Who or What Constitutes Greatness? An Essay
This is an impossibly incongruous array of great men: Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Karl Marx, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther, Muhammad, Saint Paul and William Shakespeare.
Now, who is the greatest of them all?
An online poll (click here) is currently on with these 10 as contenders to ascertain the greatest man on earth.
I am told people across continents are voting as if it were an exercise to elect one common President for the entire world. To whom would my vote go? Mohammed or Christ (believing in both is basic to my Muslim faith)? Or Gandhi, the Father of my Nation? Or others like Luther?
This poll seemed absurd from the word go (why I think so I will tell you later). However, it did a good thing to me. It kindled a bewildering question we must all ask today: who or what constitutes greatness?
One wonders if men who achieve greatness aspire to be great. Do they simply become great or do they stand out as great men because they undertake certain tasks, which become their calling. Just who is a great man?
This seemingly obnoxious poll stirred another set of questions? Are religious figures as great as political greats? Who is greater a man: L.K. Advani or Dr Manmohan Singh?
All I can say with certitude is that greatness is a quality that is re-discovered time and again, re-evaluated year after year, generation after generation, even as new greats are added every once in a while. The greatest man of the moment could seem to be President Obama. But greatness is not simply popularity, genius, talent or fame.
Greatness? What effort is it! What magnificent art, what life-turning events, what flair to turn phrases in an eloquent speech, what ability to foretell, what knack to conclude!
In this line-up of 10, Shakespeare instantly came to my mind because of a play I studied years ago as a student, the Twelfth Night. I went back to my dog-eared copy, its pages yellowed by time. Act II, Scene V sums it up:
“Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
If all these 10 men were great, indeed greatness was thrust upon Prophet Mohammed. He was chosen as the Messenger of God. Ikra, ikra (read, read) were the first words angel Gabriel whispered in his ears. (These first words should tell us why Muslims should accord the highest importance to reading and writing).
Christ was born great because the Wise Men knew of his birth. He was a “special child”. Mahatma, Luther and Einstein achieved greatness for what they left the world as — a better place.
In Mohammed and Christ, it is patience triumphing over difficulty. In Shakespeare, it is beauty and truism surmounting time. In Einstein, it is perception winning over mystery. In Gandhi, ideas over adversity. All these are exceptional qualities.
The question of what makes great men great also led me back to an English essayist who I tremendously enjoyed in my university classes, William Hazlitt (1778-1830). If Romanticism is where the modern age begins, Hazlitt was its most fluent spokesman. From whatever I have read of him, it is my belief that no act replicable by others just as well can be labeled great.
Hazlitt opens his famous essay (which brilliantly assesses greatness, talent and genius), The Indian Jugglers, with a street performer in India:
“(The juggler) begins with tossing up two brass balls, which is what any of us could do, and concludes with keeping up four at the same time, which is what none of us could do to save our lives…”
Indeed seeing a juggler at work, we may say “great!” But is he a great man? No, because many people can do jugglery, if not you and me.
I will never forget these lines from The Indian Jugglers:
“Talent differs from genius as voluntary differs from involuntary power. Ingenuity is genius in trifles; greatness is genius in undertakings of much pith and moment. A clever or ingenious man is one who can do anything well, whether it is worth doing or not; a great man is one who can do that which when done is of the highest importance.”
So Hazlitt says, a “great chess-player is not a great man, for he leaves the world as he found it”. According to this definition, cricketer Sachin Tendulkar is a genius, not a great man because Sir Bradman played the game equally well.
Hazlitt then arrives at a powerful conclusion: “No act terminating in itself constitutes greatness.” “Nothing,” he says, “can be said to be great that has a distinct limit or that borders on something evidently greater than itself. A Lord Mayor is hardly a great man. A city orator or patriot of the day only show, by reaching the height of their wishes, the distance they are at from any true ambition.”
Popularity, says Hazlitt, is neither fame nor greatness: “A king (as such) is not a great man. He has great power, but it is not his own, He merely wields the lever of the state…”
After applying Shakespeare and Hazlitt to find out what or who constitutes greatness, Gandhi, Buddha and Luther all undoubtedly come across as great men. These are lofty men, whose stature lengthens out to “remote posterity”. Their messages time don’t assail.
Prophet Mohammed and Jesus are great men because greatness was “thrust upon” them. Lincoln, I am not sure because he was a patriot whose ideas guided a national ambition, and patriots and politicians are often adored by the people they profess to represent. Lincoln is a great product of his time. Admiration is appreciation springing from popularity; greatness is an act continuously translating itself into immortality.
Therefore, both Advani and Manmohan Singh would have much more to prove. And Einstein is great in his own way but a great man he will be only until the ever-varying discoveries of science do not prove one theory wrong over the other.
Yet, this poll to find the great among these 10 men is a no-brainer. It is just not a sincere re-appraisal of all-time greats.
It is possible that it could have a sneaky agenda and be a foxy attempt to malign Muslims because online voting is no secret ballot. It is also possible that many Muslims will blindly vote for the Prophet, simply because of religious compulsion.
If that happens, this should mean two things. One, Muslims accord the highest importance to religion. Two, Muslims consider their Prophet as an all-time hero. However, neither should constitute an act of terror! In a world marked by Islamophobia, this could wrongly be used to conclude that Muslims are hostile. That is the peril.
Even comparing Jesus and Mohammed should be looked upon suspiciously because there will always be more to such a survey than meets the eye.
Gandhi versus Mohammed versus Shakespeare? So who do I vote for? As Muslim, my vote goes for Mohammed. As an Indian, for Gandhi, and as a lover of literature, for Shakespeare. I cannot assume who is the greatest of them all. After all, Hazlitt never said if degrees could be attributed to greatness.