Belmont Club

Seeing Other People

Years ago I stopped to watch an actress lathering her face with soap on a department store display screen. “That’s why I use [name of soap],” the actress intoned in the ad. “It makes my skin soft, silky and lustrous.” But my reverie was broken by a voice from the back which observed that no one should make the mistake of thinking that using the soap would ever make you as beautiful as that famous actress. “Not even if you used a whole case of it.”

On another occasion I overheard someone saying that young people should take Steve Jobs or Bill Gates as role models. But his cynical interlocutor objected that “the problem with thinking you can drop out of school and become a billionaire is that most people aren’t Steve Jobs or Bill Gates and never will be.”

Those recollections asserted themselves reading Beyonce Knowle’s interview with Piers Morgan.  She said, “at least with my career, I’ve kind of broken barriers, and I don’t think people think about my race”. She told Morgan she was optimistic about the future. But realistically the prospects of the sun of shining brightly are greater when you happen to look like Beyonce.  On the other hand, if you are an obese illiterate teenager who believes her problems can be solved by getting her underbite fixed with expensive dental work, I have news for her: no matter how much dental work you have done, you’ll never be Beyonce.

Life isn’t fair in that way. Beauty and intelligence are just as much genetic accidents as race. And these unearned accidents determine our opportunities in life as drastically — perhaps even more drastically —  than any other factor, including nationality and race. It would be interesting to ask the average person whether she would rather be black and look like Beyonce or white and ugly.

Yet, interestingly nobody gets up in the morning feeling guilty about being beautiful or smart. No one has started chanting “down with babes” or “death to geniuses”. Talent (or beauty) is the only remaining thing we are allowed to be bigoted about. We are even permitted to tolerate conservative Christians, as Auden explained, for so long as they are gifted. Let me  paraphrase his famous lines:

We worship talent and forgive
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardon cowardice, conceit,
Lay its honours at its feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

OK Claudel, you can stand up straight again.

Perhaps Auden should have appreciated Claudel more, and not despite his Christianity but because of it. For Thomas Hobbes argued in the Leviathan that the strongest argument for human equality comes from a metaphysics: the idea we are not bound together by the summum bonum — our ambitions are never common — but from the summum malum, our mutual enemy, which is danger and death.

The real ground of human equality, Hobbes argued, lies not in the sameness of our talents but in our shared fate. We are fundamentally equal because despite all genetic differences, they are never great enough to allow any of us to escape the human condition. As Hobbes wrote:

Nature hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that, though there be found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body or of quicker mind than another, yet when all is reckoned together the difference between man and man is not so considerable as that one man can thereupon claim to himself any benefit to which another may not pretend as well as he.

That is why perhaps differences in social status, race and condition often mean less during a time of war or crisis when the summum bonum is becomes irrelevant and the summum malum dominates. This may answer Roger Simon’s question when he asks, “so what are we to make of this astonishingly low attendance after non-stop coverage on cable news and elsewhere, as if this trial were the only serious issue confronting our country?”

What one might make of it is many now realize there are more pressing problems in life than spending a lot of time over a court decision that could have gone either way. Problems like earning a buck, paying the rent, finding a employment. Our shared fate.

The sudden realization that pensions are not guaranteed; that jobs may never come back or that perhaps even Washington DC itself doesn’t have a stash big enough to fix things has introduced a note of sobriety into the atmosphere. Suddenly we’re all aware the boat could actually sink. The future isn’t guaranteed.

With the notion that the Man himself may be running out of money and the re-discovery of limits comes the realization the Man himself is human and stalked by the summum malum.  This should bind us together, unless we hearken to the Rhyming Reverends, and it tears us apart.

Tolkien as ever, was there before us. He called this equality before doom “the gift of One to Men.” It was a strange gift, that: one whose meaning puzzled Arwen, but which Aragorn understood to be both his birthright fate and his glory.

But I say to you, King of the Numenoreans, not till now have I understood the tale of your people and their fall. As wicked fools I scorned them, but I pity them at last. For if this is indeed, as the Eldar say, the gift of the One to Men, it is bitter to receive.”

So it seems,” he said. “But let us not be overthrown at the final test, who of old renounced the Shadow and the Ring. In sorrow we must go, but not in despair. Behold! we are not bound for ever to the circles of the world, and beyond them is more than memory.”

Equality is a strange gift.  Perhaps mankind needs the awareness of a common fate to walk heads up in the world and gaze beyond himself. Who knows what he might see in the distance?


Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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