Greatness is a silly concept in a world aimed at entropy and informed by impermanence. It’s absurd, after all, to apply the title of greatness to anything encompassed within the warpath of time, an all-effacing leviathan reducing all duration to but an instant and all substance to oblivion. Time will eat even Beethoven.
Tolstoy shares our disdain for the term, especially in how historians apply it to the strategies and tactics employed by Napoleon and his French generals during their retreat from Russia. The historians see greatness in the movements of the French troops where Tolstoy sees only folly, cowardice and absurdity. Maybe, though, it’s not such a surprise that the historians make this mistake. They have debased the word greatness by offering its appellation to many of creation’s meanest members: Mao Zedong, the Great Helmsman, Alexander the Great, Peter the Great to name just a few.
Tolstoy wants to redefine greatness, move it away from its murderous historical associations and towards a more Platon Karataevian understanding. “For us,” he writes, “with the standard of good and evil given us by Christ, no human actions are incommensurable. And there is no greatness where simplicity, goodness and truth are absent.”
In a world of vice, violence and ephemerality that seems like a pretty great definition.
Of the things that exist, some are good, some bad, and some indifferent. Now the good are the virtues and everything that shares in them, and the evil vices and what shares in vice; and everything that lies between these, such as riches, health, life, death, pleasure or pain is indifferent.
Epictetus, The Discourses