TCS Daily


The Uses of Failure

By Lee Harris - March 29, 2004 12:00 AM

If Americans have one collective shortcoming, it is that we have no use for failure. Success alone is what counts for us; and though we are apt to applaud those who have given their best to come in at second or third place, we all tend to shrink back from complete and abject failure.

That is why, whenever a President looks around for men to be by his side, to guide him and to give him counsel, he will look to those who have been successful at everything that they have put their hand to. It is one of our cherished mottos that success breeds success; and we are confident that if we appoint only successful men to positions of prominence, any project undertaken by these men is bound to be successful, too.

This is our form of paganism, since underlying the American myth of success is the primitive belief that some people are just plain lucky -- just as certain numbers are, or certain days, or certain arrangements of the planets. The Greeks and Romans felt the same way, as did the Chinese and the Japanese -- and still do, I would suspect. After all, what could be more natural than the notion that good luck can rub off, or that it may adhere to certain objects, such as a rabbit's foot or a four leaf clover? As Samuel Johnson once observed about the belief in ghosts, can the universal practice of mankind be dismissed as having no basis in reality?

Unfortunately, the American myth of success is frankly a bit ashamed of its own primitive roots in the collective psyche, and it looks for a way to validate itself in a higher ethic than that of dumb luck. It seeks justification not in the caprices of the blind goddess Fortuna, but in the Calvinist doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. Success, according to this model, is the fruit by which we can recognize those whom God has elected before the foundations of the world were laid. Their success is pre-ordained, and what is more, it is not subject to reversal; there may, of course, be set backs on the way, but no obstacle can ever keep the elect from obtaining their final goal.

A glance at the life of an investor like Warren Buffet certainly makes such claims plausible. If he offered you a stock tip, would you hesitate for a moment before acting on his advice? Yes, the man has had set backs, but what were these compared to his triumphs?

America has a rich history of such men, and I have no desire to detract from their contribution to our cultural heritage. Yet there is a genuine danger in assuming that because a man has been successful up until now that he will continue to be successful, and it was this danger that the ancient Greeks encapsulated in the concept of hubris.

Hubris is a tricky idea for us to grasp. We tend to translate it as overweening pride or extravagant ambition, with an emphasis on a lack of modesty or humility in those who possess it. But the ancient Greeks were not a people for whom modesty counted for much. Boastfulness was a trait of their character, and nothing that anyone needed to apologize for; and we will miss the essential component of the Greek idea if we insist on seeing hubris as a departure from our own notions of correct deportment. For the Greeks, the man who suffers from hubris is not more self-centered or willful than a man who doesn't. He has simply been luckier.

That was the primary significance of hubris -- it was what happened to a man when he had been successful too long; he began to think that success, at least for him, was the natural state of things. Everything had always gone his way before -- why shouldn't it continue to go his way? It was not an ethical lapse, but a cognitive blind spot, and it arose from the inability to picture one's self as failing.

In Herodotus' magnificent history of the Persian wars, there is a speech in which the brother of the Persian king tries to talk his royal sibling into abandoning the ill-fated project of invading the Greek peninsula, and in the argument he makes he put forth as powerfully evocative image: It is the tallest tree in the forest that the lightning strikes -- not the rudest or the most arrogant tree, but simply the tallest.

But what crime did the tallest tree commit that justified its doom and destruction?

It did not know where to stop.

That, for the Greeks, was the essence of hubris. Oedipus' crime is not that he is boastful about his ability to solve difficult riddles -- after all, he not only solved the riddle of the Sphinx, he also solved the riddle of his own ill-starred destiny. He had a right to boast, and no self-respecting Greek would have denied him this. His problem was simply that, like the tallest tree in the forest, Oedipus did not know when to stop.

There is no more terrifying scene in all of literature than the fatal moment when Oedipus wife and mother begs him to stop seeking the truth about his own identity, and hers. She knows what is coming; the chorus knows what is coming; the audience knows what is coming; even Oedipus knows what is coming. But he cannot bring himself to stop. He cannot turn away at the threshold of the truth that will destroy his life and the lives of all those he holds dear.

That is hubris.

So what relevance does this have to Americans today?

Like the ancient Greeks, we are a highly competitive people, who prize victory and triumph. We like to win, and we admire winners, just as they did. We may not write spell-binding rhapsodies to victorious teenage athletes, like the poet Pindar, but in compensation we offer them million dollar contracts for promoting breakfast cereals and sneakers. Like them, when we look to match a man with a mission, we want the man to have a history of successful accomplishments, and not of failures.

Yet the Greeks never once permitted themselves to ignore the profound lessons that human failure has to offer -- lessons that each generation of Greeks handed down to their children through the powerful medium of art, and embodied for all time in the great series of tragedies that have luckily managed to survive two and a half millennia.

Greek tragedy was a meditation on human failure -- that was why it filled its spectators with the Aristotelian emotions of pity and terror. In their amphitheaters the Greeks came to watch the best and the brightest, the strongest and the most courageous, the cleverest and the wisest, all come inexorably to catastrophic grief.

Failure has lessons to teach us that are often far more valuable than those of success. Success all too often reassures us that we are right, and often with little reason. The man who sells everything he owes in order to buy lottery tickets, and who loses, becomes a little wiser. But the man who sells everything, and wins, will remain a fool forever.

Which is why I am hereby proposing a new department for the United States -- the department of human failure, whose secretary should be appointed purely on the basis of his lack of worldly success. He will be required to attend every cabinet meeting, and at the end of each discussion, all the successful men around the table must listen in silence for the fiftieth time as the Secretary of Failure tells them how he lost his business, or how he gambled away a fortune, or how his summer vacation in Florida turned into the worst nightmare of his life.

True, it would not ascend to the lofty heights of Sophocles and Euripides; but it would help.

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies, just out from Free Press.


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