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  • Laura C.

On merit

Napoleon had a goal: to build a society revolving around meritocracy. And the people rejoiced!

It took a blood bath for the country to be reformed and for people from all levels of society to finally be able to move up on the social ladder... to build a better life. Before that, everyone was assigned a place in society, and there was little room to wiggle. Too much wiggling wasn't encouraged, welcomed... and sometimes, it wasn't even possible.

Now, the shoemaker's son could become an army general, and a farmer could become a mayor; it was all about merit. Success, fame, money and a somehow worry-free life was the obvious result for those who were ambitious, determined and witty.


Putting in place a meritocracy had many benefits, so Napoleon created a better, different kind of society. He also gave birth to a demon... one that would become bigger, hungrier as the world would modernize, demand more and more from us and as we would go on to consider ourselves the masters of our faith...


If we believe in meritocracy, we also think that those who do not reach their full potential, won don't have enough or do not meet their goals are to blame- they lack determination, ambition or are not willing to work hard enough. It's their fault!

This is rubbed in our faces more and more... We are told, "You can become whatever you want to be!". Which silently and subtly implies that you are at fault if you come short of that. You are to blame for not taking the extraordinary opportunity to become whatever you want to be!

Is meritocracy wrong?

No, it's not! It actually led to significant improvements in education and how the state would help its citizens build better lives.

Meritocracy is not inherently wrong, but it has to be served with a generous portion of humility. For this, we need to visit the Roman Empire and ancient Greece.

These ancient civilizations have a message for us:

No one fully deserves their pain, and no one fully deserves their success.

Our struggles and accomplishments are overseen by faith, luck, and chance.


No one fully deserves their pain, and no one fully deserves their success.

Greeks would gather in large amphitheaters to watch a so-called tragedy. A tragedy was a play with the main character going about their day when suddenly they find themselves in reduced circumstances. Their downfall, however, wasn't due to them being bad with money, horrible people or idiots. Tragedies reminded Greeks (and teach us) that even the most virtuous, hardworking, wise or educated man can and will be hit by bad luck.


Even the most virtuous, hardworking, wise or educated man can and will be hit by bad luck.

Romans, in turn, had Fortuna. This was a moody goddess who held in one hand a cornucopia and in the other a stick. She would bless you today with money, success and health, but you would never know if tomorrow she would hit you with the stick. Thus Romans were reminded that success (however one wants to define it) had a lot to do with faith's benevolence. This benevolence can last forever, end suddenly tomorrow or will find you only later in life. Moreover, to remind its citizens to stay humble, the empire had thousands of statues of Fortuna in public spaces, and most households had one too.


Today we do not believe in good fortune anymore. And to illustrate this, let's look at how our great-grandparents would call those in reduced circumstances: unfortunate people. Today we call the same people failures.


Now we believe we are all equal and we can enjoy the same opportunities. We are told that we are the sole builders of our lives, the masters of our faith. We embrace the idea that ambition and hard work alone will set us on the right path in any season of our life. We assume that we will be rewarded if we put the right amount of effort into something.

Well... there are only so many things you can control, and only so far you can reach with ambition and hard work.

To live a more peaceful life, it's time for us to admit, accept and make peace with the fact that we owe a big part of our life to good fortune.


To live a more peaceful life, it's time for us to admit, accept and make peace with the fact that we owe a big part of our life to good fortune.

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This article was inspired by many videos from The School Of Life Youtube channel and a handful of Alain de Botton's insightful and inspiring books.

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