“Meritocracy:” Hypocrisy.

This past semester (Fall of 2014) in my Christian Formation Class at Christ Church, we participated in a class called “‘Dearly I Love Thee:’ Poetry & the Anglican Way” in which we considered the lives and work of several Anglican poets from Mary Sidney Herbert down through W.H. Auden.

I’ve always wondered about poets, in particular how they are “formed:” is their creative output more about nature than nurture? A popular view of poetry might assume so (and so did I for years) but over the years I have begun to sense that actually most Western poets are also steeped in history, literature, language (e.g. Greek and Latin), philosophy, and ancient intellectual “practices” such as the trivium and the quadrivium. Doing a christian formation class on such poets served (as all my classes do) as an opportunity to educate myself more.

One issue that kept coming up as we progressed historically from the 16th century to the 2oth was the historical development of popular democritization of literature, related to what Charles Taylor (in A Secular Age) discusses in terms of the “flattening out” of social space into “one speed.”

It’s a  familar story, one that gets worked into our psyches even from pop media and social media: hierarchy good, mass culture bad. Familiar, yes, but with noteworthy divergences including Marx, Nietzsche on the “left” and Leo Strauss on the “right.” Oh, and of course Plato, who in The Republic argues for the rule of wisdom (and the Philosopher King), over and against the likes of democracy, aristocracy, and timocracy.

Timocracy? Less familiar to us (as evidenced by the nonrecognition of my computer “spell checker”), but one of main political options for Plato. Timocracy means “rule by honor,” and is that system of politics by which the honorable rule. (We will “bracket” the issue of who gets to decide who the honorable are.)

Now, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone seriously reference timocracy outside of academic discussions of ancient texts. But most of us are, however, familiar with a similar concept: meritocracy. Martin Luther King, Jr. once quipped: “Let us judge a person not on the basis of his skin color, but on the content of his character.”

In last semester’s poetry class, discussing Eliot and Auden, one member of the group casually mentioned (as if it were a matter of obvious fact) that, in the 20th (and 21st) centuries, we no longer live in a hierarchy, but in a meritocracy.

Really? The latin verb mereo means “to deserve, to be entitled to” and meritocracy is a political arrangement in which those who “rule,” those who succeed, those to find themselves at the top of the political and social pecking order, have arrived at that pinnacle not by family pedigree (hierarchical aristocracy), not by “might makes right,” not by wisdom (philosophical rule), not by virtue of citizenship alone (democracy), but by virtue of their own merit. Their own meritoriousness. The powerful are at the top because they have earned it, because they deserve it.

Is contemporary America a meritocracy?

No way. My problem is not simply that this view is inaccurate. It is that, which is not to deny the qualified, relative virtue of our time over and against previous (pre-Enlightened) regimes and civilizations. It is, of course, better that voting rights not be distributed according to gender or race than that they are so distributed. Thank God for such progress. And one should freely admit that a poor person lacking social advantage can “make it” in today’s America much more easily than, say, in feudal Europe.

But to claim that those at the top today are there because they deserve it smacks of hypocracy. It is to ignore not only that the playing field is still not level, and to assign a moral inferiority to those who have not made it. I’d be willing to bet that most of the people who think we live in a meritocracy already find themselves at the top.

Perhaps worst of all, it smacks of rugged invidualism, in arrogant denial that any good gifts in my life (including honor and “merit”) are just that: gifts.

At the end of the day, I hope not to be judged by the content of my character. If that happens, I’m screwed. Instead, I will repent and strive to grow in faithfulness to Christ. And be thankful and humble for the gifts I’ve been given.