June 23, 2005

Disclosure: On Great Men

The truth is, I have recycled the name "The Great Man," having used this nickname previously to refer to another lawyer for whom I have worked in the capacity of an able subordinate and eager mentee. The First Great Man called me up yesterday to chat; he and I are still friends and I was able to do a quick favor for him. As for the Current Great Man, the nickname just seems to fit better than any other I could come up with, and it's been a while since I worked with the earlier Great Man.

The phrase has its origins in a concept I learned in Western Civilzation class way back in college -- the theory is that from time to time, political or social leaders come along who, by force of their sheer will and vision, are able to seemingly single-handedly change the flow of events which otherwise would have taken place. People like Winston Churchill, Napoleon, Constantine, Mohammed, Washington, and such would be considered "great men." Technically, the change could be for good or ill, so Urban II, Lenin, and Hitler would probably also count. Others may have tried to have changed the normal course of events but ultimately failed; men like Oliver Cromwell or John Calhoun would be "almost great men."

Would Jesus be a "great man?" Maybe, I'm not sure. The modern Christian religion is largely the creation of Paul the Evangelist and the Emperor Constantine more than of Jesus himself, at least as a political institution. Jesus can be credited with laying down powerful and compelling moral precepts and for organizing a small band of adherents to those principles. But the gospels do not suggest an attempt to implement political change, and it is not clear to me whether Jesus was trying to use his ministry to create a new religion or to reform Judaism (and the latter seems more likely to me). So maybe Paul gets the "great man" nod for Christianity. As for Islam, though, Mohammed is definitely the man.

I disagree with the Great Man theory, in that I think ultimately that the future is, while perhaps predictable to some degree, ultimately malleable by more than a single individual or a small set of heroic figures. Less-than-heroic figures, people who do not achieve positions of prominence or notoriety, make decisions that can affect the flow of history as well. Robert McNamara will never be considered a heroic figure but he had a profound effect on history. Definitely a "Not So Great Man."

"Not-So-Great Man." Hmm. I might have a use for that label in the near future...

No comments: