In 1840, following a series of lectures on heroes, Thomas Carlyle published his book on Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History in which he contended: “the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here…the soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.” The “great men theory of history” was launched. What makes a man “great,” however, is debatable. Napoleon Bonaparte was undoubtedly a great man who shaped modern European history. But he was also an egotistical dictator and ruthless invader. It seems that greatness and goodness are not co-terminus. More often than not, great men – those who affected the course of events – were vicious rather than virtuous. For every Moses, there was a Pharaoh.
The Midrash Tannaim (Devarim 32) thus advises: “Contemplate the years of every generation. There is no generation in which there are not some people like the generation of the flood, some like the generation of the dispersion, some like the people of Sodom, some like Korah and his cohorts.” Korah, the great mutineer, is the subject of a consequential portion of the book of Numbers. That self-serving, disruptive, and wicked men seem to dominate the historical record, it is not surprising that some might want to amend Carlyle and claim that history is shaped by evil men.
The Midrash notes: “each person is judged according to his deeds.” No one is compelled to be a Korah, or like Sodom, or like the generations of the dispersion or flood. It’s not all bleak – both Adam and Moshe were shown “the book of the genealogies of man” – “every generation has its seekers, its wise people, its scholars, and its leaders (Genesis Rabbah 24:2). While it may seem that evil men are the engine of history, that is not the case. Evil men get more notoriety. In the end, however, evil men are doomed to oblivion.
To achieve true greatness requires dedication to a noble cause or the steadfast fulfillment of duty.