Humans have always seriously messed up their lives, but the way in which failure has been viewed has a long and fascinating history that it may help us to know about. Athens, 429 BC It’s the premiere of a tragedy called “Oedipus the King”, written by the great playwright, Sophocles. It’s the story of an honorable, capable
and highly resourceful man who, nevertheless messes up his life in a
catastrophic way but the audience doesn’t leave the theater thinking of Oedipus as a loser. Greek tragedy was designed to show audiences that terrible things can and very often do happen to good people, and therefore we must remain
sympathetic and kind in the face of failure. The Greeks force this message upon themselves again and again at prestigious annual festivals. The Greeks also love the story of the Spartan army at Thermopylae, where a small contingent of warriors held out to the last man against a vastly larger Persian force. The Spartans were utterly defeated, but their failure was seen as profoundly noble. You can lose and be good.
That was the moral. Rome, 46 AD Julius Caesar celebrates yet another triumph over the enemies of Rome. The Romans worship success. They believed that success in the
here and now is all that counts, and that success means three things: money, fame, and military glory, which creates a lot of anxiety around failure. Germany, 9 AD The Roman general, Varus, kills himself after losing a battle in the Teutoburg forest, not far from modern-day Hanover in the north of Germany. He’s made some major strategic errors in deploying his
troops. His suicide is an expected consequence; Failure is so humiliating and shameful that it shows one doesn’t deserve to go on living. The Romans represent a society where failure is thought of as naturally accompanied by shame. When big things go wrong you just kill yourself. There’s no excuse. A small hill overlooking the Sea of Galilee, 30 AD A former carpenter and itinerant preacher delivers a tender speech, which has since become known as the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus Christ tells his followers “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”. In other words, the unsuccessful are, in a way, more successful than the successful in the eyes of God, because their failures erode arrogance and invite dependence on the divine. For hundreds of years Christianity lends glamour and prestige to failure, and challenges the worldly values of Rome. Privileging poverty, obscurity and weakness over wealth, fame and strength. Not simply you’re not meant
to commit suicide when you fail, failing is a sign of being blessed. Eastern India, sometime in the fifth century BC A wealthy young Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, later known as The Buddha, The Enlightened One, comes to a key realization about human beings: all of us are deeply maladjusted, unhappy creatures. Worldly success, power, riches, love can mean nothing and will never satisfy us. We must learn to renounce our desires, and escape from constant cycles of craving and wanting. In Buddhist eyes, true success means utter failure in the eyes of a Roman soldier or a modern American. It means living under a fruit tree, owning nothing but a loincloth, and begging from passers-by. Paris 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte inaugurates a new social order, which will begin to be known as a meritocracy. No longer will success go only to members of the old corrupt aristocracy; he wants to launch a meritocracy marked by what he terms “la carrière ouverte aux talents”; careers open to the talented rather than just the privileged. France requires a new honest system based on merit. The Légion d’honneur, which is given to people of all classes, who were judged not by ancestry or wealth but by military scientific or artistic prowess. Suddenly, success comes to seem a lot more fair and deserved, which is very advantageous in many ways, but it also means that failure starts to be re-categorized as not merely accidental or morally neutral, as the Christian ideal had implied, but also in some ways, deserved. Paris, 1863 The French government sponsors its annual artistic salon, where the most successful painters are exhibited and celebrated. The jury, headed by the Comte de Nieuwerkerke, the head of the Academy of Fine Arts, is that year, extremely conservative and rejects two-thirds of the paintings presented, including those of Courbet, Édouard Manet, Camille Pissaro, and Whistler. The rejected artists and their
friends are outraged and protest. The Emperor, Napoleon lll, eventually
relents and allows the rejected artists to set up their own rival exhibition. Gradually the public and critics recognize that the officially successful artists, people like Alexandre Cabanel and Franz Winterhalter, are terrible painters, and that the unsuccessful ones are, in fact, the true geniuses. This will be a theme throughout the history of 19th and 20th century art, and society more broadly. The genius is at first rejected by a stupid, blinkered world, but eventually comes to be accepted and celebrated This is what happens to, among others, John Keats, Vincent van Gogh, Marcel Proust, Janis Joplin and Steve Jobs. “Real successes aren’t successes immediately” goes the story; they might need to wait for a
long time, perhaps until after their dead, a consoling story with echoes of the
Christian idea of redemption. New York, October 5, 1987 The right wing economics magazine, Forbes, publishes its first list of the richest people on the planet. The richest man is Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, who is at that point worth 20 bilion dollars. The tone of the magazine is
celebratory, and un-nuanced, reflecting an uncritical acceptance of
the idea of the American dream: “he who is richest finishes first”. It’s a small irony, therefore, that two weeks later, on October 19th, the world stock markets collapse, destroying wealth on an enormous scale, and shaking everyone’s confidence in the merit and sanity of the economic system. New York, September 2011 Following yet another global economic meltdown, a group of protesters occupy Zuccotti Park in the financial district of Manhattan. Their protest is, in a narrow sense, about the corruption and blindness of America’s financial institutions, but more broadly, the protesters are arguing that a narrow elite, the 1%, as they call them, have twisted our ideas of success and the good life. The so called “heroes”, people like Jamie Dimon, the head of JP Morgan, who’s paid around 20 bilion dollars a year, are in fact the villains. Being a decent person doesn’t necessarily mean making a lot of money, it means acting wisely and kindly towards others and the planet. The protesters have a good few months in which to make their case, which sounds remarkably like that made by Jesus in The Sermon on the Mount, before the forces of contemporary capitalism hose them down and shut them up. Slowly, the economy recovers, which also means that the battered American dream, equating mobility with financial success, becomes dominant once more. Most of us are going to endure horrific
failures in some area or other of our lives. We’re an extremely success-focused world, and define success by some very narrow, normally financial criteria. There’s endless talk about opportunity, and well-meaning efforts to make sure that everyone can have a chance, but there is a deep silence about what happens when you fail. To weaken the power of the narratives of success, we used to have religion, and we used to have art. We have less of that now; the very idea that failure could be noble has entirely disappeared. We need to go back in history and fetch some ideas that could stop us from being fatally hard on ourselves, when we mess up in the eyes of Forbes magazine and the American Dream in general.