Success Reveals Virtue

MARCH 1, 2006

If men have not enough it is from want of provident care, and foresight, and industry and frugality. No man in this land suffers from poverty unless it be more than his fault - unless it be his sin Henry Ward Beecher

The belief that success reveals virtue (and the converse) is a prominent intellectual myth, strongly associated with Protestant thinking and, consequentially, with nascent capitalism. It continues to exert a strong hold today, particularly in America [1]. It has always seemed to me a particularly pernicious view for two reasons. Firstly, like many myths, it contains a strong strand of truth: that our merits and abilities help determine our success in life. This makes it all the more dangerous for while false it seems plausible and is easy to defend. Second, and more important, it heaps obloquy upon failure and self-satisfaction upon success - not only is the poor man poor he is also bad, while the rich man can pat himself on the back and disregard any of the sharp practice or luck on which his fortune is based [2].

[1] cf: previous posting on the American Dream [2] The most prominent, and perhaps most disingenuous in this regard, was Rockerfeller senior who as a devout baptist clearly believed that his, and Standard Oil’s, success was sign of divine favour. A favour that obviated any need to examine the dubious means by which this success had been built.