The Cost of Human Greatness

The release of King Richard—chronicling the early stages of the Williams sisters’ rise to tennis glory under the single-minded tutelage of their ambitious and domineering father—gives us an occasion to reflect on the theme of human greatness. More precisely, it gives us an occasion to ponder the tension between the concern with ordinary, well-rounded decency, and the pursuit of human greatness. It compels us to wonder at the spiritual gap that exists between those satisfied with a quiet and orderly life and those who yearn with all their hearts to touch what is humanly highest in a given field. This tension and gap are recurrent themes of political philosophy and especially of classical political philosophy. But they transcend the dimension of politics altogether, as anyone who has followed and been inspired by the stories of agonizing athletes, starving artists, or suffering martyrs can well attest. To bring to light the unique qualities and limitations that distinguish King Richard in this regard, it’s useful to contrast it with two other films that address the human cost of greatness: Whiplash and Searching for Bobby Fischer. These films complement one another and, more importantly, each offers a distinctive answer to the question: is the human cost of greatness worth the pursuit?

Searching for Bobby Fisher

In Searching for Bobby Fischer, a child chess prodigy must choose whether to sacrifice the prospect of a well-rounded life, and the capacity to feel compassion rather than contempt for his competitors, for the sake of possibly becoming the next Bobby Fischer. We learn what’s at stake in this choice through brief montages of Fischer’s various chess deeds, accompanied by our young prodigy’s wistful voiceover. Fischer was the first American to beat the Soviets at chess at the highest level. Kissinger regarded him as a foreign policy asset. Americans saw him as a national hero.

But as our young prodigy soon discovers, the cost of getting that good at chess is two-fold. First, he must train so much that he does little else but train. It’s intimated that Fischer fell into madness and misanthropy partly as a result of these rigors. Second, he must learn to see his opponents as beneath him in order to muster all the passion required to consistently compete at the highest level. “Bobby Fischer held the world in contempt,” our prodigy’s chess tutor tells him as he tries to persuade him to adopt this attitude.

In the film’s most emotionally intense scene, the prodigy’s mother plaintively insists that her son’s lack of contempt, and apparent inability to acquire a taste for it, reflects not weakness but decency. If his father and chess tutor try to beat it out of him in the hopes of making him a world champion, she makes clear that she’ll take him away. Greatness isn’t worth it if that’s the cost, she in effect says. For there are other things that make life good, in the absence of which even a life of greatness would be woefully incomplete. Chief among these good things is the habit of sympathizing with others, especially those who, in a given circumstance or with respect to a given standard, are one’s inferiors. If you’ve ever felt even a tinge of sadness after beating your dad or sibling at monopoly or basketball, because you love them and know losing hurts, then at some level you know what the mother means.

The film vindicates her choice by showing the prodigy fulfill his narrative arc without sacrificing his sense of decency for the sake of victory. Although he wins the climatic chess tournament at the end of the film, he offers his about-to-be-defeated rival a chance to accept a draw and share the championship. The final shot of the prodigy shows him commiserating with one of his chess buddies who’d been scolded by his father for losing a game. And in response to his tutor’s earlier remark about Fischer’s contempt for the world, our prodigy had stared right back at him and gently but decisively declared: “I’m not him.” The film thus seems to say that, as good as he is at chess, he is too kind-hearted to develop the killer instinct required to be a Fischer-level chess player. He will choose decency over greatness, family and friendship over national glory and loneliness. And this, the film teaches, is the right choice. The real-life story of the prodigy on whom the film was based, Joshua Waitzkin, reflects this teaching: he ultimately gave up competitive chess and eventually became a chess and martial arts instructor.


Whiplash confronts the same dilemma but solves it in a diametrically opposite manner. To begin with, it treats the theme of human greatness with unrivalled clarity and intellectual courage. To achieve greatness, you must be prepared to lose everything: friends, girlfriends, even parents. You must leave behind the realm of ordinary moral bonds that make up and give meaning to the lives of most people. You must go beyond good and evil to arrive at the place where free spirits live and create the music in which humanity may glory. The film essentially tells the story of an aspiring young drummer’s growing realization of this difficult but, in his eyes, life-giving truth.

People sometimes complain about the conductor and bandleader in Whiplash, alleging that he is abusive and that the film affirms that abuse. This is in a sense true. It would be more precise to say that the film affirms the view that, at a certain level of competence, technical ability fails to distinguish genius from mere talent. At a certain level, only sheer will and determination, the single-minded drive to be the greatest regardless of the cost, distinguishes the true artist from the competent professional. For only such passion, only a soul aflame with longing, can achieve the titanic level of dedication and concentration required to give birth to a great work.

