Excellence, which can be defined as the state of excelling and of surpassing merit, is now increasingly one of the lost words of the English language. And increasingly the special qualities that this word denotes are banned in a nation which imposes diversity and political correctitude. Today, it is dangerously incriminating for one to cite or endorse these words spoken back in the seventeenth century by Bishop Joseph Butler, English theologian and moral philosopher: “Superior excellence of any kind…is the object of awe and reverence to all creatures.” We are now rarely urged to follow paths to excellence, no more than we are expected to reverse standards of excellence. Both the idea and the act of excellence are relegated to the elitism that “terrible simplifiers” seek to erase from life. In consequence, it is also a word that one hardly or ever encounters on a metaphysical level of discussion. If excellence is noticed at all, as in the world of athletes, of entertainers, and of college and university administrators, it generally has a commercial and empirical significance. Spiritual and noetic elements of excellence are simply not recognized in this time of the “New Barbarians.”
Excellence predicates aspiration and transcendence, a quest for a higher quality of attainment and, in effect, going beyond the moment—overcoming gravity, so to speak. Excellence asserts a straining motion and movement upwards—”far from the madding crowd.” Excellence has an inherently metaphysical value, captured in its Greek equivalent, aristeia. Excellence presupposes intellectual, moral, and spiritual ascent; and ascent specifies growth and development by dint of effort and commitment. Excellence means meeting difficulties and over coming obstacles in the context of the Socratic dictum that without labor nothing prospers. It is not some commodity to be readily bought and sold, or something to be broken down and parceled out—or that which is to be continuously reshaped, redefined, reinterpreted, recycled.
Even those brave enough to broach the subject of excellence tend almost automatically to fuse the pursuit of excellence with the pursuit of equality. The question posed in the subtitle of John W. Gardner’s book, Excellence: Can We Be Equal and Excellent Too? (1984), underlines a pervasive disposition to blur the absolutes of excellence in one-dimensional relation to social engineering. Clearly, excellence needs ardent champions willing to defend the exclusivity of both the concept and the word, if excellence is to be saved from quantitative and sociopolitical machinations and reductionisms. Ancient and modern thinkers like Plato and Irving Babbitt, not Jeremy Bentham and John Dewey, should be our guides in how we gain excellence in the human personality and in civilization. Excellence is ultimately the approximation of greatness, neither diluted by sentimental and secular considerations nor defiled by even small surrenders to the lures of utopian schemes. Without excellence, there can be no greatness in life. At that point when excellence as an absolute surrenders to the fiats of the social sciences and the whims of the behaviorists—and becomes politicized, ideologized, gnosticized—excellence is no longer a real and great virtue. And when this transformation occurs on an individual and also on a collective level, the trivializing process ensues. Thus we insist on pluralistic alternatives to excellence and in this insistence, we elevate the power of equality by sanctioning any tendency that reduces things to a single common equation.
The displacement of the idea of excellence also marks the implacable attack on all absolutes in the modern world. This displacement is part of an insidious pattern of attrition in which a new faith proper to the “New Age,” as it is called, is coming to the fore. Today the prevailing focus on diversity, multiculturalism, and deconstructionism embodies not only the continuing erasure of excellence as an absolute but also the ongoing destruction of the kingdom of the spirit. Demonic ideologies, as these have rapidly developed in modern times, and especially as these are embodied in Marxist-Leninism and its contemporary surrogates and dogmata in extremis, have systematically contributed to a general breakdown of civilization. Excellence as an absolute and standard inevitably disappears in such a situation.The quest for excellence, no less than the principles of excellence, is confused with commonality and the religion of the average. Indeed, what we keep on seeing, in these conditions and circumstances, is a vulgarization of excellence at all levels. The line of mediocrity that Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America (1835-1839), described in these troubling words has no end: “Almost all salient characteristics are obliterated to make room for something average, less high and less low, less brilliant and less dim, than what the world had before.”
In a sense, the very process of excellence has now been reversed by bringing its discipline and meaning downward so as to make things easier. As such, excellence is absorbed by sociopolitical programs and eventually remolded for popular consumption and instant gratification. Education that, above all, should speak for the discipline and attainment of excellence now surrenders almost blindly to broad social agenda in public schools—from education on sex and AIDS to the distribution of condoms in classrooms to discussions of gay and lesbian families. Everywhere, and at all levels, aspirations are quantified as concepts of the inherent value of Western culture and tradition are methodically attacked and destroyed, particularly in American colleges and universities—even at Yale, where, according to a disenchanted dean, education becomes a “mutual massage between liberal students and professors,” the slothful habits of which become contagious and pervasive. Inevitably the triumph of mass-man contravenes all appeals to intellectual and spiritual excellence in the name of a “new morality,” which Jose Ortega y Gasset, more than sixty years ago, prophetically discerned when he wrote: “When people talk of the ‘new morality’ they are only committing a new immorality and looking for the easiest way of introducing contraband goods.”
