A recent discussion at ThinqOn.com involved the question of "Who is a great man or woman today?" The question came from a fellow in France, wondering who alive today would be worthy of being buried in France's most celebrated tomb, the Pantheon, alongside Mirabeau, Rousseau, Voltaire, Zola, Hugo, Pierre and Marie Curie, and other heroes of French history.
Here is my response:
I would offer the perspective that "greatness" in our computerized age is necessarily different, and perhaps more difficult to achieve, than was possible in earlier eras. In the past, a mighty warlord, spiritual leader, politician, scientist or thinker could literally take matters into his (or occasionally her) own hands and bend all of human history to their will, usually within the environment and context of cultural conflict. In our much larger, infinitely more interconnected, and, thankfully, more calm society (overall) today, that's nearly impossible.
In all of our vast global military apparatus, there is no Alexander, Genghis Khan, Joan, George Washington or Napoleon. Who among political figures of the past 70 years seems much more than a pipsqueak compared to the steely and snarling leaders of the World War II conflagration, much less the likes of Elizabeth, Peter, Lincoln, Lenin. In science, wasn't Einstein the last of the superstars? In philosophy, who in the past 50 years, even with the advantage of all previous perspectives, has impacted upon the world as did Voltaire and Rousseau? In religion, no one has risen to the highest prominence for 1,500 years. In art, music and literature, have we produced anyone who remotely approaches van Gogh or Dostoevsky or the Beatles (four decades ago), much less Leonardo, Michelangelo, Beethoven or Shakespeare?
Despite there being far more people, better education worldwide, and a quantum difference in opportunity to communicate and interact, since the 1960s very few "giants" have poked their heads up far above the playing fields of just about any discipline. So perhaps we must in some ways lower our standards of "greatness," and/or modify the criteria which we utilize to evaluate. I would suggest that our modern age calls for something different, more subtle, than raw impact. We have fought ridiculous wars, we have proved ourselves to be nifty technological tinkerers, as well as extremely creative artisans, crafts-persons and abstract thinkers. What we have not managed to do so far, very well - despite the full force of religion and law - is to deeply inculcate the necessity of developing and keeping "virtue" in our thoughts and actions at all times.
We might define "virtue" as pertaining to the highest and best values of our shared humanity. Certainly these qualities would manifest themselves in a life that exhibits and promotes peace, knowledge, equality, liberty, courage, love, service, happiness - not for self-serving, nation-serving or otherwise divisive purposes, but as unifying and edifying examples of the human spirit.
I think an excellent candidate for the term "great" who is living today would be Stephen Hawking, but perhaps not for the reasons that might first come to mind. Yes, he is one of the premier living astrophysicists and has contributed mightily to our knowledge of the nature of black holes, which may turn out to be a key to understanding the structure of the universe itself. Yet those significant achievements are but a by-product of the fact that Hawking is surely an absolute giant - of all of human history - in terms of his indomitable spirit. Hawking, as you know, suffers from one of the most insidious diseases known to humankind - motor neurone disease, also known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which has left his body paralyzed and atrophied. As this disease slowly destroyed much of this physical self, a process that would have likewise plundered the mind, emotions and spirit of most people, Hawking marshaled his only remaining resources, his mental capacity, and forged onward and forward on his pursuit of happiness. His greatest scientific discoveries, as well as his marriage and children, happened after he was diagnosed with ALS. He says that he is happier with ALS than he was before. This is a stunning statement, and an incredibly inspiring and virtuous story for all time. One hundred, two hundred, three hundred years from now, Stephen Hawking's story of power of mind may still be celebrated. His demonstration of the range and depth of human resilience and optimism is unique and exemplary. He went one-on-one with utter despair, and came out victorious. He is a dubious candidate for the Pantheon, but Westminster Abbey, along with Newton and Darwin, would be an appropriate resting place for the ravaged body of this titan of the human spirit.