On Greatness and Society

That the great qua great cannot be understood or reckoned with by the majority of men — or even by the great themselves insofar as their greatness remains, so to speak, inactive or latent — is quite easy to understand. There are norms of thought, feeling, and behavior, routines and conformities expected, or indeed demanded, by the times in which a man lives. All men, to a large degree, live in accordance with these norms, with some measure of consistency and predictability, and this inevitable conformity sustains the societal status quo, for better or for worse. A society in which such norms are said to have broken down — such as the late modern nihilism of the advanced nations today — is in truth merely one in which norms that tend to breed social order and harmony have been displaced by norms, no less stringent and uniform, that tend to breed social disarray.

But what is greatness, or rather what does it entail, if not a certain willingness to follow the context and development of a thought or situation to natural (rather than conventional) but uncommon ends that do not fully accord with the habits of thought, feeling, and behavior which we rely on to sustain the predictability and stability of our shared social life? The individual who persists in asking questions where society at large has settled upon a comforting certainty; who doubts or reexamines the ultimate worth of certain norms of belief or action that have become part of his era’s working definition of “ordinary life”; who, in extraordinary circumstances of the soul, violates the categorical imperative in the name of a rational wish that supersedes the bland, calculating self-interest inherent in Kant’s supposedly disinterested universalizability; who, in exceptional moments, counts the personal and social expectations of his rearing and “good sense” among the demons he must wrestle with on dark paths that might lead to ultimate light; who remains ever-vigilant against the most dangerous monster stalking the individual of rare substance, namely the temptation to confuse the self-forgetting elevation of Plato’s divine madness with a self-indulgent surrender to the kind of trivial and vulgar nonconformity that looks like individualism to society at large, i.e., to those for whom the trivial and vulgar is the only known alternative to moderation and civility — these are the hallmarks of the great man. The sense in which these traits put him at odds with his time is self-explanatory. The only question is what his time, which is to say primarily the society in which he lives, will make of his anomalous and contrary existence, and especially whether it will tolerate or persecute him; for understanding him and approving of him are necessarily out of the question.

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