One thing people mean when they call something “great” is that it may not be nice. That great and nice don’t get along well together is the point of a scene toward the end of Gabriel García Márquez’s novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Long after the death of Colonel Aureliano Buendía, soldiers of the Conservative regime come searching for his grandson, who is the last surviving witness of the banana worker massacre committed by that same regime. As they are leaving, one soldier politely asks if he can take as a souvenir one of the little golden fish that the Colonel spent his last years crafting in his workshop. By way of explanation, he says, “Colonel Aureliano Buendía was one of our greatest men” (311). As the military remembers very well, Colonel Aureliano Buendía “organized thirty-two armed uprisings” against the regime, uprisings that resulted in a great deal of bloodshed. It is not clear, therefore, what a representative of the regime might mean by calling him “one of our greatest men.” From the regime’s point of view, he was certainly not one of the country’s nicest men. My initial hypothesis is that there might be a connection between great as applied by the regime to its enemy—more precisely, great as a gesture of reconciliation in the aftermath of violence–and great as a marker of literary value, as in the phrase “great books.”

I originally wrote this essay as a talk for a conference sponsored by the NY-based project “Political Concepts.” But on reflection, “greatness” probably doesn’t deserve to be treated as if it were a bona fide concept. It might seem better suited to the Pittsburgh-based project “Keywords Today,” which as I understand it is less concerned with conceptual ambition and more concerned with the fluctuations of everyday usage, whether that usage is conceptually ambitious or not. But I’m not sure “greatness” would even qualify as a keyword. It is used so casually, and in so many different senses of magnitude, eminence, superiority, and significance, that there may not be any patterns worth tracing. I will probably use it here more than once without noticing. When F.R. Leavis begins the acknowledgments page of The Great Tradition with “The greater part of this book appeared first in Scrutiny…,” he’s not committing a lapse that would call for an editor’s pencil. Even works of literary criticism that are explicitly interested in literary evaluation, like commentaries on Leavis or Matthew Arnold, will most likely not index it, let alone offer a useful definition. “Greatness” does not appear in the index of Paul Bove’s Love’s Shadow or in John Guillory’s recent Professing Criticism although Guillory traces the effort “to gather writing in English within a category that made an implicit claim for the greatness of English authors” (365) . Bonnie Honig discusses the greatness of political action in Arendt’s The Human Condition but does not put greatness in her index—and neither does Arendt. Though a red flag in the Culture Wars, doing its best to keep hostilities alive at a time when the will to fight seems to have died down, the term has failed to achieve indexable dignity even among its champions. This suggests that after all skepticism about greatness has carried the day. If so, from the point of view of usage, the most plausible hypothesis about greatness, as for “excellence” in Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins, would be “its emptiness” (23). In other words, it should be seen as a performance of approbation, a deictic—I approve that—which is unashamedly contentless, registering no need to specify grounds for approval. (The same is of course true for a great deal of aesthetic theory, an inconvenient fact that I don’t yet know what to do with.). Specifying grounds of approval would bring content back into play, and with it the possibility of principled debate. The withholding of content or concept applies equally to statements like “God Is Great,” “Make America Great Again,” and “What’s the last great book you’ve read?”, a standard question in the New York Times “By the Book” interviews with writers. If the usage is really so random, further investigation does not look promising.

If asked to define greatness in the domain of books and ideas, the first thing you are liable to think of is that they have “passed the test of time.” The test of time, whatever that means, could also be applied to the sentence I quoted from One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Colonel Aureliano Buendía was one of our greatest men.” Attributing greatness to him means reconciling with an enemy. It is of course a one-sided reconciliation; Colonel Aureliano Buendía has gone to his grave with his feelings about the regime unchanged. Putting the emphasis on its one-sidedness, one might say the reconciliation expresses only the generosity that the winner can afford to feel toward a loser who will lead no more uprisings. But rather than emphasizing the power imbalance, one might also look for the cause of this reconciliation in time itself. Here the passage of time clearly doesn’t entail forgetting. To say it entails forgiving would come closer, but it’s not quite that either. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that time produces a species of moral indifference. Whatever you think of moral indifference, it’s an intriguing phrase to apply to books and ideas which have “passed the test of time.” What kind of test is “the test of time” if you can pass either by writing a book or thinking a thought or, on the other hand, by perpetrating memorable acts of violence that are no longer remembered as urgent and actionable?

