Before detailing a positive philosophy of excellence in a future series of posts, I want to spend some time thinking about the mindsets that hold us back from excellence or from valuing a philosophy of excellence. These mindsets may take the form of a worked-out theory, but they more frequently appear as thoughtless prejudice or cultural sentiment. We hear slogans passed around and repeated as common sense without much thought given to the underlying philosophy. For example, we hear it said that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” with the meaning that any painting can be excellently beautiful if we could just find a person who likes it. Typically, someone who says such a thing does not think much about the philosophy of subjectivism underlying the slogan. We might imagine such a person interrogated by Socrates, and perhaps it would come out in the questioning that some paintings really are better than others despite the variety of our tastes. The slogan has purchase, however, because it gives voice not to a philosophy but to a feeling. The slogan is cited to give people a feeling of reassurance that the standards of excellence are not so definite and therefore not so real. If the standards are not real, then we have the conclusion we really want: unreal standards of excellence are not so threatening, which makes us feel safer, less judged, or more content with our own level of accomplishment.
In the following series, we will examine several such sentiments that offer various levels of resistance to a thoroughgoing philosophy of excellence, and we will examine the underlying view of the world that seems to motivate them. It may seem backwards to begin a conversation about excellence by considering the sentiments of anti-excellence, but this step is important for a few reasons. First, the slogans of anti-excellence saturate our culture nearly everywhere we look. From billboards to kids’ movies, feel-good messages of self-acceptance and relativism surround us completely. Before we can plow a fruitful field on such terrain we will need to do some heavy brush clearing first.
Second, I suspect that in the essays to follow even my most sympathetic readers will at times feel judged or attacked—which is, of course, not the intention at all. As we will explore in much more detail, this feeling of being judged or attacked by excellence is both a cultural product of the feel-good messages we have already mentioned and a natural byproduct of objective excellence itself. By critically identifying the elements of our anti-excellence culture I hope to inoculate readers ahead of time against at least the first of these causes. Overcoming the second will require much deeper soul-searching.
Third, some of the most forceful anti-excellence ideas mask themselves as specifically Christian values. I will argue that in each case these supposedly Christian values are really a misunderstanding or twisting of Christian truth. Nevertheless, if I forestall addressing this until later, I suspect some readers will have a growing sense that this series of essays comes from an arrogant, humanistic, godless, and Nietzschean philosophy right from the first post. Talking at length about excellence, beauty, achievement, and perfection does not immediately sound to contemporary ears like a Christian philosophy filled by humility, confession of sin, and love for the least of these. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Far from being at odds with excellence, true Christian humility and self-emptying charity, I will argue, requires an objective hierarchy of values. I will examine these pseudo-Christian sentiments last in this series so that we might begin laying the foundational concepts in the next series with the firm conviction that they are entirely in harmony with—indeed a necessary basis for—radical humility and love for the poor, the weak, and the downtrodden.