On Circles and Straight Lines
Everything that indicates human greatness, to the extent that it does so, is an obstacle to immediate popular appeal. For greatness is by definition not of its time, and therefore intrinsically too detached from current norms — theoretical, moral, political — to be either fully visible or fully comprehensible to those who are immersed in, and thus collectively definitive of, the present. One may be great and also popular among one’s contemporaries, but such cases are accidental, historically rare, and typically also suggestive of a kind of secondary or compromised greatness, greatness of a sort that accommodates itself too well to its surroundings, and which thereby becomes somewhat suspect to, or arouses a healthy skepticism in, the reasonable judge.
Greatness forges ahead, beating new paths or rediscovering long-ignored and overgrown ones, with justice limping after it much later, as Nietzsche says. Sometimes these journeys inspire in the spiritual trekker a desire to communicate what he has discovered, or at least to preserve a rough map of the trails he has made or found. When this happens, the special danger for the man capable of living the higher life is that he should become too concerned with disseminating his trail guide, too obsessed with showing others where he has been. For when, in his communications, he ceases to be an explorer jotting notes in his journal by candlelight during stolen moments, and becomes instead an avid travel writer addicted to his desk, his cover designs, or his promotional tours, we may be sure that he has forgotten his true mission, or at least allowed what was essentially a private mission to dissolve into its own pale and popularly-tinted reflection.
To state this more literally, and therefore less precisely, such a man has chosen the reputation for wisdom over wisdom itself, which is to say that he has become infatuated with the appearance of having reached end points, whereas human wisdom consists largely in understanding that all end points are contextual and transient, while only the unbroken circle, traversed with infinite patience, is absolute and atemporal.