Know This Love: Traits of great men and women


This semester has seen me back at school full-time, and with that, studies in foreign language, physical science and psychology.

I’ve also taken time outside class to study health and healing through a course I’ve just completed, as well as to read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, along with other great books.

Lately, in my physical science class, we’ve studied elementary physics and with it, the work of Sir Isaac Newton.

A fantastically gifted man, we have him to thank for much of modern science. He gave us the basic laws of motion, the law of gravity, many principles of light and even a great deal of theological and alchemical work (I’ll get to that in a moment).

What struck me about Newton was his similarity to Thoreau.

It’s not in exterior details of their lives, for one lived in England in the 1600s, avoided sex and women completely and was eventually knighted, while the other was a married American radical who lived in Massachusetts in the 1800s.

Rather, it’s their common commitment to higher knowledge. Both men sought higher principles, higher reason — and God himself.

The result of their passionate, perhaps obsessive, pursuits were great works in their fields.  For Newton, it was his Principia Mathematica and later book Opticks.  For Thoreau, it was undoubtedly the life he lived, as well as his masterwork Walden.

These are not the only great men one can call to mind.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. — these men, along with great women like Mother Theresa, share common traits as well.

Most were great thinkers and students of all learning.  It seems that many, if they were not sexually abstinent like Newton and Gandhi, poured their spiritual energies into their callings and avoided the overstimulation of the material world.

And though they gave God different names and qualities, each served something higher than themselves.

Some of these characters, like Mother Theresa, Gandhi and MLK Jr., are well known for their faith. But many people don’t realize, for example, that Newton was a dedicated Christian who wrote more about Christianity than he did about math or science.

He also worked for decades on mastering the formula for the elusive philosopher’s stone, the ancient alchemical holy grail believed to allow a person to turn base metals into gold.

Certainly there are exceptions to this, as well.

Oscar Wilde, whom many consider a great man for his A Picture of Dorian Gray, seemed obsessed with sex and had substance abuse problems.  A younger generation might also romantically place Kurt Cobain or Edgar Allen Poe in that same category.

But then, could we really equate a man like Wilde, whose best contribution to society was a novel, with a man like Newton, who literally laid the foundation for the next three centuries of scientific reasoning?  Or with Thoreau, whose name is synonymous with a libertarian ideal and living the simple life?

Perhaps it’s unfair of me to attempt to determine who deserves entry into an arbitrary category of great men. But the point I want to make is the great men I recognize gave themselves fully to their mission in life, even if it was not popular or easy.

To paraphrase David Deida, you might say they died to the giving of their gifts.

This is what we should aspire to do as well. Yet so few even recognize this kind of life exists, much less that they could devote themselves in the same way to their own higher calling.

So many are lost in a haze of cheap entertainment, drug use (including alcohol and pharmaceuticals), sex and the like, that the possibility couldn’t even occur to them.

How can there be space for great leaps of intuition, or for God, in a mind so crowded with shit?  And more than that, how about just having time to write, think or meditate?

What heartens me is knowing there are men and women out there who can be considered great, who have given themselves completely to their calling, but simply haven’t been given the benefit of years to bring their names into public consciousness.

Unfortunately, too, the space in which to do so is crowded out by the Kardashian’s, Cruise’s and Clooney’s of the world.

I don’t speak about this from a hilltop. I watched an episode of Modern Family a day before I wrote this, and the first season of Downton Abbey before that.

And while they’re decent enough as far as entertainment goes, what higher purpose are they serving?  Certainly, I enjoy watching them, but am I crowding my mind and snuffing out the inspirations that could come in stillness?

I don’t know.  Perhaps even if I spent my life in solitude, nothing would come forth from my heart that was worth sharing with the world.  But I suspect that’s not true.  Not for me, and not for anyone.

I believe we all have something powerful to give if we just remember what makes the foundation of greatness.  Perhaps that would become clear if we spent less time distracted and more time working toward something amazing.

Matthew Stensland-Bos explores consciousness, love, healing, and grounded spirituality in Know This Love, a weekly SFBay opinion column.  You can find him on his website,

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