I’ve said it many times, as an automatic reflex. Just like “bless you” after a sneeze or “you’re welcome” after a “thank you”, the phrase “great minds think alike” rolls off the tongue naturally whenever two people have a similar idea. It’s a friendly way of complimenting others and ourselves simultaneously, a verbal pat on the back for being mutually great. It’s a bit of fun. But that doesn’t make it true.
Most of the minds we consider great throughout history have not stood out because they thought alike. We call them great precisely because they thought differently. They explored new possibilities and ideas, they asked hard questions and didn’t mind if they found hard answers, they worked to uncover the foundations instead of simply being content to live in the house with everyone else. Often, they were misunderstood in their own time, and it’s not hard to see why: The minds that are considered great among the living in every age (including today) are the minds that think alike. They flow with the consensus and run with the streams of power, and their status and prestige serve as the unassailable proof of the greatness of their thoughts. It works for a while, maybe even a lifetime – until they are replaced by a new consensus or buried by a new generation of power. Then their glory ceases to overawe us, and their claims to greatness are no longer invulnerable. As time goes by, the mass of minds who thought alike in the past become less and less likely to be considered great by the generations that follow. When those generations look back, the minds who stand out to them as great are often the ones who rejected the consensus of their own time, the ones who did not think alike. We describe those minds as being “ahead of their time”, and usually the reason we honour them like this is because of their tendency to agree with our time. After all, the simple act of thinking differently is not enough in itself. The minds we pick out as great are the ones who were brave enough to think like we do now, even when no one else did.
It’s our historical way of complimenting others and ourselves simultaneously, an intellectual pat on the back for being mutually great. It’s not just a bit of fun, though. This time, it’s serious. But that still doesn’t make it true.
If history is any guide, our great-grandchildren will find plenty of ways to critique us. They will not be impressed by our consensus, or convinced of the greatness of our ideas. Most likely they will only pick out a few of our minds to call great (those of us who are most like them), and brush the rest of us aside. And maybe they’ll be right. But will their great-grandchildren think so?
Where does this end?
Ultimately, any greatness defined by the shifting consensus of history is fragile and temporary. In spite of the common saying, minds are not great simply because they think alike. Daring to think differently does not guarantee it, either. The greatness of our minds is not defined by how similar or different our thoughts happen to be to the thoughts of other people. The constant tides of time will wash away those distinctions, along with a host of once-popular ideas and bravely different thoughts that stood out from them. The only ideas that will remain are the ones that are grounded firmly in rock-solid reality. In the end it doesn’t matter whether great minds thought alike or differently.
What matters is that they thought what was true.