Spring 1985, Vol. 37, pp. 27-32.

James Grote:
      Death and the Heresy of Success

In disappointments we come close to the experience of death, the nonrecognition of our ego; yet we do not actually die but learn that real death does not destroy us.

Mr. Grote is currently an adjunct lecturer in philosophy at Indiana University Southeast and administrator for the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Louisville, Kentucky. For several years he and his wife were members of the Families of St. Benedict, a lay monastic community near the Abbey of Gethsemani

HOW can you believe, you who receive honor from one another, and seek not the honor that comes from God alone?" (John 5: 44).

Psychologists tell us that the fear of death is the root of all our anxieties. Christ tells us that by dying to ourselves we are born again. "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone. But if the grain dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24). From the perspective of our day-to-day lives, these statements seem strange indeed, if not downright morbid. Why all the talk about death? Is not death only the concern of old people and sick People? Surely a healthy man or woman should have the attitude: "I'll face that fork in the road when I get to it; till then, let's get on with the business of living."

But what is this business of living? Who could deny that in our culture the business of living is the business of becoming a success? Popular television ministers and corporate executives alike preach the same message -- be a success! The power of positive thinking is the modern panacea; and today, ironically, positive thinking is linked to Christianity. A friend of mine, a young businessman, recently told me that God wanted him to be a success. As long as he had faith in God, he would be a success. While I could not help seeing the problems in his view of Providence, I had to admit that I too secretly hoped that my faith would make me a success in my endeavors. After all, it is a natural enough heresy.

Yet, a moment's reflection on this subject shows the insufficiency of this way of thinking. In fact, this kind of thinking does not take into account our everyday experience of life. Death is very much a part of life. St. Augustine observed that we are dying from the moment of our birth because each second that ticks away brings us that much closer to death. In a sense, our life is actually defined by our death, perhaps as much by our death as by our accomplishments. As Heidegger says, we are "being-unto-death." For it is death that limits our life, and things are most clearly understood by their limits. When we define a thing we "measure" it. We describe what it is by differentiating it from what it is not. A quart of ice cream is a limited amount of ice cream, something between a pint and a gallon. A brunette is not only a woman with brown hair, but a woman that does not have black or red hair. If brown were the only color of hair in existence, we would not call it brown hair, but merely hair, for there would be nothing to contrast it with. Without contrast our definitions of things lack precision. How could we define white if there were no black?

Something that cannot be measured is difficult to understand. Only limited things are intelligible. We can comprehend one hundred dollars and understand its value in relation to its concrete purchasing power. We cannot easily comprehend one trillion dollars. The reason the national debt is not taken more seriously is because its magnitude is virtually inconceivable. What's another billion added to a trillion? The infinity of God is even more inconceivable than the national debt (though not meditated on as often). It is little wonder that people question the existence of God. We question the existence of all things not readily intelligible.

Since our life is limited by death, it is also defined by death. Though life and death are opposite, they are closely related to each other, like love and hate. The years of our life are measured in relation to our death: "four score and ten for those that are strong," the psalmist reminds us. But things are measured not only quantitatively but also qualitatively. Death defines our life in both a quantitative and a qualitative sense. The ancient philosophers argued that the nature, or definition, of a thing is determined by its end. Now the word end can be understood in two ways, both as purpose (for example, the end of exercise is health) and as termination. Death is obviously the termination of life, the quantitative limit. But in what way does it determine our life qualitatively? How does death illuminate the meaning and purpose of our existence? What is death in relation to our day-to-day life? We experience life. But do we experience death? Is there something in life that gives us a clue to the nature of death and hence to the heresy of measuring our life by our successes?


If we focus attention on four words, the daily experience of death might become clearer. These words are, in sets of two, emphasis and ego, and disappointment and death. In an insightful article, "Ego and Its Relation to Others," the French philosopher Gabriel Marcel defines ego in a way that is somewhat difficult to grasp with the imagination because of its nonspatial characterization. We tend to form an image of the ego as some invisible "thing" enclosed within our body, perhaps the "holy of holies" of the temple of our body. Marcel challenges this conventional way of thinking by speaking of the ego as a global and indefinable presence. It is an amorphous concept, like that of energy. Still, Marcel describes the ego more exactly as an "emphasis which I give . . . to that part of my experience which I want to safeguard." Ego is an emphasis of aspects of our personality that we seek to protect. It is not an enclosure. It is not a secret, remote control-room within us. It is a pervading presence, not unlike a spirit that can walk through walls. Thus ego can leave an inkling or residue of itself in a room that it has long since left. This nonspatial character of ego accounts for the fact that a strong ego or personality can dominate an entire nation. Ego is not limited geographically. A husband can dominate his wife, even though he is in jail for life. Similarly, a dead parent can continue to dominate a child throughout the child's life. The presence of a strong leader may be felt throughout an entire country, even in places where he or she never appears.

From experience it is clear that some people have stronger egos than others. Other egos must recede in such a presence. Not only tyrants but also great preachers can have such a commanding presence. Ego is not necessarily something derogatory. Something magical in a person with a strong ego attracts others to him or her like a magnet and makes them more than willing to acquiesce to this person's opinions. Such a person is, as we say, a magnetic personality. And yet all of us have a bit of this ego, or emphasis, in us.


