"Who ever read the private memorials, correspondence, &tc, which have become so common in our time, without wondering that "great men" should act and think "so abominally" ? --Edgar Allen Poe, 1827
“He was a Great Man.” “He was a Great man.” “He was a great Man”. These are often cliches sent up whenever certain people pass away in the headlines. Perhaps we could examine this concept “greatness” in light of the manner in which it may have (or may not) changed over the centuries.
First, consider the first man to bear this title toward posterity, Alexander of Macedonia. Given unto his mother in prophecy to become a “great” ruler, Alexander engaged in adolescent competition with his father for the stakes and the glories of conquest. It’s also rumored he was behind the death of his father, although historians have never confirmed this to anyone’s satisfaction. All the same, Alexander united Greece and marched across Asia through Persia to India, until he overreached his supply lines. He didn’t make it back home. And so he went out “on top of his game.”
Next consider another “great” man who took the template cast by Alexander and reworked it, Napoleon Bonaparte, (aka, the Butcher of Europe’). Napoleon co-opted the optimism and leftover shreds of nationalistic pride of the French Revolution and marched across Europe, uniting duchies and kingdoms under his banner by dint of war, and continued on across Europe and into Russia where he was forced to reconsider his options. Returning in a shambles, his army a broken remnant of former glory, he fell, but rose again from exile to make one last ditch effort to reassert himself. Only to be broken at Waterloo by another “great” man, the Duke of Wellington.
From the recent past we need only look to the 20th c. for more such examples of “great” men, be they “benign”- (Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill) or malevolent (Adolf Hitler, Josef Stalin, Mao Zedong). What had they all in common?
For the “great” man to truly succeed one trait in particular is necessary. This is to view the larger group of humanity as a whole as numbers, statistics, faceless ciphers, and to be able to move, mold, and manipulate these whole figures into some body politic which will accept both his leadership, as well as submission to his ideologies. It translates in our current era to politicians who are less concerned with actually meeting the individuals that will vote for them (much less to remember all those he meets on campaign!) than they are with acquiring knowledge and intelligence of the numbers stacked for or against him. In this manner, all the body politic become nothing more than means to an end, without any remembered individuality, and without any scruples toward the assumption of power over the domain of them all.
Where are the “great men” for whom their fellow men are well met and met on the level of exchange as such to treat each of them with the particular care that engenders mutual respect and consideration? You can maybe pick out two, in particular or three- Jesus Christ, Gautama Buddha, and Lao Tse- although to choose these three puts you on somewhat of a loss where those who consider the philosophy of each to be not more than handwringing pantywaisted superstition. Quaint. And yet somehow the philosophies of each have survived competitively with those of Alexander, Napoleon, or Mao.
One thing each of these representatives of Power and Dominion share is the sociopathic ability to ignore the suffering of others and wade through oceans of blood and mud over the bodies of those who have given their lives to their cause. Especially noxious the Communist, who preached of a heaven on earth, a worker’s paradise, and proceeded to outlaw strikes, and independent (non-dialectic!) criticism. Theirs would be a paradise built on blood and bones. Hardly any reason for hope, there. Napoleon once spoke of the wonderful stench of the battlefield, of how good he felt to walk amongst the dead and the cries of the dying, as if the very mother who bore him was not but a rutting stoat who’d given her all to breach this beast of doom upon the world. Every dictator had an innocent mother, or so we might have hoped.
The human race cannot continue to bear the weight of these “great men” whose ambitions are such as to turn the world on an axis of murder. Excuses are made by Machiavellians (those without morality, principle, nor redemptive character) that “this is the way it’s always been and always will be.” But somehow the Utopian spirit of mankind yet awakens each time from the nightmare anew and finds ways to assert itself against the darkness. Without this guiding Utopian vision, progress, such as it might be, would forever be extinguished, and the human race would fall into a greater and fuller debasement.
In light then of what society like to remember as “great” men, consider the idea of “delusions of grandeur” itself. Often this is a tag given to those who have somehow come up against established ideas of normality, and the “symptom” as such is used as a condescending put down. In some cases this might be well deserved (as in the case of Theodore Kaczynski) but often as not (as in the case of Kaczynski) it’s a means of people of a lesser intelligence being able to feel good about morally judging someone of a higher intelligence. You do not have to agree with his methods or philosophy to recognize a certain genius in his logic, nor to feel sickened at the idea there are (yet) people out there (such as TK) who see their fellow humans as a “cancer and a pox upon the planet.” He certainly has the requisite of “seeing the body politic as numbers to be eliminated” and his support amongst an environmental activist community that shares his sociopathic goals can only be hoped will fade with time.What about, however, the person of modest means and ambition, who only seeks to further a vision of art, harm nobody intentionally, and stay out the way of these sociopathic “movers and shakers”- these so-called “social visionaries” or “reformers’? To come up against this same implacable value system can drive the most patient of artists to suicide, to madness, or to regret that enough had not been accomplished. But are these same desires any less “great” than the goals of the bloodstained? I think not. Someday I believe art will win out over idiocy… and that it is up to each of us involved on one level or another in the arts to do everything we can to provide alternative visions where hope can thrive and survive. If Napoleon was a "great man" then surely, Picasso, Van Gogh, Matisse, and Gauguin were that much greater.