This is our annual summer vacation issue, which means I am free to ramble on like an old lizard soaking up gin and sunshine at the beach and telling stories that all begin, “Did I ever tell you about the time . . . ”

Did I ever tell you about the time I first fully grasped the true evil known as equality?  It happened many years ago (over 40, to be more precise), when I was part of an interdisciplinary discussion group of young college teachers.  The group included an economist, several social scientists, and a zoologist.  We met once a week in the back room of a bar to study and debate some provocative book.  As luck would have it, the two classicists were the only Christians in the group, though, after working through Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana, most of the rest dropped their hostility to the Faith, and one or two began to question their assumptions.  Two things have always amazed me about this experience: How easily otherwise intelligent people swallow the ideology that dominates in their professional group and social class, and how open a really bright scientist or scholar can be to an alien way of thinking.

Jack, the economist, was a student of Armen Alchian and a big admirer of Douglass North, one of the few economists who could make sense out of everyday political issues.  I was astonished that the Scandinavians were smart enough (or dumb enough) to give him the Nobel Prize (in 1993).

As I was saying (Yes, I’ll have another, but not so much tonic in this one), we took turns teaching each other some book or subject that interested us.  Jack whipped us through two terms of microeconomics, using Alchian and Allen’s brilliant but overly technical Exchange and Production and North’s (and others’) Economics of Public Issues, which might have been titled “Economics for Boneheads.”  It was all highly revealing to a Hellenist, whose one econ course had been taught by a doctrinaire leftist Keynesian.

One day Jack took up the basic principle of utilitarianism, that the object of policy should be to achieve “the greatest good for the greatest number.”  He asked the obvious question for which every reader of this magazine (though not its editor) has had the answer since childhood: “What’s wrong with this formula?”  Without batting an eye, the clearheaded zoologist responded, “You cannot maximize two variables.”

Yes, I know it is so simple that a babbling babe in his mother’s arms is aware that, if he could maximize maternal contact, his mother would never make another dinner, listen to music, or whisper sweet nothings in her adoring husband’s ear.  “Don’t tell me about fairness,” the baby would lisp, “I want it all!”  Whatever ambitious men want—sex, money, power, fame—they can never get enough of it and tend to resent whatever little successes a rival might have.

I once heard a story told to friends of mine by its hero, an extremely wealthy and famous entrepreneur.  This celebrity billionaire had been born to a well-to-do family that lost its money.  He had a friend with a similar story and whose family had lost their old home.  When the house came on the market, he happily told the billionaire that he had made an offer that was accepted.  The billionaire, envying his friend his small bit of good fortune, went straight to the owners and bought the house for an extravagant price, just to show he could do it.  I cannot vouch for the story, but se non è vero è ben trovato.

If I had taken a greater interest in economics and logic than I did in Greek lyric poetry, I might have figured this out by myself long before I reached the exalted rank of assistant professor, but once I tumbled to this obvious truth, it provided the key to one of my bugbears, and that is the modern American confusion of quality with quantity, which partly explains the American aversion to excellence and preference for mediocrity, especially abundant mediocrity.

Why worry about eating good strawberries or pears, so long as you can pile the table high with attractive inedible wax imitations?  Why take the trouble to build a fine table, when you eat just as conveniently at a table mass-produced out of particle board and formica?  Why work hard to master a musical instrument, when you can listen to recordings engineered by some ex-Disney child star?  And even if you love real music, why provide a three-dimensional training to budding musicians in the hopes of producing a Kreisler or a Rubinstein, when, by concentrating only on technique, Suzuki and company or the American opera industry can mass-produce Asian fiddlers by the boatload and enough pleasant-voiced and empty-headed opera stars to fill every house from New York to San Francisco?

Not every singer has the voice and finesse of Carlo Bergonzi, and in this world, when they do, they are likely to abuse their talent, as Pavarotti did, to serve up schlock to the masses.  I am happy to have heard Pavarotti in concert back in 1982, just as he was turning from an opera star into, ugh, a celebrity.

