During the holidays, I overheard our youngest daughter, Jennifer, say
to her older brother-in-law that the ice cream they were eating was
“awesome.” Brother-in-law said, “No, Jennifer. The
Grand Canyon is awesome. This ice cream is merely very good.”
Well, he got the kind of unrepeatable response for that that one might
expect. Then, shortly afterward, I read something in the newspaper
about a baseball player. The writer said that the player is
“truly, a great man.” I was reminded of my son-in-law’s
defense of our failing language and started to write one of those best
left unwritten letters to the effect that Albert Schweitzer was a
great man. This guy is a good — O.K., maybe great — baseball player.
As a boy, I had my heroes, my “greats.” Hopalong Cassidy, of
course, was one of them. Alongside Hoppy — the times being what they
were and my being where I was — were King George, Winston Churchill,
and Viscount Lord Montgomery of Allemain. The King was great because
he and his family stayed in the palace instead of leaving London to go
to some safe place. The King and the Queen and I were all in it
together. Winston Churchill was great because he said we were going to
fight the Nazis on the beaches and in the streets if necessary. Great
men, like Mr. Churchill and me, don’t give up. And Lord Montgomery
— well, he chased the Desert Fox clear across the Africa.
I suppose that, for most young boys, the “greats” are going
to be the cultural heroes, the sports figures, the adventurers, and
those who stand toe-to-toe with the enemy and never blink. I did know
one kid who claimed that the greatest man in the world was the
national chess champion, but his opinion about anything wasn’t
valued much. It was a primitive assessment of greatness we had. No
doubt our ancestors judged those great who were adept at frightening
neighboring tribes and bashing fierce beasts. In time, however, one
expects some maturity of definition to evolve with age and education
— even from sportswriters.
What does “great” mean? It means “big,” of course.
Really big. Huge. The stones at Stonehenge are great stones. Huge.
They stand out. From that comes “outstanding.” From there we
go to “extraordinary” and apply that, legitimately, to some
particular gift or talent. Thus the “great” general. The
“golfing greats.” “Tennis greats.” Great actors.
The great pianists and conductors — those who are extraordinarily
gifted in one area. Outstanding in their endeavors.
Where we occasionally go astray (rather in the way that I and my
little friends assumed that Hopalong Cassidy would be a great father)
is when we assume that great wrestlers, basketball players, or actors
would make great governors or presidents. We take somebody who has
been great at something– or maybe even just famous for
something — and put him or her in a position in which only true
greatness should really do.
Well, O.K., what is “true greatness?”
I realized soon after getting into the work of this sermon that there
was going to be a difficulty, simply because there is no objective
standard. There are no universal, indisputable criteria for
designating a great person. It’s difficult enough to find
universal agreement about “great” talents. One can say,
“So and so is a great pitcher” and another will say —
particularly if he’s from Brooklyn — “What?! The man’s a
bum! He useless against a lefty, he lost five out of ten, blah blah
What about The Great people? Surely there’s agreement on that.
Hardly. Iraqis seem to think Saddam Hussein is a great man. Some think
President Clinton is a great man. Some think Kenneth Starr is a great
man. Surely everyone would agree that Albert Schweitzer was a great
man? A man I knew once said of Schweitzer, “He was a shmuck. A
loser. The man had four doctoral degrees. He could have done surgery
at Johns Hopkins in the morning, taught theology and philosophy in the
afternoon, played Bach in concerts in the evening and been a
You will have to decide what you mean by a great person. We, as a
religious people, have to decide what we mean by a great person, for
we define ourselves by defining greatness. We define ourselves as we
declare who is great. Since greatness is subjective, we declare who is
great on the basis of our own values. One of our twelve-year old
members wrote me that a great person can be trusted to keep a secret.
That certainly has to be part of it. Those whom we declare great are
those who embody our values, exemplify our principles, stand far ahead
as a beacon to our vision. In the pantheon of heroes, we give
ourselves away by which statues we stand before in awe. Whose graves
we visit shows, in part, who we are. We struggle in the crowd to get a
glimpse of our own alter egos — the mirrors of who we would be if we
Emerson had his idea of greatness. Speaking of Shakespeare, in his
essay, “Representative Men,” he wrote, “This man of
men, he who gave to the science of mind a new and larger subject than
had ever existed, and planted the standard of humanity some furlongs
forward into chaos.” Who “planted the standard of humanity
some furlongs forward into chaos.” For Emerson, the great person
has a concept of humanness which affects the future. The great person
is one who has embodied or who has created a model of humanness which
not only enlightens the present but without which the future would be
more bleak. Emerson believed that, when the people of the future ask,
“How shall we be? How shall we act?” They will not only look
about them but will look behind them to those who were great.
Which brings me to my own sense of what it means to be great. Again,
as a friend of mine says, the issue is fraught with relativism, so I
claim no absolute definition. But, as a great performer, athlete,
artist, plumber, programmer, has an extraordinary talent for one
thing, the great person is great at being a being a human being. The
great man and the great woman is someone whose humanness is writ large
for all to see and emulate. The great woman and the great man has a
single-minded determination to live by their values and, in so doing,
they make a difference in the world.
But aren’t the values by which we would define humanness also
relative? I really don’t think so and I don’t think many
people think so. We might disagree about who exemplifies them but,
outside of philosophy class, I don’t doubt that we have consensus
about what the values are which make up our best notions of humanness.