But not all egos enjoy perfect self-fulfillment; in fact, it is an impossibility. Not all egos are allowed to emphasize themselves to such an extent. They are held in check by the stronger egos of others. The many small deaths of the ego are revealed in the phenomenon of disappointment. Disappointment results when the emphasis of the ego is blocked. In the race towards recognition and notoriety, only a few egos can be prominent. Social honor is a scarce commodity. As Hobbes says, "Glory is like honor, if all men have it, no man has it, for they consist in comparison and precellence . . ." (De Cive, part 1, chapter 1).

Success is by nature nonegalitarian. The defeated ego in the contest for recognition is forced to realize that its presence is not influential. Its opinion carries no weight. The very life of the ego depends on this power of influence and this recognition from others. The ego exists only in the fact that others acknowledge its existence and feel its presence. The ego is not a self-contained enclosure, but a fragile and dependent presence, dependent on the approval of others. As Marcel states, the activity of the ego consists of an urge to be recognized. (It is difficult to determine when this urge is pathological or when it is innocent. To take pride in our work or to seek understanding in our pain is not pathological. Rather, what is inordinate is the attempt to force a desired type of recognition from others.) The emphasis of the ego seeks someone to witness to itself to the exclusion of others. Only by this exclusive recognition is it assured of its existence. Marcel maintains that the conditions in which the ego becomes conscious of itself are "essentially social." This is not, however, a modern psychological discovery. Aristotle realized this truth centuries ago when he observed that men pursue honor in order to assure themselves of their own worth (Nichomachean Ethics 1095b27).

The death of the ego is the absence of recognition. It is the state of ostracism and humiliation -- the situation of Christ on the cross, of derelicts and idiots. The ego is afraid because its emphasis is at the mercy of others. It is not self-made, though it fancies itself this way. Its very life depends on its reputation among others. The ego, as Plato would say, "feeds on opinion." Disappointment comes when the ego does not receive the recognition it expects. Social "death" comes when the ego does not receive any recognition or social sustenance. For ego is a social phenomenon.


Success, like the ego, is determined by social relations. Neither can exist in isolation. A millionaire on a deserted island in the South Seas is not a success. No one knows he is millionaire, and so no one cares. Even if he built himself a thatch palace, he would not be a success. His only success would be in his self-recognition, which could only be sustained by his daydreams of the recognition of others. His success would lie in his hopes of being rescued and having someone write a book about him like Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe. Like a struggling young artist or a writer, he could only dream of "being discovered." Until that time came, it would not matter the least whether he lived in a palace or a hut. We might add that the heresy of success among businesspersons is closely akin to the cult of personality and creativity among artists and the intelligentsia.

Success, as opposed to faith, is the reassurance of things seen. Success is the ethic of the self-made person, the confirmation of the one who earns a reputation. But when life is measured by accomplishments, death appears especially foreboding. Death does not fit into a mind-set bent on success. Death is acceptable only when one views life as a gift, and a limited one at that. While Christ calls us to labor, he does not call us to "earn our living" in terms of worldly success. For the deepest life, the life of Christ, is essentially unearned. It is the life of grace, not accomplishments. If it were earned, it would not be grace. St. Paul did not earn his living as a tentmaker out of an anxiety to prove his self-worth, but only so that he did not burden his fellow Christians.

The heresy of success boils down to the fact that God probably does not care if we are a success or not -- whether it be an academic success, business success, religious success, or even a successful radical out to rid the world of successful businesspersons. Christ promises his followers life, but not the kind of life that is earned. It is a life that comes only by dying to ego and recognition. Those who win others admiration already have their reward. God's reward is hidden from the world of success, competition, and celebrity. God has saved the world, and yet this fact is still hidden from the world. God rewards his followers in secret (Matt. 6:1-4). While some of his followers throughout the ages have received worldly recognition, the life that prompted them was generally hidden. The life of Christ is not a formula for success. It is a life that demands a "social death" in order to be reborn into a society based on the honor of God rather than the honor of men. "For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Col. 3:3-4).

For many of us who live in the security of the First World nations, feelings of disappointment are the closest we come to the experience of death. Our death comes in discovering that life does not meet our expectations and dreams. We live out our lives undiscovered and misunderstood. Yet, as time goes by, we notice that this deprivation of our ego does not actually kill us. What we were sure would destroy us turns out not to have killed us. If we face the disappointments that life brings without succumbing to bitterness, a reconciliation with the reality of death grows in our souls. The fact that we survive our daily deaths of the ego and see others surviving them without resentment -- this fact can act like an oyster-knife that opens up the shell of death's mysteries and Christ's life. If we see that the many deaths of our ego do not destroy our physical life, we can begin to understand that the death of our physical life does not destroy us either. But this is a lesson learned only after prolonged disappointments. It is a lesson that intellectuals may be able to articulate awkwardly, but only the inarticulate and the unfortunate are truly able to understand.