The Measure of Greatness

DEBATE as to the relative greatness in men may be said to be characteristic of our genus. We find it in the most primitive tribes, where the temporary ruler has authority because he is judged to be abler than his fellow-tribesman in those actions on which the common safety depends, as in hunting or war. As the society develops and occupations become varied and equalized to particular groups of citizens, the question as to relative greatness becomes ever more complicated, so that we now have to ask ourselves which of the successes in human endeavor is the worthiest of admiration. Is it to the soldier, the statesman, the prophet, the maker of literature, or the economist, that we shall award the foremost place in our intellectual hierarchy, when he has surpassed his fellows in these several fields of endeavor ?

At first sight it may seem to be a matter of no particular importance how we rank our leaders in thought and action. They do their work: they pass on, and time alone can determine the value of their deeds. Save for the literary effect of his life Alexander has gone to the air, while the work of the unknown inventor who devised the magnifying glass penetrates the life of all civilized societies, and is to influence the fate of man to his last day. With this doubt as to the relative efficiency of our actions, why is it worth while to strive for a measure as to the merit or dignity of the men who do them ? Is it not better to accept the democracy of deeds, and to judge men alone by the sufficiency with which they perform their duty, — be it spinning or leading hosts ? The answer to this is that men cannot be democratic in their appreciation of their fellows; the aristocratic motive in them is primitive and fundamental. We may in time succeed in limiting the scope of this motive; but whenever it is barred from its earlier and louder manifestations it quickly finds some other opportunity to assert itself. We get rid of the ancient aristocracy of birth to find ourselves confronted by that of wealth. We can in a way make men equal before the bar of the written law; but we cannot give them equality before that primitive obdurate aristocrat, the mind of man.

Not only is this judgment as to the essential worth of their fellows inevitable; but it is the basis of moral advancement; it is the prime ideal which is to determine whether a society is to go up or down. Each generation steers by it; those of us who would form or reform it can do no better work than to examine into these ideals of station, and set forth their value on some profitable scale. So far such endeavors, and they have been many, have been developed on two lines. In the one it is assumed that a particular kind of work such as warfare or religion is of supreme importance, and the measure of greatness is determined by accomplishment in that field. In the other, that followed by Galton in his studies of genius, the aim is to determine the range and scope of the various forms of mental labor, to ascertain what may be termed the dynamic value of the work done by the leaders of thought and action. In this writing I propose to approach the problem from another side, to try, in a word, for a measure of this value on the scale of man’s needs in the way of advancement. The plan of this may be set forth as follows : —

We may assume that the mainmost purpose of man is the advance of his kind. So far as we can discern anything like purpose in this world it is to attain this end. Whether in our deeds we are collaborators in the purpose of the realm or whether we strive alone as men, there can be no doubt that the largest of all duties is to work for this advance. This is, or should be, a commonplace in morals; yet it is well to set it clearly before our minds. Taking it as true, it is evident that the highest form of endeavor is that which most effectively serves to lead man onward in the direction in which his evolution can profitably be attained. Thus all that makes for the enlargement of human nature in body and mind is good, and that which makes against such growth is evil, both alike being measured against the sum of good and ill that affects our kind.

In gauging the merits of action, as we do in measuring the greatness of men, we have to make our judgment as we make it in the course of a great battle where many commanders and men unite their efforts in the common endeavor to win forward. Those who merely hold their place against assault do well; those who win ground are the better, each in the grade of his doing: but to him who so fits thought and action to all the conditions of the events, and gains the campaign, is given the foremost place in the work. So men have ever and fitly judged the relative merit of men in that brutal but most illustrative of all human work. We have to recognize that there is an essential likeness between this primitive struggle of war and the work of our kind in pushing back the limits which hamper the ongoing of humanity. In both men set themselves against the restraints of their environment in the search for widened fields: in both successes are paid with fame and whatever else men have to give as reward. All that the student of the situation can do is to show, if he may, reasons why the valuation put upon different kinds of leadership should be other than are now assigned.