The beauty and wisdom of the Great Books are said by some to be eternal, impervious to time’s corruptions. In the domain of Great Books, the passage of time seems to make no difference at all. I think it would be more exact and more useful to consider that the passage of time makes only one kind of difference. To say that the Great Books are “inexhaustible,” as Mortimer Adler does, is to posit that things which are not great do get exhausted; exhaustion is assumed to the normal effect of time passing. To say that the Great Books are “indestructible,” as David Denby does in the subtitle to his volume Great Books, is to posit that the normal effect of time passing is destructiveness. This seems like common sense as famous moments in Ovid, Horace, Shakespeare and Marvell, among others, are frequently cited to illustrate. We require no additional evidence that exhaustion is real. Who does not recognize the universal destructiveness that makes us die and rot, after first getting more and more tired, and that leaves everything we’ve ever said or done or felt to be forgotten? It seems natural to assume that the antagonist that is overcome when a book passes the test of time is time’s destructiveness, time as destructiveness. And it seems worth remarking that the understanding of time as exhaustion and destructiveness has itself transcended time, remaining very much alive even as other Great Books assumptions have gotten tired and fallen away, like the assumption that human nature doesn’t change in its fundamentals, which also animates the Great Man theory of history, which has also gotten tired and fallen away. It cannot be an accident that those Great Books programs that survive today are often located at religious institutions (though this is not true for St John’s, despite its name). These institutions share the premise that while history of course exists as a stream of events, those events have no impact on truths that for practical purposes are God-given and timeless. To some, this immunity to evenemential history has seemed more easily embraced when translated into aesthetics or negative theology, especially aesthetics as negative theology, as when Harold Bloom in The Western Canon writes that “The West’s greatest writers are subversive of all values, both ours and their own” (29). Nothing guarantees a writer’s putative indestructibility like placing them in a no-place, beyond moral understanding, where nothing is affirmed because everything is subverted in advance.

At its outset, however, the Great Books project made reference to a very different concept of time, if only as part of its advertising campaign. In The Wizard of Oz, more or less simultaneous with the Great Books project, the wizard advertises himself, redundantly, as “the Great and Powerful Oz.” His greatness is his power, and his power is his ability to distribute the brains, the courage, and so on that the characters feel they are missing. They come to him seeking self-improvement. Self-improvement is more or less how the Great Books idea was conceived and marketed. Self-improvement as a way of living in time, living with a scarcity of time. Charles Eliot, who famously junked the classical trivium and quadrivium at Harvard and installed the elective system in its stead, also championed “the first American set of ‘great books,’ the Harvard Classics” (Beam, 12), which was supposed to replace the junked classical syllabus. As Alex Beam notes in A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books, the idea came to Eliot while addressing a “working-class audience” (12). Eliot’s five-foot shelf of books was intended to provide “a good substitute for a liberal education to anyone who could read them with devotion, even if he could spare but fifteen minutes a day” (12). Those fifteen minutes a day were advertised as “How to Get Rid of an Inferiority Complex” (13). Beam refers to this very lucrative publishing project as “hucksterism” (13), and you can see why: the big lie was that fifteen minutes a day could make up for the four very expensive years you couldn’t afford, four years to read and study and discuss, years of generating no income for yourself or your family. The diachronic sequence of self-improvement, mediated by a time-saving 5-foot shelf of books, disguises a synchronic logic, which is a magical resolution to the class problem of haves and have-nots. It’s no surprise, then, that the latest entry in the how-the-great-books-changed-my-life genre, Roosevelt Montas’s Rescuing Socrates: How The Great Books Changed My Life and Why They Matter for a New Generation (Princeton, 2021), inserts its summaries of Saint Augustine, Plato, Freud, and Gandhi (and its diatribes against the (quote) “bullshit” of belief in “dismantling systems of injustice and reducing human suffering” [190]), inserts all this into the framework of his own immigrant upward mobility story, mobilizing both the life story and the Great Books against that political bullshit that thinks “reducing human suffering” is worth anyone’s effort or attention.

