The Magazine

Democracy and Greatness

The education Americans need.

Dec 11, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 13 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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What of philosophy and its unconcern for individuals? The philosopher, said Socrates, is concerned with the what and not with the who. He wants to know what justice is, not who is just and therefore deserves to be remembered with praise. Yet Plato made Socrates, a great individual, the central figure in his dialogues and left a record of the important events in his life, as well as his speeches, and was content, almost like Boswell, to celebrate Socrates' greatness without claiming greatness for himself. In the Phaedo, Plato leaves it unclear whether he was present at Socrates' death.

What does this show us? It shows that philosophy studies the permanent problems of humanity, such as what is justice, but does so in a context where the philosopher challenges the official answer or answers to that question. The what is always in a context of the who, even though the what transcends the who. Thus the philosopher is in one aspect indifferent to human greatness, and in another, involved in it because of his own greatness. He cannot avoid the greatness of philosophy, which considers both nature, providing for the species and caring nothing for individuals, and human nature, yearning for greatness. In displaying Socrates in speech and in action, Plato conveys to us that greatness does not necessarily consist of heroic exploits full of stress and drama. A philosopher can be great; a woman can be great.

The foregoing is a preface to an argument for the use of great books in our education, based on the need for greatness in human life. Greatness is the culmination of individuality. Few of us are great, but all of us try to be great whenever we try to be individual. Trying to be individual is very different from the general concept of "individualism," as Tocqueville made clear. Individualism is the situation in modern democracies when individuals feel themselves to be incapable of acting on their own, incapable of being individuals. All are together in a mass, a huge quantity oppressive more by its number than by any wish to impose on others. Each impotent individual gives up on the effort to distinguish himself, retires into his family or circle of friends, and delivers his hopes or demands for society to government, an "immense being" that acts for the whole benignly--but not beneficently. The cure for individualism, Tocqueville shows, is partly to release the human impulse of intractability, the grouchy desire not to be governed by others. This negative sentiment is much in evidence in modern democracies, and it is mostly wholesome because it curtails ambitious schemes of patronizing control from big government. But being negative only protects you from others and does not justify your own claim for respect.

For positive self-assurance you need the picture of greatness for inspiration, if not emulation. "Self-esteem" is the byword of educational theory today. Self-esteem is fine if it is earned individually but harmful if it is awarded automatically because the recipient belongs to a class or category of the needy. True, we all need self-esteem but we do not need complacency or self-satisfaction. Mutual toleration is far from enough to fulfill our human dignity, for which we need something to admire. Indeed it is impossible for human beings to live without admiring other human beings. We all have already the picture of greatness willy-nilly, as we have our heroes from childhood. It needs to be nourished and coaxed into improvement rather than created from nothing.

Two obstacles to education in greatness loom before us, modern science and modern democracy. These two powerful forces are in alliance. Modern science is progressive and always on the advance; it doesn't like to look back. Today's scientific findings rob yesterday's of any significance other than antiquarian. Thus the greatness of past scientists like Galileo, Kepler, and Newton is diminished by their obsolescence. As human beings, scientists are of course not uninterested in who gets a Nobel prize, but this is apart from and at odds with their science, which is a collective enterprise that frowns on self-promoters if not heroes.

Social science, moreover, has difficulty in understanding human greatness. It looks for the cause of greatness in the circumstances of mass movements or trends that make greatness inevitable, hence not really great. It is based on a simplistic psychology of maximizing the power of one's preferences or of overcoming one's necessities. It is blind to the psychology of greatness because it cannot see actions that sacrifice self-interest to espouse a cause. It has no inkling of human spiritedness, the quality of soul discussed by Plato, called thymos, that prompts us to assert a principle by which to live--and for which to die--as opposed to surviving by any means possible.