There are great men that the histories recognize, and there are great men whose greatness largely goes unrecognized, sometimes even unrecorded. Some fall between those two poles. Some are remembered for the wrong things.
Mikhail Gorbachev died yesterday. He’s mostly remembered for being the last potentate of the old Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin and others who miss that evil monstrosity revile him for that. Yet it’s the very reason he should be remembered and thanked.
Gorbachev’s stint in power was partly contemporaneous with the ascendancy of two other great men: Ronald Reagan, the 40th president of these United States, and Karol Cardinal Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II of the Catholic Church. Gorbachev had several interactions with them. It was their tug of war for geopolitical preeminence that resulted in the breakup of the USSR and the awkward, heartening however misguided, transition of the great Communist state toward freedom and capitalism.
The interplay among those three world-historical figures puts me in mind of a passage from a fine old movie:
Quentin Roosevelt: Father, is Raisuli a real pirate?
President Theodore Roosevelt: Yes, Quentin, he’s the last of the Barbary pirates.
Quentin: Why do you say that?
Teddy: Well, the world is fast outgrowing pirates, of that sort anyway.
Quentin: Do you know any others?
Teddy: Yes. J. P. Morgan. He’s the only real pirate I know.
Alice Roosevelt: I hope he’s brought before you in chains.
Teddy: J. P. Morgan? I should hardly think so.
Alice: No, have Raisuli brought before you. I should like to see that.
Teddy: Oh, I should like to see him too, though not in chains. Let’s have the Winchester, Alice.
Alice: You like him, don’t you, Father? You like J. P. Morgan too, don’t you?
Teddy: Of course I do, Alice.
Alice: But they’re your enemies.
Teddy: Well, sometimes one finds that your enemies are a lot more admirable than your friends. You pick the road to greatness – and you’ll have that choice someday – you come to realize that the road traveled by great men is dark and lonely and lit only at intervals by other great men. And sometimes they’re your enemies. But they’re the only true luxury you have. It’s a dark and difficult road and I do not look down on anyone who has the good sense not to take it.
[John Milius, The Wind and the Lion]
Gorbachev’s greatness was best expressed in surrendering to the demands of the anti-Communist, pro-freedom insurrection led by another great man, Boris Yeltsin. Yet Gorbachev never ceased to criticize the policies of Reagan, Yeltsin, and their successors.
Old enemies…old comrades…old friends.
The men who hold power today in the great capitals of the world, to be maximally gentle about it, are not great men. I trust I need not say anything much about Usurper-in-Chief Joseph R. Biden. Vladimir Putin is merely an opportunist who saw his chance, killed the right people, and closed an iron fist on the rule of Russia. Pope Francis, hopefully soon to vacate the Throne of Saint Peter, is a poseur whose papacy will be remembered largely for the harm his ineptitude and political biases have done to the Church.
I say these things not because there will be no great events associated with their satrapies, but because they neither made those events nor guided them in any significant fashion. They’ve merely ridden the waves – in Biden’s case, the teleprompter gave him his instructions – as tides of fortune and misfortune have swept over the realms they supposedly rule. Persons whose names we don’t know – indeed, we may never know them – have shaped those tides. Many of them deserve to swing by the neck from a lamppost.
The world-shakers of more recent vintage mostly haven’t held high offices. Their most important achievements aren’t always recognized. Some of them have done great good, while others have wrought destruction and terror. They may not be remembered as they deserve. But that’s been the case with several of the great men whose accomplishments are all around us.
- Norman Borlaug.
- William Shockley.
- James Watson.
- Theodore Maiman.
- Nick Holonyack.
- Paul Lauterbur.
- Tim Berners-Lee.
Many self-promoters of far lesser achievements are better known than most of these.
That’s all. Just a few minutes’ reflection on greatness and its accompaniments. I’m not advising anyone to aspire to greatness, nor to turn away from it. But to recognize it when it becomes visible is wise, for the lives of great men are seldom easy. They can teach us things entirely apart from their achievements…including how dark and difficult their road really is.
Have a nice day.