Achieving greatness and recognizing greatness

October 20, 2007

Attention patterns in our society seem to be built around the assumption that it is much easier to detect or recognize greatness than to achieve it. Few people will ever achieve greatness, but we are all able to recognize the greatness of those who have achieved it.

This is held to be true in any area of achievement: sports, art, cooking, science, accumulation of wealth, politics, virtue, wisdom, etc. It is as easy to know a great scientist or artist as it is to measure who is the fastest bicyclist.

This assumption is a special case of the assumption that reality in general is self evident. In this special case, however, the facility of perceiving the reality of greatness is supposedly much more immediate and universal. It seems to require neither training, nor time, nor effort. Indeed, the ease of recognition of greatness is considered such a fundamental property of greatness, that greatness is often defined as being the characteristic possessed by someone who is recognized by others as being great.

Like the truth of scientific or legal positions, which are implicitly held to be self-evident, in some, rare, cases, recognition may take a while (van Gough, Gregor Mendel, JK Rowling) or may be delayed by powerful interests (Mozart), but it shall come.

There are 3 interesting corollaries to this way of seeing greatness:

  1. When approaching an issue, it is best for the average person to find someone great and follow their example or teachings rather than try to deal with the material directly. It is safe and easy to accept the ideas of great people.
  2. The sure way to find greatness (in people, objects or ideas) is to observe others and see who, or what, it is that they consider great.
  3. Greatness in people must be rare. According to some conceptions, this is simply a matter of definition. The commonplace cannot be great. But even when not explicitly defined as being extraordinary, the rarity of greatness follows from the requirement that it is widely acknowledged. Since cognitive barriers preclude the possibility that a large proportion of the population is well known to many people, it follows that there is a very low upper bound on the proportion of the population that may be seen as possessing greatness.

Those corollaries, it is easy to see, legitimize and solidify the position of accepted elites: their position at the center of attention validates their greatness and indicates that attention should continue to be bestowed (corollary 2), their views on matters should be accepted as correct (corollary 1) and the members of those elites possess highly unusual properties that differentiate them from the average person and justify their special status (corollary 3).

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