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Are We Doomed to Fail?

Friday 12th January
Our modern idea of failure is a return to the Calvinist notion of the predestined reprobate
| Author of Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers and the upcoming In Praise of Failure

bosch hell

We all know him. He features in many of the stories we tell ourselves. We may have even had an occasional glimpse of this person, but he is mostly an invisible presence: he is invoked, discussed, laughed at, mocked, and derided. But for all this vivid audible presence, we can’t really say we are anywhere “close” to him. In fact, we try to stay away...

We all know him. He features in many of the stories we tell ourselves. We may have even had an occasional glimpse of this person, but he is mostly an invisible presence: he is invoked, discussed, laughed at, mocked, and derided. But for all this vivid audible presence, we can’t really say we are anywhere “close” to him. In fact, we try to stay away from this person as much as we can. For his condition may be contagious and, God forbid, his terrible predicament may rub off on us. We need him only insofar as we need someone against whom we can define ourselves safely: whatever we are, we are not like him. Thanks to this mental exercise, we come to realize that, compared to him, we are better off by default: whatever problems we may have, we don’t have his problem, no matter how bad our afflictions, we don’t suffer from his. And what is his condition exactly? He is the worst thing someone can be in this time and age: a failure.

Failures have always captured the public attention and imagination. In a certain sense, each organized society generates its own type of “failure,” in which, like in a distorting mirror, it unwittingly projects and reveals itself. The way communities construct their “failures” is never innocent: tell me how you define a failure and I will tell you more about yourself. There is, for example, a distinct light-heartedness in the way the Athenians engaged with the figure of Diogenes the Cynic. When someone asked him what kind of wine he liked most, Diogenes allegedly said: “Somebody else’s.” Apparently, the Athenians offered him enough opportunities to enjoy that particular kind of wine. Indeed, Diogenes seemed to have been in demand and he could be fussy as to where to go. Diogenes may have been a failure, but he was one by choice, something that the Athenians seemed to have understood and respected. No matter how scandalous his eccentricities were, they were apparently willing to play along. That was part of the way they constructed their social failures. 

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"The way communities construct their “failures” is never innocent: tell me how you define a failure and I will tell you more about yourself." 

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To be a failure in our time is a different business altogether. We take failures seriously. In fact, we are somewhat obsessed with them. That’s because we must be terrified of being one ourselves. To be a failure is a status that – negatively, yet decisively – shapes the way we think about ourselves and our world, about the meaning of our lives and what makes us properly human. Failure is rarely an indifferent subject. Most of the time, the topic unsettles us. There is something existentially dark, slightly morbid about it. Hence the way we relate to those whom our society constructs as “failures.” A failure is not simply someone who makes mistakes – big or small, occasional or frequent. Indeed, not even someone who fails in some way or another. Everyone fails, but not everyone is a failure. To be a failure is not a matter of practice, of personal morality or intelligence, but one of ontology: it is, above all, about who you are, not about what you do or say or think. There may be an element of lifestyle choice as far as the “failures” themselves are concerned but seen from the outside, socially and culturally, to be a failure is rather a “curse.” You are a failure by decree – you’ve been doomed to be so. Nothing can save you, no matter what you do, say or think. You are a failure for all eternity, and nothing can save you.

Where does this peculiar attitude come from? To answer this question, we need to go back almost two thousand years, so bear with me.

In his Epistle to the Romans (9: 18-24) Saint Paul (c. 5 – c. 67) meditates on God’s omnipotence and freedom of action: 

So then he [God] has mercy upon whomever he wills, and he hardens the heart of whomever he wills. You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, a man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me thus?”

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"To be a failure is not a matter of practice, of personal morality or intelligence, but one of ontology: it is, above all, about who you are, not about what you do or say or think." 

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So far so good. Paul’s next move, however, takes us into terrifying territory. Pushing the pottery metaphor to breaking point, he speaks here of God as a playful artist, a Deo ludens, taken by theatrics and fond of dramatic effects – the practitioner of a bloody art. God creates man only to take delight in his crushing, in very much the same way a whimsical potter would approach his various output:  

Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for beauty and another for menial use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory…?

A “vessel of wrath made for destruction” – who could possibly say “no” to such a destiny? Who could not be tempted by a career as a vessel of “menial use,” not only in this world, but for all eternity? Harsh beyond measure as it may have been, the Paulinian idea was taken over by John Calvin (1509-1564), who turned it into something even harsher: his doctrine of double predestination. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion Calvin makes ample use of Paul’s pottery metaphor. Here’s how he, in Paul’s footsteps, defines predestination:

We call predestination God’s eternal decree, by which he compacted with himself what he willed to become of each man. For all are not created in equal condition; rather, eternal life is foreordained for some, eternal damnation for others. Therefore, as any man has been created to one or the other of these ends, we speak of him as predestined to life or to death.