In the tangle of actions which we can trace in the moral and intellectual development of man, we can see that the germs of the greater part of his impulses were derived from his ancestors of infra-human grade. Curiosity, timidity, quickwittedness, love of offspring, and the wider affection for his kind, are all from the lower life in his simian kindred. So too some little trace of his hand-craftiness, for those remote ancestors use their arms as do no other brutes. Even the experimental and rational qualities of our minds seem to be foreshadowed, though dimly, in the monkeys. There are other motives, however, which seem to originate in man, for we cannot discern a trace of them in the series of mammals whence he derives his life. Two of these concern the problem in hand and need to be well observed.

First of the forms of mental development above referred to as apparently originating in man after he had passed out of the old order is the sense of beauty. This æsthetic sense appears to have been essentially lacking in the series through which our life was derived from the fishes upward to mankind. The shapes of these creatures, as indicated in those of their collateral living kindred, are singularly lacking in beauty; they are almost the ungainliest of the brutes. Their hairy covering which in many other series of mammals is by sexual selection brought to be ornamental in color and shape, never gains beyond grotesque effects; it is generally hideous, sometimes obscene. In a measure found nowhere else in the suck-giving species, the insensibility of the ancestors of man to beauty is such as would have led a naturalist to deny the possibility of its development in their descendants. Again, while the vocal organs of these brutal predecessors of man are powerful, they do not, — with the possible exception of certain species of howling monkeys, which on doubtful authority are said to compass an octave, — give any sign of a musical utterance. But this defect can be charged to all the mammals, who show no trace of sensibility to accords. It is thus evident that the rapid development of the æsthetic motives in man can in no wise be attributed to the enlargement of the motive which was founded in his lower kindred.

Another, and for the matter we are considering a more important development of guiding motive in man, is that which leads him to accept the mastery of chieftains. There is a distinct trace of this impulse in the species which mark the path of his evolution. Among the apes there are certain evidences of clanship, and some indications that the older and stronger of the society lead in their moments of flight and chase; yet if there be such trace of subordination to a leader, it is distinctly less than what we find in many other groups of mammals. In men this instinct for the leader very quickly develops, and almost at the outset of his human history we find the motive so well-advanced that it forms the very centre of growth of the communities, expressing itself even in the lower societies in a gradation of men as to their importance.

Another of the sudden developments of human quality, that which is most independent of man’s animal history, is his inventiveness and devising power in face of unusual conditions. In very many animals below man we find exceedingly perfect adjustment of action to circumstances, even when these be of much complexity. The spider in fitting its web to the topography of the supports which are to hold it, the beaver in adjusting its dam to the site it is to occupy, have to express a certain kind of discretion in their work; but the fundamental motive is not ingenuity, for the essentials of what they do are inborn; but in man the contriving in no wise rests on inherited concepts of shapes of things, as where the guidance is instinctive; he has to picture the thing he desires to build individually, without the help of inheritances. In the lower life all constructive work is evolved in the development of a species or born of many successive species. In man, one individual savage may go farther in inventing than all the other mammals in the ages since the group began to exist. To this work he brings from the antecedent life no help whatever, for there personal invention is practically unknown. All the contrivances of the constructive kind are the result of variations which owe their origin to something else than rationality.

A most important result of the sudden and exceedingly varied intellectual development of man is that in this field of his qualities he lacks the control of inheritances. In his physical life he is absolutely under such guidance for all his varied activities; he has not changed his body in any structural feature, every organ, bone and muscle is what his ancestry led them to be. The control here is so absolute that we cannot hope that he will ever be able to attain to any innovations in his frame; but in the mental field, because in it there is no controlling past, that past having given him a big unused brain, he has a freedom that no other kind of life has enjoyed. The lower species have their round of action most narrowly circumscribed by what has been sent on from the past. We see how limiting these hampers are in our bodies.

