The pursuit of human excellence is the original and loftiest pursuit ever undertaken by man. It drove Adam to rebel, Achilles to fight, Plato to contemplate the verities, and the Son of God to take up human flesh.
There have been a multitude of pathways toward perfection pursued by men. They are as so many facets of a diamond, splintering light into an array of colors, now dazzling, now captivating, now titillating the spirited part of the human soul to renew its own efforts to exceed its capacities and become, well, Divine.
In Greece, men became gods by physical and mental prowess, exhibited through fearless acts of courage in battle, ingenuity in labor, craftiness in speech, shrewdness in policy, wit in the company of friends and ecstasy in the embrace of a lover. Rome was an homage to Greece, which was itself a variation on a theme by the cultures of the Ancient Near East, with their exhibitions of violence and sexual manipulation of the gods.
The measure of man was manifest in his power to accomplish whatsoever he willed, and to will nothing less than what excelled the capacities of all other men. This spirit endures today in every corner of Western Culture. Man wants to show his worth through the domination of every undertaking. Is it any wonder that video games captivate the imaginations of youth, who lack the means to ascend, but are overflowing with the passion to do so? Video games allow one to taste the superhuman qualities by means of simulation, at once satisfying the passion, but at the same time stultifying power to ascend in the natural world. So too many of the musical and theatrical choices available play into the same passion, and resort to the same means of simulation to achieve the temporary fix. Music that highlights ecstatic and erotic love, wealth and fame beyond measure, domination through expressions of anger, domination, or control are available at a hand's random snatch from the shelves. Movies portray sex that evokes cries of ecstasy, or limitless cognitive prowess available upon instantaneous conjuring, or physical capacities to endure pain or overcome obstacles that are by implication superhuman, or even explicitly so. Even outside the acknowledged realms of simulation, where "reality" is supposed to take place, a simulacra of superhuman images predominates. The television personality with the perfect complexion, quickest wit, or most incisive analysis must also appear as natural and unscripted as possible. Celebrities from all areas of life, whether sports, business, entertainment, religion, what have you are portrayed in glorious perfection until a relatively minor and all-too-human flaw or mistake becomes the fodder for pretenders to the throne to devour in all the splendor of unmitigated envy.
Protagoras is credited with saying that of all things the measure is man. From one vantage point, the empirical one at least, this is true. Man does measure all things--evaluating them scrupulously or unscrupulously. The other things in the world do not measure. But taken in another way, Protagoras' claim is patently false. Man is not the standard by which man measures. If this were so, perfection, superhuman qualities, the qualities of divinity, would not be that by which man measures--for they are not what man is, at least not by the same empirical test that acknowledges man as that thing that measures all things. No, man measures himself against his idea of God, and insofar as man's position toward the One True God is rebellious, he cannot accept the One True God as the One by which to measure himself. Rather, he must judge by the false image, the idol, the supplanter god who serves as the placeholder for the Triune God. No Christian who has a modicum of Biblical knowledge could deny the pervasiveness of idolatry, nor fail to acknowledge it as an exchange of Truth for Lies.
And yet Christians more often than not measure by the measurements of pagan and infidel idolaters. Christians measure one another by the topics of the classical encomium:
What is the greatness of your race?
What is the greatness of your country?
What is the greatness of your ancestors?
What is the greatness of your parents?
What is the greatness of your intellectual education?
What is the greatness of your training in skills?
What is the greatness of your cultural knowledge?
What is the greatness of your mind?
What is the greatness of your body?
What is the greatness of your fortune?
How do you compare to the greatness of others?
One can craft the pretense that such measurements are simply instrumental--one is not judging anyone's "true worth" by such standards, after all. But I remain skeptical. I don't see alternative measurements very often, unless it is something like, "judge not, lest you be judged," which sounds more like a defense against one's own failings being declared than it does a plea for an alternative measure of excellence.
If not these things, then, what is the measure of man?
When one considers the life of Christ, by what measure will His life be discovered as the most excellent of all, the one that displays humanity at its most excellent? He was not from a great race, country, ancestors, or parents. Though few would argue against his capacity for knowledge, skill, and cultural awareness, no one could seriously maintain that he exhibit any of those to the highest degree during his lifetime. Nor did his mind, body, or fortunes seem altogether more excellent than all other men. He does not compare well, and even the long train of unfaithful admirers of Jesus cherry pick ideas of his that could have and may have originated before him or gained more potent expression after him.
With what measure, then? Consider the negative. At what point did Christ endure, undergo, take up what no man before, or after him, could? It is not hard to conceive that another man might be wounded more grievously than Christ, and remain courageous and stalwart. It is not hard to conceive that another man might be scorned more than Christ was, and come through undaunted. It is not hard to conceive that another man might be more honored than Christ was in his life, and remain remarkably humble.
What then? What did Christ undergo than no man could before him, or after? The just penalty for the sins of the world. Consider what it must have taken for a man to endure the unmitigated wrath of God poured out for every offense, and to do so without guilt or cause for condemnation. The ultimate humiliation, the ultimate denial of one's human excellence. Surely this was something Christ endure that no man before or after him could.
Even so, the negative construction beckons the question: if it was by enduring the wrath of God that Christ exceeded all other men, what was it that enabled Him to endure, the positive quality that was able to overcome? If wrath is an outpouring of hatred, the rejection of worth or value or excellence; then would not love be that which would need to be greater in order to endure? This seems most fitting. Only the man who was most beloved by God (the Being excelling all others in Love) could endure the greatest measure of wrath. Christ, the Son of God, was so loved by God that He could not only endure the shame and injustice of the world, but also willingly take upon Himself their due penalty for their transgressions, the wrath of God.
The most astounding aspect of it all is that in being the man most beloved by God, Christ was also the man most capable of loving, and so poured out his love upon men, that they too could become the most beloved of God--the very means by which human excellence reached its apex; the very means by which the human is made partaker of Divinity, of Divine Love.
The measure of a man's greatness is in how much he is loved. Those who are beloved of God are the men who are the greatest, who are granted participation in the divine nature. Those who pour out the greatest love toward others reveal themselves to be those who partake most fully in the divine nature, for their capacity to love is proportionate to the measure of love they receive from the Father. No greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends.