The Habitual Vision of Greatness

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On August 23, 2011, Dr. Samuel Hsu shared with the PBU faculty during the annual faculty workshop. When he was asked, Dr. Hsu shared, he immediately thought of a workshop given years earlier by Dr. Bruce Lockerbie on “The Habitual Vision of Greatness.” Inspired by Dr. Lockerbie’s passion for the subject, Dr. Hsu offered new reflections on the topic. The following has been edited from that presentation.

[dropcap3]T[/dropcap3]he phrase, “The Habitual Vision of Greatness,” comes from Alfred North Whitehead’s The Aims of Education. The full quotation reads: “Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness. If we are not great, it does not matter what we do or what is the issue.”1 The context of Whitehead’s comment was the place of the classics in education. Although not known for his profession of faith, Whitehead curiously states:  “The languages of heaven will be Chinese, Greek, French, German, Italian, and English, and the blessed Saints will dwell with delight on these golden expressions of eternal life.”2 Surely, Whitehead is speaking here not only of the classics, but also of the source of the greatness of the classics, namely, the Scriptures. Scripture, of course, speaks of this habitual vision of greatness.  In Philippians 4:8 we read: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” With this biblical injunction in mind, let us look at the notion of the habitual vision of greatness. We will consider the three aspects of this motto—habit, vision, and greatness.


A friend showed me an article from The Wall Street Journal entitled “Leisure Trumps Learning in Time-Use Survey.”3 It reported on a Labor Department survey which indicated that Americans devote only 36 minutes a day to learning. Statistically speaking, this was considered good news because it was an improvement from the pre-recession days of 2007 when it was 32 minutes a day. Leisure and sports, watching television, purchasing goods and services all rank higher than learning. This is a far cry from T. S. Eliot’s description of “an occupation for the saint,” which is “to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time.”4 To gain a habitual vision of greatness, we will need to be like Mary of Bethany and take time to sit at Jesus’ feet (Luke 10:38-42).


This leads me to my second point—vision. Whitehead’s idea is that we get our vision from the classics. There was a time when students actually expected their teachers to guide them to the vision of greatness, and even to serve as their model. Johann Nikolaus Forkel, Bach’s first biographer, has this to say about Bach’s teaching: “As long as his pupils were under his instruction Bach did not allow them to study any but his own works and the classics. The critical sense, which permits a man to distinguish good from bad, develops later than the aesthetic faculty and may be blunted and even destroyed by frequent contact with bad music.”5 Unfortunately, in our postmodern culture, we have lost this paradigm of learning.

So, what have we seen so far? First, we have no time for habitual learning, and second, we are not interested in a vision of greatness. Have I depressed you yet? May I tell you the travail of my soul? It is easy to see the speck in my students’ eyes. To notice the log in my own eyes—well, that takes some doing. You see, just because I am committed to a habitual vision of greatness does not mean that I am achieving it.

In my lost estate, two authors spoke deeply to me.

The British literary critic George Steiner, in his book Real Presences where he argues for a transcendent reality for the arts, gives this scathing condemnation of the French popular song ‘Je ne regrette rien’  by Edith Piaf: “The text is infantile, the tune stentorious, and the politics which enlisted the song unattractive.”  Steiner then goes on to confess that this dreadful music nevertheless tempts every nerve in him, touches the bone with a cold burn and draws him into infidelities to reason.6

Here’s the other author: in his Warranted Christian Belief the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga makes this astounding confession: “I value a silly little ditty from a cigar commercial (‘Man to man with a RoiTan! Man to man with a RoiTan cigar!’) as much as Bach’s B Minor Mass.” Plantinga says he suffers from “a case of affective malfunction.”7

In the face of such bold revelations, may I confess that I too have a soft spot for Edith Piaf? Maybe some of you are enjoying Lady Gaga and are feeling conflicted.

Enough gloom and doom! Read Psalm 119:71: “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.” I also am comforted by Luther’s advice to Melanchthon: “Sin boldly, but believe boldly still and rejoice in Christ.”8

Nevertheless, I ask myself—if great men like George Steiner and Alvin Plantinga struggle to sustain a habitual vision of greatness, is there hope for me? In a society where classical music is increasingly marginalized, should I even bother?

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