One of the results of the marvelously swift, absolutely free development of man’s spirit is that there has as yet been insufficient time for it to become organized as are the conditions of the body. Working in the instinctive manner in which the lower species do their complicated work through the fore-determined mental processes we term instincts, there are always gauges and standards for the endeavors in the mind as there are in the bodily frame. With us, however, all kinds of thinking are still a hurly-burly, a confusion, to which time and culture may possibly bring something like the order it has in the lower life, but which probably is ever to remain in its present uncontrolled shape save as it may be qualified by criticism of our thought. Applying this criticism, we note certain features which bear upon our problem.

One of these is that the inheritance of fear is very strong in our species. Coming as he does through thousands of species of a timorous nature, perhaps the most inefficient combatant for his task in the animal kingdom, man has ever been largely shaped by his fears; it is, therefore, most natural that he has from the beginning of his estate as man been prone to worship the leader who has managed to avoid this ancient ill, or at least to act independently of it. Inheriting from the brutes some measure of disposition to adopt leaders, particularly when moved by fear, we find the first distinct sign of the chieftainship motive in the early stages of the war lord. It may be that there was a beginning of the process in the nascent family relation of the primitive tribes of man; but so far as we can see, this relation was too obscure to afford the foundation for the system.

Even in its simplest form the human tribe reacts more vigorously and more variedly on its environment than any other society of animals except those of the insects. The result of this is that it is normally at war with other tribes as well as with the predatory brutes. For this business of fighting man is, save for his rational quality, singularly ill provided. His body, with its long limbs and slightly built extremities, is the least fitted for battle of any animal of like size ; it took its shape for service in nimble springing and clinging movements in the boughs. The claws which once armed the digits were, at the beginning of the ape series, converted into the flat nails that entirely lack the lethal efficiency they have in the predatory beasts. The teeth once relatively efficient as rending instruments, with the shortening of the jaw in man, and the reduction in the size of the canines, were likewise put out of use for combat. Add to these disabilities an inheritance of chronic fear and we see man in the primal helplessness, save for the intelligence with which he began his long struggle with adversity. We see most clearly that he had to make his wits serve in lieu of armor and arms, and to do this he had to make the boldest and ablest in combat his leaders; that course alone could bring him safety.

It is eminently probable that the process of selection for a long time played an important part in fixing this habit of subjection to war lords. We know, it is true, little concerning the condition of man in the first stages of his new estate, but we gather enough to make it certain that for many thousand years he existed in terror of small warring tribes. It is evident that of these little societies those would be apt to survive in the struggle for existence which adopted the plan of applying their strength through leaders chosen for their intelligence and valor. It is also clear that such leaders would be more likely to have successful progeny than the commoner sort, so that in their way there would be a tendency to develop courage as well as physical power and intelligence in the stock. In this way we can account for the institution of valiant strains of blood in the genus of man, which clearly inherited little of them from the lower life.

The first competitor with the primitive war lord was the prophet, — the divinator. His station was the first of the purely human leaderships, for the leader in battle was invented in the lower life. The station of the prophet or the diviner appears to have been established some time after men entered on their brutal life. At the outset of the ongoing, if we may judge it by the lowest existing groups, men questioned the realm about them little more than did the beasts whence they came. Gradually the problems of how and whence took shape and led to the conception of unseen powers like enough unto mankind to need propitiation; so that the function of leadership in this field became affirmed, with a conception of the importance of the work those overlords could do which gave them a place just below that of the successful warrior. Here and there we find these two leaders conjoined, but there is very generally and naturally a separation of these relations and functions.

Farther on in the series of social development, after the war-chief and the medicine man had won their place, when the society was sufficiently advanced to make the need of fixed rules of conduct clear, the latest of what we may term the primitive chieftainships, that of the law-giver, was shaped. We find this function often associated with the other chieftainships; but the great principle of the division of labor, organic in its scope, leads by the beginning of civilization, — if it be not the sign of its approach, — to the concept of enduring law and of a dignitary who is to shape and enforce it. So appears the judge and legislator, the last of the men to be set on high before the higher culture begins.

