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by Ken Myers

Sound thinking

Greatness ≠ goodness

Roger Shattuck on the dangers of wanting to know more than we should

by Ken Myers

by Ken Myers

Greatness ≠ goodness

“Those human beings who leave their mark on others and on history, who stake a claim to some form of greatness, often reach beyond the conventional channels of accomplishment. Riches, power, fame, and sexual adventure represent four extensively overlapping spheres of enterprise through one or another of which many of us can achieve some form of reward. These four primary drives hold out to us a complex area of human activity that under normal circumstances entails no transgression, no forbidden knowledge. But there are those who can experience no lasting satisfaction, who must always reach beyond to a higher tier of drives and rewards, of attractions and repulsions. We can easily cite historical figures to illustrate this Promethean impulse. Alcibiades, Caligula, Cleopatra, Tamerlane, Lorenzo de' Medici, Napoleon — the Athenians coined a word to designate their insatiable greed for the unattainable, for the moon. Pleonexia goes beyond common hubris in refusing any limit, any horizon. The four drives of ordinary human accomplishment are abandoned in an aspiration to godhead.

“This excess constitutes a problem or a paradox not so much because it afflicts a few unstoppable figures that traverse our lives and our history, but because the rest of us have a hard time not admiring even its most monstrous forms. In the first chapter of The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, Burckhardt describes the ‘profound immorality’ of Lodovico Sforza, despot of Milan and patron of a brilliant court including Leonardo da Vinci. Burckhardt concludes that the unscrupulous tyrant ‘almost disarms our moral judgment’ by his brilliant contributions to ‘the state as a work of art.’ Will Hitler and Stalin have to be added to the above list? Or have we finally learned how and where to draw a line? Let us hope so. But the mythical and barely changing notion of human greatness as passed down from Gilgamesh, say, to Faust and Frankenstein should not set our minds at rest. And it is not difficult to collect statements alerting us to our own proneness to admire forms of pleonexia.

“Only great men can have great faults.

(La Rouchfoucauld, Maxims, number 190)

“Evil is easy, its forms are infinite; good is almost unique. But there is a kind of evil as difficult to identify as what is called good, and often this particular evil passes for good because of this trait. Indeed one needs an extraordinary greatness of soul to attain it as much as to attain good.
(Pascal, Pensées, Lafuma number 526)

“He believed he had discovered in Nature... something which manifested itself only in contradictions. . . . It contracted time and expanded space. It seemed to be at home in the impossible and to reject, with scorn, the possible. This mode of being I called the Demonic. . . . It appears in its most terrifying form when manifest in a single human being. . . . They are not always the most excellent people . . . but a terrible force comes out of them. . . . From such considerations arise that strange and striking proverb: Nemo contra deum nisi deus ipse. [‘No one can rival God except God himself.’]
(Goethe, Dichtung und Wahrheit, Part 4, Book 20)

“These passages do not flinch before the prospect that some form of greatness may lodge in heroes whose conduct has been evil.

“Since we seem to be so fascinated by human creatures who aspire to exceed their lot and to attain godhead, how shall we ever reconcile ourselves to a countervailing tradition of heroism in humility and quietism, in finding and in accepting our lot? The line that connects Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, St. Francis, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr, has had a hard time restraining human aggressiveness. Consequently, many of us have thrown our support to a third, intermediate set of founding figures who have gradually built our now-besieged institutions of justice, law, and democracy. Since humility has so hard a time restraining hubris, is it possible that our new institutions will begin to afford a new form of greatness in freedom within bounds?

“One devoutly hopes so. But Frankenstein and Faust could never resign themselves to remaining in the herd. Their deeply cultivated knowledge of the universe and its secrets filled them not with awe but with pleonexia, an overweening resolve to reach beyond limits, particularly limits on knowledge, even at the risk of harming others. In spite of Nietzsche’s preachings in favor of the will to power, Faust and Frankenstein cannot be our heroes. Must they, then, be monsters? At least we should be able to recognize that side.”

— from Roger Shattuck, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography (St. Martin’s Press, 1996)