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The Case for Greatness
Honorable Ambition and Its Critics
By Robert Faulkner
Yale University Press
HC, 288 pgs. US$20
ISBN: 0-3001-2393-0

The great man theory

By Steven Martinovich
web posted May 19, 2008

The Case for GreatnessAmbition has always been a dirty word, not surprising given that it is usually applied to those who seek power and advancement for their own sakes. Even cynics, however, would agree that in some ambition, even overwhelming, is a welcome attribute. Where would the world have been without a Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln seeking power?

Robert Faulkner, a professor of political science at Boston University, argues in The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics that there is in fact an "honourable ambition", one in which the best of us wish to employ their superiority in justice, honour and good judgment in service to the rest of us. While egalitarians might object to a theory promoting one above the rest on the grounds that great evil has flourished in the past from political ideologies promoting exactly that, Faulkner builds an impressive case that great goodness has as well.

These are difficult days for the politician aspiring to greatness. Friedrich Nietzsche made greatness something horrible even when he praised it. John Rawls argued that it was unfair that others rise above the rest whether due to luck or hard work; that the concept of justice was done damage to when the blessed succeeded due to their gifts. There is a remarkable paucity of modern writing which actually praises greatness which led Faulkner to go back to our ancient political roots with the writings of Aristotle and Plato and great men of history who include George Washington, Alcibiades and the aptly named Cyrus the Great.

Faulkner spends a great deal of time exploring the career of Alcibiades, the Athenian general that at various points during his life led the armies of Athens and Sparta and advised Persia. Although his career ended badly, due entirely to Alcibiades himself, Faulkner argues that it exemplified ambition. His examination of Cyrus the Great, on the other hand, shows a ruler who was so enraptured with greatness – leading him to conquer for its own sake – that it consumed any of the more noble qualities he might have possessed.

If Aristotle's criteria are the benchmark then George Washington shines brightest, according to Faulkner. He tied his outsized ambition to a desire to do good, not only wanting the esteem of his fellow men, but wanting to be worthy of it as well. Unlike Alcibiades and Cyrus, Washington sought to defend his nation but also accepted being subordinated to its laws, as Aristotle argues is necessary for a society's elites lest they take the turn to despotism.

If The Case for Greatness has a weakness it's Faulkner's decision to largely ignore modern politics. While one can argue that there is a scarcity of greatness in today's leaders, examining individuals like John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher or Golda Meir would have perhaps brought the subject into sharper relief by providing readers examples they are familiar with. Even negative examples from today, and a reader can decide for themselves who makes that list since Faulkner didn't, would have been instructive. It's hardly a fatal flaw but it could have made Faulkner's efforts relevant to more readers.

The Case for Greatnesscan be a difficult read for those not particularly interested in Aristotle's theories of politics, which can be a mystery to a world not exposed to them much anymore, or the historical examples that Faulkner employs to build his argument but there is no denying that he has made his point effectively. Unfortunately, his attempt to strip moral relativism and our facile responses to political leaders is unlikely to resonate with our egalitarian ears – perhaps why we continue, with few exceptions, to get the political leaders we deserve. ESR

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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