When men, escaping the narrow brutal limits, begin to extend their range of thought and action in the wider fields of civilization, many new fields of activity are cultivated: first among these are the æsthetic, — those which embody concepts of beauty. Of all the marvelous unfoldings of the germ of the human soul which came over from the lower life, the most wonderful are those which embody the sense of beauty. As above noted, little or nothing of this came up from below. It is safe to say that no species of brute, in the tens of thousands through which our gathering life was sent on, did anything to express an emotion of beauty, — doubtful indeed if it ever felt any form of that motive. But as soon as the hand of man begins to shape, his soul is moved to do the shaping beautifully. With the higher exercise of the motive for the division of labor, so apparent in all the developments of civilization, the production of beautiful things gave in time the skillful æsthetic artisan, and later the painter, the sculptor, and, in time, the poet and the men of varied letters, each with his esteem from his fellows and his station in the hall of fame they keep in their arts. Last of all comes inquiring science, with its ample provision of stations where there is a diverse adjudgment of action according to the changing opinion of generations.

Thus, in the enlargement of activities which comes about with the advancing complexity of civilization we have a host of new stations contending for recognition with those of primitive origin. With the progressive democratization of society, the conflict between these diverse appreciations of the men in the several places of leadership is bringing about certain evident changes in the measure of esteem in which they are severally held. This is perhaps the most striking in the case of the soldiers. In a time of war, when a civilized folk for a time reverts to the primitive savage motives, we see them revert to the primitive savage worship of the conquering chief, often in a measure that may fairly be called insane. When they return to their habitual peaceful motives, they may turn from their idols as if with disgust for their aberrations.

The unhappy trifling contest between the United States and Spain afforded admirable instances to show how unstable is this hold of the war lord on a modern folk of modern democratic motives. For a few months, while our people were back on the savage plane, the men who won those easy but astounding victories on the sea were the subjects of frantic adulation; but as soon as the fit had passed they were effectively forgotten. In monarchical countries, where by the organization of the state the people are kept nearer in motive to the original savagery, the ancient measure of those who lead by might, — war lords and their semblances in the form of kings, — hold their place better than in democracies; yet the change is observable there, for the attitude of men is now that of tolerance rather than that of blind devotion, as it was of old. It is evident, even for a decade, that the soldier is losing his place as the highest figure of our societies; at the rate at which the change is making, a century is likely to see him accorded the lower,yet dignified, station now allotted to a skillful head of a large fire department or an able chief of police.

In lesser degree yet evidently, the stations of the other primitive dignitaries, the priests and lawgivers, are being shorn of their ancient prestige. In the case of the priests, the august station which once was theirs because of their position as intermediaries between the masses of men and the Creator, is disappearing, — has in fact gone. In place of that vanished dignity, the priesthood is acquiring a more enduring one by becoming teachers of the art of sound living; if they win that place it is not likely to be assailed. The decline in the esteem accorded to the lawgiver in his successor the statesman is as evident as in the case of his ancient coadjutors, the soldier and the priest. It appears to be due to the substantial completion of his work, which has now been to a great extent passed over to the interpreter of the law, the judge, who has won in large part the station which the legislator has lost. We no longer look for men to make constitutions and bills of rights, we are rather doubtful about their meddling with those we have learned to endure. This loss of reverence for the statesman’s office is indeed one of the most curious features of our modern life. The explanation is probably far more complicated than is here suggested ; something of the change is doubtless due to the recent growth of individualism.

Seeing as we do all about us a swiftly advancing change in the estimation of the dignity of human accomplishments, a change already great, which is certain within a few decades to be profound, let us see if there can be any forecasting of the results, so that we may know even approximately the future of our ideals of station. It may be assumed that the new order will be founded, as was the old, on a sense of the relative value of the contributions that men make to their fellowmen; the difference being that, in wellordered civilizations informed by a modern sense of values, when the judgment relates to many fields of action each will be judged critically, with little reference to its traditional importance. Looked at from this point of view it seems likely that the distribution of honor for achievement will be groupable on the following principles.

