Greatness perhaps is a thing all men have desired once in their life. And loneliness, I think, is a thing all men have dreaded. But I think most people would agree with John Steinbeck’s assessment that “all great and precious things are lonely”. Most of us concur with this thought offhand, but we often do not probe into the context in which it was said or think more deeply about why greatness and loneliness must be mutually inclusive.
Near the middle of the same story from which this quote comes, a conversation takes place between three characters in which they discuss the meaning of the Hebrew word “timshel” in Genesis chapter four. In some translations, it is taken to mean “thou shalt” or “thou will” which indicate either a command or a promise. In both of these senses, the word implies a sort of divine predestination where man has no part to play in determining his future. Many people go through their lives with this idea–that life will work out in a preordained fashion, no matter what actions they do or do not take.
But over the course of the book, the three characters agree that “timshel” is more properly translated “thou mayest”. Here, man is given an important role to play, if he is willing to take the part. This, one says, is what makes a man great. A man who is faced with all of the weaknesses and filth of his and his forefathers’ pasts, but who chooses to strive to overcome them and make something different of himself: that is a greatness.
But why must it follow then that loneliness is always attached to greatness? A large part of me wants to connect this idea to another line from the same book–a throwaway line, really, but one I wish to impart meaning to. “People like you to be something, preferably what they are.” It would be easy, and, in a way, soothing, to say that loneliness follows greatness because other people would rather disassociate themselves from someone who made them feel mediocre–that is to say, from someone who faced them with the knowledge that they could have chosen greatness, but instead let it pass them by. But the line is not used this way in the book, and I think this, as a solution, does not ring true.
I think the answer is instead found in the context surrounding the original quote, though it is hard to decipher. Here is the conversation in which it is placed:
“‘I said that word carried a man’s greatness if he wanted to take advantage of it.’
‘I remember Sam Hamilton felt good about it.’
‘It set him free,’ said Lee. ‘It gave him the right to be a man, separate from every other man.’
‘All great and precious things are lonely.’
‘What is the word again?’
To me, the key word is that this choice gives man the right to be separate from every other man. In choosing greatness, a man chooses to set himself apart on his own path. In choosing greatness, a man cuts himself off from “warmth and companionship and sweet understanding” as one character puts it. In choosing mediocrity, we can share in the common weakness of mankind and commiserate with one another on the misfortunes fate has cast our way. But when one chooses greatness, and chooses to separate his own actions and their consequences from any other man’s, one can no longer share in that common consolation. Greatness lays the responsibility at one’s own feet and at no other’s.
If a man desires greatness then he must learn to be lonely. He need not separate himself from all companionship or relationship; indeed, without another’s love, the loneliness is likely to overwhelm him. But a great man must learn how to endure the responsibility his own actions bring; he must learn how to suffer the consequences without the soothing balm of blaming ancestry or fate. And for this reason, all great and precious things are lonely.