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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Terminal Greatness

Terminal Greatness

The populist mandate of “me first,” adopted largely as the politics of xenophobia, has been touted as great, as in “make America great again,” but when one sees through the thin rhetoric, it comes down to selfishness pure and simple—the glorification of the individual at the expense of the common good, and worse, of particular individuals shameless enough to game the system unconstrained by conscience, for whom “the deal” is all that matters, who lie and cheat and steal by rote, and most despicably, who regard themselves as supremely entitled and above the law. Such “greatness” is the stance of swindlers, of those who recognize no cause beyond immediate gratification and perpetual self-aggrandizement. The world has always known such people—the Greeks called them “idiotes”—those who lived for themselves alone with no concern for the welfare of others, but the problem is far more serious now than it was in ancient Athens, for we have reached a point in human history when the price of this brand of so-called greatness is swiftly carrying us to the point of no return, a point when the survival of our planet and life itself hangs in the balance, and we are running out of time.

Let us be clear. Whatever constitutes human or national greatness, there is nothing of it to be found in pettiness. There is nothing great about name-calling, bullying, pushing to the head of the line, the cruel sundering of families, brutal indifference to the suffering of the poor, the sowing of the seeds of hatred, winning at all costs, or turning a blind eye while the planetary weather system, inflamed and teetering out of balance, continues to swallow up lives and property in runaway storms and floods, rising sea levels, and the extinction of entire species. Greatness has nothing to do with racism, misogyny, intolerance for those from different cultures or ethnic backgrounds than one’s own or those whose gender or sexual identity sets them apart from the mainstream. Seizing on these differences to incite those who have been exploited by late capitalism to scapegoating and violence is the sign of what Plato called a “disordered soul,” and there is nothing great about it other than its capacity for doing harm. In extreme cases, the disordered soul becomes deformed and, as Aristotle states, can no longer be rehabilitated. Drowning in hubris, which the Greeks considered the most heinous failing of character, such tragic figures become the architects of their own destruction.

Greta Thunberg would be regarded by the Greek philosophers as heroic. Even at the young age of 16, in her recent address to world leaders at the United Nations, she demonstrated the character traits of courage, a deep concern for the common good, and a passionate and unwavering commitment to voicing a difficult truth. Particularly in her reference to “fairy tales of unlimited economic growth,” she leveled an indictment against those whose narrow self-interest has led them to plunder the world’s resources with no regard even for their own children and grandchildren. What better, more beautiful, more truthful, or more appropriate response could there be to such reckless irresponsibility than Greta’s rhetorical, “How dare you?”

It is a question that we all had better start asking our leaders. The evidence of the catastrophic effects of climate change are all around us and closing in. It is a fact no rational person can deny. If we elect the worst among us, we become complicit in the consequences of their unchecked and politically empowered selfishness. Never before in our history has it been more important to bring the governance of nations into collaboration for the common good. The “greatness” promoted by populism is lethal, for as the saying has it, we’re all in this together. Native American wisdom warned us centuries ago that what we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves. Let us resolve not to test the resilience of the ecosystem we share any further. Considerable damage already has been done; it is a matter now of doing all we can to minimize that damage in the hope that the environment can recover, and that life, which emerged on this planet through some inscrutable ingenuity eons before there were deal-makers, can be preserved for the generations to come.