Thursday, October 17, 2019

Why we have no great men today

G.K. Chesterton
First, a clarification: I won’t let myself be dragged by political correctness. I’m not going to change the title of this post to “great human beings.” For me, the word “man” (equivalent to the Latin homo) still has a main generic meaning, different from the meaning whose Latin antecedent is vir (male), opposed to woman or female.
The absence of great men is a common place today and affects almost all fields:
  • Politics: Who has not heard that today there are no great political leaders, that all of them are mediocre?
  • Science: We miss giants like Isaac Newton, Antoine Lavoisier, Charles Darwin, Louis Pasteur, James Clerk Maxwell, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr... Some would say that great scientists have been lately replaced by great teams.
  • Music: There are no longer opera composers in the Mozart, Rossini, Verdi or Wagner category. There are no longer classical music composers at the level of Bach, Beethoven, Chaikovski or Chopin. Even the typically Spanish minor genre (zarzuela), which played the role of opera in this country, is dead.
  • The plastic arts: Painting, which was the most significant art of our civilization, had as its last great practitioners Picasso, Chagall and Dalí. The latter died 30 years ago, but his most important works are earlier.
  • Literature: Which author today is at the level of the greats of the nineteenth century (Goethe, Dickens, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Galdós) or even the twentieth (Bernard Shaw, Thomas Mann, J.R.R. Tolkien)? Perhaps George R.R. Martin? Let me doubt it, although on a website where thousands of people voted the best novels of all time, three of the five most voted titles were the first three volumes in the series Game of Thrones (!!!).
Fyodor Dostoyevsky
The answer to the question in the title may be in this quote from Chesterton, taken from his biography of Charles Dickens, which was published over a century ago (in 1906):
In reply to this question, “Why have we no great men to-day?” many modern explanations are offered... Every man examines himself, every man examines his neighbours, to see whether they or he quite come up to the exact line of greatness. The answer is, naturally, “No.”... We are hard to please and of little faith. We can hardly believe that there is such a thing as a great man. [In other times t]hey could hardly believe there was such a thing as a small one. But we are always praying that our eyes may behold greatness, instead of praying that our hearts may be filled with it... Every man was waiting for a leader. Every man ought to be waiting for a chance to lead... The great man will come when all of us are feeling great, not when all of us are feeling small. He will ride in at some splendid moment when we all feel that we could do without him.
We are then able to answer in some manner the question, “Why have we no great men?” We have no great men chiefly because we are always looking for them... we are fastidious, that is, we are small... And when anybody goes about on his hands and knees looking for a great man to worship, he is making sure that one man at any rate shall not be great... Just as Christianity looked for the honest man inside the thief, democracy looked for the wise man inside the fool. It encouraged the fool to be wise. We can call this thing sometimes optimism, sometimes equality; the nearest name for it is encouragement... this we have lost amid the limitations of a pessimistic science. Christianity said that any man could be a saint if he chose; democracy, that any man could be a citizen if he chose. The note of the last decades... has been that a man is stamped with an irrevocable psychology, and is cramped for perpetuity in the prison of his skull. It was a world that expected everything of everybody. It was a world that encouraged anybody to be anything... The fierce poet of the Middle Ages wrote, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” over the gates of the lower world. The emancipated poets of to-day have written it over the gates of this world.
No comments are needed.

The same post in Spanish
Thematic Thread on Science and History: Previous Next
Manuel Alfonseca

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