As men now see the fields of action they are evidently divisible into two realms,— the internal, which concerns the space of man’s nature, and the external, which includes the else of the universe. In the present state of the human mind, what is looked upon by the highest spirits — those who show us whereto our kind is tending — as the highest leadership relates to explorations in one or the other of these realms, the amplitude of which is beginning to be seen. It is a mark of advancement above the stage of barbarism when the explorer begins to be valued. At first he was only a seeker of unknown lands; he is now the seeker of the undiscovered in any of the spaces, and has an esteem that grows continually. It does not matter what the form of truth may be that he brings back, — provided it be truth, we trust to its enriching value. What Darwin and the other evolutionists won from the unknown was on the whole painful to most men, for it broke up ancient belief ; yet the leaders in this new view of life quickly and permanently gained a high place in the esteem of men,even of those who contended against them. Again, we note that the explorers of the human mind, those who are seeking to penetrate into the newly revealed depths of the unconscious parts of our intelligence, the so-called subliminal regions, though they are forced to deal with the generally despised tenets of spiritualism, are looked upon, and deservedly, as path-breakers in a great wilderness.

In this widening of the canons of greatness which is coming in our enlarged and democratized societies, we may assume that the measure of greatness to be applied to those who help to our understanding of the two realms will be determined by the share of truth they bring to their fellows, and the value of that truth to the art of living. As regards the external world, we may well believe that when the conviction is brought home to men, that the body of observable truth in that realm is essentially fathomless, — that we may endlessly bring its facts to knowledge, until those of any science far transcend the power of any life, however able and devoted, to comprehend, — we shall find men turning back from the incomprehensible universe to the vast but less unlimited realm of human nature, looking to the depths of their own souls and their relations to their neighbors as the nobler field of inquiry, and giving recognition to successes in its exploration as the greatest within the field of accomplishment. The rewards of esteem have ever been higher in the heart of the race for deeds which immediately relate to the souls of men; the prophets who go to them in the religious way, the divinators who approach them by the path of literature, have always had and probably always will have a higher place than the explorers in any part of the unhuman realm. Shakespeare is certain of his glory when that of Newton or of Darwin will be dimmed by the host who are to win to like eminence in the limitless field of natural learning.

The result of what may be called the progressive advancement of the soul is that already in the animals below man it is clear that the creatures begin to appreciate their eminent isolation, and seek in all possible ways to relieve their solitariness by sympathetic relations with their kindred. All the flocks and herds show their affection for their fellows; even in the most solitary predaceous forms it is traceable. When man comes with his vast enlargement of quality, and in proportion as he rises above the level of the brutes, this need of sympathy increases until it becomes the leading motive in his life. He seeks it in the understanding of his fellows, of the phenomenal world about him, and of the realm of his own depths and of the over all. Often through activities in great periods of action, of discovering and invention, he is turned for a time aside from his interest in the mystery of his kind, and of the unseen which he feels akin to it; but he comes back inevitably to those supreme quests. At present, we are in the midst of a period when the external realm mostly commands the attention of men. The revelations from that side of the universe are so startling, they have such immediate relation to power, that men are occupied with action as upon a battlefield ; but if we give value to experience we must believe that they will soon be wearied — if they are not affrighted — by that infinite of entangled actions, and turn back to that human side of nature which is akin to them because it is always friendly. If this return of the body of educated mankind to the field of human nature is, as it seems, inevitable, then their concern with the inventor and discoverer, the shapers of trade and other men who are breaking and shaping the ways of our material advancement, will be lessened, and the human realm will again claim the foremost place in the minds of men.

There can be no question that the material universe will always command the interest of a limited group of the abler men; but the most of our kind are not naturalists but humanists: we see clear evidence of this in the fact that, while any empiricist may win a high place in public esteem by discoveries that have an important bearing on the technical arts, astronomers of many times the ability, who solve the problems of the far-off spheres, rarely win station in the esteem of the public, though their researches are many times as important to science. Their measure of greatness is taken only by their few companions in inquiry. As this work of discovery in the physical realm passes farther out into the depths of the great and the minute, into space and time, it will inevitably become more and more recondite. There will be fewer of the conquests that seem to adorn the triumphs of the conquerors in the public gaze. Men are and ever will be interested in the tides of the sea; but when it comes to the tides in the fluid masses of the outer stars, their interest naturally, and from the point of view of human nature very properly, wanes. As long as the problems of heredity had the relative complexity that characterized them in the Darwinian age of thirty years ago, the world deliberately attended to them; now that they require an understanding of features that only the specialist can see, they are given over to the few who devote their lives to very recondite inquiries.

