Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Date: 24th November 2011

Long-shot Utopias

The hardest strokes of heaven fall in history upon those who imagine that they can control things in a sovereign manner, as though they were kings of the earth, playing Providence not only for themselves but for the far future – reaching out into the far future with the wrong kind of far-sightedness, and gambling on a lot of risky calculations in which there must never be a single mistake. And it is a defect in such enthusiasts that they seem unwilling to leave anything to Providence, unwilling even to leave the future flexible, as one must do; and they forget that in any case, for all we know, our successors may decide to switch ideals and look for a different utopia before any of our long shots have reached their objective, or any of our long-range projects have had fulfilment. It is agreeable to all the processes of history, therefore, that each of us should rather do the good that is straight under our noses. Those people work more wisely who seek to achieve good in their own small corner of the world and then leave the leaven to leaven the whole lump, that those who are ever thinking that life is vain unless one can act though the central government, carry legislation, achieve political power and do big things.

From Herbert Butterfield’s Christianity and History

I came across the wonderful book in a second-hand book store in Sheffield – it is a real forgotten treasure: a great history Professor reflecting upon the relationship of history to faith and moral action.

I love this passage partly because it describes so well one of those tempting traps all dreamers can fall into. We think we know what should be done, we think we know what the future should be like, we think we should be the one to push the buttons. But this is all vain: the truths we’ve grasped are only partial, whatever we want others may not want, and there are no buttons – life is far too complex to be directed by anyone – least of all us.

These points seem true regardless of our faith or any lack of faith. However Butterfield also describes how faith in Providence – God working his purposes out over time – can help us manage our anxiety and our passion for moral change. A combination of utopian dreaming and atheism is particularly dangerous because you can have no faith that change will happen right, unless it is you who are in charge of that change (for there is no guiding Providence at work). More frighteningly still, you are free to breach all moral principles in pursuit of your dream, because nothing matters except the dream.

Social Mobility and Meritocracy

At the same time there existed in the sphere of the world a land that was called the country of wealth after the nature of its inhabitants. They saw in money alone the goal of their life and would recognise no other profit and no other perfection than possession. Thus all posts of honour and all ranks among them were regulated by this valuation. It was necessary to own a certain amount in order merely to be a man; he who did not possess this much stood lower and occupied in their esteem the rank of a manlike animal, and was called such. He owned more than that minimum amount occupied a higher position, and a very rich man stood near the stars; for he had, so they believed, the power of the stars, which cause gold to grow in the bowels of the earth. But the richest of all, who could never grasp all that was theirs or even merely survey it, these they exalted to gods above them and served them in the dust. It was ordered that each show his possessions every year so that he could maintain his station, rise, or fall, and it was then possible at times that from a man, an animal would come into being, and from an animal, a man.

From The Master of Prayer by Rabbi Nachman, as told by Martin Buber

Rabbi Nachman’s fable captures brilliantly the interwoven madness of two contemporary obsessions:

Meritocracy involves the crazy desire to equate wealth and power with merit (today often equated to academic excellence). Once we think this through we can see that there is no merit in meritocracy – in fact we might say that as those with merit are already blessed perhaps we should be happy to see those without merit get the distinct benefits of power or money. Meritocracy is greed.

But meritocracy also invites the craziness of social mobility. On one reading social mobility – if we can abandon the notion of up and down – is harmless or good. It is certainly bad if a natural footballer is forced to play cricket, a natural comedian runs a funeral parlour or a natural gardner becomes an accountant. However the idea that there is any virtue in people getting much richer than their parents and (and by logical necessity that there is virtue in seeing people become much poorer than their parents) is nonsense. It is an illusion that is only credible if we also believe in meritocracy.

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