There's a real correlation between a society that tells people that they can do anything, and the existence of low self-esteem. So that's another way in which something quite positive can have a nasty kickback. There is another reason why we might be feeling more anxious -- about our careers, about our status in the world today, than ever before. And it's, again, linked to something nice. And that nice thing is called meritocracy.
Everybody, all politicians on Left and Right, agree that meritocracy is a great thing, and we should all be trying to make our societies really, really meritocratic. In other words -- what is a meritocratic society? A meritocratic society is one in which, if you've got talent and energy and skill, you will get to the top, nothing should hold you back. It's a beautiful idea.
The problem is, if you really believe in a society where those who merit to get to the top, get to the top, you'll also, by implication, and in a far more nasty way, believe in a society where those who deserve to get to the bottom also get to the bottom and stay there. In other words, your position in life comes to seem not accidental, but merited and deserved. And that makes failure seem much more crushing.
You know, in the Middle Ages, in England, when you met a very poor person, that person would be described as an "unfortunate" -- literally, somebody who had not been blessed by fortune, an unfortunate. Nowadays, particularly in the United States, if you meet someone at the bottom of society, they may unkindly be described as a "loser." There's a real difference between an unfortunate and a loser, and that shows 400 years of evolution in society and our belief in who is responsible for our lives. It's no longer the gods, it's us. We're in the driving seat.
That's exhilarating if you're doing well, and very crushing if you're not. It leads, in the worst cases -- in the analysis of a sociologist like Emil Durkheim -- it leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides in developed, individualistic countries than in any other part of the world. And some of the reason for that is that people take what happens to them extremely personally -- they own their success, but they also own their failure.
Is there any relief from some of these pressures that I've been outlining? I think there is. I just want to turn to a few of them. Let's take meritocracy. This idea that everybody deserves to get where they get to, I think it's a crazy idea, completely crazy. I will support any politician of Left and Right, with any halfway-decent meritocratic idea; I am a meritocrat in that sense. But I think it's insane to believe that we will ever make a society that is genuinely meritocratic; it's an impossible dream.
The idea that we will make a society where literally everybody is graded, the good at the top, bad at the bottom, exactly done as it should be, is impossible. There are simply too many random factors: accidents, accidents of birth, accidents of things dropping on people's heads, illnesses, etc. We will never get to grade them, never get to grade people as they should.
I'm drawn to a lovely quote by St. Augustine in "The City of God," where he says, "It's a sin to judge any man by his post." In modern English that would mean it's a sin to come to any view of who you should talk to,dependent on their business card. It's not the post that should count. According to St. Augustine, only God can really put everybody in their place; he's going to do that on the Day of Judgment, with angels and trumpets, and the skies will open. Insane idea, if you're a secularist person, like me. But something very valuable in that idea, nevertheless.
In other words, hold your horses when you're coming to judge people. You don't necessarily know what someone's true value is. That is an unknown part of them, and we shouldn't behave as though it is known.There is another source of solace and comfort for all this. When we think about failing in life, when we think about failure, one of the reasons why we fear failing is not just a loss of income, a loss of status. What we fear is the judgment and ridicule of others. And it exists.
The number one organ of ridicule, nowadays, is the newspaper. If you open the newspaper any day of the week, it's full of people who've messed up their lives. They've slept with the wrong person, taken the wrong substance, passed the wrong piece of legislation -- whatever it is, and then are fit for ridicule. In other words, they have failed. And they are described as "losers." Now, is there any alternative to this? I think the Western tradition shows us one glorious alternative, which is tragedy.
Tragic art, as it developed in the theaters of ancient Greece, in the fifth century B.C., was essentially an art form devoted to tracing how people fail, and also according them a level of sympathy, which ordinary life would not necessarily accord them. A few years ago, I was thinking about this, and I went to "The Sunday Sport," a tabloid newspaper I don't recommend you start reading if you're not familiar with it already.
And I went to talk to them about certain of the great tragedies of Western art. I wanted to see how they would seize the bare bones of certain stories, if they came in as a news item at the news desk on a Saturday afternoon.
I mentioned Othello; they'd not heard of it but were fascinated.
I asked them to write a headline for the story. They came up with "Love-Crazed Immigrant Kills Senator's Daughter." Splashed across the headline. I gave them the plotline of Madame Bovary. Again, a book they were enchanted to discover. And they wrote "Shopaholic Adulteress Swallows Arsenic After Credit Fraud."
And then my favorite -- they really do have a kind of genius of their own, these guys -- my favorite is Sophocles' Oedipus the King: "Sex With Mum Was Blinding."
In a way, if you like, at one end of the spectrum of sympathy, you've got the tabloid newspaper. At the other end of the spectrum, you've got tragedy and tragic art. And I suppose I'm arguing that we should learn a little bit about what's happening in tragic art. It would be insane to call Hamlet a loser. He is not a loser, though he has lost. And I think that is the message of tragedy to us, and why it's so very, very important, I think.
The other thing about modern society and why it causes this anxiety, is that we have nothing at its center that is non-human. We are the first society to be living in a world where we don't worship anything other than ourselves. We think very highly of ourselves, and so we should; we've put people on the Moon, done all sorts of extraordinary things. And so we tend to worship ourselves.