Our “post-modern” age (if there is such a thing) is sometimes skeptical, and even cynical, about “great men”. And frequently, that cynicism is not entirely unjustified. Great men, in the sense of historically significant men, have often not been good men. That being acknowledged (and it cannot be ignored), I want to make two brief points in reply.
Firstly, while I would not wish the “new” kinds of history to disappear, I don’t think history can be done without significant study of “great men”. This is because history is the search for the causes of contingent events, and when it comes to human history, those causes can and do include the actions of individuals. And “great men” are called that precisely because they produced widespread effects. For this reason alone, a complete understanding of history cannot overlook them.
Secondly, I think there’s something to be said for the value of great men in moral education. Certainly, educating people to be virtuous, to be good, is more important than making them “great”. To some degree, the extent of our effects on the world is a matter beyond our control; our character, however, is something much more directly under our control. So it makes sense to focus more intensely on changing the things we can change. Nevertheless, I don’t see what’s intrinsically wrong with having widespread significance, and so I don’t think it can be intrinsically wrong to desire such a significance. Pride in one’s greatness would of course be wrong, and greatness provides an occasion for pride that is not present otherwise. Yet, excellence in anything, including character, provides such an occasion. So the hazard does not ultimately make such a goal illicit.
Further, while I think utilitarianism is wrong to say that the only standard of right is “what maximizes the good”, still, taking into account that other things are intrinsically wrong, all other things being equal, “maximizing the good” is a noble goal. And I’m not sure how one can have such an aspiration without implicitly desiring to be “great”, at least in the sense of “causing widespread effects”.
Finally, it is true, most people will never be “great”. For this reason, it is unreasonable for an individual to assume they will be great, and it is even more unreasonable to place that expectation on others. Because our “greatness” in a historical sense is contingent upon so many things beyond our control (above all, the will of God), we can never take such a verdict on our life for granted. Yet, with that important qualification in place, I don’t see a reason to absolutely prohibit a desire to have widespread beneficial effects.
So I still think there’s a case to be made for studying “great men”, and studying to be among their company.