology and affirms the status quo. Snap quiz for 25 percent of your mark: "In the United States, who freed the slaves?" Did you answer Abraham Lincoln?

Sojourner Truth, Lucretia Mott, Fredrick Douglas, and Garrison Lloyd, in that order, would all have been better, or at least more accurate answers. Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation after Gettysburg, but that merely ratified what was inevitable. The four people I name, and hundreds of others, were the ones who created a social situation that made it possible for Lincoln to do so.

I do not mean to denigrate what Lincoln did: he was a great man. Certainly Lincoln brought an end to slavery as soon as it was politically feasible, probably as early as it might reasonably have been done. Certainly a different president might have tried to keep slavery as an institution, for example George B. McLellan, who was both a credible presidential candidate and proslavery.

But we are taught that history is made by the particular actions of lone great men, which is utterly false. It was the Sojourner Truths that made the Emancipation Proclamation politically feasible, and eventually, inevitable. No president could have ended slavery as an institution even five years earlier than Lincoln did, but equally no president could have done more than delay its end.

The "great men" of history are caught up in tides of change almost as much as everyone else. They have slightly more capacity for influencing it than the average person, but not much. The people who create those tides of change are the ones who shake society by its roots. And who are these people? The four I mention include two runaway slaves, a travelling Quaker preacher, and a young radical who edited newspapers; two black, two white; two women, both mothers of large families, and two men (and if you don't know which is which, go and learn some history).

These four did not act alone. The Mohandas Gandhis, the Susan B. Anthonys, the Martin Luther King Jrs of this world have also been mythologized into "great men," even though none of them held high office or great power in the traditional sense. They are associated with movements which they helped to create. Each worked tirelessly soliciting the participation and involvement of thousands of others, but it is because of those tens of thousands that change occurred.

Each of us has the capacity, and the opportunity, to become great. Our individual greatness does not come about as a result of becoming president, or prime minister, or attending the right school. Our greatness depends on our taking action. It depends on each of us taking action on behalf of our beliefs, fostering and participating in social movements that enable us to realize those qualities of dignity that are the true measure of the human spirit. As we do so we shake society by its roots and create a tide that sweeps away any "great man" who would seek to oppose it. That is the lesson of history.


Too often, when discussing the topic of human greatness, the conversation becomes a lament for the lack of "great men out there today". Men have a tendency to dream that times past were somehow better or nobler and they do not avoid this mistake when considering greatness. "Where is Pericles, Aristotle, Augustus, or even da Vinci, Louis XIV, Napoleon, or Lincoln?" cries the discontent, "these men did something, they had an effect!" I would like to try to console my editor, for whom the modern world seems so dull and his contemporaries so mediocre. It appears to me, indeed, that although there will never be another Shakespeare, the current arrangement of Western society does not preclude the possibility of human greatness. Indeed, it is my view that despite the fact that certain periods of history stir the soul more than others, at no time in the development of human affairs does the potential for great men to exercise their talents shrink beyond reach.

In order to satisfy mediocra-phobes, I intend to proceed in the following fashion, which, I think, though "it be not perfect, it is at least excellent," or so a great man once said. The discussion requires consideration of three questions: first, what is it about the great men of history that qualifies them as such?; second, what is the essence of greatness and what is tangential to it?; and third, given its essence, what is the form that a modern greatness would have to take? Hopefully, this plan will quiet the malcontent.

I take it as an assumption that the objectors to contemporary Western democratic society on the grounds of its mediocrity do not really demand a modern Augustus. That is, I assume that no one really believes the criteria for greatness stem entirely from such historical examples. If you do, then you might as well put down this article for I cannot satisfy your complaints; I will not even try. It seems evident that the model of the great man changes through history and that the grounds on which a society judges a man great determine in large part his greatness. Can we really quarrel with the notion that, even though he defended natural slavery, Aristotle's political philosophy attains greatness? He lived in his own time, as we all do, and was great then and has continued to be throughout history in part because he fit the model of a great man, in this case a thinker, for his time. Indeed, one should note that in the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle himself provides the image of the aner megalopsychos, the great-souled man, as the highest to which a man can aspire. Putting aside for a moment the remarkable specificity of this model, Aristotle's quality of megalopsychia does not coincide with the qualities on which we moderns judge the greatness of the ancients, or of ourselves.

From these brief observations (and I must of course be brief here), a few important points come. First, every socio-culturally distinct period in history has its own model of greatness that differs from others. Between the Romans and the Greeks even, the prototype changed. Second, we judge the great figures of the past both from a historical perspective and from our own. That is, we can forget Aristotle's defense of slavery or Pericles' comments on women in his "Funeral Oration" (some of us anyway) because we realize that these constitute ways in which the figure represents his society. However, we also do not fully apply the criteria of the society in question when determining the greatness of certain people in it. So whether



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