The Merits of Greatness

Featured Image is some painting by an overhyped hack

Last year Gregory Lewis advanced a provocative argument: maybe the greats were not all they are cracked up to be.

What’s provocative is not the conclusion, but the statistical manner in which an argument about the humanities is made.

He adds nuance as the argument goes on, but the essence is like this:

  1. Assume “personal greatness” varies randomly from person to person.
  2. Post-population explosion, more people are alive now than at any other time in history.
  3. Therefore, it is immensely unlikely that the greatest thinkers or artists occurred in antiquity, rather than very close to the present.

With that in mind, here is my quick response:

  1. Can we judge the greatness of a work on its merits, or not?
  2. If not, why can we judge the merits of Lewis’ argument?
  3. Lewis’ own method can be turned against his conclusions.

I’m going to start backwards, with the third point. Consider the following from the end of Lewis’ post:

It does mean, though, we should pay less deference to the achievements (and achievers of the past). Instead of the vast secondary literature to try and find a charitable account of Socrates techne based refutation of Thrasymachus at the start of Plato’s Republic (because Plato and Socrates, intellectual titans they are, would not give a bum argument) we should trust our judgement that this was just a bad argument, because Plato and Socrates were not that brilliant, and were living in comparatively unenlightened times, and so our prior on them just making a mistake should not be that low. More generally, much of our scholarly emphasis on the old greats is probably misplaced if this enterprise is motivated (in part) by the hopes of excavating some hidden gems of insight in their work – they’re much less likely to have insight relevant to our current state of knowledge than modern day thinkers.

Let us assume that the ability to discern whether an argument is good or bad varies randomly across individuals.

If that were the case, then what are the odds that Lewis’ individual judgment, or mine, would be superior to the cumulative judgments of a very large number of individuals who have posited a “there’s more to it than that” interpretation of a great work?

As I have said before, when approaching a widely discussed work, it’s usually a good idea to assume:

  • All obvious criticisms have been made.
  • All obvious criticisms have been responded to.
  • A back-and-forth has occurred and the conversation has moved forward.

Statistically, what are the odds that one individual would be able to fruitfully skip the results of such a conversation among many individuals?

Going out of order, let’s go to my first point—can we judge greatness on its merits or can’t we?

It would be one thing if Lewis had actually examined Socrates’ response to Thrasymachus and made a direct case that it was lackluster. No one thinks Plato is perfect; indeed the vast majority of people who would put him in the top 10 thinkers of all time are themselves not actually Platonists. Clearly, even if they admire his greatness, they think he went wrong somewhere.

If Lewis had gone that route, a philosopher or philologist could then have jumped in and argued that Lewis had misread. Perhaps Plato was attempting to demonstrate something indirectly, rather than in Socrates’ argument itself. Perhaps with the right context, which specialists in this subject have and Lewis does not, the meaning will be clearer. In any case, if Lewis had attempted to broach this issue directly, we’d be back at human judgment as usual.

But Lewis tried to make an argument about the odds that such judgments were sound, externally from consideration of the works themselves. And so we must ask: if the case for these works’ greatness is not to be considered on its merits, but based on probability, then what is the probability of Lewis coming along and discovering this novel argument that undermines the judgment of the larger part of people who have considered the matter?

That is, how are we to evaluate Lewis’ own argument, if the evaluation of things on their merits is off the table?

He might respond that a statistical argument can be evaluated more objectively than the greatness of a philosophical work or a painting. But the statistical argument is quite weak without simplifying assumptions that themselves require a non-statistical defense—that is, a defense on the merits.

I am reminded of a statement I’ve heard attributed to Asimov, to the effect that the probability of life just happening to spring up on a given planet is so small as to be just this side of impossible. Conjuring up a probability distribution in which what has happened is unlikely isn’t very revealing—in my humble opinion.

I believe it comes down to how much judgment can be relied on to evaluate arguments, ideas, and art on the merits. If we can’t rely on it at all, then we can’t rely on it to determine whether Lewis’ own argument has merit. If we can rely on it, then odds are Lewis’ argument is in the same position as Asimov’s—good for a soundbite, but not very informative.

11 thoughts on “The Merits of Greatness

  1. pxdelaney

    You can, if you like, make this a question of odds at both ends, but then the question is just which is more likely:
    1) that there is some persistent distortion of views based on vintage or
    2) that there is a natural distribution of great philosophers that is wildly distorted towards the ancients.

    At least on first blush, I pick 1. In fact, I suspect the very line of argument that you’re making–that this has been around and debated forever and therefore must have some intrinsic worth–is probably one of the reasons 1 exists!

    1. I didn’t want to make the post very long, so I didn’t get to say some of what I wanted: including that the low hanging fruit idea, and the way he discussed Dostoyevsky, for instance, seem correct.

      Perhaps the problem is ranking. He doesn’t say that they aren’t great, just that it’s unlikely they’re the greatest. Maybe, but then you have to actually make a case for who *is*, or at least who is greater, or else again all you’ve done is given us a sound bite without substantive guidance.

      IMO it’s good to have a canon for mostly pedagogical reasons; I never thought there was something intrinsically superior about the man Plato, but I thought a lot of really smart people across very different perspectives see greatness in him, so he’s a good place to start.

      It’s fine if you want to argue, on the merits, that he isn’t a good place to start. And hopefully to offer an alternative! But “statistically, he probably isn’t as great as you think” is worthless.

  2. I have often read the claim that human intelligence peaked just before Classical Antiquity, and has since declined. If this is true, then the great philosophers would have been much, much more intelligent than we are today. Investigating this claim seems like the kind of thing Gregory Lewis would be keenly interested in.

    There is, after all, empirical evidence in support of this claim:

    https://lesacreduprintemps19.files.wordpress.com/2013/05/were-the-victorians-smarter-than-us.pdf

    And this: http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-11/are-people-getting-dumber-one-geneticist-thinks-so

    In support of Crabtree’s position, it is already well-established that GPS technology reduces the brain’s ability to do “mental mapping,” which is one of the most vital functions of hunter-gatherer human intelligence.

  3. “2. Post-population explosion, more people are alive now than at any other time in history.” This is where I think Lewis’s argument goes awry, since we tend to measure “greatness” not in terms of an individual’s talents relative to the rest of the population, but rather in terms of their impact on the entirety of human arts and sciences. There is good reason to believe that both artistic and scientific production have been growing faster than the human population at least for the last two or three centuries. (Useful scientific knowledge may be growing faster than significant artistic works, but great art remains relevant much longer, so it probably balances out.)

    It’s quite plausible that the present accumulated stock of useful scientific knowledge and significant artistic works is orders of magnitude greater than in the past _per capita_. That in turn means that even if the fraction of exceptionally talented people is larger in absolute terms than in (say) classical Athens or Renaissance Italy, the ability of that fraction to “move the needle” in terms of retrospectively-recognized artistic and scientific impact is arguably lower now than then. Hence we tend to see “greatness” more in past individuals than present ones.

    1. Agreed that it’s largely a non-sequitur to talk about greatness as some intrinsic personal quality, when we’re looking at those individuals that history remembers.

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