We may assume that in another hundred years the whole group of explorers of the naturalist order will be as far removed from the comprehension of the public as are the great mathematicians, who, after the manner of the marvelous Cayley, look to a dozen contemporaries for appreciation of their work. These inquirers will not be sustained by the sympathy of mankind; to the body of their fellows they will be as remote as though they were upon another sphere. They will not be consoled as are the explorers in an earthly wilderness with the expectation of fame when they bring their harvest of new truth back to the places of men. They will have a large reward in the noble sense that they have gone farther than their fellows, and this, with the approval of the few who can understand them, will be pay enough for those seldom and high souls who are destined to break paths although there are none to follow.

Looking yet further into the future of naturalistic inquiry, say a thousand years hence, at the rate of inquiring of the last century, it seems clear that knowledge covering any particular field of the physical realm wall, save in its very elements, have passed quite beyond the comprehension of any but the most elaborately equipped specialists: these men will be quite lost to their fellows, who may compute their greatness mathematically, but will be able in no sense to comprehend it. Even now we see that the truly great inquirers in the natural field are passing out of the public gaze, and are understood by their compeers alone. Only a small and ever more limited part of their discoveries comes to the understandings of men of ordinarily wide culture. It is safe to say that not the hundredth part of the important results of inquiry into the realm of natural science is comprehended by any one person, even by the most assiduous laborer in any of its departments. Year after year these workers find themselves the deeper in their several mines, more and more deprived of that wide-ranging sympathy with their fellows which of old rewarded the discoverer and dignified his station.

It is evidently in the study of man, of his structure, his qualities, his history, in his human station and in the vast perfections of the ancient life through which the way was won to his human estate, as well as, and supremely, in the problems of his moral development, that the masters of thought are to hold their place in the esteem of their fellows: then they will be followed by all who have the strength to do so, because in the teaching will be the revelation of themselves. The naturalist who has to tell of the steps by which man came to his estate will have attention that will never be given to the questions of life in general, near as these problems should be to all intelligent persons. The historian who deals with human conduct has his way to a hearing made easy by the motive of fellowship. Above all, the moralist who sets the man in face of himself and shows him his relations to the else than self will have the foremost place. If he do his work greatly, bringing to it Newtonian might or Darwinian devotion to his purpose, the only danger in the appreciation he is to receive is that it will instinctively lift him above the human plane, denying him true fellowship with his kind. It is only as men come to a higher appreciation of human quality that they are willing to leave their greatest teachers of morals in the same plane with themselves. That alone tells us where lies the summit of greatness in the intuitive judgment of mankind.

The foregoing review of the measures of greatness leads us to the conclusion that in the civilized reorganization of the ideals of human station, the primitive idea that it is associated with mere dominating might, such as we see in the successful soldier or the amasser of wealth, is likely to pass away; and that the near measure will be found in the contribution men make on the one hand to our knowledge of the external realm, on the other, to the advancement of our knowledge of ourselves, and the moral gain that is connected therewith. The leaders of inquiry into the material realm are ever to go farther from the understanding and the sympathy of mankind; so far away, indeed, that few can hearken to them, and fewer

comprehend their greatness: while those who explore the realm of man are sure of eager hearers, and of a great host to follow them as best they may in the wildernesses of that like illimitable realm. We thus see that it is those who lead us unto ourselves who are ever to have the foremost place in the hearts of men. Genghis Khan is utterly forgotten by the hosts to whom Sakya-Muni stays as a god. Leonardo da Vinci, as the greatest explorer of his century in the physical realm, and as the founder of engineering, is known to a few score ; as a painter who penetrated men’s souls he has a place in the memory of myriads. It is, indeed, evident that the supreme figures of the future, as those of the past, are to be the prophets hereafter armed with the methods of science who are to reveal man to himself.