Greatness, Not Perfection: Food for Thought on the Study of History

As I was listening to the radio the other day, one commentator noted that few people bother to make the distinction between “greatness” and “perfection.”

Greatness is moral excellence; perfection is moral perfection. We should want to be great, and we know that some individuals are great; we should also hope for perfection, although we know we will not achieve perfection in this life.

The commentator’s larger point was that something can be great without being perfect. To give the concept a historical example, Alexander the Great had an enormous amount of courage, but he had an equally large ego. Alexander’s courage is worthy of emulation; his selfishness is not. We would like to be as brave as Alexander; we hope that we never become so proud that we hurt our friends – and even make them our enemies – like he did.

The idea that we should study things that are great is almost a foreign concept in modern education. The disappearance of greatness has led to the minimization of history and the arts in favor of subjects that seem to promise greater financial security to their students.  This minimization eliminates common cultural values and ultimately makes us unable to converse deeply about vital matters.

But what are our common cultural values? Or rather, what were the values Americans used to receive from careful study of their heritage?

  • The understanding that morally right aspects of foreign cultures can be appreciated and imitated, but morally wrong aspects of foreign cultures should be rejected – From Herodotus’ History of the Greeks’ wars with Persia, we learn that the Greeks were curious about foreign cultures and eager to adopt their wise practices. Even though the Persians wanted to conquer Greece, Herodotus’ cultural curiosity allowed him to study the Persians’ method of examining the sick – and deem it extremely useful. But the Greeks did not offer unconditional, uncritical acceptance of foreign cultures. Nothing could convince them that life under a despot who demanded to be worshiped and who turned his subjects into slaves whose rights depended solely on his whims, was morally right; and they refused to abandon their own mixed constitution that supported rule of law and popular participation in government.
  • The understanding that people should be free to discuss and critique every area of life, in private and in public – Another Greek tradition that forms a key basis of American culture is the principle that people should be allowed to think and freely, publicly express their opinions – even on controversial subjects. There are several examples of Greek military leaders who debated their course of action during wars – including the Iliad (though fictional), Herodotus, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and Xenophon’s Anabasis. Greek drama, which often included critique of society, offers the clearest expression of critique of political leaders in the play Antigone, by Sophocles. In the play, the despotic Creon decrees that Antigone’s brother, Polynices, can never be buried – and thus will suffer greatly in the afterlife. But Antigone knows that this decree goes against the will of the gods. Risking her own life, she buries her brother, obeying the gods, but disobeying the decree. Creon’s repeated refusal to respond to the various characters who urge him to correct his disobedience of the divine will leads to his demise.
  • The understanding that a mixed constitution is a government that offers the most complete defense of liberty – The Romans understood that government must be restrained because people are easily corrupted by power, and the government of the Roman republic included three branches whose power could be used to limit the power of each of the others. Unlike despotic rule by one person or oligarchical rule by a few people, the mixed constitution meant that many citizens could have a voice in public affairs. At the same time, unlike a pure democracy, the Roman mixed constitution protected the polity from an equally dangerous tyranny of the majority.
  • The understanding that virtue is necessary for life in a nation under a government that promotes liberty – The early history of the Roman republic demonstrated this principle repeatedly. Livy, who wrote the most detailed history of the period, offers his readers example after example of courageous, persevering Roman citizens who lived simply and contentedly, devoted to their families, actively concerned in public affairs, and – most significantly – willing to give their lives in defense of their city. Contrary to modern notions of an impersonal, heavily bureaucratic national government, Roman citizens understood that their unique mixed constitution offered the greatest protection of their natural rights, and that – in addition to preserving their laws – they were preserving their families, friends, temples, and property. The decline of the Roman republic coincided with the decline of the Romans’ traditional virtues.
  • The understanding that “all men are created equal” and are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – This frequently-misunderstood phrase, from the opening paragraphs of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, sums up two concepts that came to have their greatest influence in western societies after the rise of Christianity. While both Greek and Roman philosophers posited aspects of these concepts before Christianity, Christian teaching reinforced them and revealed their ultimate spiritual basis. The first is the concept that all people – though they differ in physical appearance and ability – have an equal value before God. The second concept is that people’s rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – which the Greek philosopher Aristotle defined as morally right living – are permanent because they come from God, not from governments; while governments may restrict, threaten, and deny these rights, people continue to have them.

These cultural values became ingrained in the west from the middle ages onward because they were consistently recognized as necessary for societies to survive and to flourish.

The continuation of these values requires the careful education of our students.

Over the centuries, in the west, these values have allowed for the flourishing of free governments – limited by law – in free societies where people can freely exchange their goods and freely discuss and critique their times. Racial slavery has been abolished, and sexual slavery is strongly opposed. Men and women are seen as equal before the law. People from a variety of countries, religions, and philosophical backgrounds have, upon immigrating to the west, accepted these core western values and have made innumerable contributions for the greater flourishing of our mutual society. In Germany, the courageous individuals who opposed Hitler’s despotism have become known as heroes. In the United States, hundreds of thousands of Americans gave their blood and their lives during the Civil War to end slavery. And, ever since George Washington quietly stepped down from holding the office of President, the country has witnessed dozens of peaceful transitions of power – a process alien to the vast majority of the world’s population.

No just view of the western and American heritages would say that they are perfect; but no just view would deny that they are indeed great.

Photo: The Bendlerblock German Resistance Memorial and museum. The Bendlerblock was the site of the attempted coup against Adolf Hitler on 20 July 1944, known as Operation Valkyrie.