TCS Daily

Of Success and Excess

By Paul J. Cella - July 19, 2004 12:00 AM

"There is not a more perilous or immoral habit of mind than the sanctifying of success," avowed Lord Acton in an essay on English history. The object of his epigrammatic censure was Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England, victor in the English Civil War; of whom Acton nevertheless conceded, "we cannot easily say too much of his capacity in all things where practical success is concerned." But Cromwell, Acton explains, "professed to see the hand of God, a special intervention, when he succeeded, and when things went well. It was not the arm of flesh that had done these things. They were remarkable Providences, and the like." His habit was to sanctify his own successes.

America in the twilight of modernity is unlikely to see the hand of God anywhere -- certainly not in courthouses on blocks of stone. But it is surely a habit of the American mind to sanctify success. To vary the metaphor, success is our currency, and we trade in it wherever we go. As society's common perspective, its shared sense of the permanent things, fragments with the culture that birthed it, worldly success has rushed into the void as the arbiter of value, and the final measure of men and ideas.

Lord Action was indeed a liberal -- albeit an old-style one, a liberal in the classical sense of admiring nothing in politics so much as liberty. And it is precisely in this light that we should see his resounding judgment on Cromwell: "he was a constant enemy of free institutions. Scarcely any Englishman has so bad a record in modern history." And it was precisely as a liberal that Acton perceived, as few others in Europe did, the genius of the American system.

"American independence was the beginning of a new era, not merely as a revival of Revolution, but because no other Revolution ever proceeded from so slight a cause, or was ever conducted with so much moderation. The European monarchies supported it. The greatest statesman in England averred that it was just. It established a pure democracy; but it was democracy in its highest perfection, armed and vigilant, less against aristocracy and monarchy than against its own weakness and excess. Whilst England was admired for the safeguards with which, in the course of many centuries, it had fortified liberty against the power of the crown, America appeared still more worthy of admiration for the safeguards which, in the deliberations of a single memorable year, it had set up against the power of its own sovereign people."

The important point for my purposes here is that the genius of this system, which Acton and Tocqueville and the other great observers of the New World from the Old identified, was in its enormous caution about its own success. For success is quickly transformed into excess, which in democracy usually means comprehensive tyranny. Even the absolute monarchs in the mold of Louis XIV had to contend with other interests, each with organic sources of power; while the whole idea of democracy, in its pure form, includes the reduction and ultimately the obliteration of those interests. Thus the founders of the United States erected artificial structures to restrain democracy. Lord Acton particularly admired the principle of federalism, which he believed preserved the best of the liberty of the Middle Ages, and approximated the Catholic principle of subsidiarity.

To begin to worship success qua success (that is, success torn free from its attachment to virtue) is to repudiate a signal component of our constitution as a democratic people. Success is not a virtue; and success bloated into an idol grows jealous of virtue. America rightly honors the image of the Self-Made Man; but we dishonor ourselves when we begin to imagine that any man can be utterly self-made. I do not mean this in the strictly religious sense of man as a created being; but I do mean that no man rises to success without drawing profoundly on what came before him. A perfectly self-made man is really a man who unmakes himself, by plunging back into affected animal simplicity. And it should be noted that mere success is to be distinguished from higher things like quality or superiority. A thing may succeed even though it is of low quality; it may succeed by treachery or by brute force; it may even succeed by mere luck or accident. This is just the point, and the error Acton described consists in that superficiality which abjures judging the quality of a thing, or the merit of a man, so long as success is obvious.

A whole vision of history has risen up among us, deriving in part from Acton's own intellectual tradition with its esteem for progress, which seems to asseverate that every cause that has triumphed has triumphed on its merits. This is an enervating vision. It undoubtedly contributes to the well-documented popular neglect of history as a vibrant and indispensable discipline; for what sense is there in learning only of things discarded and supplanted? What allure is there for a discipline that only admonishes but never excites or astounds or challenges?


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