For most of my life I have felt the overbearing weight of my insufficiency – the threat of insignificance, and this has impacted nearly every aspect of my life. In accordance with the informal project I have undertaken to articulate my philosophy of life and the world (see the most recent posts, as well as Determinism Explained, The Life of Fire, and On Gods II), it is time I address the topic of significance directly.
Since the 1990s there has been a continuous debate in the popular arts over the issue of specialness. One may recall the mantra of the film Fight Club, “You are not a special or unique snowflake, you are the same decaying organic matter as the rest of us, we are all part of the same compost heap.” This was clearly in response to the movement in education and parenting towards encouraging a celebration of uniqueness in children (although it does not seem to be commonly recognized, Fight Club is largely an indictment of the way men were raised in late 20th century America). The irony pointed out in that film was that despite the constant exhortation of “you can do anything,” adult reality is somewhat less empowering. A related, although distinctly different point was made more recently in the Pixar cartoon, The Incredibles. When the boy, feeling repressed, confronts his mother with her own words, that his talents make him special, she replies that everyone is special, which to him does nothing but admit that the word “special” is meaningless.
If we wish to use this rhetoric, that people are special, unique, and important, we must acknowledge that people are not equal in their importance. To say that everyone is special, important, a “unique snowflake,” is to say that those distinctions have no significance. The best argument for this principle is to follow the metaphor through: if we are all snowflakes, one can put any one of us under a microscope and see something interesting, but for all intents and purposes we come in half a dozen types and are basically the same.
As anyone who has been trained in an academic discipline knows, we can tell our children they are special to make them feel better about themselves, but in all likelihood they are anything but. Literature, philosophy, and the sciences have remembered a few significant individuals and forgotten most others. Simply put, in the historical view of the world some people matter more than others. This mattering takes several forms, the principle two of which are strict quality and historical influence.
Strict quality is the isolated value of the accomplishments of the individual, be they artistic, scientific, or political. The classic example of strict quality is the figure who is recognized only after his death; for the people who first recognize this man, his work has had no historical influence but is significant purely for its strict quality, although for everyone comes after, they see both strict quality and influence. Examples of this would be William Blake, the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Vincent Van Gogh. Personally I believe that Cormac McCarthy occupies this position today, though through the films made from his novels he is gaining in influence. This is, of course, subjective and open to debate, but unless artistic merit (I do not believe anyone will claim this for political or scientific merit) is completely arbitrary, arguments for quality can be made.
Historical influence is the extent to which a person has had a clear and measurable effect on future events, artistic, scientific, or political. It is difficult to fully differentiate this from strict quality, as people who have great influence nearly always have quality, at least in the opinion of those that they influence. Through unoriginality however, pure historical influence can be defined. It is a historically recognized fact that Martin Luther, Adam Smith and Adolf Hitler were not original thinkers and have received the credit for ideas they took from other, much lesser known, men, yet these are three of the most iconic figures in western history. The extent of the influence of some individuals is staggering. All of western philosophy has been defined as “footnotes to Plato.” All of Western art can be considered the gradual breaking of the Egyptian canon that held unchanged for two thousand years. Two of the five major combatants in the First World War defined their leaders as the heirs of Julius Caesar (Kaiser and Czar), thereby claiming, in some vague and symbolic sense, the legacy of an empire that had been dead for over a thousand years. Most of modern religion can be traced to the semites, a group of desert nomads living in the near east.
Thus if we are to speak of people having significance, we must admit that either in a quantitative (historical influence) or qualitative (strict quality) sense some people have more significance than others.
Turning to the psychological side of this issue, people who have significance are more valuable than people who do not. One can maintain the inherent equality, legal or spiritual, of all men but the fact is that some people are treated as much more valuable than others. Therefore if one wishes to be held as valuable by other people (which is something approaching a universal human desire), what one is desiring is significance in the ways I have outlined.
The remainder of this essay will be spent addressing potential concerns / counter-arguments.
Regarding personal significance there are several forces at work. The first is simple delusion: the parent who believes their child will be a great [insert profession here]. Everyone with healthy familial relations is “significant” to their parents, but this is completely regardless of their actual, objective, significance. What my entire argument, what every argument I make, presumes is a universalist perspective - the denial of the personal and particular is of upmost importance if one wishes to approach truth in any meaningful way. Therefore someone can be important to you without being actually important. Again, for the word “important” to have any meaning it cannot be defined such that it can be applied to anyone or everyone.
Regarding the bias towards dead white men in any traditional historical evaluation of the significance of individuals, I admit that it is troubling but will maintain that it is inevitable. In terms of historical influence the blame can be shifted to the cultural institutions that made men, and Western European men in particular, more influential than other people, but in terms of strict quality, the problem is preservation. Surely just as many intelligent talented women have lived as men, but their work has not been of the kind that has been preserved. Historically this holds true until the modern era, with progress yet to be made, but is especially prominent prior to the medieval period.