The point of the abuse the conductor employs and even relishes is to weed out the merely competent. The abuse reveals who really has the potential to achieve greatness by revealing who wants greatness even if pursuing it entails suffering and sacrifice on a variety of levels and metrics. Those who lack this primary fire of the soul, cannot, by definition, achieve greatness, regardless of skill. Those on the other hand for whom being the best jazz drummer alive is not merely the best thing in life but that in the absence of which life would not be worth living, will do anything, endure anything, for a shot at greatness. Their endurance is proof that their souls are adequately equipped to at least attempt the odyssey. They may not make it, but they are worthy of the endeavor.

Two scenes in particular illustrate this perspective. The jazz bar scene, where the conductor and aspiring drummer have their first encounter following their violent and professionally catastrophic falling out. Sitting down for a drink, they have a conversation during which the conductor adamantly defends his harsh teaching methods as the only way to elicit greatness from those fit to become great. He insists that the two most harmful words in the English language are “good job,” because they engender complacency and therefore mediocrity rather than the restless pursuit of perfection. Though clearly receptive to this view, the aspiring drummer asks the conductor if he doesn’t think his methods—and the perspective underlying it, we may rightfully infer—can go too far. He does not mean “too far” in a moral sense, mind you, but in the sense that such methods might be so harsh as to discourage the next great jazz musician, the next Charlie Parker, from rising. No, the teacher bluntly responds, because the next Charlie Parker would by definition “never be discouraged.” Our aspiring drummer agrees, looking at the conductor with steely resolution.

We cannot exile Whiplash from our democratic city soon enough. Its brutally stark depiction of the alternative between decency and greatness, and its sympathetic treatment of the single-minded and all-consuming longing for greatness, are not conformable to the egalitarian passions of present-day America

At the end of the film, both men appear to have reconciled. The conductor invites the young drummer to play with his band during an upcoming concert. People of weight in the jazz world will be in attendance, he informs him, and a good or bad performance can make or break an aspiring musician’s career. But this is a ruse. The conductor deceives the drummer by giving him the wrong piece of music to practice for the concert. Mere seconds before the event is to begin, the drummer discovers that he is hopelessly unprepared and at the threshold of professional disgrace.

At first, he seems defeated. He runs from the hall to meet the backstage embrace of his loving father, who’d always poured scorn on the conductor’s teaching methods. But something in the drummer rebels against this consolation. He returns to the hall and plays a piece of his choice, commandeering the entire band in the process. He then proceeds to improvise a drum set so astoundingly, unsurpassably good that the conductor cannot help but be reconciled to him. Through an unconquerable determination and a deep wellspring of talent honed by a monomaniacal amount of practice, the drummer is able to transcend the limitations that the conductor’s deceit had imposed on his performance. He cannot play well what he has not rehearsed, but he can and does play something better by conquering his self-doubt and giving himself entirely to the moment.

The drummer thus passes the test of greatness entailed by the conductor’s deception and proves that he does indeed have the stuff to become the next Charlie Parker, the genius the conductor long dreamt he would discover and mentor. By the end of the film, the drummer has lost his girlfriend and symbolically turned his back on his loving father, all in the pursuit of greatness. But he has become reconciled to the conductor. The critical thing to note is that the basis of this reconciliation is intellectual rather than moral: they have not come to terms with their moral failings and forgiven each other for past slights and abuses. But greatness is so crucial to the happiness of both men that the drummer’s fulfillment of his potential is sufficient to effectively destroy their enmity and serve as a new and higher basis of friendship. The film depicts this as a happy ending.

King Richard

King Richard opts for an apparent middle way between the alternatives the previous two films represent. The film is at first seemingly about a man’s drive to transform his gifted daughters into tennis titans by way of an unrelenting work ethic and intellectual self-discipline. But the story softens into something somewhat different: a father’s concern with giving her daughters the opportunity to achieve greatness without also delivering them into the anomie and ennui that occasionally overtakes young stars who burn bright and burn out. Jennifer Capriati’s arrest and personal troubles following her rise to teenage fame are highlighted in order to illustrate Richard’s concern.