And yet—here I’m trying to turn a corner—and yet it’s not wrong to consider that time may indeed offer improvements, collective as well as self-improvements. It’s not wrong to consider that time may even sometimes offer a resolution of contradictions, and that the resolutions and improvements might give substance to otherwise emptily deictic usage of “great.” In the long run, we’re all dead, and yet the one grand principle of time is not, after all, the utter destruction of all that is mortal. The use of the Great Books as a means to upward mobility may not be the best example, but examples do exist of time not only making a difference, but making a positive difference. For my purposes here the crucial example, harkening back to One Hundred Years of Solitude, is violence. In the domain of violence, unlike the domain of books and ideas, it is generally assumed that the passage of time has made a positive difference. In the domain of attitudes to violence, if not of the actual quantity of violence, I would defend the proposition that there has been moral progress. As Yves Winter showed in an essay called “Conquest,” his contribution to the Political Concepts project, until some point in the modern period conquest was understood to confer upon the conqueror the legitimate right to rule territory that had been conquered. Taking territory by force was considered legally and morally acceptable; it was even applauded. Thus there was no ethical incompatibility between being a conqueror and being called great. Today, conquests are still happening, of course, but the moral landscape has changed. Conquest is no longer accepted as legitimate, let alone applauded. The successful exercise of violence, I conclude, is no longer the natural, normal route to being acclaimed as great.

If these gross generalizations indeed hold, they would help explain why, in the domain of usage, greatness still serves as a term of praise which does not require moral approval, praise from which moral approval has been subtracted. When Matthew Arnold describes the French Revolution, a violent event of which he does not mainly approve, as “the greatest … event in history,” he is continuing an extensive pre-modern usage. As long as it was assumed that historical events will be violent, violence could not appear as a moral scandal. If history will happen and will be violent, the conqueror’s mastery of violence can win approval, or be described as “great,” even across lines of religious and civilizational otherness that seem to dictate fanatical hatred. Hence the reputation among many Christians of, say, Timur or Tamburlaine, ranked 9th on the all-time atrocity list with 17 million dead.
As I read it, Arnold’s description of the French Revolution as the “greatest … event in history” is not as different as one might have expected from Fredric Jameson’s use of “great” in the once famous sentence from The Political Unconscious: “the essential mystery of the cultural past … can recover [its] original urgency for us only if [it is] retold within the unity of a single great collective story.” As I read it, the collective story is great not only in the sense that it’s very, very big and yet somehow also single, which is to say it still counts as a story, but also in the sense that, although aimed at wresting a realm of freedom from the realm of necessity, it’s haunted by another, darker vision, one in which, despite the incalculable violence and suffering involved, no good aims may have been served in this or that momentous conflict, so the taking of sides made no sense– a vision where all the efforts and sacrifices were for nothing, or nothing that now makes those sacrifices seem worth making, where the single collective story would have be filled with greatness in the darkly, amoral, Alexander-the-Great sense of greatness, a sense from which moral approval is missing.

In other words, we have to imagine that the aspiration to distinguish oneself, as in Hannah Arendt, and the habit of paying attention to the accomplishments of those who have distinguished themselves, even distinguished themselves by trying to wrest a realm of freedom from the realm of necessity– a habit and an aspiration that I think we still want to honor–are located on an Arnoldian darkling plain. A darkling plain that is something like the situation, today, of Ukraine, caught as it is between two Great Powers, Russia and NATO, having no choice but to align itself with one of these warring empires, though neither of them, from the point of view of freedom, represents a very eligible choice. Which does not mean that Ukraine does not deserve to be defended.

