I was recently reminded of a remark many years ago by my research assistant, a serious student of philosophy who had the menial task of getting books for me from the library. Handing over the latest batch of books, she commiserated with me on having to read so many second-rate writers while she had the privilege of reading only the Greats. The offending books on this occasion were by the English philosopher T.H. Green. I feebly, almost apologetically, explained that Green was highly respected in his time and played an important part in the subjects I was working on, social philosophy and policy in Victorian England. I even ventured to suggest that he still had a good deal to say to us, more than a century later.
As it happened, Green himself was only once removed from the Greats - a neo-Kantian, he might be called. A generation earlier, Macaulay, presented with a translation of Kant, said that he could not understand a word of it "any more than if it had been written in Sanscrit". Green made Kantianism intelligible as well as respectable to Englishmen because in Anglicising it, he also liberalised and socialised it - domesticated it, so to speak. That was no small feat. There were other attempts to bring those most formidable of modern Greats, Kant and Hegel, to the attention of the English, but for the most part, the English went their own way. John Stuart Mill, who in his youth had read almost everything worth reading, referred in On Liberty to Plato and Aristotle twice in passing, to Kant once and to Hegel not at all. Mill himself, the most eminent of English philosophers, did not, by the standards of my student, merit the title of greatness. He was more eminent than Green but still of a lesser order of greatness, a second-best order.
I might have reminded my student that the greatest of the Greats had themselves paid tribute to the second-best. Plato himself had made the transition from the best, the ideal city of the Republic, to the second-best, in the Laws. The Athenian Stranger, in the Laws, used that very term when he said that the city should be "ordered in a manner which, if not the best, is the second best". Aristotle went further in his rejection of the best, sharply criticising the "best constitution" of the Republic as impractical and contrary to human nature and proposing instead, in the Politics, a mixed constitution, in effect, a second-best constitution, that is the best practical constitution. So, too, in the Ethics, he distinguished between "wisdom", which is universal and eternal, and "prudence", which is practical and particular - the former intellectually more exalted, and in this sense the best, but the latter, the second-best, the most basic human virtue.