On Greatness


For the duration of the semester, we’re all going to be concerned with “great ideas.” Specifically, in this section, we’ll be looking at, or looking for, “Great Ideas in America.” It would be convenient if, here at the outset, we could just lay out some criteria for judging the “greatness” of ideas and go from there. With our criteria in place, we could just assemble a group of “great texts,” or Great Books, embodying ideas of unquestionably greatness, and familiarize ourselves with them. For a variety of reasons, things won’t be quite that straightforward.

The Great Ideas course was initially proposed by instructors concerned about “loss of cultural memory” and the uncertain state of “the Canon.” A “canon” is just one of those collections of great texts embodying great ideas. Educators–and others who stress over questions such as “What should every American (or every educated citizen of the world) know about their culture?”–have spent plenty of time, energy, and ink in recent decades, arguing about the need for, and content of, basic “cultural literacy.” In practical terms, the canon is represented by the texts that are consistently included in college readers, or are consistently taught in secondary school. “A Catcher in the Rye,” for example, is one of those nearly-inescapable novels which most students will have been asked to read before they reach college. It functions in the high school curriculum as a means of introducing certain literary concepts, and generally is presented as the typical “coming-of-age story.” Strangely, none of my high school English instructors assigned Salinger’s novel. We read other novels of the type, and it was years later that I got around to reading the novel on my own. In the meantime, “Catcher” haunted me periodically, a gap in the knowledge expected of me, an American literature student, for which no amount of knowledge of other coming-of-age novels could quite compensate.

I didn’t think about it much at the time, but my high school teachers were obviously making their own decisions about what “everybody ought to know.” I was introduced to the genre of the coming-of-age story, and learned to recognize an epiphany when it appeared. I learned to use the same tools of interpretation that I would have reading Salinger. And my instructors were careful to introduce me to Salinger’s style, though other texts, pulled from the short stories. The alternate novels were entertaining, well-written, and seemed to have much of that same whatever-it-is that Great Books seem to contain. And, let’s be honest, some of that je ne sais qua simply comes from the fact that we hear the names of certain works, over and over, in contents where it is clear that we should think of them as must-reads. Part of the greatness of Great Ideas is that they occupy some place–even if it is a vague, shadowy one–in our “common sense” about our culture.

There is a notion we should familiarize ourselves with at this point: hegemony. Hegemony is a fancy word that means something very much like “common sense,” but, while we may be inclined to think of common sense as innate (or innately lacking), hegemony is understood to be social. It is the assumptions we share with those around us that we don’t, or don’t have to, question. It is, therefore, something hard to come to grips with. Hegemony is related to the status quo–the way things are these days. Hegemony is related to issues of government and social control, in that this the things we commonly (if often unconsciously) agree upon are the things it is hardest to come to terms with, or challenge. In this context, hegemony is social control without direct coercion. Our participation in hegemonic social forms, or conformity to basic social norms, is not exactly voluntary, because we are seldom all that conscious of our acquiescence. The fact that there is hegemony is neither to be lamented nor celebrated. If you hear someone talking about hegemony with an obvious sneer in their voice, you can simply assume that they don’t approve of the status quo. We’ll try to use the term in more neutral manner. Just as habits can be good or bad, and as there is no uniform reason to prefer conscious actions over those that go on without our constant attention–think about breathing, for example–the role of hegemony is something we’ll have to evaluate in a variety of ways as we pursue our quest for great ideas.

Anyway, let’s get down to cases. What makes an idea great?


Pull a book off the shelf. Look it over. We are proverbially unable to read a book by its cover, but, as often as not, what we read in the text of book is substantially conditioned by the assumptions we make based on the appearance of the book. A leatherbound 18th-century folio immediately announces its differences from a new Nora Roberts romance. University textbooks are generally easy to spot–and we have no illusions about what they generally contain. As readers, we’re pretty good at recognizing genres and making guesses about whether we’re looking at light reading, serious literature, technical material, or heavy philosophy, etc. If you’ve pulled a volume of Shakespeare off the shelf, chances are you’ll recognize it as, at least in some sense, great. If the volume contains Hamlet, King Lear and Macbeth, there’s unlikely to be much doubt. If the plays are Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus and The Two Noble Gentlemen, you’re enthusiasm might be more tempered. These are not, after all, the most recognizable classics in the canon.

Shakespeare, like most of what we read in Intro to Literature classes, is supposed to be great because it is well-written, embodies basic insights into human nature, and, most importantly, does so in a way that is considered timeless. There are some odd twists and turns in the careers of so-called universal classics. We know, for instance, that Shakespeare’s work was understood, and performed, very differently in the various literary eras since it was produced. This is, perhaps, another variety of the same sort of greatness–the ability to be adapted to the needs of a vast variety of societies.

Works make their way into, and out of, the canon. If you look at an American literature textbook from the early 20th century, you may be surprised to find that Herman Melville’s Mody Dick is a minor work and his two narratives of Polynesian life, Typee and Omoo, are classics. In a case like this, we are often inclined to say that the novel was “before its time.” We moderns prefer the complicated structures and dark psychological content of Melville’s later works to the earlier, more straightforward narratives. What we don’t know is if our children will feel the same way. “Timelessness” is not necessarily forever.

Einstein’s writings on relativity are considered great for the tremendous scientific advance they chronicle. Darwin’s writings hold a similar place–unless you disagree with them, at which point it’s still hard to regard them as anything other than great in their impact. A book like Mein Kampf or the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is easy to identify as great in its impact, but not–most of us would agree-great in the ideas it contains or the manner in which they are presented. There are books that had great impacts on the cultures of their time–the proto-sociological works of August Comte and Herbert Spencer come to mind–and inspired people whose work we value today, but which are no longer considered even particularly good, let alone great.

Many popular works are great in the sense of perfectly capturing a genre, even if its not a particularly great genre. “Cult classics” often have this sort of greatness. And there is something to be said for simply being “a great read.” A work may update an old genre, as fantasy novels such as Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy are essentially modern epics.

Kooks can be great, too, if only in their ambition or their monomaniacal devotion to their subjects. Works on the “hollow earth,” theosophy, conspiracies theories, Lawsonomy, universology, and such, are great in their ambitions, and provide pleasure and inspiration of a particular sort.

Comic book readers might think of DC Comics’ current multi-year Infinite Crisis storyline as something likely to go down in pop culture history as something great, on account of its ambition and skill (so far at least) in execution.

We could multiply examples. And we have to remember that not everyone will share the same feelings about the greatness of many ideas. A 19th century plan for efficient “Indian removal” might have seemed great if you were an army officer or land speculator, and it might have shown real greatness in the realm of logistical efficiency, but it might not have seemed so great if you were among those being “removed” to Oklahoma. When we talk about current events and religion, there will undoubtedly be significant differences among us about the greatness of the President, current policies, cultural struggles, etc. The trick, for us, is to stick pretty close to propositions about such things that we can back up with arguments. I’ll undoubtedly say some provocative things as we go along. Try to avoid understanding them as primarily political commentary or moralism. Understanding is the first step, and we can’t even have a good fight until we make sure we’ve covered that base.

Remember, the goal of the course is for you to develop some clear personal criteria for evaluating great ideas, particularly as they are embodied in great texts. So study your options well, as this will give you the most flexibility.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2702 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.