An interesting column in the London Guardian suggesting that a society should be judged not only on how it treats its least fortunate, but also its most talented.
Mozart redeems my mediocrity
We should cherish those who possess great talent rather than envying them and begrudging their success
Thursday July 21, 2005
In ancient Greece, people expected their heroes to be different. The first readers of the Iliad didn’t imagine they could ever be as great as Achilles. They accepted that he was in a completely different category, a different order of being. And they didn’t envy him his superior talent – they admired him for it.
Nowadays, if someone is vastly more talented than us, we don’t congratulate them – we envy them and resent their success. It seems we don’t want heroes we can admire, so much as heroes we can identify with.
We want to think we could be like them, and so we make sure to select heroes that are like us. We worship David Beckham because he’s fallible. If Achilles were around today, the headlines would all be about his heel.
This is the real reason for the astonishing rise of reality TV. We allow halfwits to become celebrities precisely because there is no great gap separating them from us. That consoles us, because it makes us think that we could be famous if we had a bit more luck, or if we tried a bit harder. We can’t bear the idea that some people might be better than us, so much better that we could never be like them, no matter how hard we tried. That upsets our democratic ethos, our belief that all people are born equal.
But raw talent is not distributed equally. By definition, most of us are not exceptional. We are neither particularly stupid, nor especially intelligent. Only a very few are extremely gifted. But it is to these exceptionally talented people that the rest of us owe most of the greatest achievements of humankind. The Mona Lisa, the Goldberg Variations and King Lear were not the work of ordinary people like you and me. They were the work of geniuses, people so much more talented than us that we could never paint or write anything comparable to their achievements, no matter how hard we tried or how long we lived.
To some, that thought seems so humiliating and threatening that it must not even be countenanced. But to me it is liberating and inspiring. It is precisely the realisation that I will never be the equal of Mozart or Goethe that allows me to sit back and enjoy what they have bequeathed to me. It is my recognition of their greatness, my admission of the immeasurable superiority of their talent, that redeems my mediocrity. It is good to be human, not because every human can be great, but because a few people have shown us the heights to which humanity can occasionally ascend. Without the shining achievements of these few, the human race would be a waste of space.
Consider also how unattractive it is when someone begrudges another’s talent, when they cannot praise success without also seeking to undermine it or feel diminished when a colleague wins praise. It is a sign of a mean spirit.
Conversely, the person who shows unreserved admiration thereby becomes admirable. To applaud someone else’s achievements or good fortune, without the slightest trace of envy or resentment, is a mark of true generosity.
It is not just individuals who can be judged by such criteria. Societies too differ in terms of their attitude to success. It is often remarked that a society should be judged on how it treats its least fortunate members. But it is equally revealing to observe how a society treats its most fortunate members. A society that tramples on its poorest and weakest citizens is clearly less humane than one with social services and unemployment benefit. But a society that does not reward raw talent and praise excellence is equally barbaric.
The just allocation of admiration is a virtue that requires judgment and integrity: judgment to distinguish genuine talent from mere showiness, and integrity in refusing to bestow praise on those who do not fully deserve it. Prizes are only valuable if they are restricted to the very few. Not winning a prize is not something to be seen as shameful – it should be the norm, something that happens to the overwhelming majority of people.
Conversely, we need social structures that allow for very fine-grained distinctions to be made at the top of the ability range in any given domain – whether learning, sport or industry. There is no point in having an exam system in which more than 5% of the candidates can attain the top grade, let alone one in which 30% do. Society needs ways of picking out and rewarding the rare talent that is truly exceptional.
The rest of us should cherish those who possess such talent, for they are one of our most valuable resources. They are the scientists who will come up with the life-saving medicines of the future, the artists who will inspire us with new works of beauty, the sportsmen and women who will amaze us with their strength and skill. If we want society to progress rather than stagnate, we must learn to be more generous, and rediscover the lost art of pure admiration.
· Dylan Evans is a senior lecturer in intelligent autonomous systems at the University of the West of England