On images of greatness in history

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) is considered one of the greatest leaders of all time. And rightly lauded for his leadership during WWII in freeing the world from tyranny and darkness. Yet, in the first elections in peacetime, the British electorate rejected him. For, the definition of greatness, i.e. the greatest or common good, had shifted.

Extolling the greatness of Absolute monarchs like Louis XIV (1638-1715) was, according to Paul Ricoeur, the ultimate praise found in history. Its diametric opposite being absolute blame as in the writings on the Shoah.  In Memory, History, Forgetting (261-274) Ricoeur explores Louis Marin’s work, the Portrait of the King* on the prestige of the image. Here, a shiny golden image of the king in a medallion is a flash of his glory, exuding the king’s power in his physical absence, and perpetuating it long after his demise.

Such a portrait demands and receives recognition on the part of the beholder. This derives from both reason and the heart. When we accord greatness to individuals as leaders, we do so by using our imagination to define greatness.

Ricoeur asks if this concept of absolute praise still exists, if only as a trace, in the constitutional state around which historical communities are organized today. He considers it is especially visible in extreme situations when the existence and the moral integrity of the state are in danger and a true leader steps forward, deserving our praise.

Yet, in peacetime, where we take a state’s safety for granted, the battle is rather for the improvement of the welfare of the country, with justice in the social and economic sphere as the greatest good. And here, it is other kinds of warriors that are required.

Once, soldiering was at the top of the hierarchy of a state, with its leader being the foremost warrior, but today, in the imagination of the general populace, it is different, taking our defence and security for granted as we often do. This causes a dilemma for today’s soldiers who battle on behalf of freedom in faraway countries. As such, a distant war is not quite real for their own countrymen; the personal experience of war and the more difficult battle in settling back into peacetime communities become an even greater challenge for many soldiers and their loved ones today, with our faraway wars, than it is perhaps for those who return home after fighting for their own country.

Yet, in this very act of generosity, in being willing to sacrifice one’s own life for others, as for example Ejler Haubirk Jnr (1920-1944) , a member of the Danish resistance  or Sophia Bruun (1987-2010) , a professional soldier did, or sacrifice one’s well-being as countless surviving veterans in Denmark, the UK, USA and elsewhere do today, lies greatness, too. Encapsulating, what Ricoeur terms “the common good at the heart of being-with-others” (273).

*Le Portrait du roi (Éditions de Minuit, 1981)

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