Transcendent figures often seem out-of-place in their time. It’s as if they were actually members of the future but were accidentally born too early.
Generally a writer of true force/originality is anywhere from 20 years to 200 years ahead of his generation. So therefore he starves, goes mad, suicides, and is only recognised if portions of his work are somehow found later, much later, in a shoebox, say, or under the mattress of a whorehouse bed, you know. -Charles Bukowski
These figures are sometimes writers, sometimes scientists, sometimes philosophers. But during their lifetime, they are not appreciated. Politicians are always appreciated during their lifetime because everything that matters to them is here on earth, power. Without power they aren’t important. So this only applies to people whose contribution is on a non-temporal level. Wouldn’t it be great for humanity if that timeline is compressed and we appreciate what we have? Appreciate the transcendent figures before they perish? I think it’s possible. But first let me digress into how transcendent figures are actually far from transcendent.
There are still tribes in remote parts of the world which have not been “contacted”. The members of these tribes have no sense of the outside world and their place in it. Brazil has the most, apparently having at least 67 uncontacted tribes. A member of one of those tribes is disconnected from the rest of us in a very real way. Similarly, a man in Tokyo is very different than a man sitting in Indianapolis. They are disconnected. But are they really? There are certain characteristics and experiences that every human shares. Both a tribeswoman of New Guinea and a woman in Cleveland experience human childbirth. So it is incorrect to say that anyone is truly disconnected. We are all connected. Between some, the connections are very close, between others, the connections are very remote. In fact, everything, ever is connected in some sense. How’s that for broad generalizations.
Because we are all connected, we can all potentially get to the same destination. But since we are all starting from different circumstances, that rarely happens. Sometimes it does. Simultaneous invention happens. Both Issac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz invented calculus at the same time. The only reason it could happen is because they were connected in some way. Fundamental disconnects lead to divergence, not convergence.
But even given fundamental connection, certain people in history tend to rise way above others of their time. The notion that a person is born great or transcendent is intoxicating because it’s a short cut. We hear stories of great people and think, maybe I’m destined for that too and if so, I don’t have to actually put the work in. In fact, people make up things like “everyone has a special talent” that you just have to discover. As in, everyone can be great, you just have to find your place and then it’s smooth sailing. But the reality is success is much more a function of right place, right time and hard work than special talents. Which is both inspiring and depressing. It’s inspiring because it means that anyone can rise to be great. But it’s depressing because you need to get some lucky breaks for it to work out. It’s somewhat paradoxical. It’s both open to all and only open to a select few. The point is, nothing is given. You earn what you get both through the sweat of your brow and through your lucky breaks. If you are missing either, you miss out.
Gladwell’s Outliers talks about right place, right time. Specifically he mentions Bill Gates and how he attended a private school in Seattle that owned a cutting-edge computer available for student use, unusual at the time. Gates made use of that resource and from that point on, had a leg up the fast growing computer industry. He had access to a resource that few others had, and that allowed him to be transcendent, rather than some innate destiny. The implication is that, while Gates is certainly intelligent, he a product of his circumstances, of his lucky breaks. Maybe that’s not fair. But it has some truth.
I believe there were people just as brilliant as Nietzsche or Plato living concurrently or before. But they received zero recognition because they didn't have the skills to express their ideas well, they didn't have the style and influence. To be clear, I believe there were other people who has the potential to be Plato. In fact, there I believe there were people at that same time who had the exact same thoughts, but were still not remembered. They were victims of their circumstances. All this is to say, seemingly unique people are not so unique after all.
An essential quality of a transcendent figure is being different than the mainstream. That’s the whole point. But you have to be different from the mainstream in a good, forward thinking way, not in a backwards way. Mainstream can be defined a lot of different ways. And mainstream in one region of the country is not mainstream in a different part of the country. What I’m calling mainstream is super broad, as in almost everyone is part of the mainstream. True transcendent figure thinking says that everyone is in the mainstream except for one lucky soul. My thinking is that everyone is in the mainstream except for a few dozen or so people.
Those few dozen people are almost certainly isolated from each other. True originality requires isolation. When something is developed in isolation it becomes a complete living breathing thing of it’s owner. If it’s only partially owned, it loses energy and life. But the isolation doesn’t have to be permanent. It just has to be long enough for the concept to get its legs, its full form. Then it can be exposed to the world without becoming tainted. So these people have to be isolated for a long enough time for each person to fully develop their ideas.
In the past it was very difficult for those people to connect. So they just stay isolated from each other. And that causes some insecurity about the idea. They think, if this is such a great idea, why is no one around me coming up with it? Furthermore, since the idea is ahead of it’s time, no one really endorses the idea either. So the person has an idea that is lonely and unappreciated. A recipe to just keep it to one’s self.
That is one area where modern technology can help. We can connect to others better than ever before. People across the globe are a keystroke away. Which creates a scenario where someone comes up with an original idea, then does a search for others with the same idea. Finds a couple then they reinforce each other. Simultaneous invention, connect, mutual reinforcement.
On the other hand, modern society has provided more ways to squash originality than ever before. The rise of mass media homogenizes culture. So an original can be squashed before they have a chance to bloom. And I believe the modern ability to go from rags to riches is actually counter productive to originality. In a capitalist society, you get rewarded for selling. You sell when you give the market what it wants or needs. And that means transcendent originality often gets punished.
So maybe it all cancels out and we’re in the same boat as we always have been. Where transcendent figures are just going to be ignored during their lifetime. I hope not.