In pursuit of glory

In pursuit of glory

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Abraham Lincoln said that a house divided against itself cannot stand. He was right about slavery,but the maxim doesn’t apply to much else. In general,the best people are contradictory,and the most enduring institutions are,too.

The Olympics are a good example. The Olympics are a peaceful celebration of our warlike nature. The opening ceremony represents one side of the Olympic movement. They are a lavish celebration of the cooperative virtues: unity,friendship,equality,compassion and care.

After the opening ceremony is over,the Olympics turn into a celebration of the competitive virtues: tenacity,courage,excellence,supremacy,discipline and conflict. The smiling goes away and the grim-faced games begin. The purpose is to be tougher and better than the people who are seeking the same pinnacle.

If the opening ceremony is win-win,most of the rest of the games are win-lose. If the opening ceremony mimics peace,the competitions mimic warfare. Through fierce competition,sport separates the elite from the mediocre. It identifies the heroes and standards of excellence that everybody else can emulate (a noble loser can serve as well as a talented winner). The idea is not to win friendship; it’s to win glory.


In sum,the Olympic Games appeal both to our desire for fellowship and our desire for status,to the dreams of community and also supremacy. And,of course,these desires are in tension. But the world is,too.

The enduring popularity of the Olympics teach the lesson that if you find yourself caught between two competing impulses,you don’t always need to choose between them. You can go for both simultaneously. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that the mark of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts in your mind at the same time. But it’s not really the mark of genius,just the mark of anybody who functions well in the world.

It’s the mark of any institution that lasts.

The world,unfortunately,has too many monomaniacs — people who pick one side of any creative tension and wish the other would just go away. Some parents and teachers like the cooperative virtues and distrust the competitive ones,so,laughably,they tell their kids that they are going to play sports but nobody is going to keep score.

Politics has become a contest of monomaniacs. One faction champions austerity while another champions growth. One party becomes the party of economic security and the other becomes the party of creative destruction.

The right course is usually to push hard in both directions,to be a house creatively divided against itself,to thrive amid the contradictions. The Olympics are great,but they are not coherent. DAVID BROOKS