I have laid out the hypothesis that, the times having changed, the word “great” can no longer be used so as to suspend moral judgment of violence and that this shift in usage represents a piece of moral progress. But I no sooner frame this hypothesis than it comes to seem questionable. According to Yves Winter, the ethical reversal about violent conquest is supposed to have happened at some point during the transition to modernity. But perhaps—upon inspecting current uses of “greatness”– this reversal was never complete, or it did occur but it has since been rolled back. Although the “Great Man Theory of History” has been unfashionable for at least half a century, the current usage of greatness continues to permit itself not to recognize, or perhaps has discovered new grounds for not recognizing, the victims of the Great Man’s successful exercise of violence. The first sentence of the first chapter of a distinguished recent discussion of world literature provides the following reasons why Alexander of Macedonia, who brought The Iliad with him on his campaigns, came to be called Alexander the Great: “Alexander of Macedonia is called the great because he managed to unify the proud Greek city-states, conquer every kingdom between Greece and Egypt, defeat the mighty Persian army, and create an empire that stretched all the way to India–in less than thirteen years” (3). One can’t help thinking that these reasons would also work, if applied to other times and places, as evidence for the accomplishments of more recent unifiers and empire-builders who are not referred to as great. Hitler also had some impressive territorial acquisitions to his name, and he “managed” them in even less than thirteen years. In both cases the body count is high. Matthew White, who styles himself an atrocitologist, estimates that 500,000 people died during Alexander’s campaigns, including 250,000 civilians. In absolute numbers, he ranks these thirteen years only 70th among the 100 worst atrocities of world history. But if there were 125 million people alive around 330 BC, those killed as a direct result of Alexander’s wars would be a higher percentage of the world population than the number of Jews killed by the Nazis.

Common sense in the humanities is often described, and not just by journalists taking potshots from the sidelines of the Culture Wars, as hyper-sensitive about suffering and victimhood. It seems possible, however, that thanks to suspicions about modernity, and suspicions about the modern nation-state as modernity’s representative institution, both of them suspicions that follow from the critique of Eurocentrism, a space has opened up on the contrary for the moral tolerance of conquest, and tolerance of the large-scale violence that conquest entails—a space in which the victims of conquest can once again fade into the background. Jack Weatherford celebrates Genghis Khan as “the world’s greatest conqueror” (9). Kwame Anthony Appiah refers offhandedly to the “the great Asante empire.” Timur, the protagonist of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great, is referred to in the Dictionary of Global Culture, co-edited by Appiah and Henry Lewis Gates, as “the last of the great nomadic conquerors” (645). Once it is extended to non-European conquerors, this tolerance cannot be kept from reflecting back, or forward, on European conquerors. For example, Peter the Great. Peter was known to his Ottoman enemies as “Mad Peter” for his willingness to sacrifice large numbers of his troops. In his 52 years on earth, he went to war not just against the Ottomans but also against Sweden (for control of the Baltic). He occupied much of what is now Latvia, Estonia, and Finland. He seized territory in the Caucasus from the Persian Empire (though he was forced to give it back). The fact that Kiev was not already Russian, but was seized by Peter from Poland, is not much discussed in current Russian propaganda. White estimates the death toll at 3 million and ranks the cumulative atrocity at 30th among history’s 100 worst, or forty places higher than Alexander.

To say that we are still in the habit of forgetting or forgiving violence is of course to remember violence. In 1791 Edmund Burke wrote to a friend about the relation between violence and landed property, including the estates of those “great” landowners who put Burke in Parliament: “It is possible that many estates about you were obtained by arms, that is, by violence,” Burke writes, “… but it is old violence; and that which might be wrong in the beginning, is consecrated by time, and becomes lawful.” That which might be wrong in the beginning is consecrated by time and becomes lawful. What time does to violence, for Burke, is consecrate it—render it sacred and thus untouchable. In secular terms, time renders violence legitimate and thus beyond appeal. It’s a very complex utterance. I cannot read this sentence without wanting to appeal—and without feeling that Burke is asking me to do exactly that. In that sense I am taking the passage of time as irrelevant. And yet Burke is also saying that the passage of time is morally relevant—that one’s only moral obligation is not to remember– and he’s not wrong.

