What Makes a ‘Great Man?’
© 2017 Vernon Miles Kerr
You Too, Can Be a Great Man
My memories of the curriculum in the California Public School System during the very early 1950s include a grade-level-spanning—almost obsessive—focus on creating “Great Men” (or Great Women.) It seems like this obsession trickled into every subject: In “Social Studies,” California’s melange of history and geography, we studied Great Men and Great Women of politics, war, business and culture. In Science classes we studied Nobel Prize winners and other notables; in English, it was the great authors, journalists and poets. I can’t remember specific anecdotes but the oft-repeated phrase, “You too, can be a Great Man,” still rings in my ears and my psyche. I don’t know about my contemporaries, but I took this urging to heart and, for a long part of life’s path, I measured my own accomplishments, or lack thereof, against that ephemeral yardstick. But in more recent years I began to question the concept of Great Men. What made all of those so-called “Great Men” great?
Does Power and Wealth Make One Great?
Were conquerors like Alexander the Great, Kamehameha the Great, Genghis Khan or Napoleon Bonaparte great? Or, were they mostly egomaniacal bullies and monsters? Was the successful conquest and subjugation of other nations the single factor that made them great? What about the “Great Men” of industry and commerce like Vanderbilt, Carnegie, Rockefeller, Morgan and Hearst? Did their acquisition of obscene wealth – that single accomplishment — make them great? I left school with the distinct impression that it did.
Generally, our modern popular culture still—at least subconsciously—considers successful empire-building—either financial or political— an indicator of “Greatness.” The above list of “esteemed” conquerors (and Donald J. Trump’s continual boasting, even exaggerating, about his own financial accomplishments) testifies to this. Moreover, his election to the U.S. Presidency speaks of rather wide, popular agreement with it as well.
Admittedly, many of those super-entrepreneurs used a portion of their wealth for charitable purposes, but the true motivation for such largess is suspect. Was it done out of magnanimity or was it done out of a desire to offset a history of ruthlessness in order to improve their epitaphs?
Does Extreme Effort, Perseverance and Good Genetics Make One Great?
In some human pursuits, like Sports and the Arts, plain-old doggedness and a little help from good genetics seems to be considered an indicator of “Greatness.” We need not list the familiar sports figures whose single superlative ability to knock a baseball out of the park-boundaries or sink a basketball from half-court, or continually score soccer goals with a head-shot, winds them up in various halls of fame, where they are lauded as “Greats.” The Art Galleries and Theaters are filled with avid visitors who come to see the work of people who are “the best” at painting a picture or acting a part in a movie or play.
Does Courage in the Face of Opposition Make One Great?
John F. Kennedy, in his book, Profiles in Courage, highlighted eight U.S. Senators who had had— as an indicator of Greatness — the integrity to stick to their principles in the face of opposition, even to the point of sacrificing their political careers. One can’t argue that our present Senate and House could use more of that kind of integrity, but did only one laudable political choice qualify any of those eight, otherwise-normal men, to be listed among the Great Men of history?
What, Exactly, DOES Make One Great?
As the reader may have already surmised, “Greatness,” like “Beauty”, is largely in the eye of the beholder. And, also like Beauty, opinions of one’s Greatness are subjective and transitory—here today, gone tomorrow. An Entertainment Industry mogul with an impressive filmography, and a long record of charitable giving and mentorship of young actors and directors is considered “Great” one day and viewed as devoid of greatness and a disgusting, deplorable monster the next. How many men or women who are considered “Great” today are harboring one tiny secret that could eventually pull them down from their exalted pedestals as well?
But, as subjective and transitory as Greatness may be, somehow we yearn to have heroes to “look up to,” to virtually worship. By fanatically associating with these “heroes,” and with others who worship them as well, we take on some of our heroes’ cachet. That’s why it hurts so much when one of them is brought down. A little of our own self-esteem goes down with them.
We need to accept the fact that there is good (and not-so-good) in all of us, including those we term as “Great.” Rather than ascribing Greatness to someone based upon a single superlative criterion we should really look at a potential hero’s many qualities, good and bad, before elevating them to a position worthy of our adoration and emulation. And, I would be willing to wager, there are many alive today who would pass such a test. Better yet, though, why have “heroes” at all? Ascribing Greatness to living personalities does no good for the hero nor the fan. Too many heroes’ lives have been ruined by taking public adoration to heart. The lucky few who have figured out the impetuous and transitory nature of public adoration, and have humored the fans but have taken the kudos with a grain of salt, are a true type of hero and deserve, if not our adoration, at the very least, our emulation.