The Life of "Meh": Mediocrity and Misunderstood Greatness

Greatness has evaded a universal definition. In ancient times greatness was thought to be joined with a spirit of genius that made one divine, while in the current political climate greatness seems to be the enemy of inclusivity and equality. Democracy is based on a condition of equality between all men. Yet, as democracy has evolved in America, we as a society tend to cast aside greatness in favor of equality.

The egalitarian tendencies of modern democracy make the mediocre envy the great, seeking to tear them down to one's own self imposed level. Regardless of the humblest origins, great men still belong to the few, not the many. Although our society has limited its appetite for greatness, those who achieve such esteem fill a glaring need in society. When all that is preached are concepts of inclusivity, equality, and—simply put—participation trophies, a pervasive mediocrity begins to penetrate the minds of all.  The soul of man loses its innate sense of glory and ignores any desire to strive for societal advancement, leading to stagnation, and ultimately settling for the life of "meh."

Aristotle discusses in his Ethics the virtues that would lead man to the good life. Centuries later, Benjamin Franklin expounded upon these ideals in his own discreetly immodest way. His Autobiography did not seek to give an account of his life; instead, he sought to teach morality to Americans. Franklin himself never claimed to be great, but rather quotes friends who offer sentiments towards Franklin’s own grandeur. Franklin claims that “the present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterwards be amply repaid,” for vanity is “often productive of good.” Instead of directly tackling the subject of greatness, Franklin creates his own list of virtues, depicting an average, sociable man and not the noble virtue of Aristotle. Eventually, Franklin arrives at the ideal of American greatness: a great man who is no better than you.

The American system adopted aristocratic forms and dispersed them amongst the population, allowing for man to do whatever best suits his nature and rewarding him for his own personal ability and ingenuity. In The Virginian, Owen Wister wrote,

It was through the Declaration of Independence that we Americans acknowledged the eternal inequality of man. For by it we abolished a cut-and-dried aristocracy…. Therefore, we decreed that every man should thenceforth have equal liberty to find his own level. By this very decree we acknowledged and gave freedom to true aristocracy, saying, "Let the best man win, whoever he is." Let the best man win! That is America's word. That is true democracy. And true democracy and true aristocracy are one and the same thing.

In traditional aristocracies the nobility were the class best positioned to achieve greatness. This was due in part to the corrupting influences in human nature that drew the aristocrats to keep power for their own, leading to a hereditary system in which those in power lucked into it due to birth and not their own merit. In the American system the Founders aimed to create a natural aristocracy, bringing back the original intent as the Greeks conceived: a “rule of the best” rather than a “rule of the nobility.”

The democratic experiment in America allowed for a larger number to attempt to grasp greatness, but it came with some unintended side effects. In his Lyceum Address, Lincoln warned of threats to democracy regarding man’s longing for greatness, “Towering genius disdains a beaten path... Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us?” The inherent desire of these great people to draw a distinction between themselves and their peers threatens established institutions in a democratic republic. It is unlikely that a people in such a government would revere one who overthrows the established order; therefore, the public should develop an understanding of the greatness that stems from restraint.

It is wrong to deify great people, but a healthy respect and admiration can only aid in advancing society. The American people have an instinctive appreciation for the concept of greatness. For example, there seems to be an exceptional want for great presidents. These great presidents give a political party someone to rally behind and look wistfully back to when the president’s term comes to an end. Understanding greatness prevents the American populace from being just simple political adherents, rooting for their team and excited at the thought of the other team “losing.” When one looks up to and admires a great political official, they begin to hold the new generation of public figures to a higher standard; more importantly they try to exemplify the virtues and moralities embodied by those great men.

The world of practical politics is all about the hustle of the moment; concepts of greatness elevate the thought of man above the general concerns of their time while simultaneously promoting virtues needed to persevere through the immediate epoch. This elevation in man encourages something higher in their life to strive for, separate from solely materialistic desires, thus understanding greatness as a crucial aspect of maintaining liberty in a society. In the concluding pages of his seminal work Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “It is therefore above all in the Democratic times we are in that the true friends of freedom and human greatness must constantly remain on their feet and ready to prevent the social power from lightly sacrificing the particular rights of some individuals to the general execution of its designs.” Tocqueville is warning those same friends of liberty and greatness of the threats towards individual rights in search of a general social purpose. Here lies the truth; greatness and American democracy are forever intertwined. There cannot be one without the other as many may think. Those who achieve greatness in this form of democracy are guardians, thinkers, and innovators who will forever illustrate the prospects which democracy lends to the people, ensuring and protecting the longevity of the people’s freedom.