Along with its very undesirable effects, like sanctioning expropriation and the unequal distribution of wealth, the passage of time also has effects that are arguably more desirable. Would we have had the moral progress that we have had without, for example, armed uprisings, whether historical ones or the ones so influentially fictionalized by Garcia Marquez? Turning back to the Great Books: Great Books turn out to resemble the great landed estates, and the acts of violence that acquired those estates, in the sense that they are morally whitewashed by the passage of time. Moral judgment based on modern moral standards, and perhaps even on older moral standards, might well interfere with appreciation of the works’ aesthetic value. By suspending moral judgment, time permits certain works to be seen aesthetically. In that sense, time could be said to create aesthetic value, value that was not already present in the work. This is not the same thing as passing a test. Those who feel that literature’s aesthetic value has been neglected by an over-politicized or over-historicized criticism cannot be comforted by this provisional conclusion. Rather than inhering in the great work, aesthetic value on this view would be projected onto or constructed for the work by the process by which time leaches away the work’s moral dimension. This is a long way from greatness as resistance to or transcendence of the destructive power of time. At its extreme, it could mean that the pastness of the work becomes a substitute for the work’s aesthetic value as measured in some other set of terms. Even the suspicion that greatness presides over such a substitution is a challenge to look harder at what we think aesthetic value is.

As a matter of usage, it seems marginally more acceptable to treat greatness as a lost object or significant absence, as when Cornel West laments that “black America has yet to produce a great literate intellectual” (Dilemma, 114). Or when the newscaster protagonist in Aaron Sorkin’s 2012 movie The Newsroom, played by Jeff Daniels, is asked what makes the US the greatest country in the world (Esty, 5), and replies, “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about.” Yet in that same speech, as Jed Esty notes, he uses the phrase “great men” as a non-ironic description of what America used to have. That such comments can be made on the national scale helps explain why the US is still plagued by the slogan “Make America Great Again.” And yet surely the fact is that we cannot entirely do without the concept of greatness, however aspirational, and it might be more honest to posit its actuality, and then try to flesh it out.

I am not prepared to say what I think aesthetic greatness consists of, but I will at least mark the persistence of that question by mentioning how greatness figures in one notable literary critic. I haven’t counted the number of times the word is used in Lukacs’s The Historical Novel, but it’s a lot. The word is not out of control, but it’s not random either. Lukacs is a believer in greatness. The so-called “mediocre hero” that Lukacs analyzed in Walter Scott was set against the early 19th century’s Byronic hero but also against world-historical figures like Richard the Lion-Hearted, Queen Elizabeth the First, and Cromwell—that is, “the great historical personality” (38). The great historical personality “is great,” Lukacs writes, “because his personal passion and personal aim coincide with this great historical movement, because he concentrates within himself its positive and negative sides, because he gives to these popular strivings their clearest expression, because he is their standard-nearer in good and evil” (38). Unlike the Romantic hero-worshippers, however, Scott “lets his important figures grow out of the being of the age, he never explains the age from the position of its great representatives” (39). The priority of the age over its great representatives is what the formal invention of the mediocre hero allows him to show. As Benjamin says in his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” “cultural treasures … owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries”—it’s a both/and. According to Lukacs, it was the French Revolution that allowed Scott, like Arnold, to perceive the “human greatness” (51) unleashed by major social disturbance. And for Lukacs this is where Scott’s greatness as a writer is also displayed. If greatness is an attribute of historical figures, in Lukacs the word appears at least as often as an attribute of writers. I would not hesitate to say that the formal invention is both an example of aesthetic greatness and, at the same time, is itself part of a larger and greater history, a progressive history centrally displayed as it is in simultaneously aesthetically and politically earth-shaking novels like Orhan Pamuk’s Snow and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things.

