The Religion of Success and the Fertility of Failure: A Law and Humanities Perspective

About the Lecture

Our perception of failure and success is ultimately based on a comprehensive understanding of the good (and the bad), as well as what constitutes a good (and a bad) human life. In this lecture, the lecturers compare two very different understandings of the good. According to the first comprehensive understanding of the good, which they trace back to the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, human beings are fundamentally solitary beings who pursue private interests in constant and endless competition with others. Success can only be secured by pursuing and achieving more success, and failure can only be ‘embraced’ to the extent that it can be turned into its opposite. Accordingly, laws are primarily traffic rules to safeguard competition and protect the results. By contrast, the second comprehensive understanding of the good, which the lecturers trace back to the philosophy of Aristotle and to ancient Greek tragedy, views human beings as social animals who can only flourish by collaborating in a community, by deliberating on laws that shape and express the common good, and by remaining aware of the limitations of any individual and collective endeavors. This awareness can be called tragic, in that it recognizes that failure and suffering are necessary and unavoidable conditions of human experience and learning. The contrast between these two perspectives provides a rich and fruitful framework to think critically about failure and success in the present.