About great people


With DD Phiri:

It is easier to agree on whether a person is great than on whether he is both great and good. About four decades ago, when I was working in the Malawi Embassy in Bonn, We s t Germany, one day we sat talking about General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces during World War II. When I said he was of German descent, one of the secretaries, a German, responded: “He did not deserve it”, meaning to be of German descent.

Hence, when we talk about a person being great, we must separate the attribute of greatness from that of goodness. A great person is someone who has done something that other persons of his generation or community have not done. Of course, this does not include criminals. A great person always has some admirers but is never without enemies.


There are similarities about people we acknowledge as great but there are also differences. English historians have described Shaka, founder of Zulu nation, as Black Napoleon. The two men resembled each other only as competent generals whose achievements affected the lives of people beyond their countries. But Shaka was over six feet tall whereas Napoleon was a short man and much unlike his future compatriot Charles de Gaulle who, in stature, resembled Shaka.

People have achieved greatness in a variety of fields. At the beginning of this millennium, English people were asked to vote for the greatest English people of the millennium which had just ended. Topping the list was Shakespeare the playwright followed by Winston Churchill the Prime Minister who led Britain during World War II. Hence, one had achieved greatness in the field of literature, another in warfare.

Mahatma Gandhi and George Washington gained fame by successfully liberating their countries from British rule but they used different methods. We remember Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton for their scientific theories and discoveries but Thomas Alva Edison for using scientific theories discovered by others to make great inventions.


In whatever field they achieve greatness, such people operate in one or a few fields which accord with their aptitudes. They may be versatile but not jacks of all trades. A great lawyer is seldom a great doctor. They confine themselves in the field where they show special interest. They have talent for one field but not another field.

Those who achieve greatness decide at one point in time what their chief aim in life is going to be. They are not hazy about what they are going to do.

Having decided what they want to achieve, they pursue it with self-confidence. They regard failure as success postponed. Charles de Gaulle said in 1940 during World War II: “France has lost a battle but not the war”. He meant to lead the French to keep on fighting.

Zane Grey’s recipe for greatness was: “To bear up under loss, to fight the bitterness of defeat and the weakness of grief, to be victor over anger, to smile when tears are close, to resist evil men and base instinct, to hate hate and to love love, to go on when it would seem good to die, to seek even after the glory and the dream to look up with unquenchable faith in something evermore about to be that is what any man can do and so be great.”

Greatness should not be confused with attaining a high position in life. Some people have held high positions but have done nothing for which the future generations have bothered to remember them. Some have held no high sounding position but are dearly remembered, even considered as divine. Jesus Christ held no position in the Jewish spiritual hierarchy, Gandhi was never president of India but no name is as dear to Indians as that of Mahatma Gandhi.

To be great, you do not have to be president or a millionaire but just to do something exceptional and preferably that which benefits other people. You can achieve this in music, religion, sports, teaching or business. In every field, there is a path to greatness. Some great people have originated from poor families. Shakespeare’s father was a butcher; Jesus’ human father was a humble carpenter. The founder of Buddhism was the son of a wealthy father; Churchill’s father had been Cabinet minister while his mother was independently wealthy.

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