There used to be a lot of talk about great people in history.
Books, philosophies, ideas, inventions, and other movements in the past were lionized by being included as part of an overall “canon” of history that people in a present age dutifully memorized, internalized, and regurgitated to the next generation, creating a virtuous circle.
This memorization was designed to educate, inculcate, and to inspire. It was done with the best of intentions and was meant to join people’s current struggles (even if they weren’t great struggles, just mundane ones) to a past perceived to be great.
This “canon” of great people of the past primarily included political, social, and military leaders (and yes, the majority were men, and–in the West at least–white) but this was designed to pass along to future generations the idea that certain people have the ability to “stand astride history” and that conflicts, disagreements, and disputations could be solved by examining successful best practices (and failures) gleaned from large examples.
But now, sixteen years into the 21st century, all of that is over.
The philosophical, political, and cultural movements of the 19th, 20th and 21st century have sought first to expand the “canon” of who can be included as “great” (i.e. women, minorities, etc.) and then to expand the “canon” of what ideas can be considered “great” (i.e. Marxism, religious atheism, feminism, historical determinism, etc.).
With this expansion two things have happened concurrently:
The glorious historical past has become untethered from the inglorious day-to-day present. Along with this, the lessons from the formerly glorious historical past have become untethered from the inglorious problems and concerns of the day-to-day present.
The glorious historical past has become an object to be examined through the lens of current events, and day-to-day struggles, in an ever more frustrating search for pure meaning and linkage.
Both of these expansions underlie our current cultural, political, and moral anxieties, which manifest in conflicts and disagreements between people, institutions, nation-states, and even philosophies and ideas.
But these expansions also form the basis for generating the solutions to conflicts, disagreements, and disputations. And to ending our modern anxieties about seemingly intractable problems.
Because, as the present has become more and more democratic, individuals have the opportunity, the power, and the need to ascend to being great people in, not only our own personal histories but also, in the history of the world.