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Great Men vs. Good Men

“Great men are almost always bad men” – Lord Acton

What do we mean when we refer to someone as a “great man?” Theoretically, we mean a man who accomplished great feats, but in actuality the term is almost always used to refer exclusively to men of the State, such as Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, or Abraham Lincoln. By contrast, when we say someone is “good man,” we mean that he is someone with integrity, a person who displays kindness and who follows an objective moral code. People assume great men have a wider influence simply because their names are prominently featured in the pages of history, but this is actually a serious miscalculation. I will illustrate this point with two examples, the first one being a mere reflection of the Great Example.

On November 22, 1963, the unthinkable happened: the President of the United States was assassinated. The news, of course, shocked the country and the world, throwing Americans into a state of confusion and despair. However, something else significant happened that day, something that was largely ignored by the press and almost entirely unnoticed by the population: the death of the great Christian apologist, C.S. Lewis. Lewis, after his conversion in 1931, spent his life defending and explaining Christianity using philosophy, theology, and Scripture. He was a brilliant philosopher and rhetorician, with an uncanny ability to explain dense topics in a remarkably clear way. JFK and Lewis had very different views on almost everything, including the State. JFK believed man existed to serve “society,” or the State (in his view), which he made clear in his famous “Ask Not” speech. Lewis, on the other hand, believed man existed to serve God, saying that “every Government consists of mere men” and that “if it adds to its commands ‘Thus saith the Lord,’ it lies, and lies dangerously.” Lewis was, by all accounts, a good man, but JFK was a “leader,” a man whose name was known around the world, a great man. However, which one had the greater influence? JFK’s name may be referenced here and there in classrooms and quoted here and there by politicians, but aside from that, does he really have any influence on anyone currently living? Do people really delve into his life and say he truly inspired them to change their way of thinking? The obvious answers to these questions is “no.” If we are being honest, the only reason why he is remembered at all today is because of the title he had (“President”) and the horrific circumstances surrounding his death. But, what of Lewis? Millions of Lewis’s books are sold every year. They are studied carefully and written about all over the world. They have entirely changed the way of thinking in many people, directing them towards a deeper understanding of theology, philosophy, art, and literature. His children’s books, the Chronicles of Narnia, continue to capture the imaginations of children around the world, both entertaining them and teaching them about the character and love of God. Thus, it is clear that, in this instance, the “good man” has had a far greater influence on the world than the “great man” has had. Now, what about the Great Example referenced at the beginning of this essay?

This Great Example refers to the ultimate “good man” and the archetypal “great man,” who both happened to live in the same time period: Jesus Christ and Caesar Augustus. Both of these men claimed to be, and were called by others, the “Son of God.” Jesus was born into a poor family that lived in Galilee, an unremarkable place in the 1st century. Augustus was the son of Julius Caesar, the head of the greatest kingdom in the world. Caesar Augustus became the first Emperor of Rome and dramatically expanded the Roman Empire, mostly by violent conquest. He was the definitive “great man,” solidifying the Roman Empire and essentially governing the world. Jesus, on the other hand, was a destitute man who taught love and forgiveness, never once taking another person’s life or ordering a follower of His to do so. Augustus believed in an all-powerful state, with most of that power being wielded by him, the Emperor. Jesus taught that God was the ultimate authority, and that one day all kingdoms, including the Roman Empire, would be destroyed and the Kingdom of God would be ushered in. Instead of ordering soldiers to enter a city and take it by force, Jesus asked His disciples to peacefully preach in other cities and to be prepared to die without fighting back. Jesus would be crucified under Augustus’ son and successor, Tiberius, and Caesar’s line would continue on. Now, we must ask who had the greater influence, the “great” Caesar, ruler of the world and a man of immense riches, or the “good” Jesus, son of a poor carpenter. One could be forgiven if they thought this was merely a rhetorical question because the answer is quite obvious. After all, Christianity conquered the Roman Empire! Augustus is taught in the history books, sure, but not much of anywhere else. The average person on the street does not even know his name and the people who do know of him are not in any measurable way inspired or influenced by him. On the other hand, Jesus is not only known by everyone (at least in the first world), but is worshipped and prayed to every single day by millions of people. Thus, we see the Great Example: that the “good man” Jesus has had a much greater influence on the world than the “great man” Augustus.

This is important because it helps us to see that while it may seem like the wicked (the State and its advocates) are winning at this point, this is only temporary and good will ultimately succeed.