It’s rather interesting to me that we live in a time in which few could agree on the great defining men of the time. We see influential men with tremendous impact on our times, but rarely is the ‘great man’ discussed. It’s easy to think the great man of the 18th century simply no longer exists. The heroic men of the past who shaped the course of the modern world and whose readings are consumed by countless undergraduates seem so far above the modern petty squabbles of politics. It’s easy to think that in the past these men were somehow greater than any men at present, but that ignores several facts of both the time and of present.
One one level these men of the past were shielded from public opinion, and are shielded by time. Their petty actions which may have enraged many at the time may lack the societal context for modern observers to fully understand the impact. They didn’t have the option to make fools of themselves to millions.
On another level they were in some cases not beholden the voter, as they were people of means and power, and could more or less overrule the will of the people. Yet these very same people ended up in situations fighting against oppression and tyrrany from monarchies.
More recently when we think of men who have broadly been considered great, their images have taken a hit over time. We no longer live in a time when one can simply laud great people for their great accomplishments. In current discourse a sense of revisionism, a sense that any actions they took which conflict with the modern ideal must be highlighted to offset whatever good they did for this world makes me pessimistic in the future that many men will be thought of as being great. For every statesmanlike or profound action taken, it will be easy to hearken back to ‘that one time on twitter’ or ‘that stupid off the cuff comment.’ It’s also the durability of the modern record that leads me to believe it will be hard for any modern personality to maintain such a positive reputation. In the past, certain things were scandalous but long forgotten in the record. When everything is recorded, it’s hard to smooth the infamy of things like Hamilton’s duel (see below).
I am curious, how much of greatness can be preserved at present. Although we get temporary worship of certain historical great men (Hamilton), these cults of historical personality rarely last very long before they are blasted. In the future I’m not sure what would allow the unblemished great man, spared by history and whose blemishes have been smoothed by time can exist. No matter how great a person is at present it will be easy to point out their failings. How much of the great men of the past was due to greatness, a feeling of moral and civic duty, and how much of their ‘greatness’ is simply our lack of ability to understand their times and recall their follies.