What Greatness Is, And Is Not
Still on my Tony Woodlief kick, here’s a recent blog he posted about a contemporary version of Pride. Here’s how it begins:
“I have a sense,” I once told a counselor, “that I’m supposed to do something great.”
He sat back in his chair and smiled. “Oh yeah. Everyone has that feeling about himself. Especially in this country.”
I was deflated for weeks. My sense of destiny was just a psychological quirk born of Western narcissism. Maybe I was only destined for mediocrity and anonymity. Living a great life, I believed then (though I would not have admitted this) is synonymous with fame. I suppose that error still creeps into my heart.
Everyone has that feeling about himself. My counselor’s point was that I’m no one special. It was that I should get off my high horse and realize the laws of creation and death apply to me just like everyone else, which meant I’d damn well better start being a more faithful father and husband and employee. He was right, and dear God, how I wish I’d listened sooner.
I am no one special, and neither are you.
This is not, however, because we are destined for inconsequential lives. Many of us just have to recalibrate our understanding of what it means to live well. To craft beauty, to care for those who need us, to live honorably—surely these are the elements of a great life, though television viewers don’t care to see a sturdy grandfather or an orphanage director profiled on the E! Channel.
I was talking to a college professor recently, and he said that he’s shocked and saddened by how many of his undergrads believe that their lives are going to be Great, but how utterly unrealistic their ideas about Greatness are — especially about their own capabilities. The professor said that these kids believe that the path to Greatness is clear and smooth, and that all they need to do is hold on for the thrilling ride ahead of them. The professor’s point was that our culture is doing grave harm to our children by the narrative we feed them — one that does not correspond to reality. Because of this, we have not given them the resilience they are going to need to endure when they encounter reality.
Everything reminds me of Dante these days. Yesterday, flying back from Texas, I re-read Canto XI of the Purgatorio, in which Dante meets those being purified of the sin of Pride. Oderisi, a famous artist, is one of them (the translation is Mark Musa’s):
Oh, empty glory of all human power!
How soon the green fades from the topmost bough,
unless the following season shows no growth!
Once Cimabue thought to hold the field
as painter; Giotto now is all the rage,
dimming the lustre of the other’s fame.
So, one Guido takes from the other one
poetic glory; and, already born,
perhaps, is he who’ll drive both from fame’s nest.
Your earthly fame is but a gust of wind
that blows about, shifting this way and that,
and as it changes quarter, changes name.
Were you to reach the ripe old age of death,
instead of dying prattling in your crib,
would you have more fame in a thousand years?
What are ten centuries to eternity?
Less than the blinking of an eye compared
to the turning of the slowest of the spheres.
Contrast this to the career advice Dante received earlier in Canto XV of the Inferno, from his old teacher Brunetto Latini. Brunetto knows that Dante is starting to become famous, and he encourages his star pupil to let belief in himself and his talents lead him to fame and fortune:
He said to me: “Follow your constellation
and you cannot fail to reach your port of glory…
Brunetto, of course, is in Hell. The reader observes that Brunetto, by making fame and personal glory his personal telos, has damned himself. In the Commedia, the stars symbolize God’s guiding presence. To speak of “your constellation” here is to encourage Dante to make a god of himself. In fact, Brunetto discloses that he sees in Dante’s potential for greatness a chance for his (Brunetto’s) fame to increase, as Dante’s former teacher. He masquerades as someone who is looking out for Dante’s good, but really he is thinking about himself. Among the damned, it is eternally about themselves.
Interestingly, Brunetto is punished in the circle of the Sodomites, but there is scant reference to his sexual behavior. The point Dante the poet is making here is that by dedicating his art to serve only the goal of advancing himself, Brunetto’s creations were sterile, and would not bear fruit.
Here is the story of someone who chose differently, and whose work has borne fruit, and even brought about a measure of posthumous fame.