Wherever we turn in American life, it is quantity, not quality, that is celebrated and subsidized.  We spend tens of thousands of dollars per year keeping seriously retarded people, who cannot feed themselves or use a bathroom, in public facilities where therapists vainly try to teach them to use a spoon or make a sign.  We spend hundreds of billions of dollars per year subsidizing indolent and immoral people who bear children for the bounty received and bring them up to be tax-dependent criminals.  We fill our libraries with popular movies and cheap fiction and allow bums and criminals to turn a place of study into a refuge for drug dealers and maniacs.  After spending all these trillions of dollars on hopeless and useless projects to elevate the lowest a half-notch up the ladder, there is nothing left over with which to buy real books or support serious music or build public buildings that do not offend the eye.

American governments and the people who acquiesce in their dictations are waging a war on every tradition and distinction that aims at what we rather inadequately call “excellence,” but which the Romans knew as “virtue” and the Greeks as “arête.”  In America, we like to say that this is the country where any boy (now any person) can grow up to be president.  After Clinton, Bush the Second, and Obama, that saying is now literally true.  Literally anyone, now matter how dull-witted, uneducated, and unprincipled, can be president.  Of course, there is a corollary.  If anyone can be president, then no one of any distinction will ever be able to run for the position, much less win.

As the Grand Inquisitor (Gilbert’s, not Dostoyevksy’s) put it, when he advised the young gondoliers against their foolish project of “republican equality,”

In short whoever you may be

To this conclusion you’ll agree

When everyone is somebody,

Then no one’s anybody.

Gilbert’s words ring truer today than that great Victorian moralist might have foreseen.  We are a nation of nobodies, nowhere men without kin or community, tradition or culture, music or literature, and no matter how big we build our McMansions, “They’re all made out of ticky-tacky / And they all look just the same.” (Even a Marxist songwriter got this one right.)

We are the sort of people an ancient Greek could only imagine in a nightmare: the godless and uncitied people that Sophocles condemned in his famous “Ode on Man.”  The Greek ethic of excellence was first articulated in the Iliad.  Achilles’ father, Peleus, tells his son “Always to be the best and excel the rest.”  The rationale is given by Sarpedon in the 12th book, in which the Lycian prince explains to his younger friend that it is their duty as noblemen to fight in the front ranks.  Why else, he asks, are they honored at banquets, given the first seats, the best food and drink, and treated like gods?

If we could avoid this war and live forever without growing older, I would not myself fight in the forefront or send you to the fight where men win glory.  The fact is that thousands of deaths press upon us, which no mortal can escape.  Let us go and gain glory for ourselves at another man’s expense, or give him the glory.

This is true noblesse oblige, a moral code, rooted in the ultimate facts of life and death, that justifies the aristocrat’s privileges.

Most Americans, of course, pretend to believe in an afterlife, and at every funeral we hear eulogies in which some dead miscreant is declared to be singing with the angels in the land of glory.  We only say such twaddle because we believe in nothing.  If any of this were true—God and the Devil, Heaven and Hell—we would grow old in fear and trembling after living more like Sarpedon than the fictional characters we actually do emulate: Shylock and Uriah Heep, the Good Soldier Schweik, or even, if our patron devil looks up with favor on us, Gordon Gekko.

Money is the great equalizer: The two-bit hustler selling “Rollex” watches in Times Square and Warren Buffett, while their methods and returns may be different, are in the same business.  Neither makes watches or any useful thing; they only make money.  “It’s money, money makes the man,” complained an ancient poet.  Under the reign of money, everything is convertible and can be turned into everything else.  The watch costs $500, which is a one-way ticket to London, which is the price of a legislator’s vote in many a cheap state in the Union or of an hour with a girl in Vegas or . . . and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky, and they’re all just the same.

We are not all called to be mighty warriors or talented opera singers or brilliant scientists, but however we may define the best that is possible for us—best as parents, neighbors, craftsmen—it is our duty to do our heroic best in the station of life in which we find ourselves.  The Preacher, with a wisdom remarkably Homeric, warns us that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong; nonetheless, “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.”             


[By Janos Korom Dr. from Wien, Austria (Bécs 010  Uploaded by darkweasel94) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons]