ost people believe theoretically in the idea of equality, but a rival notion competes for our attention. It is the fallacy of greatness.
In 1952, Albert Einstein, a renowned physicist but never a politician, was asked by the Prime Minister of Israel if he would accept the Presidency, were it offered by the Knesset. It is a ceremonial position and I don’t doubt that Einstein would have done an adequate job, but isn’t it strange that a scientist, no matter how brilliant or celebrated, should be asked to become the leader of a nation of which he isn’t even a citizen? On what grounds was Einstein asked? A letter from the embassy of Israel to Einstein holds a clue.
Israel is a small State in its physical dimensions, but can rise to the level of greatness in the measure that it exemplifies the most elevated spiritual and intellectual traditions which the Jewish people has established through its best minds and hearts both in antiquity and in modern times.
Einstein gracefully refused.
There is something sick about the notion of human greatness. We make too much of our movie stars, sports stars, political stars, rock stars, and so on. Of course there are people with talents and skills that far surpass the average. Most people cannot sing like Celine Dion, or shoot baskets like Michael Jordan, or play drums like Neil Pert. Einstein was a genius, and I’d never claim to be on his level intellectually. But we are asked to go beyond simply acknowledging extraordinary talent. We are asked to worship the person. This is incompatible with the idea of equality, and when taken to an extreme it becomes downright disgusting.
The belief in human greatness implies that some people deserve better treatment than the rest of us. This is in direct violation of the principle of equality, which after all is a prescription for how we ought to treat each other. Either we’re all equal or we’re not. Celine Dion may be a better singer than me, and I don’t take issue with that; but I do take issue with the idea that she’s a better person than me, that her life is more valuable, or that she deserves better treatment.
What about the idea that historical figures were great? In The Rights of Man Thomas Paine said, “Every generation is equal in rights to generations which preceded it, by the same rule that every individual is born equal in rights with his contemporary.” Thomas Paine was one of America’s founding fathers, but I don’t think he would have liked the idea of deifying a nation’s founders. Our founders knew that tyranny starts with the notion that a person or group of people is better than the rest and therefore deserve more than their fair share. It was on these grounds that after his inauguration, George Washington’s original title, “His High Mightiness, the President of the United States and Protector of their Liberties,” was reduced simply to “Mr. President,” which stuck.
Our culture puts an irrational emphasis on winning. Not everybody can win all the time at everything, and winning does not add one iota to a person’s worth. I might actually watch ESPN if they covered unprofessional sports and then interviewed the losers instead of the winners; it would be far more inspiring.
This is Biff Biggs reporting from the finishing line of the Hillsdale Senior Facility’s Annual 5K Walk, and I’m interviewing the star of the show today, Ms. Mary Ackleton, who incidentally finished in 137th place. Mary, all I can say is WOW. What a performance out there today.
Your face was beet red by the first water station, but you pressed on. And at one point you had a problem with your walker?
The grip on the left handle slipped off and I knew I’d get blisters without it. So I asked the nice boy at the first aid station to wrap my hand with gauze.
Clever! Now, we understand that your husband died just last week and that the two of you planned to walk the 5K together. You’ve been coping with that devastating personal loss and had every reason in the world to stay home today. And yet you still showed up. What gives you your amazing stamina?
My husband Clark never quit anything in his life. I’m here today to honor him. See this? This is his picture. Every time I felt like quitting, I looked at Clark and heard his voice clear as day: “Don’t you stop now, Mary. We’re nearly there.” He always encouraged me like that.
Well, you did it. Do you think Clark is smiling down on you now, Mary?
If he could see me, he’d be smiling. Here’s what I know: Clark’s love will always be in my heart, encouraging me to cross the next finish line.
How boring are our “winners.” The really interesting people are the ones who come in 137th place in races nobody watches.
Of course, I’d rather hear Celine Dion sing than a random person off the street. If I had to win a basketball game, I’d want Michael Jordan to play on my team. There is room in this world view for talent to shine, and a place for competition, and a willingness to celebrate achievement.
It comes down to this.
If you truly believe in the idea of equality, then you must believe that you are equal to Celine Dion, Michael Jordan, Nelson Mandela, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, George Washington, Thomas Paine, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Sebastian Bach, William Shakespeare, Leonardo Divinci, Marco Polo, Charlemagne, Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, Jesus, Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama, Moses, Abraham, Hammurabi, and every supposedly great person going back to Lucy the Australopithecus afarensis.
There are people, now and in history textbooks, whose achievements are more notable than anything you’ll achieve. There are people whose talents are suited for their moment. But these people are not better than you. Nor are you better than anybody else. Greatness is a lie.