We sometimes hear of the place of the great books in a democratic education (not, unfortunately, at Harvard). When it is spoken of approvingly, that place is at the center or in the foundation of education, or both. We also sometimes hear of the need for excellence in our education. For some reason we do not much hear of the need for excellent books or for greatness in our education. There is a difference between excellence and greatness, in that greatness is a specific kind of excellence.
I take excellence to be the sum of goodness. Since good things can be great or small, one can be excellent in small things such as personal grooming. Not in all small things: picking your nose with skillful delicacy does not qualify for excellence. Well, why not, since it is done well? The reason, I believe, is that this activity does not accord with human dignity. Greatness is the kind of excellence that has to do with human dignity, and when a certain excellence is against human dignity we are reluctant to call it good, let alone great.
To be dignified one must think well of oneself, one must respect oneself. To do this one must respect the best in oneself, and so in the first place, one must respect what is human as opposed to what is commonly animal. Men and pigs both eat, but men eat from tables at a decent distance from their food while pigs slurp from a trough (an observation by Glaucon in Plato's Republic). Human dignity, however, not only pertains to the common dignity of human beings but also has gradations that give some humans dignity over others. In the highest case dignity culminates in human greatness, which is always achieved by great human individuals. One could speak of the greatness of the American people, for example in carrying on the Cold War through many trials and bringing it to a successful conclusion despite the legendary impatience and inattention of democratic peoples. But this feat could not have been achieved without great or near-great individuals, the American presidents from Truman to Reagan — and particularly those two.
Greatness, as opposed to goodness, is associated with the individual, and not individuals abstractly but particular individuals with proper names. A collectivity can qualify for greatness, like the American people during the Cold War, if it is a particular collectivity. A species can be good, and there can be grades of goodness so that species can be ranked, raccoons above ants — though modern biology is uncomfortable with any notion of hierarchy. We non-scientific people dignify animals by making them pets, and giving them pet names. What does this show? It shows that we humans have dignity and also confer dignity. Our dignity is especially to confer dignity on ourselves, or better, to claim dignity. We confer dignity in response to a claim for it, sometimes a loud claim, sometimes unspoken. Nature cares for species, giving them the means to be fruitful and multiply, but nature does not care for individuals. Nature, or God, made us with freedom enough to claim our own dignity; we have to do it for ourselves. Greatness is not given to us, only the capacity for greatness. It is up to us to achieve greatness and then to remember it.
Greatness may be achieved in a day or in a moment, but its memory must be durable. Since greatness is individual, it has a particular time and place. It is always shown in a context — a culture, as we say, a regime, as Aristotle would say. But greatness has a splendor that enables it to rise above its context and to appeal to many generations of many peoples. In this way an instance of greatness, which is always contextual, for example Greek or American, becomes an instance of human greatness that all can recognize. To memorialize greatness is the work of poets and historians, writers who can make a convincing case for the attention of later generations. When it is done well, the writers produce great books, books that celebrate human greatness. Sometimes the writers make us wonder whether they surpass their models: Who is greater, James Boswell, the great biographer, or Dr. Johnson, the model of greatness to which he always deferred? Great writers use their imagination to improve on fact, as did Thucydides when he invented speeches for the characters of his history. A great book such as "Don Quixote" can be entirely imaginary, or mostly imaginary. Perhaps the human imagination needs to begin from fact, building on what is visible, even if it is not confined to fact.