Yesterday’s post about Walter Russell Mead’s thoughts on the challenge meritocracy presents to Christian values has yielded some interesting (and wise) comments.
Here’s a sampling of the best:
The flaw Mead describes is with mankind, not with the principle of meritocracy. In particular, the flaw may be called pride (or hubris, and the ancient Greeks knew it and its destructive consequences well). By a similar argument, one could argue that medicine (or, at least, the Hippocratic application of it) has as a weakness the tendency that it tends to make man grasp after an earthly immortality. Again, that failing is solely with man’s flawed nature since the Fall. It is still true that people kill people, not guns.
Indeed. It’s nice to see some classical philosophy applied to the modern world. And how do we hold up in comparison?
Mead is commenting on our ever-willing tendency to treat our beauty, brains, strength, or talent as a personal accomplishment. Pride inevitably follows the assumption that we are somehow the origin of our gifts, and as we all know, “pride goeth before the fall.”
People of great intelligence frequently act as though they were somehow the antecedent source for the intelligence they were born with. Though impossible, they are so enamored of this gift which gives such competitive advantage, they willingly assume a kind of self-authorship.
Even placing the Divine aside, as Edmund Burke was keen to point out, a great deal of what we have is owed to the work of our forefathers. Newton said we are standing on the shoulders of giants. What we have — and what we are — is largely the product of forces outside our control (genetics, inheritance, and sometimes plain luck). That is hardly the fault of the fortunate, but it should be a warning against excessive pride.
Another commenter adds:
The Bible instructs against pride. You don’t score 800 on the math SAT by hard work alone, you must have the native genetic intellect upon which your efforts build.
Likewise, not everyone can be Michael Phelps regardless of the training and dedication they put into swimming. You first have to be blessed with the physical potential and genetics. You *can’t* actually be anything you want to be, with just hard work, and I think that is a dangerous illusion that should be qualified. However, in our country you can certainly rise above your condition, and fully realize your potential, through dedication and hard work.
Pulling yourself up by the bootstraps is more than a cliche — it perfectly describes the American attitude toward hard work and success. But there’s a potential downside to thinking you are, in fact, a “self-made man.”