The Price of Success

(Photo by burstingwithcolors, Flickr/CC)

What better event is there to capture the competitive spirit of Western civilization than the Olympics? From their start as simple sprints in 8th century B.C. Greece, the Olympics have been all about fierce competition and winning. Baron de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympics (after a long hiatus beginning in the 4th century, the Olympics were revived at the end of the 19th century), famously described the Olympics with the words “swifter, higher, stronger.” He ought to have said, “swiftest, highest, strongest.” Face it. Who remembers the winners of the silver and bronze medals? Coming in second or third in the Olympics is much worse than kissing your sister; earlier today, I even saw a headline about the U.S. swim team earning a silver medal that read, “Men’s Relay Dealt Stunning Loss.”

How apt that Mitt Romney, during an interview while he was in London during the opening of the games, should have lavishly praised what he called “our success” in talking about his business accomplishments:

There are people who are trying to attack success and are trying to attack our success. That’s not going to be successful. When you attack success you have less of it, and that’s what we’ve seen in our economy over the last few years. … Dividing America based on who has money and who hasn’t—who is successful and who is less successful…is not the American way…People want more success, they don’t want less success [boldface mine].

For most, “success” divides naturally into two categories—success in accumulating wealth and success in acquiring fame or reputation. Although everyone gives lip service to the idea that making money or being famous do not amount to happiness, and everyone can call up examples where wealthy and famous people are unhappy, most of us remain convinced, deep down, that wealth, at least, would make us happy.

For Aristotle, happiness was an “activity of the soul” that was separate from money or fame.  Although Aristotle conceded that a certain amount of wealth was necessary for happiness, and that it was difficult for a poor man to be happy, he considered happiness as something that derived directly from living life “in accordance with virtue.”

Living life “in accordance with virtue” is open to interpretation, but Aristotle makes clear it always requires rigorous training, the development of good habits and sustained effort. Living “in accordance with virtue” was part of Aristotle’s larger ideas about the value of always striving to find the mean between excess and deficiency. Although Mr. Romney might take comfort in knowing Aristotle thought envy a vice (many conservatives consider all criticism of the enormously wealthy as mere envy), he might pause for a moment to think about why Aristotle considered excess wealth a serious impediment to anyone striving to live “in accordance with virtue.”

I understand that by relentlessly using the word “success,” Mr. Romney got to hammer Democrats for stirring the embers of class warfare–i.e., for repeatedly pointing to the gap between the great masses of “unsuccessful” (on his terms) people against “successful” people. Yet I was surprised by his deliberately narrow, ruthless use of the word “success”—at the way he fenced it off so that it seemed to pertain strictly to those who are successful at making money.

Like many conservatives, Mr. Romney is enamored of the model of human beings as homo economicus, and has contempt for any ideas of society as a holistic entity that precedes the individual—society as that entity where individual citizens derive much of their conscious happiness, not to mention their strength, from their sense of belonging to and giving back to a larger city, state, or nation. In other words, like all conservatives, he subscribes wholeheartedly to the modern liberal philosophy that a good society is built on self-interest.

For all their individualism and intense competition (Greek Olympic boxers, especially, sometimes died during a bout), the ancient Greeks did not value individualism above society. Aristotle’s famous assertion that “man is a political animal” means that man as a fully human being emerges only because he is molded by a good society.

No one needs to study ancient Greek philosophy to grasp that success, understood in a human sense, amounts to far more than Mr. Romney’s notion of success (“…you have less [success], and that’s what we’ve seen in our economy over the last few years”).  His measure for Americans is the same measure he proudly uses on himself–how much money one hauls in.



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