Wednesday, July 10, 2024

A Quick Thought

It often occurs to me that there are two main drives in social life. We can roughly call them to drive for excellence, and the drive for solidarity.

I remember reading a book about primitive man which described "the cult of excellence" as the first distinguishing feature of human beings. Even the oldest fragments of human jewellery, pottery, etc. shows evidence of an urge to make things much better than they need to be.

We all feel this urge towards excellence. Even the stereotypical dude sitting at home playing video games in his underwear. He's trying to be as good at the video game as possible. Human beings always seem to be striving towards something, no matter how stupid. (And maybe reaching the last level of a video game is no more stupid than owning your own yacht.)

And every human activity attests to this. School, work, sport, romance-- we are all striving to be the best that we can, and often competing with each other.

But then there is the counter-drive, the drive towards solidarity. Or perhaps we can simply say "love". The perception-- common to most of us-- that the value of a human being is not in their accomplishments and their achievements, and perhaps not even in their moral character, but simply that they are a human being-- made in the image of God, for Christians.

This tension even seems to exist in Christianity. Christ told us to be perfect, but he also told us that the rain falls on the just and the unjust. Perhaps the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee encapsulates this whole dilemma. I think we've all found this parable perplexing at some level. Isn't the Pharisee at least trying? Isn't there a danger of the tax collector saying: "Thank God I am not like this Pharisee?". There seems to be an apparently impossible balance here. Perhaps only the saints achieve it-- saints whose protestations that they are the chief of sinners seem sincere.

Every philosophy of life and society seems to hover between these poles, somehow. Socialism is obviously titled much more towards solidarity. Capitalism is tilted much more towards the quest for excellence. I would say that conservatism leans more towards solidarity, while liberalism leans more towards excellence.

This duality pervades every relationship-- parenting, friendship, all kinds of authority. Love is surely wanting someone to be the best version of themselves. But we also have to love unconditionally. We are all familiar with the pitfalls of parenting-- the indulgent parent who spoils their child, or the opposite extreme of the "stage mother" who fills them with insecurity and fears of inadequacy.

I'm reading Roots by Alex Halley. It opens in a small village in the Gambia, back in the eighteenth century. It's easy to see how, in such small communities, balancing the quest for excellence and the quest for solidarity seems much easier. How do you balance them in our huge, complex, diffuse societies? It seems like one of the eternal human dilemmas.

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