Constraining Greatness


In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, Avram Alpert suggests that the ideal of greatness can be an obstacle to achieving the good life. On the surface, his promotion of the “The Good-Enough Life” seems little more than the latest bashing of Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” movement.

But Alpert’s insights are actually grounded in both practical experience and sensible philosophical reflection. His most persuasive example is taken from D.W. Winnicott, who suggests that the “good-enough mother” is one who is not merely “adequate or average,” but who manages to love and care for her children while allowing them sufficient autonomy to prepare for the inherent troubles of life. As any conscientious parent knows, this is a daunting task, whatever term we use to describe it.

According to Alpert, the good-enough life creates conditions for everyone to thrive, to enable others to be good enough to meet their personal challenges and responsibilities. Such an ideal does not pardon mediocrity or encourage apathy. “Good-enough” implies virtue and goodness in a comprehensive sense.

Striving for a comprehensive level of goodness might actually be more difficult (and more heroic) than a misguided quest for extraordinary distinction in a narrow sphere.

Clearly, Alpert is arguing against shallow conceptions of greatness—when grand achievements come at the expense of others or when fame is based on one-dimensional success. Lamentably, flimsy notions of greatness prevail in our society. We celebrate successful athletes, musicians, and business executives whose personal lives often fail to reach even the lowest standards of respectability. The towering heights of their public achievements overshadow the repulsiveness of their more private affairs.

If the burden of greatness compels us to neglect family relationships and basic standards of decency, we ought to abandon it, as Alpert suggests. Or we can choose to redefine greatness as a multi-faceted achievement of virtue.

Alpert places Aristotle’s virtue ethics in the same “greatness” camp as other flawed philosophical systems of the western world. But at the heart of Aristotle’s definition of virtue is unity and balance. Aristotelian wisdom does not countenance either excess or deficiency in any area of life. The golden mean applies to each individual virtue as well as to the fullness of virtue achieved within a complete human life.

Of course we can argue that Aristotle’s magnanimity, his great-souled man, represents an unreachable ideal. But greatness as an unreachable ideal is much different from the small-minded celebration of intemperance, which is what Alpert is really arguing against.

So another way of looking at the ideal of greatness is that it needs to be constrained by our commitment to a wide range of virtues and responsibilities. For example, we cannot be great while violating the principles of justice or failing to control our emotions.

So how does the the “good-enough life” philosophy make its way into real life? Here’s an example from my professional work. I’m currently developing an online course designed to teach students real-world skills in using information technology. With the other members of my development team, we’ve committed to deliver a great course. We’re committed to the ideal of greatness.

But since we live in the real world, my team and I understand that our greatness will be constrained by several other development criteria. First, we need to prepare students to pass an IT industry certification. Second, we have an extremely tight development schedule. The course needs to be delivered at the beginning of July. And third, we need to keep our sanity and avoid burnout. Each of us have family responsibilities and other commitments that would be neglected by working 80 hours per week. So our challenge is to prepare students for real-world success, help them achieve an industry certification, deliver the course on time, and maintain our physical and mental health.

Because we don’t have unlimited time and resources, we’re forced to do “good-enough” work in each of these areas. Fortunately, we’re employed by a company that supports the ideal of work-life balance. And we have significant control over content development decisions. For example, every concept we teach does not require a lengthy (and expensive) video presentation. We can also reuse some material from other courses.

In this scenario, none of our development constraints force us to give up on instructional quality or to work 16-hour days. They encourage us to prioritize our development efforts and to work more efficiently than we otherwise would.

In the end, a constrained view of greatness can actually be empowering, as long as we have the autonomy to make difficult decisions and the willingness to help each other when we personally fall short.

Magnanimity and the Call to Greatness

In an earlier post, I contrasted Aristotelian pride with Confucian humility as the crown of the virtues. I also clarified that Aristotle does not advocate unjustified pride or arrogance any more than Confucius does. In describing Aristotle’s views in Nicomachean Ethics, I used Martin Ostwald’s English translation of μεγαλοψυχία (pronounced megalopsychia). While this word is typically translated into English as “magnanimity,” Ostwald prefers “high-mindedness” because the modern connotations of magnanimity don’t capture the “pride and confident self-respect” implied by the original Greek. In today’s post, I will reconsider magnanimity in the classical sense that communicates the “greatness of soul” inferred by Aristotle.

AristotleAristotle explains that a magnanimous man believes he deserves great things such as honor and respect because he really does deserve them. He is great both in the sense that he has obtained a fullness of virtue and in the sense that he possesses wealth, power, and influence. His abundant resources allow him to do much more good for others than they could do for him. While he willingly accepts legitimate honors bestowed by noble men, he has no interest in arrogantly displaying his superiority among ordinary people. In fact, he is self-effacing and unassuming among them. It is only in the presence of distinguished, influential men that he speaks openly of his accomplishments. Nonetheless, he is always more concerned with promoting truth and virtue than he is with impressing other people.

Aristotle’s magnanimous man spends his life doing extraordinary things, even risking his life when courage calls. One reason he’s capable of achieving greatness is that he does not squander his time or energy on trivial things. He never holds grudges, spreads gossip, or pays attention to small annoyances. Since he focuses his attention on the rare actions that are worthy of great honor, the magnanimous man is not in a hurry to fill his life with lesser accomplishments. He is never overly anxious or distracted by petty concerns. He is slow to act and deliberate in his choice of words.

Of course Aristotle’s ideal of magnanimity clashes a bit with our modern sensibilities. He sounds like someone who’s out of touch with reality, like a guy who has never done the dishes or mowed his front lawn. But before we reject such an ideal altogether, let’s consider how we might adapt at least some aspects of magnanimity today.

Aristotle emphasizes that magnanimity (or high-mindedness) is the golden mean between vanity and small-mindedness. While the vain man desires greater praise and recognition than he deserves, the small-minded man turns away from honors that he genuinely merits. Even worse, however, is the tendency of the small-minded man to shun wealth and power and to avoid performing noble deeds because he doesn’t consider himself worthy.

Surprisingly, Aristotle suggests that small-mindedness is a worse vice than vanity and that it’s much more common. When I examine my own character flaws, I’m usually more aware of my vanity. I care too much about what other people think of me. But as I reflect more honestly, I recognize that one of my biggest concerns is that I don’t want to come across as vain and prideful. If I’m honest with myself, this tendency to appear less than what I am (in order to impress others with my modesty), is often displayed as false humility or small-mindedness.

It seems evident that small-mindedness can prevent us from responding to the call to greatness. Each one of us possesses unique gifts that we’re capable of developing in the service of others. These gifts constitute our personal call to greatness or to magnanimity. We ought to strive for nothing more and nothing less. If I pretend that I am called to someone else’s greatness, to someone else’s honor, I’m vain. But if I for any reason refuse to accept my personal call to greatness (and the honors associated with this call), I’m suffering from a debilitating form of small-mindedness.

One of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s favorite themes is that each individual must discover and embrace his or her personal calling in life. Each person “has faculties silently inviting him thither to endless exertion…. He inclines to do something which is easy to him, and good when it is done, but which no other man can do. He has no rival. For the more truly he consults his own powers, the more difference will his work exhibit from the work of any other. His ambition is exactly proportioned to his powers.…Every man has this call of the power to do some[thing] unique, and no man has any other call….”

When we find the courage to respond to our personal call to greatness, we’re capable of achieving magnanimity. Because we’re no longer competing with someone else’s greatness or for someone else’s honor, we’re free to pursue our own path with less anxiety, less vanity, and well-deserved praise.