Heaven spare us from great men*, should be amended to include the much greater category of those who think they are great. Perhaps the greatest curse of the present age is the numerous would be great men who wish to remake the world according to their own thinking. Government now in the U.K. is one of disruption, as each new minister tries to make his mark by changing or reversing the policies of his predecessors. In the U.K. at least never has the country been so ill served by the activities of the disruptive and damaging individuals.
History at my primary school was the history of great men. I remember lessons on Alexander the Great and King Alfred (the Great).We would sit quietly at our school desks listening in awe to stories about their achievements broadcast by the school radio. Not until I was much older did I realise that there was a dark side to these men. Alexander the Great destroyed great civilisations, the destruction of the Persian capital Persepolis was one of his crimes. The destruction of this great city by fire was nothing other than an act of senseless vandalism. At the time of its destruction Persia had already been defeated and its destruction was no other than an act of revenge which served no purpose. When conquering the Persian Empire, his army had came across a Greek town whose forebears had fought with the Persians on the side of the Persians a 100 years earlier. He decreed that descendants of traitors should be destroyed. All within the town boundaries were slaughtered.
However Alexander was not only a destroyer, he introduced Greek learning and culture to the wider world. In Alexandria the city he built in Egypt, housed the greatest library in the ancient world. Alexander was a educated man, his tutor Aristotle was the leading philosopher of his age. Unfortunately today’s great men while sharing Alexander’s taste for destruction, lack his talent for creation. They either seem to lack education or despise the education they received. What these men have is a shared barbarism. Whatever they claim they have a distaste for learning. They may enjoy the opera but they don’t see the need for the culture of the arts to be shared with the lower orders of society. Arts education has been removed from state schools, as all they want from state schools is a simple functional education that will make the masses fit for the workplace. Not for these men will the legacy of a man such as Carnegie who endowed society with theatres and libraries. If these contemporary great men are educated they deem this as something that should not be shared with the undeserving majority.
Great men such as Alexander can only succeed through the ruin of their rivals. Alexander probably conspired in the murder of his father other enemies through warfare. In an authoritarian political system the destruction of your rivals is necessary for success and the only means of remaining in power. Paranoia is the common personality trait of the authoritarian leader. One king of the classical age so feared assassination that his bed was on a pillar that could only be accessed by a drawbridge, one which he could pull up at night to deny access to any would be assassins.
Winner takes and keeps all is not appropriate in a democracy. Politician have opponents who should be respected. Success should only be achieved by playing politics according to the rules of the game. If a politician’s opponents are described as enemies, this is not the action of a democratic politician. The essence of democracy is a plurality of political viewpoints and power bases. Rival power groups and politicians compete for power in the legitimate manner. Being prepared to lose and accept the rule of your rivals is one of the essentials of a democratic system. Unfortunately contemporary great men don’t operate according to the rules of the political game. They set out to destroy their rivals and their power bases. Such men intend to retain power by creating a one party state, and they manipulate the political system to achieve that end. Other politicians and their political parties can be tolerated only as long as there is no possibility of them attaining power. The toleration of other political parties is merely the democratic patina, which gives legitimacy to the political system.
What is common to all the contemporary great men is that their greatness is self chosen. All are desk bound warriors, who unlike the great men of the past they have never hazarded their lives in defence of their country. One great man to whom these great men in Britain pay homage is Winston Churchill. Winston Churchill took part in the last cavalry charge made by the British army at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. He unlike them was willing to risk his life in service of his country. Does there awareness of their lack a heroic hinterland drive them to claim a greatness they little deserve?
There is one long forgotten study which suggested that successful businessman were the victims of inattentive parents. Their parents had paid little attention to them when they were small. Consequently these children adopted a variety of attention seeking behaviours to attract the attention of their parents. This behaviour continued into adulthood, over achievement being a means of attracting the attention of a now non existent parent. They needed recognition and by making a large fortune they now received it. Does not each of our current great men also crave this attention and adulation? Are all our current great men also victims of neglectful or inattentive parents?
There is one characteristic of these great men that makes them a threat to democracy. They crave adulation, they want others to recognise their greatness. One characteristic of democracy is that all are subject to the rough and tumble of the democratic process, even the greatest of politicians is subject to ridicule. This is something our contemporary great men cannot stand. What pains them is that there fellow men cannot respect them for their greatness. They can only achieve the respect they demand and crave, through silencing those who show disrespect. This can only be achieved through negating those very democratic institutions which to them there enemies exploit to unfairly mock them. All these contemporary great men are anti democratic as they wish to silence the voice of dissent and mockery, whether it be in parliament or the media.
Our democratic systems of government lack the one element that enabled the Athenian democracy to survive catastrophic defeat, and a disastrous plague, a means of neutering the ambition of these great men. In Athens whenever a great man of overweening ambition threatened the democratic system, the demos (people) could respond by voting into exile these dangerous men. Anglo-Saxon democracies lack this protective mechanism, we instead have little means of protection from their damaging behaviours. Perhaps just as the Anglo-Saxon societies led the Western world into liberal democracy, now they might be the leaders in adopting the new authoritarianism.
*I cannot remember the source of this quotation
*l appear to have excluded great women from my essay. I am aware that great women such as Catherine the Great of Russia have exercised supreme power. What I am writing about is a personality trait that is overwhelming male. A destructive ambition for greatness that destroys all around it.