Sunday, October 10, 2010

The End of Greatness

Would Ghengis Khan have conquered most of Asia and a big chunk of Europe if he had been able to vacation in the South of France? Would Tolstoy or Dostoevsky have toiled over thousand page novels if they could have gained fame and fortune from an Oprah's Book Club sticker? Would the leaders of the American Revolution have stuck with their hard path if the UN had existed to intervene and 'talk it out'?

These are, perhaps, stupid questions. At least, on their face, they are unanswerable. But they point to something I think is important: the great reduction of greatness in all walks of life in our modern times. Whatever the realm you choose to inspect, whether statecraft or art or science, we seem to be suffering, in the last 70 years or so, from a distinct absence of greatness. One could argue that we might recognize greatness in some of our contemporaries only once time has passed, but I think we'll find, even decades from now, that this time will be marked by a dearth of the extraordinary. Why? Because the luxuries and temptations of modern society sap the most talented of their will to punish themselves to scale the mountains which they might be capable of ascending.

Society has become so good at recognizing and celebrating talent that it rewards the gifted before their talents have matured. The intelligent, the creative, the visionary: for the most part they are absorbed into the upper levels of privilege before they have had the chance to achieve true greatness. If a talented 20- or 30-something is whisked off to Cannes or Miami or given the funds to afford a lavish lifestyle in the great cities of the world, chances are they are going to be diverted from whatever greatness they still had to achieve.

I can't imagine an easy solution to this problem. We just have to hope that later generations will be better able to resist the lures of a well-developed material culture, and will once again be willing to walk the hard road to high achievement.

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