But how can standards of excellence survive, one must ask, when in fact the cabinet of the President of these United States, in its very composition, must accommodate the idea of diversity and quota systems? Our obligations to excellence are thus dismissed in the highest echelons of political leadership, with all the disturbing ramifications and consequences. It seems that we choose not only to encourage uniformity but also to legislate it in the name of the politics of inclusion. Inevitably, then, along with the word excellence the word civilization—insofar as these two words exemplify a process that is interactive and interdependent—seems to be departing from our lexicon, yet another victim of the law of numbers and the drive to reduce things to the common denominator of numbers. Excellence, it can be further claimed, is an intrinsic aspect of morality, or a moral code and law, which now decomposes into the amorality of an equalitarian society concocted by Whitmanesque fantasists. Civilization, in these circumstances, erodes as is evidenced in the decadent cultural situation in which we presently find ourselves mired and from which a future generation emerges in those grim contexts that Ortega perceives: “For it is evident that in the long run the new type of human being now dominant in the world was born out of these defects and insufficiencies.” How all this affects our economic position, present and future, is an issue that one fears to contemplate. Excellence clearly presupposes the givens of a defining discipline and centrality, of an intellectual, moral, and spiritual aristocracy that utopists endlessly chasing after a new social order reject. That religious leaders now join this chorus of rejection instances still another diminishment of excellence in its spiritual character. What has happened to the discipline of ritual, let alone the idea of the holy and the great traditions of faith and order, is another area one also fears to contemplate in contemporary forms of religion.
Belief in excellence, both hierarchical and hieratic, is a major casualty of the whole process of adulteration now going on from top to bottom. Excellence is certainly not a heart-word among us when we stop to view the types of personalities and situations that the electronic media celebrate ad infinitum; or the kinds of books that are published and glowingly reviewed in our national newspapers and journals; or the heroes and heroines that our cultural dictators portray in a Joseph Campbell or an Elvis Presley or in a Madonna and Jane Fonda. Even the annual presentation of the “Academy Awards” all too often instances a mere side-show for the promotion of cult-figures. And even Nobel Prize winners in literature and MacArthur “genius” recipients must satisfy the requirements of diversity and political relevance, not excellence.
Vulgarization, trivialization, mediocrity are idols we enshrine as we follow every road except the one to excellence. And this is the very same road , as the tough lessons of history teach us, that Russia after the 1917 revolution travelled, to its final peril and perdition. Communism, as Vaclav Havel, the Czech writer and political leader, has said, “was an attempt, on the basis of a few propositions masquerading as the only scientific truth, to organize all life according to a single model, and to subject it to central planning and control regardless of whether or not that was what life wanted.” We easily forget, then, that the bankruptcy of the Soviet system was from the very beginning rooted in the expulsion of all “things that are more excellent,” to recall Saint Paul’s words.
Discrimination is life, indiscrimination is death, great transatlantic critical thinkers like Irving Babbitt and F.R. Leavis have sought to remind us in our time, their reminder largely falling on deaf ears. To forget that standards of excellence and standards of discrimination are mutually necessary and reciprocal is to invite the devaluations and deconstructions that now steadily erode society and culture, as well as human character and conscience. To disengage moral excellence from individual and national life further underlines our failings. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, entries on excellence do not appear in our most famous encyclopedias, including even the Dictionary of the History of Ideas. We speak proudly, too, of epochal periods of history such as the Age of Chivalry or the Age of Aquarius. But we do not venture to invoke a quintessential Age of Excellence. Obviously, we prefer to assign excellence to some manipulative category rather than to accept its absolute and primary essences. Like loyalty or piety or honesty, excellence is treated as a secondary word, a secondary idea, not worthy of the highest attention or designation, as our modern champions of relativism persist in degrading excellence in an era of systems, institutions, mechanisms, and statistical averages. Too often, therefore, excellence becomes a purely politicized and nominal word: a word to be subordinated to the law of change and the deceptions of left-leaning innovators and revisionists. We refuse to acknowledge excellence as a transcendent and enduring word of value and virtue. In short, it is a word that “the enemies of the permanent things” scorn precisely because they can neither recognize nor satisfy any standards of measure.