“The art of politics,” Arendt writes in The Human Condition, “teaches men how to bring forth what is great and radiant—ta megala kai lampra, in the words of Democritus… Greatness, therefore, or the specific meaning of each deed, can only lie in the performance itself and neither in its motivation nor its achievement” (206). One thing that must be said in favor of this perhaps outdated statement is its insistence on how necessary it is for the great deed to be performed in and for the polis– how greatness depends on other people, other people organized in a certain way: “no activity can become excellent if the world does not provide a proper space for its exercise. Neither education nor ingenuity for talent can replace the constituent elements of the public realm, which make it the proper place for human excellence” (49).


  1. By my count, the compact edition of the OED devotes twelve full columns to “great.” It traces its origin to “coarse,” as of grains, and fullness, as a heart great with anger or pride, or pregnancy. The most relevant ambiguity seems to be whether great in the sense of magnitude, height, extent, or eminence (by reason of birth, rank, wealth, power, position) spills over into some other judgment of worth: 13b: “In recent use, the designation is often felt to imply in addition more or less attribution of loftiness and integrity of character.” According to the OED, the epithet “great” was used in classical antiquity to distinguish the most famous person of a given name; in other words, the epithet distinguished our Alexander from other Alexanders, especially monarchs, who had less to boast about. But this usage disappeared in modern times, the OED goes on, replaced by (sense 15) “Of persons: extraordinary in ability, genius, or achievement,” with the further and more modern suggestion “loftiness and integrity of character.” Loftiness and integrity of character seem in contradiction with the qualities necessary in order to kill off a considerable percentage of the world’s population.
    2. Leavis’s definition in The Great Tradition—the great novelists are novelists who changed “awareness of the possibilities of life” (GT, 2)– is not useless, but it does trade one vagueness for another.
    3. One page later, mention is made of the highly influential assumption—also influential for Guillory himself–that “the greatest literature in human history was the earliest” (366) as well as the process, emerging from the “ancients and the moderns” debate, that ended up compromising on Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton as “the greatest English poets” (366).
    4. I note that polemical books are more likely to index it, as do Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals (1990) and David Denby’s Great Books (1996).
    5. John Erskine, founder of the great books program at Columbia University, offered this definition of a great book: “A great book is one that has meaning, and continues to have meaning, for a variety of people over a long period of time” (quoted in Alex Beam, 14). In this definition the phrase “to have meaning” tells us very little. There are manuals of astrology and anti-Semitic sermons that no doubt would continue to have “meaning” for a variety of people today if they were in circulation—as they may be, for all I know. But they would not be called great. Erskine’s definition does not specify what sort of meaning or what sort of value that meaning would have to have in order to qualify for greatness, whether moral or aesthetic or speculative or whatever. All the heavy lifting is done by “the long period of time.” But what work is time doing?
    6.  Martin Puchner, The Written World
    7. Appiah: A Dictionary of Global Culture, co-edited by Appiah, Henry Lewis Gates and Michael Colin Vazquez (Vintage, 1996); Jack Weatherford, Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (NY: Three Rivers, 2004). [It is the victims of Timur’s conquest of India that Karl Marx refers to,too quickly, in the ill-fated quotation of Goethe that ends “The British Rule in India.”
    8. A quick and final example, moving now from great conquerors to great books: Julius Caesar, who was very annoyed not to have been called the great but whose history of the Gallic War helped so many schoolboys learn their Latin, appears to have killed something like one million Gauls. Among White’s one hundred worst atrocities, the conquest of Gaul comes in at only 61. But Caesar’s influence as an author on later readers, including later servants of later empires, would be hard to overestimate.
    9. It can also be argued—Simon During has made the suggestion, citing Simone Weil and Walter Benjamin—that it is violence itself that renders moral thinking irrelevant and misleading.
    10. Edmund Burke, letter to Captain Thomas Mercer, February 1790, quoted in David Bromwich, On Empire, Liberty, and Reform, 30.