Friday, October 28, 2011

Paging Mr. Diogenes . . .

Not to join the anti-Steve Jobs backlash, but isn't one thing we expect of great men greatness?
From the days of the ancient Greeks to about maybe a generation and a half ago, the qualities that inspired admiration were what used to be quaintly called nobility: stoicism, self-sacrifice, philosophical detachment, social duty. I suppose Americans have always adulated success with no questions asked, but the classical view of life rightly demanded much more: any schmuck could rise to the top by being more calculating, manipulative, and ambitious than his fellow man; greatness was the quality of rising to the top without losing one's humanity—or even by virtue of one's noble rejection of the mean road.

The depressing facts about Jobs's meanness, vanity, and narcissism now coming out (such as his practicing staring so that he could intimidate other people) of course reflect our age, too. I remember in my newsmagazine days how one could precisely track the current life-stage of the baby-boom generation in the parade of "trend" cover stories whose basic assumption always seemed to be that no one before had ever (fill in the blank) had sex, raised children, balanced work and family, developed chronic illnesses, taken care of aging parents, experienced menopause, got old, died.

With that same petty and narcissistic fixation that we can control everything in our own personal destiny—and for no other ends than our own betterment—Jobs, we read, first attempted to treat his cancer with mumbo-jumbo fruit juice diets and psychic spiritualism, then by ultrascientifically trying to become his own medical authority, spending $100,000 to have his DNA sequenced, acting altogether as if no one had ever had cancer, or at least such an important cancer, before.

I found myself remembering the story of Einstein's final days on this earth. Hospitalized with a ruptured aneurysm, he refused surgery, explaining, "I want to go when I want. It is in bad taste to prolong life artificially; I have done my share, it is time to go." But then our heroes today are no Einsteins.