The enormous disasters that accompany the crisis of modernity in which we find ourselves variously illustrate the fate of excellence in the contemporary world. We are conditioned from every social direction and by every agency of leadership and governance to kneel to obscene technological and utilitarian schemes concocted by calculating radicals and tradition-hating ideologues who determine our every pattern of existence and goad us to travel the roads to worldly bigness. Their experiments all too often advance mediocrity and false universals endemic to a pseudo-liberalism that reigns in this land and that ordains a monolithic state of mind antagonistic to excellence in the best critical and creative sense. We exhibit, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn says, “a stubborn tendency to grow not higher but to the side, not toward the highest achievements of craftsmanship but toward their disintegration into a frantic and insidious ‘novelty.”‘
A word like excellence underlines discrimination of value and attenuation of contrasts. An age that preaches equality and the notion of rights, without limit or restraint or criterion, can be no defender or conservator of the idea of excellence. In the name of pluralism and equalitarianism, we are exhorted to hunt down and kill excellence in any form and at all levels of individual and national life. Toleration itself becomes toleration of the average that culminates in a mindless uniformity. And as we further deconstruct excellence we engender the common denominator. We brutalize by collectivizing the “visionary gleam,” which is the stuff of the creative life of excellence. Nothing else leads more quickly or more fatally to the extinction of civilization itself. Ascent and transcendence, the two central foundations of excellence, are infrequently encouraged. Paradigms of excellence, with classical and biblical origins, are everywhere being expunged from human memory. Excellence, with its individuating order and categories, can hardly be in tune with the generic tendencies and habits of a post-modern world. The life of excellence thus becomes a victim of the “bad metaphysics” of “new dealers” (to use Edmund Burke’s phrases) who take us down the road to catastrophe by discarding first principles, including the principle of excellence.
That excellence means an irreducible process whereby obstacles and difficulties are to be confronted and overcome is something foreign to those who wave the banner of illusion. Excellence as an impersonal, transcendent, disinterested faculty and value is therefore to be scorned by architects of the Great Society. The collapse of the idea of excellence, it can be said, has been commensurate with the downside of ethical, moral, and spiritual standards. We no longer hold anyone to some standard of conduct or accomplishment. We no longer believe that anyone should be expected to rise to a standard. Standards of excellence are steadily and systematically deflated at all levels, especially in education, where the dislodgment of the core curriculum has reached the point of absurdity. Education that is subservient to the general will invites endless drifting and confusion in the forms of unsound humanitarianism and majoritarian standardization. It invites, in short, the”decadent imperialism” that Babbitt trenchantly diagnoses in his Democracy and Leadership (1924).
Today, august teachers of excellence like Irving Babbitt, Eric Voegelin, Richard M. Weaver, and Russell Kirk are generally ignored or derided as the American populace en masse surrenders to the siren-song of the shams who mold public opinion and policy. At one time known as a “People of Action,” Americans are now being cajoled to become “The Children of the Rainbow” who have the capacity to appreciate everything and anything without distinguishing between good and bad, order and disorder, obligations and rights, the sacred and the profane. This perverse contraction is one of the most disquieting symptoms of what has happened to the idea of excellence planted in critical and selective principles of thought and judgment.
By destroying standards we destroy excellence. The grim manifestations of this destructive process are inescapable to judge by our preoccupation with the daily spectacle of the grotesque, the ugly, and the corrupt. Endless columns in the nation’s newspapers, great and small, glorify the trivial and inane when, for example, they show obsessive concern with late night television personalities and the war of the networks to capture larger audiences by installing “a signature star, the likes we have not seen at this network in years,” to quote the President of CBS Broadcast Group. Book reviewers, defying all critical standards and decency, shamelessly and endlessly discuss the unexpurgated journals of the novelist Anais Nin, bearing the title Incest (1992), in which she carries on, ad nau seam, with her extramarital love affairs with Henry Miller, with the actor and director Antonin Artaud, with her analyst Rene Allendy—and, yes, with her own father, the Spanish composer Joaquin Nin, about whom she writes that he was her “evil Double,” “the lion, the jungle king, the most virile man I have known.” In the meanwhile, investigative reporters, both in the press and on television, lavish extraordinary attention on aberrant episodes in the lives of the British royal family and of Woody Allen and his longtime lady, Mia Farrow.
Violence, decadence, perversion, irreverence—those most cruel and ugly emblems of the disorder of soul—constitute our major celebratory occasions, with hardly one reference allowed to the life of excellence. These occasions embody the very movement and history, as well as the temper and tone, of our time, beginning with World War I, which inaugurated “the first darkness” of the twentieth century, or to recall here the words of the then British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Sir Edward Grey: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our life time.” Surely, those were monstrous years, 1914-1918, unleashing unthinkable physical terrors and moral disorder that now relentlessly conspire to push us into a New Time, a New Life, a New Age—into still another darkness.
Alas, we travel on many roads—but not on the “good path,” and certainly not the path to excellence. To travel on such a path requires spiritual strenuousness in an age given over to sloppiness in all facets of life. Our paths are now the wide roads of speed with no better destination than acquiring material power and enjoying vivid thrills. There is no halt to either our Titanism or our dreams of building new superstructures in an era when, to apply Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words, “Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.” The path to excellence signifies purpose and effort; a measure of accomplishment, a course of action, a line of conduct, a way of life. It entails rigorous self-searching, self-discovery, and self-understanding. This path, with its sometimes steep climbs and sudden turns and twists, is the path to edification and true enlightenment. But we choose, as our present condition makes so undeniably evident, to travel on the great modern roads of our master-builders, as we simultaneously chase after strange gods who assail the super-excellence of the transcendental, the supernatural, the spiritual order. This is a world in which gravity reigns heavily. It is also a world in which life cloaks itself in the eclipse of excellence.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Summer 1993). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.