Greatness: It’s Not About Killing Any More

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Those who occupy their minds with small matters, generally become incapable of greatness.
– Francois De La Rochefoucauld

Let’s begin with the declaration that most people have no idea what greatness is in reference to people. They accept what they have been told by others, usually by the media or history books, and embrace it as their own.

Alexander of Macedonia, son of Philip of Macedonia, is known as Alexander The Great because he conquered the known world of his time. He conquered Egypt, Greece and Persia, then crapped out when he reached India and died shortly thereafter. (Nothing west of Greece was important to the world in his time, apparently.) He is known as Alexander The Great, so he must be great. “Everyone” says so, right?

What made Alexander great? Military victory. Julius Caesar is known as a great man because he conquered Gaul and defeated the fractious leaders of Rome to take control himself. Sir Winston Churchill was great because he led Great Britain through the darkest days of the Second World War, encouraging the British people to hold on until the Americans arrived to provide substance to a swindling Allied military.

Virtually all of the people known as great men of the western world were successful military leaders. Even Napoleon Bonaparte, who lost control as often as he gained it, is usually considered great because he led his followers to victory after victory until he became emperor of France.

Very few women of history have earned the accolade of greatness because few engaged in war until recently. Joan of Arc came closest, but she died at age 19 so she didn’t have time to win many wars.

Was Socrates great? The Ancient Athenian philosopher, teacher of Plato and Xenophon (470-399 BC), never committed a word to paper (or papyrus) so far as we know. If it hadn’t been for Plato we would know nothing about Socrates (nor about Atlantis, but that’s another story). Was the first great philosopher a great man, or just great within his particular field?

How about Marie Curie, who won two Nobel Prizes, or Jonas Salk, who created the vaccine against polio?

We have trouble with the concept of greatness in terms of people today because the world is in a state of transition. Before the middle of the 20th century, what was considered most important in the world–thus what was recorded in history books and taught in history classes–was military strength and victory.

After the Suez crisis in 1954, when the world learned that war could be avoided through planning and negotiation (thanks to Canadian Lester Pearson, another Nobel winner), we lost our taste for war as the primary answer to everything. True, wars and genocides have continued since that time, but they happen less frequently now and they are generally frowned upon by the world community. Nations that continue to identify themselves with war are considered brutal or bullies these days in international forums.

Without success in battle, we aren’t certain what we should use to measure greatness. We look to movie stars, chess champions, medical wunderkinds and the like, but we have yet to establish new definitions for greatness, for who should be our heroes.

It’s harder than ever to be a hero these days. The faults and follies of Paris Hilton are as well known as whatever she does right (I haven’t figured that out yet), whereas the public learned mostly of the successes of Marilyn Monroe and little of her problems.

Heroes and great people today must be categorized in terms of their relationship to their particular fields of endeavour. Without rising to international fame, a field-related hero doesn’t have to endure close examination by the media. In other words, we care about the successes of Stephen Hawking the theoretical physicist, but not about any penchant he may have for unseemly behaviour.

We don’t really have fewer heroes and great people today than in the past. Indeed, we have many more than ever before. We may not recognize them because they are no longer military leaders or emperors.

Today’s heroes and great people may be more real than in the past because we recognize them for more than just the ability to kill more people than their enemies. They may be great athletes or great thinkers or doers of great charitable deeds. They may fight battles, but they are battles of words, and for reputation.

That’s human progress of a kind we haven’t seen before in our history.

Bill Allin
Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a book about how to advance human progress in many ways other than through war. It’s a plan that works.
Learn more at http://billallin.com

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