17 10 05 News MPU

 “What of those,” Calvin wonders, whom God “created for dishonor in life and destruction in death, to become the instruments of his wrath and examples of his severity?” What of them? They are certainly meant for crushing, but for their destruction Calvin’s God employs a cruel inventiveness. Intent on annihilating them, God makes sure they have absolutely no way to escape their fate: “That they may come to their end, he sometimes deprives them of the capacity to hear his word; at other times he rather blinds and stuns them by the preaching of it.” There is no trace left of Paul’s Deus ludens in Calvin now. His God does not play games, makes no mistakes and no exceptions – this is a deadly serious God.

Calvin emerges here as a radical theologian, and his radicalism at work is a sight to behold. There is in him a cruelty of thinking probably unparalleled in modern theology. Something alien, non-human marks out his gaze. It is as though he – constantly, unflinchingly – looks at the human world though God’s eyes; no matter the issue at stake, Calvin takes God’s side. God is always right, by necessity so, while man is always wrong, by default. Calvin’s interest, says Max Weber, is “solely in God, not in man; God does not exist for men, but men for the sake of God.”

Calvin’s method has a dual effect on his theology. First, it allows him to push his thinking to its last consequences. We may disagree with it, but we must admit his is a perfectly consistent thinking. Second, Calvin’s method renders his thinking inhumane, even monstrous. There is almost no trace of human emotion – of feeling – in the unfolding of this theology. Calvin is God’s spokesperson, his henchman and personal bulldog. In any given situation the former law student takes on the prosecutor’s role, never the defense lawyer’s. Then, in no time, the prosecutor turns executioner – God’s extermination angel. The victim has no say in the process. If anything, she should consider herself blessed to be part of such wonderful justice. For “God’s hidden decree,” Calvin writes, “is not to be searched out but obediently marveled at.”

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"Calvin’s method renders his thinking inhumane, even monstrous. There is almost no trace of human emotion – of feeling – in the unfolding of this theology." 

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You will look in vain for any shades of doubt in Calvin’s theological universe, or room for nuance or interpretation. Perhaps God only predestined some to salvation, without necessarily condemning others? No, answers Calvin, the predestination is double: “God adopts some to hope of life, and sentences others to eternal death.” Maybe God doesn’t really cause our damnation, just “allows” some of us to be damned? No, it cannot: “God willed, not only permitted Adam’s fall and the rejection of the reprobate.” Is it really possible that in our election or damnation individual merit doesn’t make any difference whatsoever? It’s not only possible, it’s mathematically certain.

We assert that, with respect to the elect, this plan was founded upon his freely given mercy, without regard to human worth; but by his just and irreprehensible but incomprehensible judgment he has barred the door of life to those whom he has given over to damnation.

This is probably one of the highest, most disturbing points of Calvin’s doctrine of predestination – theology at its cruelest. While the condemnation of the reprobate is a matter of divine justice, our merits are irrelevant here: “Jacob… is chosen and distinguished from the rejected Esau by God’s predestination, while not differing from him in merits.” Whatever we do, however diligent we are, that doesn’t gain us election. Rejection, Calvin writes, “takes place not on the basis of works but solely according to God’s will.” Our efforts are in vain, then. God has already made up his mind: indeed, he decided to condemn us even before the creation of the world. Not even faith can help us here. “Faith is the work of election,” he claims, “but election does not depend upon faith.” A reprobate is reprobate not because of what he does, or says or thinks, but because of who he is. Reprobation is not a matter of morality or practice, but one of ontology. He is an absolute failure. 

The way we think about failures, then, may be a late, yet quite distinct echo of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Along with the “spirit of capitalism,” we may have inherited from it a certain way of looking on the un-chosen. Early in the American history, communities of self-proclaimed elected in New England wanted to expel the reprobate from the church, which was for them an aristocracy of the chosen. Save perhaps for some niceties of language, we behave not very differently towards the "failures" in our own societies. Indeed, not only do the successful treat the "failures" in a way strongly reminiscent of the way the “reprobates” were treated in the hands of various communities of the “chosen,” but there are reasons to believe that one treatment derives from the other. The relationship is not only morphological, but also genealogical. Showing that in some detail would make quite a good story.


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Wyatt Russell on 06/02/2018 11:52pm

Great article, Costica. It's interesting, and seems likely to me, that Calvinism may have had such a strong hand in our societal prejudices. Personally, I would have liked to read more about how that could have happened. The article as is ends pretty abruptly. Again, though, I loved reading it.

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