On Greatness

Pelikan 100For the first time in 37 years, we have a Triple-Crown winner. American Pharaoh didn’t win by a nose. He won by five and a half lengths! It was thrilling to watch him pull away from a group comprised of the fastest horses on the planet, to see him establish a lead that it was increasingly clear would be impossible for any of the other horses to overcome. It was an elevating spectacle. Joe Draper, wrote in The New York Times that “[t]he fans in a capacity crowd strained on their tiptoes and let our a roar from deep in their souls. It was going to end, finally – this 37-year search for a great racehorse.”

That’s right, he said the fans let out a roar “from deep in their souls.” Many cried. Toward the end of that same story he refers to American Pharaoh’s run as “ethereal.” The spectacle of greatness is always edifying because there is something sublime about it. We know this, all of us. We know it innately. We are always on the lookout for greatness, just as all mammals, as social creatures, are always on the lookout for individuals to follow, individuals who can lead them, even when they have no idea of where they might be going. This is the source of the cult of personality that seems to hold sway, to some extent anyway, in even the most egalitarian of societies.

It’s easier for us to admit that some animals are superior to others than to admit that some people are. American Pharaoh is superior to all other race horses. Seabiscuit, though not a Triple-Crown winner, was superior in his time as well, not just in speed, but in endurance and intelligence.

The rhetoric of democracy leaves little room, however, for the idea that some people might be superior to other people. Even the suggestion is frightening, conjuring up as it does, thoughts of the bad old days of slavery, of the rise of National Socialism in Germany, and of other genocidal movements around the world.

“We hold these truths to be self evident,” reads Declaration of Independence, which then goes on to describe the purported inherent equality of all human beings (or at least all “men”) as chief among these self-evident truths. And yet all human beings are not equal, not even at the moment, so to speak, of their creation. It isn’t just nurture that accounts for differences among human beings, though my suspicion is that it accounts for most of them. Nature has her say as well. Some people are more beautiful than other people, some faster, some smarter or more talented in one way or another, some people are even kinder or more tolerant by nature than others. Parents who are honest will admit that many of these differences appear to be present from birth.

Why is it hard for us to admit that some people are superior to other people? Is it because we’re afraid to awaken the sleeping monster of exploitation that so often lives parasitically on this truth? That’s part of it, I believe. Religion can prevent such exploitation, however, even while acknowledging inherent differences among human beings, on the grounds that we are all God’s creatures and hence have, despite our differences, equal claim to dignity as such.

Even secular humanism can protect people from the exploitation that can come with the recognition that some people are superior to other people on the grounds that no rational, or even merely sentient, creature should ever be treated merely as a means to the ends of others.

The real source, I believe, of our failure to openly acknowledge that all human beings are not, in fact, equal comes not from fear of the evil consequences of such an acknowledgement, but from fear of the good ones. Kierkegaard talks about that, about the fear of what Plato called “the Good.” We all have it to some extent or other.

There is a relentlessly leveling dynamic in contemporary Western culture, a desire to tear down, to discredit anyone who dares to rise above the fray. Danes call this Janteloven, or the law of Jante, which can be summed up as: No one should have the temerity to think he is any better than anyone else.

This leveling tendency masquerades as a progressive force, yet it is anything but. The spectacle of greatness is sublime. It elevates us above our petty egoisms, confronts us with the fact that there is something larger and more important than our paltry, individual selves. And this, my friends, is a dangerous, dangerous truth that what I will unfashionably call “the forces of darkness” would rather keep hidden from us.

To glimpse this truth is life changing. Those whose lives are illuminated by it are not compulsive consumers. They are not petty, envious of neighbors, neurotically fearful of perceived enemies. They support the development of human potential, not retributive systems of justice and endless war.

Egalitarianism can be a force for positive social change, but all too often it is a lie designed to keep us down. We need heroes. Martin Luther King may have had his faults, but he was still better than the rest of us, and so, I submit, is Noam Chomsky. There are lots of these superior people. They have always been with us and, thankfully, they always will be. Our lives, and society as a whole, would be made better if we were allowed to openly acknowledge them as such, to celebrate them, to let out a roar at the spectacle of them – from deep within our souls.

(This article originally appeared in the 9 June 2015 issue of Counterpunch.)

6 responses

  1. M.G. – I love this post!

    It struck a cord in me as I am trying to digest “Fear and Trembling” (tr. Alastair Hannay), but I can’t make the connection. Maybe because it isn’t there…
    But your paragraph on Kierkegaard’s mention of “the Good” seems related to his discussion of the Tragic Hero and the Knight of Faith. Especially in his Problema I’s teleological suspension of the ethical. Is there a hint of this suspension on the horizon that causes us to fear the good? To admit that an ethical suspension, or violation, would be a necessary or unavoidable conclusion of greatness in our time? It’s easier to make this leap with hindsight when we do not have to deal with the ramifications personally or at least temporally (as with the case of Abraham). Perhaps our fear is really rooted in that ethical problem or, as I think it makes sense to say, the paradox of faith?

    On another note: Kierkegaard’s explanation of the paradox has caused to me to nearly eliminate the word faith from my vocabulary. It is a scary concept, and one that I definitely don’t want to claim mistakenly!

    • Thanks so much for the compliment. I have to confess to you that I find Fear and Trembling one of the most difficult of Kierkegaard’s works to understand. The “ethical” that is suspended in FT appears to be closer to social convention than to ethics in a Kantian sense. That is, Kierkegaard uses the phrase throughout FT “det etiske forstaaet som de sædelige” (i.e., the ethical understood as social convention). That’s not to say that FT doesn’t make a terrifying point about how faith isolates (or can isolate) the individual from the rest of the human community, so to speak. I think that point IS there. I don’t think Kierkegaard believed, however, that God would actually ask anyone to commit murder. I don’t want to sound blasphemous or anything, but I think that story functions for Kierkegaard more like a fable or fairytale than like a theological treatise. That is, it makes a very important point in a very forceful way, in a more forceful way, in fact, than it could be made with a story that would be less terrifying.

      As for understanding that point about the fear of the Good, I think Sickness Unto Death is probably a better place to look for an account of that than is FT.

      • Thank you so much for replying. I’m new to Kierkegaard, and FT is my first shot at him…I think I’ll go for something easier next!
        I can definitely see K reading the Abraham story as a fable, but that seems to numb the hero’s isolation of faith. This would make it easier for me to deal with God in this story (since it didn’t happen), but it would do so to the extent that I am not as impressed with the movement. And if his “ethical” is more social norms than moral violation, then all he did was stand up against the rules of his society which can be, and has been, done without faith altogether. In other words, I think a spiritual(?) separation in which the Knight transcends a Kantian ethic seems much more difficult (and frightening) than transcending social conventions.
        That said, I think I’m missing something here (maybe K’s specific definitions) when I don’t see the hero’s movement quite as radical as K explains.
        I really enjoy reading K, but I think I may need a primer before jumping in!
        (I will check out Sickness Unto Death. Thank you)

      • I’d suggest starting with Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs, the former because of its accessibility and the latter because of its centrality to Kierkegaard’s philosophical and religious concerns.

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