We live in an ego-centric culture. We’re encouraged to be hyper-ambitious and become uber-successful with fame and popularity major parts in the mix. There is an obsession to reach the pinnacle of greatness as soon as possible so we can retire early then start all over again. At least this is what it looks like according to my observations.
The greatness mindset is instilled early in life. Who remembers playing King of the Hill as a first-grader? We study the famous and infamous leaders of the past in history. Ruthlessness in organized sports is implied so the school can enjoy first place in the state rankings. We get so caught up chasing fame and fortune for their own sake that true greatness is suppressed.
A person can certainly become king of the hill by fervently desiring ultimate power and influence. Sometimes this desire creates unintended benefits to society but too often the thirst for greatness yields Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Their dreams became national and global nightmares. They forgot that true greatness includes selfless goodness of character.
For some, the potential for greatness is thrust upon them by virtue of inheritance. We see this advantage in the case of monarchies and prominent families. The great kings and queens were given jump starts simply because they were born into the “right” families. From such auspicious beginnings, they chose to build upon their positions in order to be powerful and great or to be powerful and infamous.
Is the desire for dominance an inborn trait? When we observe the animal and plant worlds, dominance is a feature, not a bug. Evolution can imply survival of the fittest. It also seems to imply survival of the most clever. Being top dog is the way to thrive in a dog eat dog world. On the other hand, being top dog is the way to become a target for the top dog’s rivals.
The desire for greatness is accompanied by the seeds of hubris. High position and public acclaim feed egotism. When the great leader or the famous artist mindlessly allows hubris to grow, she or he envisions invincibility. The expanding egotism becomes a bug, not a feature. When it blossoms into full-blown hubris, true greatness is doomed and infamy is assured.
Hubris then manifests as at least one of Pope Gregory’s Seven Deadly Sins–Pride. As hubris usually devolves, we notice that infamous, historical people also suffer greed, wrath, envy, gluttony, lust for more power, and slothful or delusional thinking. Any virtuous motives in the beginning, soon become mere talking points.
Yet there have been powerful people who have used their ambitions in the service of good. They possessed the necessary insight that enabled themselves to understand and desire success that is generous and benefits the common good for everyone. Many of them incorporated at least a few of the old Pope’s Seven Virtues of Faith, Hope, Charity, Justice, Prudence, Temperance, and Fortitude. They weren’t necessarily religious people, but they had a deep sense of what goodness is. Such people have been benevolent and wise in their exercise of power.
“No man is truly great who is great only in his lifetime. The test of greatness is the page of history.”–essayist and philosopher, William Hazlitt
We note that outstanding women and men in history cultivated characteristic goodness in their thinking. Such goodness has been rooted in the desire to truly benefit humanity regardless of creed and physical ability and background. This genuine altruism is an hallmark of true greatness.