Greatness and Goodness

This post is the second of a series that began on December 12th

In my last post, I talked about getting beyond the trauma and distress of an unexpected and unpleasant surprise – a major disappointment – such as the election results. Specifically, rushing into action immediately may not be the best course.  After all, the fact that we were taken by surprise means that our assessment of reality wasn’t at its best; so we need to get a different perspective (see “The Forest and the Trees”).

The question that arises is not simply a strategic one (how to win the next election), but what kind of society do we want?  A lot of people weren’t happy with any candidate’s ideas for the future. There were 19 candidates altogether in the two major parties! Forty-one per cent of eligible voters didn’t vote for a president at all.  We can blame media and misinformation for some of this, but still…. What is going on?

I titled this site “Inner Dimensions” because I think one can’t solve an outward problem without also attending to its inner dimensions.  Outer action matters, but it has to be connected to the inner, invisible qualities of whatever is happening. You can throw money at a problem, but if that’s all you do, you will only get a temporary solution. You can pave the crack in the road, but if you haven’t checked what’s happening underneath, the crack may come right back again.

In a society, the inner dimensions are the values of the people, the motives that habitually spur them to action, the characteristic attitudes that shape our interactions with one another.

In an election campaign, the managers try to capture the inner will of the people with their campaign slogans.  Interestingly, both major party candidates this year had similar slogans.  One was greatness, as in “Make America great again,” and the other was strength, as in “We’re stronger together.”  Think what message is implied here: If we need to be stronger, are we weak?  If we need to be great again, does that mean we are small? Hmm…

Of course, it’s also true that Hillary Clinton’s slogan emphasized another word:  together. Donald Trump’s campaign was clearly built around a “strongman” approach (including the gender).  But the slogans captured – or amplified – a concern about American strength.  I couldn’t find a previous presidential campaign that was built on such an idea except for one that used “proud” in the slogan. Sample themes have been freedom, prosperity, peace, normalcy, compassion, as well as ideas of change, progress or improvement – but not strength or greatness as such.

Greatness or strength certainly is an American value. In the past hundred and fifty years we moved from being a curiosity for European visitors to a major military power, an exemplar of democracy, freedom, and pluralism with stability, a home to innovation and expansion in industry, science, and technology.  We are rightly proud of many features of our society and, if we are losing status in the world, we definitely would value restoring the nation to greatness.

But we also know that greatness by itself does not guarantee a good life.  Greatness and goodness do not always go together.  In fact, great power or great wealth can lead to arrogance, and that’s dangerous.

The founders of the United States of America knew the Hebrew Bible well – what they called the Old Testament. They would have been familiar with this passage, from an address by Moses to his people shortly before his death:

When your herds and flocks become great, and great amounts of silver and gold are yours, and all that you have becomes great, then your heart feels elevated…. and you say in your heart, “My power and the might of my hand made for me this wealth.”… But you must remember the Lord Your God, for it is He that gives you strength to make wealth… (Deuteronomy 8:13-18).

Actually, the word translated “wealth” here, which makes sense in the context, usually means something more like valor, courage, or audacity.  (The same word is used in the famous passage from the end of Proverbs, “Woman of Valor,” which is recited in Jewish households on Friday night in honor of the woman of the house.)  In understanding this passage, we should remember that larger meaning:  When you have achieved outer “greatness” in wealth and possessions, you may feel inwardly strong – but if you have forgotten the Source of your wealth, the passage goes on to say, “you will certainly perish.”

The Sages say that even with God, “Wherever you find greatness, you find humility.” Though God has the power to create and destroy, nevertheless God consults with others – for example with the angels in creating man, with Abraham before destroying Sodom, with Moses when He is angry with the Israelites.

If this is true with God, how much more so among human beings.  So too with nations.  Our founders understood that greatness can lead to tyranny, and that goodness requires humility, respect for others, prudence, and in matters of state, due process and the consent of the governed.

We all know some of the key phrases of our famed revolutionary document, but it’s worth reading the entire Declaration, which you can do at this link.  How have we lived their vision till today?

We want a good society, not only a great one.  To be continued.

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