This is why he does not tolerate his daughters bragging after Venus wins her first junior tournament and why he makes a straight-A academic performance a condition of Venus and Serena’s continued training. He wants them to go to church, to learn foreign languages, to enjoy the experience of being kids and, in sum, to be well-rounded. If their greatness requires a sacrifice of these things, he rejects greatness. He goes as far as to retire the 11-year-old Venus from junior tournaments—the traditional route to becoming a professional. He does this in order to ensure that tennis remain a source of aimless and innocent play during her early teenage years rather than become a petty and emotionally draining rat race. The dramatic core of the film lies in the confrontation between Venus’ budding ambition to be great and her father’s desire to protect her from the potentially dehumanizing dimension of that ambition.

If we think about the alternatives presented by these films, we come to an interesting discovery. In Searching for Bobby Fischer, the protagonist chooses family over greatness. In Whiplash, he chooses greatness over family. King Richard is distinct in that its heroes refuse to choose between family and greatness. The film is able to depict this refusal in a compelling way because it does not present greatness as the goal of pure individual striving. It presents it as the goal of family striving. Because it is a healthy family unit, rather than a lone individual, that seeks greatness, the search itself is always under the moral regulation that is intimately connected with family life. As Richard tells Rick Macci after the latter lists the housing and schooling costs that he plans to cover for Venus and Serena as their new coach: “ya know, you take these girls, you take us all, the whole family.”

The tension involved in having to choose between father figures is arguably the greatest sign of this difference between the films. In the first two films, the protagonists are depicted as having to choose in some way between a loving, natural parent and an adopted, intellectual parent, who has been tutoring them in greatness but leading them away from ordinary moral decency. The tension stemming from this choice is a big part of what gives these stories their dramatic momentum. In King Richard, by contrast, there is no question that the prestigious tennis coaches who instruct the Williams sisters—for whom the girls’ well-rounded education as human beings naturally matters much less than their attainment of greatness—play second fiddle to Richard. The girls’ father, their most loving guide through life, is simultaneously their primary tutor in greatness. How can the search for greatness, understood in these terms, be dehumanizing? Far from being in tension with the search for greatness, King Richard teaches that the close-knit family, working as a unit, is the basic condition of that search.

But which film’s teaching is truest? This question may be thought about at two levels: (1) Which film’s teaching most accords with the requirements of human nature, always and everywhere? (2) Which film’s teaching most accords with the requirements of human nature as those requirements are understood in democratic times? To try to answer the first question would go beyond the limits of a film review. But we can begin to answer the second question. The straightforward answer to it is that the film that most affirms the democratic understanding of man is the one that is most salutary for a democratic audience. We cannot then exile Whiplash from our democratic city soon enough. Its brutally stark depiction of the alternative between decency and greatness, and its sympathetic treatment of the single-minded and all-consuming longing for greatness, are not conformable to the egalitarian passions of present-day America. The choice would then be between Searching for Bobby Fischer and King Richard. The first, as I’ve said, choses decency and family over greatness. The second rejects this choice by presenting the family, rather than the individual, as the hero of its story. Both films give the longing for greatness its due but subordinate it to something they present as higher in rank. That something is the happiness of a properly moral life, in which the deepest satisfaction comes from caring for and doing right by those to whom one is closest. 

But is the most straightforward answer to this question really the best? Tocqueville, who thought deeply about the needs and blind spots of democracy, often gave what one might call dialectical solutions to the problems of democracy: democratic culture, in his view, doesn’t so much need what affirms the most authoritative opinions and sentiments of democratic man—what we might call the horizon of democracy—but rather what questions and even counters them. This is not because that which counters that horizon is simply true, but because the conflict between democracy and its thoughtful questioning is apt to produce a healthy tension in the soul of democratic man that enables him to remain at a certain remove from the horizon of his time. It enables him to become a more thoughtful democrat by becoming a less complacent and less committed democrat. For these reasons, I would argue that the Tocquevillean answer to our question is Whiplash, not in spite of the fact that it counters the horizon of democracy but precisely because of that fact. By depicting that rare human type who subordinates everything else to the pursuit of greatness, it gives democratic man an unforgettable image of a radical alternative to his horizon. More compromising treatments of this pursuit, while edifying in other ways, are unlikely to leave such an indelible impression on his soul.   

Those who disagree with the view that the horizon of democracy needs to be questioned, and that the health of democratic society is improved by such questioning, are likely to disagree with the view that Whiplash is the best film in this trio. But therein lies the issue: to think about the human cost of greatness is to think about the question of man, of what man is and of what the fulfillment of his nature, or of the best natures, requires. One’s judgment of films that treat the theme of human greatness will be largely determined by whether and to what degree one is satisfied by the democratic answer to that question.