by Dylan Evans
who is a senior lecturer
in intelligent autonomous systems
at the University of the West of England
We should cherish those who possess great talent
rather than envying them and begrudging their success
In ancient Greece, people expected their heroes to be different. The first readers of the Iliad didn't imagine they could ever be as great as Achilles. They accepted that he was in a completely different category, a different order of being. And they didn't envy him his superior talent - they admired him for it.
Nowadays, if someone is vastly more talented than we are, we don't congratulate them - we envy them and resent their success. It seems we don't want heroes we can admire, so much as heroes we can identify with.
We want to think we could be like them, and so we make sure to select heroes that are like us. We worship David Beckham because he's fallible. If Achilles were around today, the headlines would all be about his heel.
We can't bear the idea that some people might be better than we are, so much better that we could never be like them, no matter how hard we tried. That upsets our democratic ethos, our belief that all people are born equal.
But raw talent is not distributed equally. By definition, most of us are not exceptional. We are neither particularly stupid, nor especially intelligent.
Only a very few are extremely gifted. But it is to these exceptionally talented people that the rest of us owe most of the greatest achievements of humankind. The Mona Lisa, the Goldberg Variations and King Lear were not the work of ordinary people like you and me. They were the work of geniuses, people so unusually talented that we could never paint or write anything comparable to their achievements, no matter how hard we tried or how long we lived.
To some, that thought seems so humiliating and threatening that it must not even be countenanced. But to me it is liberating and inspiring.
It is precisely the realisation that I will never be the equal of Mozart or Goethe that allows me to sit back and enjoy what they have bequeathed to me. It is my recognition of their greatness, my admission of the immeasurable superiority of their talent, that redeems my mediocrity.
It is good to be human, not because every human can be great, but because a few people have shown us the heights to which humanity can occasionally ascend. The shining achievements of these few elevate the very definition of the human race.
Consider also how unattractive it is when someone begrudges another's talent, when they cannot praise success without also seeking to undermine it, or they feel diminished when a colleague wins praise. It is a sign of a mean spirit.
Conversely, the person who shows unreserved admiration for someone thereby becomes admirable himself. To applaud someone else's achievements or good fortune, without the slightest trace of envy or resentment, is a mark of true generosity.
(edited by David Van Alstyne)
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