When I asked the people in my email group what they think greatness
is, most people mentioned what I consider to be the basic human
values– integrity, humility, empathy (including caring and kindness),
a love of and a dedication to justice, honesty, and so on. I add to
these the will the great person has to make the life grounded in these
values available to others– to “plant the standard of humanness
some furlongs forward…”
Most ordinary folk live by these values to one degree or another. The
great person lives by them to an extraordinary degree. Just as the
great golfer has an extraordinary gift for hitting the little white
ball into the cup, the great person has an extraordinary gift for
living by and living out the values of humanness.
My criteria for greatness do not include a love of power, the need for
wealth and material gain, or the need for fame. And so many famous
people, despite their fame, do not make it onto my list of
“greats.” Napoleon may have been a “great,” that
is, excellent general. But a great person? A standard bearer into
future humanness? One who loved humankind? No. A strategist.
Tactician. Conqueror. To the best of my knowledge, he left nothing to
the benefit of humankind. Like so many others, merely famous.
When we speak of greatness, the merely famous and those merely very
good at what they do must be compared to those who exemplify our
values, who live them, who carry them into the world for our sake and
future’s sake. Joan of Arc, Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi, Eleanor
Roosevelt, Moses, Jesus, Gandhi, King, the Dalai Lama. Their standard
of humanity, unfurled in their own time, is planted firmly in our
present chaos. In spite of the long way we have come we still look
backward to their light for guidance.
I am speaking of great people, great human beings, not gods. Human
beings are not perfect. Great people are not necessarily without flaw.
It is said that Gandhi mistreated his wife. King, perhaps, was an
occasional philanderer. Churchill was certainly arrogant and an
egotist, one whose egotism often led him into folly and error (he once
referred to Gandhi as “a straw man” who would soon be
forgotten). Jefferson a slaveholder. Lincoln a racist. “All have
sinned,” the scriptures say, “and fallen short of the glory
of God.” So it is to be human, a little less than the angels. The
Apostle Paul summed up humanness in saying of himself, “The good
that I would do, I do not; the evil that I would not do, that I
How much “sin” is too much and masks the good? When does the
balance shift and the feet of clay topple the great? I haven’t
made a study of it, but I suppose one could compile a list of those
who were formerly great — whose greatness was buried by their shadow.
I suspect, however, that it would be a short list. When it became
clear recently that Jefferson fathered a child by one of his slaves, I
thought how sad that is. I wish he hadn’t done that! But, come
now, we knew that Jefferson had slaves. We said, some of us, that he
was a “man of his time,” that he was helplessly bound by the
reality of it, restoring the balance by quoting him as saying that
slavery was the greatest evil of his time. The light of one’s
greatness does not brighten their shadow side but neither does the
shadow side of humanness necessarily eclipse one’s greatness. If a
god had the power, because of King’s misdeeds, to sweep him away,
declaring him to have never been, she would stay her hand out of
compassion for us for whom the loss would be so great.
One more thought about greatness: The merely famous may never be
great. Fame, after all, may fizzle in fifteen minutes, may quickly
pale by another’s flash of fame. Greatness cannot be bound to
anything so fragile as fame.
By the same token, the great may never be famous. Some great people
emerge from a background of anonymity to be known by name and deed far
and wide and century by century. But if the great person is one who
determines to live by the values that manifest the best of our
humanness and who touches the world lightly or powerfully, the many or
the few, with that determination, then the great ones are all about
us. Many people responding to my email question about greatness spoke
of people in their families — mothers, fathers, grandparents. They
spoke of integrity, of being who they were, of struggling for honesty
and justice against all odds.
They spoke of courage, of standing firm for the good, doing no harm,
abetting no evil, standing between their innocent ones and the world.
And yes, these planted the standard of humanness some furlongs forward
into chaos, since their children and their children’s children
still look back to them, the great ones, to know what they must do and
who they must be.
Those who are for us great, famous or not, are our exemplars, our
saints. They urge us, beckon us, and challenge us. Because the great
are great human beings, not gods, they offer us both possibility and
standard, for what was possible for them is possible for us. If we
aspire to greatness–and we should: to become great is the least we
can do in return for our lives– if we aspire to greatness, the great
men and women offer us what Howard Thurman called, “a working
paper” for our lives, a direction, a picture of what a life, our
lives, could look like.
And if we fall short — and we know when that is — when we settle for
less than greatness, when we say we cannot be more than we appear to
be, we have the great women and men rising out of their lives and
deeds in distant past or lively present to nourish our fading will and
sustain our fading courage. A mere name from the ranks of the great
can inspire, send a chill of awe across our backs — Gandhi, King,
Joan, Eleanor, Elizabeth. But the gift of the truly great is the whole
of their lives, the long path, perhaps, the dangerous struggle, the
frustration and fear, the deep pain of being misunderstood.
Let us each aspire to the greatness that is in us and, for working
paper, guide and inspiration, let us study the lives of the great —
those whose lives are in books — and, those whose lives are not in
books, let us come to know their stories. Native people prepare their
children to be in the world with grace, pride and goodness by telling
them stories of the great ones among their people. Through such
stories, the children may come to wear greatness like a mantle which
both protects them from the evil and the silly and reminds them of who
they may become. It is a wisdom we would be blessed to recover– to
learn from truly great women and men, by their examples and by their
stories, how much our common lives yet hold in store for us, waiting
for our courage and our will to be great.