What makes a man great?

“Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them.” – William Shakespeare

What makes human life great and worthy of being revered by others? When ruminating on such a weighty and subjective topic, one inevitably needs to start at the beginning. Are great men born or are they made?

The Great Man theory itself was born in the 19th century to explain men who by their intelligence, charisma, wisdom or particular skill, were able to influence and impact history. The theory was popularised by Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle at the beginning of the century who stated that ‘The history of the world is but the biography of great men,’ in his book On Heroes, Hero-Worship in History. Carlyle believes that by studying history’s great men such as Shakespeare, Wagner and Napoleon, one could uncover one’s own greatness and true nature. Carlyle’s main theory was that these men were all by nature born for greatness. But this theory of greatness being a natural genetic predisposition can easily be turned on its head by looking into the history of great men.

Hark back to the template for modern civilisation, Ancient Greece, where the age-old stories of great men who changed the course of history culminated in popular mythic heroes such as Heracles, Achilles, Hector and Jason. Though all these men were physically strong, brave and intelligent, their success in greatness was always god given. In one of the oldest mythic tales of a heroic quest, Jason was able to lead the Argonautic Expedition to retrieve the Golden Fleece after being blessed by Zeus’ wife and goddess Hera but equally lost her favour after returning to take his rightful place on the Thessaly throne and ultimately died miserable and alone. Though Jason had many heroic attributes, his winning streak was only enabled by the gods, who could and did take it away as quickly as they bestowed it. These mythical legends were only mortal after all.

And even after Carlyle made a convincing argument for great men being predetermined which was endorsed by several thinkers in the 19th century, English philosopher Herbert Spencer forcefully criticised Carlyle’s theory. Instead, Spencer argued that attributing historical events and outcomes purely on the basis of one singular leader was a primitive thought. Spencer firmly believes that those great men were merely products of their social environment at the time, ‘before he can remake his society, his society must make him’. The age-old debate of nurture over nature.

One such great man who shows that it is a powerful combination of both nature and nurture, undoing both Carlyle and Spencer’s theories is Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci was born out of wedlock to a poor family with no access to formal education. Not the usual circumstances for a success let alone prolific greatness. Yet as a small child, Da Vinci began to experiment with drawing and at fourteen became an apprentice to a Florentine painter where his talent was enhanced by an education in technical skills and theoretical training. The rest, as they say, is history and the art world was immeasurably changed. It was a delicate combination of natural skill, chance experimentation and the abundance of artistic experimentation and philosophy during the Renaissance period of Da Vinci’s lifetime that propelled him to greatness.

Nowadays in a world with arguably a more developed sense of morality and equality, great men (be it leaders, artists, scientists or philosophers) cannot be regarded as without human fault. Even those lauded in historical greatness. Sir Winston Churchill is widely credited for winning World War Two with his extraordinary leadership and it is indisputable that the entire world history would have a different outcome if he had not come into power in 1940. But great leaders are also human and therefore fallible. Churchill made many great mistakes in his political career, Gallipoli, backed the use of poisonous gas and angrily opposing nationalism in India with racist rhetoric. Yet his greatness at the right moment in WW11 earned him a place amongst historical greats. Indeed, Churchill was a man who chose greatness, after all, it was he who said, ‘History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it.’

Certainly, a quality that can be directly attributed with success and therefore greatness is dog-eared determination. John Kotter who wrote Leading Change after observing countless leaders and trying to identify contributing success factors reported that many worked 60 -65 hours per week. This ability and willingness to sacrifice one’s personal life to work gruelling hours undoubtedly characterize many successful men in both the past and present. Add to that an ability to keep going and learning despite inevitable mistakes also indisputably increases the chances of success.

To conclude, what can we learn from the great man of the past and the present to apply to our own lives? Although one will invariably make mistakes along the way, take heed that even the greatest of men have also made them. And although one might have been born in less than favourable circumstances or endured continual adversity, great men of the past have succeeded in spite of this. It is one’s ability to pick up the pieces and start again, never being afraid of failure or one’s current circumstances. 

What is it that makes a great man to us? Notwithstanding natural flair, god given talent, or a particular environment, it is above all, their determination to succeed.

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