A Regular Guy, Apple Corp., cultural hero, Dean Ornish, Edwin Catmull, Geist, Genius Bar, Great Man Theory, hagiography, Hebrew Bible, Hegel, Insanely Great, iPad, iPhone, iPod, Isaac Newton, Martha Graham, Mona Simpson, Muhammad, Pixar, religion, Steve Jobs, Steven Levy, Thomas Carlyle, Toy Story, Winston Churchill
Who, among those blessed with extra cash, doesn’t remember their first Mac? Or first iPod? Or first iPhone? Or first iPad? Or, for that matter, their first visit to a sleek, modernist Apple store? Or first appointment at the Genius Bar?
Will Steve Jobs’ death (on Oct. 5) restore us to agnosticism when it comes to electronic marvels? Many had become faithful converts to the power of high-tech. We had faith that each invention would be better than the last. Apple’s product announcements had teleological force—we needed to wait only a little before another brilliant and stylish bit of Apple wizardry paradigm-shifted our lives—yet again. And we were justified in our faith. Revolutionary products did arrive. And life did change. For the better.
Surely, Jobs belongs on the shortlist of American, if not the world’s, cultural heroes. Our grandchildren will learn of Jobs in their American history classes. In general, people are suckers for great men and women. Early historians understood that we are fascinated by great individuals; these historians did not so much write biographies as produce hagiographies, distorting what could be known about their subjects and adding details to make them appear less prone to human failings than they actually were. Among the sacred texts, the Hebrew Bible is one of the few that resists burnishing the lives it recounts. This is a strength of the Hebrew Bible; its authors understood that it is through their faults that we recognize great heroes as fellow human beings.
A close friend of Steve Jobs, Dr. Dean Ornish, understood this too, saying, Steve “was very human… He was so much more of a real person than most people know. That’s what made him so great.” Jobs was imperfect like most of us schmoes. His sister, Mona Simpson, wrote a “fictional” novel, A Regular Guy, whose main character bears many similarities to her iconic brother. Reviewers of the book noted that it was not an unalloyed portrait. Even his worst enemy, however, cannot deny that Jobs was blessed with unusual leadership and vision.
He belongs, then, on that list of individuals that the 19th Century Scottish writer, Thomas Carlyle, used to illustrate his “great man” theory. This theory views Western history as the playground of men and women who, thanks to their genius-level scientific or artistic talents, or beyond-brilliant military and leadership instincts, or ground-breaking philosophical or spiritual gifts have impacted millions, even billions of lives over the course of their own generations and beyond. Carlyle speculated that history could be explained by the actions of these “greats.” He wrote, “The soul of the whole world’s history, it may justly be considered, were the history of these.” Their extra-ordinary attributes, like “the light which enlightens” is not “a kindled lamp only” but rather “a natural luminary shining by the gift of Heaven.”
The author (Steven Levy) of the 1994 book, Insanely Great, chronicling the birth of the Mac, described the light cast by Jobs: “He was the most passionate leader one could hope for, a motivating force without parallel.” A co-founder of Pixar (Edwin Catmull) commented that over the course of the four years during which his company struggled to make “Toy Story,” Jobs never flagged in his determination: “You need a lot more than vision — you need a stubbornness, tenacity, belief and patience to stay the course…In Steve’s case, he pushes right to the edge, to try to make the next big step forward.”
These traits—Jobs’ vision, stubbornness, tenacity, belief, and patience to stay the course, pushing right to the edge, driven to make the next big step—were surely shared by other “great men and women,” like Winston Churchill or Muhammad or Isaac Newton or Martha Graham, all of whom excelled in the face of outrageous odds and legions of naysayers.
Carlyle also held that the thoughts of “great men and women” were “the parents of the actions they did; their feelings were parents of their thoughts: it was the unseen and spiritual in them that determined the outward and actual.” Religion was not, for Carlyle, defined by creeds or by the houses of worship to which they belonged. Religion meant, rather, that which these great men or women believed, that they kept close to their hearts, that was “in all cases the primary thing” determining their practical actions. If one adopts Carlyle’s definition, then the “chief fact” about Jobs, his “primary thing,” his religion, was this: “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” and “don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
A contemporary of Carlyle, the German philosopher, Hegel, embraced a similar view of the role of superlative individuals in history. But for him, great people served as vehicles for the progressive unfolding of God-Spirit, or Geist in the world. Heroes, he wrote, are not agents who act independently of the Whole; rather, they serve as agents for Geist in moving history forward. This movement, according to Hegel, is inevitable.
Indeed, there will be those who—out of a personal dislike for Jobs, or because they are strongly attached to the notion of equality and thus resist recognizing that some human beings make greater contributions than others—will opine in Hegelian mode that if Jobs hadn’t brought forth an abundance of culture-changing gadgets, someone else would have. Or they will turn to the common 20th Century position that we are all products of our social space and that the contributions of all “great men and women” would have been impossible without the prior existence of this space.
But the fact that it could have been some other individual produced by our current social space, actually underscores the truth that, regardless of possible competitors, Jobs was the one, the singular channel.
Goodnight sweet prince of tech. We’ll miss you lots. We miss you already.
Resource: Carlyle, Thomas (Author). On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History. London, , GBR: ElecBook, 2001.
Having been an IBM-clone user over the last almost 40 years, and having worked only a temp job with a MAC, I do not have a particular fondness for the fruits of Apple. I do not question Jobs’ genius as a designer and industrialist. He has been fully rewarded for that. But I do have doubts about any unquestioned blessings of technology.
I recall learning the difference between industrialism in Europe in the 18th Century–where its finest equipment was marketed to the aristocracy who rewarded most its entertainment features–and Great Britain during the same time–where invention was largely applied to raising the standard of living for the people. I think of that whenever I see someone today on a cell phone talking and saying something equivalent to, “I’m crossing the street now, scratching my nose and blinking my eyes. Oh, and I see a new sports car I wish I could afford.” That always reminds me of the statistic that most of the e-mails over the internet are spam.
Technology is a tool. A tool’s value depends on how it is used. When it is used to turn us into adjuncts for tools, it can be sinister—or hilarious as with Springstein’s “157 channels and nothing’s on.”.
opps. Misspelled the Boss’ name. I meant Bruce Springsteen.
Jeffrey Coleman (@TheMediaRunner) said:
Hey – not sure where to say this, but you’ve omitted an important word in the beginning of your third paragraph. So you should fix that.
It’s not that big a deal, but I figure you should know.
In other news, I love the essay you’ve written here.
I fell in love with history at a very young age, because of all the heroes and ‘Great Men’ depicted (Where were the ‘Great Women’?) and all their ‘Great Deeds.’
I now am much more in love with ‘social / cultural history’ and (in my search for helpful present-day analogies) have become an avid follower of pop culture, sports, and technology.
I am also fascinated with the ways people live out, use, and/or understand religion. So you can be sure I’ll be coming back to your blog again and again.
(There’s plenty to read, even if you were to update it only once or twice this year. So whatever you do, I wish you the best.)