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Great figures are for the youth like raisins in the cake of world history. Assuredly they do belong to its actual substance, but it is actually not nearly so easy as one might suppose to separate the truly great from those who merely seem that way from some distance. Among those who merely seem great it is the historical moment and their ability to assess and to tackle things that gives them the fleeting appearance of greatness. Indeed there is no shortage of historians and biographers, not to mention mere journalists, who possess this ability to anticipate and grasp the historical moment, which is to say: the passing success, which may be taken as a sign of greatness. The corporal who from one day to the next suddenly emerges as a dictator, or the courtesan who for a short while suceeds to govern the good or evil disposition of a leader of world consequence number among the favorite figures of such historians. And the idealistically predisposed youth love, on the other hand, those who are tragic failures—the martyrs who have arrived one moment to soon or too late. But for me, and I am of course a historian of our Benedictine order, what is most appealing, surprising, and worthy of study in world history is not personalities, not coups and not successes or failures—rather my passion and unrequitable interest is devoted to those efforts (of which our congregation is one) of very ancient institutions which attempt to collect the spirit and the soul of humanity, to educate and transform it—to transform it through education, not through eugenics… into a nobility which is prepared to serve as well as to govern.
–Hermann Hesse, Das Glasperlenspiel, ch. iv (1946) in: Gesammelte Schriften, vol. 6, pp. 252-53 (S.H. transl.)
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp
From the June 2014 issue
Jobs created by every billion dollars of U.S. government defense spending:
Artists tend to have twice as many sexual partners as noncreative people.
Swiss retailer Migros cut off ties with a collectible-creamer company following the distribution of 2,000 creamers whose lids bore images of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. “You cannot put Pol Pot or a terrorist on a milk creamer,” said a Migros spokesman.
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“I hope that after reading the following pages the leaders of the Y. M. C. A. will start a campaign to induce good young men to do nothing. If so, I shall not have lived in vain.”