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On great men

It is my (humble, uninformed, and unscientific) opinion, that greatness in men is more a function of historical context than any person’s innate genius. This is, of course, not to discount their personal contribution to whatever made them great or famous.

Yesterday I was reading the introduction to a book when the name of William James popped up. This was a relatively contemporay book on philosophy, and it struck me how, over a century after his time, people are still discussing and commenting on his work – and on Newton, and Nietzsche, and other great writer, scientists, and philosophers.

So I wondered what it was that set these men apart, and I took into consideration that in their time the world was a different place. There were fewer people, fewer books; literacy was lower and access to information and knowledge more scarce. In that time, then, the thoughts of these men were all the more revolutionary because of the odds against them from the state of civilization at the time.

And so, as time progresses and these great men and their ideas enter history books, they represent not just themselves and their ideas but an entire epoch. We don’t know what their neighbors were thinking – whether they were thinking about great ideas, whether they wrote them down or not, whether they were priveleged enough to be able to afford to do that. We don’t know whether the ideas they wrote down were actually told them by a curious but underpriveleged neighbor in an evening discussion or even in passing. So William James it was, then, who came to represent his time in history. Was that of his own choosing? Unless he had anything to do with the circumstances and social place he was born into, then no; the fact that it was William James and not another named James Williams was entirely contingent.

Why do we not today have he geniuses of past eras? Who are today’s Einsteins and Tolstoys? This is an age where literacy and ideas are no longer sparse and radical. They have become commonplace and even commoditized. My feeling is that genius is at an all time high – it has to be with the high rates of population, litracy, and access to information and knowledge that define my generation. But the conditions that separate one man from his peers in the history books are more rare to come by.

A new currency is needed to separate a man from his peers. That currency will still be knowledge, but in a new form. The process of achieving the status of greatness will be the same: doing something differently from everyone else. But the circumstances and processes that first permit and then drive that innovation, it remains, are hardly within the control of any one person, ordinary or great.

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