The end of fundamental greatness

“I love my country, knowing all the limitations and frailties of the American people, and I respect and admire the French, who have been a far greater nation than we shall ever be, that is, if greatness means anything loftier than money and bombs.”

So wrote Thomas Fleming in America’s Flailing Francophobes. This sentence — its first part lopped off, its meaning distorted — served as epigraph and incriminating evidence for David Frum’s Unpatriotic Conservatives.

Yet it’s true — the message of the subordinate clause, yes it is.

Consider another outrageous assertion: There will never be a black Euclides, Newton, or Einstein. Why? Because there will never be a new Euclides, Newton, or Einstein — black, white, yellow, or red. The progress of human science has taken it past the stage where extraordinarily gifted individuals can change the way the world thinks about the world. Euclides towers as some lonely genius (a false impression, I suspect, but let us salvage it for the sake of the argument); Newton had a worthy counterpart in Leibnitz, who developed differential calculus by the power of abstract reasoning alone; Einstein was a first among equals, a compact but mighty crowd of mathematicians and physicists.

In our time, not only are the crowds of equals too large but the advanced state of natural science makes it hard to put even the most breathtaking breakthroughs into terms that would not only be intelligible to college graduates but allow them to trace the chain of discoveries and advances leading to the new result. It will remain logically unverifiable, as it were. On the contrary, one can explain Special Relativity Theory to a smart and diligent teenager of 14, and I would expect a good Moscow high school student to be able to grasp the underlying math at 16 or 17 the latest.

Likewise, the long past created things of beauty that will never be surpassed in their primeval beautifulness. Much as I enjoy Waterhouse and Burne-Jones, there is secondarity in the very nature of Pre-Raphaelite (in spirit if not in name) art, but there is also yearning for a first-born Spring, and exultancy at feeling its proximity and near-presence. There is perhaps the same yearning and delight, without a trace of a replica, in the images I ask you to paint now: La Sainte Chapelle; Louis IX riding at the head of a Crusading company; the Oriflamme in the wind; a royal couple on their knees in the Reims cathedral; even the sack of Constantinople… even the end of it all — a destitute young man trying to bury his faithless lover with a broken sword.

We can only aspire but not expect to equal that; the best a nation can do is claim this heritage and build on it, without claiming, absurdly, to have become the ground floor. (Much less the foundation; of course the Crusades were secondary in their own way but what matters here is they were closer to the original than most of what came later.) Looking at our past, we can find bitter grandeur close to home — but it is going to be most disconcerting. Suspicious minds will point and poke at its ugly side, its soft, loathsome underbelly. It’s all suicidal, just as America’s strongest claim to glory is Pickett’s Charge.


  1. Golf fans used to say that nobody would ever come along who would be as successful as Jack Nicklaus because there were just too many great golfers from all over the world for anybody to stand out the way Nicklaus had. Then along came Tiger Woods.

    So, while the trend is in the direction you indicate, the future is unwritten.

  2. Please see this collection of accounts of Pickett’s charge. Once the battle became close, no one in the field – even the commanders – had any idea what was happening. They saw where their rifle barrels or bayonets were pointing, and not much more.

    Voltaire said that a rational army would run away, but ordinary men have been charging forward or holding their ground in such hellish places as long as we have been human. Battles are won or lost by each soldier on the field; greatness is beside the point.

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