01/15/2015 12:46 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2015

Insult, Offense and Rage

Contrary to apparently widespread opinion, it's not possible to insult, offend, demean, or disparage a great leader, prophet, religion, nation, or individual. It's easy, of course, to insult and enrage lesser people. Many seem prepared to take umbrage at nearly anything. But true greatness is in this distinct way completely untouchable. The target is too far from its detractors. Any arrow of invective or caricature will fall short.

Public events of recent days and decades can seem to indicate the opposite. A movie is announced to be an offense and an insult to a revered leader, or to an entire swath of the human population. A cartoon, a video, or a passage in a book can be said to have committed a grievous injury that must be avenged "by all means necessary."

The problem is that all this rage and reaction is based on a faulty understanding of the very notions of insult and offense that are being used to explain and justify the responses of anger, threat, and violence that seem so enormously out of proportion to whatever incited the response.

You just can't claim with logical consistency both that your leader, or nation, or cause is great, and that he, she, or it has been insulted, offended, or demeaned by any words or works of art. It's literally impossible to successfully insult, offend, demean, or disparage real greatness.

There's an old proverb: The lordly lion ignores the yapping of small dogs. This is an image of a philosophical insight. Greatness has, within itself, its own intrinsic honor and worthiness of respect. When it's not shown that respect, a wrong is done, not to the great person, nation, movement or religion being attacked, but both by and to and in the one communicating the disrespect. With anything other than greatness, however, things are quite different. But true greatness has an essential immunity to such diminishment.

Socrates believed that others could harm us only physically. We alone are capable of hurting and demeaning ourselves spiritually. He was also convinced that the worst efforts of lesser men could never do genuine harm to the souls of greater men, however they might contrive to inflict that damage.

Of course, there's often a dynamic of insult, offense, and rage within businesses and industries, as well as within cultures. And far too much energy is wasted on these things. Any who react with anger and even rage to such perceived wounds need to engage in the age-old enterprise of self-examination. Are they defending their honor, or their great mentor's honor? True honor needs no such defense. It's fine, as it is. Once they understand this, then, perhaps, they'll be able to discover what's really going on in their own hearts and minds, and make some changes that can result in something philosophically and emotionally healthier.