“Self-trust is the first secret of success, the belief that if you are here the authorities of the universe put you here, and for cause, or with some task strictly appointed you in your constitution, and so long as you work at that you are well and successful.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson, ‘Society and Solitude’
For all that is sublime with philosophy, for all its splendour in decoding the wonders of the universe, there remains one key issue with the process of transcribing these wonders. Life and all its experiences vary so wildly from one another that universal maxims do not translate effectively enough through space and time, language and experience to give suitable advice for making specific life choices. In a world thought to be devoid of objective morality, here I will propose one solution to this problem along with the apparently meaningless and futile nature of existence itself:
Each person, at all times, should live as though by the end of their lifetime they were the greatest person who ever existed.
This deceptively simple looking criterion provides an objectively agreeable foundation for living the best life possible. Whenever there is a major or minor life decision to be made this is the first axiom one should turn to. Although, the foremost challenge here is defining ‘greatness’ in the context of these wildly varying individual lives.
The chances that even one of us living right now actually becomes the greatest person who ever lived, by any common metric, is statistically marginal¹. But the individual result is not the point, it’s about the striving towards worthy ideals. Plus there is no way of determining whether you will become great in the future. Every great person who ever existed likewise may have sensed the importance of their role in key events but had no sure way of knowing their life was remarkable.
Now let’s tackle the obvious uncertainty here: the definition of ‘greatness’. A standard Oxford dictionary definition is approximately: “The quality of being great; eminence or distinction”. This is probably the most vague definition we could conceive of. Take note that greatness is thus more of a collective term for a selection of positive qualities which, in my opinion, allow a person to (1) have a consistently impactful lifestyle and (2) perform monumental acts during their time on Earth.
“But practically I know men and recognize them by their behavior, by the totality of their deeds, by the consequences caused in life by their presence.”
— Albert Camus, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’
What we can also do is begin outlining the attributes of greatness² and perhaps relate them with individual and societal conditions where greatness is likely to appear. For instance, greatness is probably more likely to appear in times of strife and hardship where there are evident obstacles to overcome than in comfortable conditions which leave few opportunities for individual growth. It is probably also more likely to appear, or at least be identified in relation to actions which change the course of human history. Alexander’s conquest of the Persian Empire and beyond, Abraham Lincoln’s emancipation of slavery, Martin Luther King Jr.’s efforts in eradicating racial discrimination; each of these men could not have performed their influential deeds alone but have become representative of the ideological struggles of their time.
Looking forward then, our personal quest should be to identify the major obstacles of our time and do everything we can in order to overcome them. Complications arise when we factor in the idea that not all of us can be great. We don’t yet have the technological means to allow each person to dedicate the majority of their time to finding solutions to humanitarian crises. Therefore even someone who spends the majority of their time working an ‘ordinary’ occupation is great in the sense that they are performing a vital function in the maintenance of civilised society. I would however argue that true, everlasting greatness is associated with improving rather than simply maintaining the status quo.
So how do we define improvement then? Mass production has enabled us to live luxurious lives of increased efficiency but at a number of costs such as the potential ill effects of global warming. It is generally up to politicians, a group of individuals with the heightened power and therefore capacity to become great, to analyse the costs and benefits of implementing these sorts of programs with the hope that the result will be societal progression rather than stagnation or regression. But those will less power should not be dissuaded that their efforts are in vain. We have monetary and status rewards (e.g. the Nobel Prize) as an additional incentive with the hope individuals will dedicate their lives to others rather than their own welfare³.
“An individual has not started living fully until they can rise above the narrow confines of individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of humanity. Every person must decide at some point, whether they will walk in light of creative altruism or in the darkness of destructive selfishness. This is the judgment: Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: ‘What are you doing for others?’”
– Martin Luther King Jr., ‘Sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (August 11th, 1957)’
The final step for us to take is to logically reconcile our original axiom (each person, at all times, should live as though by the end of their lifetime they were the greatest person who ever existed) with the attempt to find a means of conveying life experience or subjective truths. The circumstances for greatness are always in flux so the attempt to create maxims which endure through every context may initially seem to be borderline impossible. The maxim would have to be so universal, as though bordering on objective truth itself, that upon hearing it our path would be made immediately clear. Very rarely does this happen in reality. Instead we have a moral conception of greatness to follow, a set of attributes and avenues of action which society deems endemic of a valuable life.
¹Approximately just over 100 billion people have ever lived compared to only 7.6 billion living now.(http://www.prb.org/Publications/Articles/2002/HowManyPeopleHaveEverLivedonEarth.aspx)
²Check out this post for a constantly updated list of traits associated with greatness.
³As an aside, this why I believe the capitalist model should be overturned. Individuals are incentivised to put their own welfare first.