Wednesday 23 December 2020

Colin Wilson's The Outsider, and the question: "Is everybody's life a failure?"

I remember reading The Outsider in the summer of 1978, and realising that all of the 'Great Men' surveyed in that book were - at least according to Colin Wilson's exacting criteria - A Failure. 

That is, Wilson argued that their lives - when viewed overall and by the highest standards - had failed to a greater or lesser degree. 

I vacillated about this matter, through the years. Sometimes I felt that most people had a successful life when judged by appropriate criteria, sometimes I felt that very few did; and nowadays I would say that hardly anybody does. 

In essence: everybody is a failure, every life is a failure. 


This has been perhaps more evident to me than to most people; since a pretty large number of people I have known or worked with have been very successful - by the usual, mainstream standards with which such things are measured. 

I, on the other hand, have not! - although I have been fairly-widely notorious from time to time, in my professional circles (which is, for example, presumably why I have a Wikipedia page). At times I too sought mainstream success, and got some way up the slippery pole; but I was always sabotaged either by my scruples or my defects, or both. Mostly I tried to plough my own unique furrow, sui generis; and again succeeded for periods of time.  

But I have seen success from both sides in my own life, and in the lives of friends and colleagues - and have felt compelled to make evaluations on the subject.

It has, in fact, been one of the most painful experiences of my life to observe the corruption of so many people I have known. (This has, indeed, accelerated in 2020.)

Sometimes people were like that from the beginning - and were strategic in their esteem-seeking; sometimes they sold-out at a specific point, over a specific issue -- But mostly the process seems to have occured smoothly and seamlessly (with no discernible struggle) as a consequence of doing what was needed for jobs, promotions, money, status etc - or just through hard-work combined with obedience to authority.

One of the most startling observations is that all, and I mean all, of the people who I knew as a young man that were notably cynical or radical (in a leftish way) about class, money, status, professionalism, croneyism, careerism, honours or The Establishment - have ended up as high-level bureaucrats: as managers


This seems an interesting and significant phenomenon; although I have not properly analysed it. 

The only reference to this I have come across was in a book (Critique of Cynical Reason, 1983) by the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk; when he termed this mind-set enlightened false consciousness - which I take to mean something like being cynical about being cynical, in such a way as to retain self-esteem while selling-out.

Or perhaps it is adopting a false careerist persona while acknowledging its falseness, while also regarding the whole thing as somehow inevitable. This strikes me as typical of the most successful Establishment characters.

Certainly, once a person has got-into this mind-set, it is rare from them ever to get out from it; since he is cynical about anything that might disturb his selfish well being, while feeling morally superior for explicitly acknowledging his own selfishness. 

A wry smile and a shrug of the shoulders restores the sealed-off equilibrium in the face of any challenge.


When I was a young adult, it was my firm intention to buck the trend of Wilson's Outsiders; and to be one of the tiny minority who really succeeded in having a genuinely successful Life. 

I would have to regard this as a fundamental error. Because I now regard mortal human life as just not being designed to be 'a success' (whatever that might mean). Life is not aimed at some end-state of success. 

Especially since it seems very obvious that we as individual people, and the world itself, are not susceptible of perfection (whatever that might mean). For a start, once I get to know people, no two are alike - indeed no two people are genuinely similar! 

Similarity is an illusion of ignorance. 

So, if we are all one-off, then the concept of 'success' already seems dubious; since there seems no objective way of measuring it. Yet, we can objectively fail - and I regard corruption of the kind I described earlier as genuine failure. 

Corruption is a failure - not because of what is is, some much as because of where it leads-to

The real success or failure of life seems to be related to what happens after death, and to what we learn through living. 

1. Do we choose Heaven after death?

2. Do we learn from our experiences in ways that are relevant to eternal resurrected life? 


The corruption that has so dismayed me does so because, by my judgment, it is associated with a refusal to learn from living; and with what seems to be an anti-salvation attitude; an attitude of rooted and vehement hostility towards, and therefore rejection of, the possibility of resurrected eternal life in Heaven. 

While I know that repentance is possible to anyone at any time, in the sense that it is allowed and effective; I cannot ignore that most people do not want repentance

In fact, 'not want' is misrepresenting a visceral and invincible opposition to the very idea of repentance and salvation.   

My conclusion is that every 'mortal life' is a failure, when judged by the standards of mortal life. 

But any life may potentially be a real success - in an eternal perspective. 

And that (as of recent decades) there has been an extreme, albeit not complete, opposition between the attempt to succeed in This Life, and the attempt to live well in context of the Life to Come.  


TonguelessYoungMan said...

I often hear from people "don't aim for a successful life aim for an interesting life, or some variation thereof.

Then I realize what they mean as "interesting" amounts to sex, travel, intoxicants, etc.

Which is what most people mean by successful anyway, when they don't mean money, at least.

Then again having money will greatly aid getting to be a international hedonist.

So the meaning of life, the True Way of The Modern Man, is to get enough money to be a cool international hedonist.

Bruce Charlton said...

@TYM - I was aiming for plenty of 'unstructured time', for what Thoreau called a life 'with a broad margin' - which is why I became an academic in the era before it became filled solid with bureaucracy (which process was complete from about five years ago).

For the first 25 ish years I earned about half what I did as a doctor, but also worked less than half as many hours, and (apart from lectures) much of the work was moveable. (I could not tolerate the long, draining hours of medicine, so there was no question of continuing *that*.) I was very free.

Being a 'professor' (actually a Reader) up to c 2012 was close to an ideal job for me especially given that I really enjoyed lecturing (although all aspects of the work were declining year by year from when I began, in the later 1980s).

Nowadays somebody of my type would be unemployable, I suspect.

John Irwin said...

An old Southern gent who was an authority on everything once said something to the effect that: 'A successful man is a fella who doesn't do anything he doesn't want to do'.

Andrew said...

Regarding the comments -

I was slow on the uptake, but during my time at University I "finally" had an anti-epiphany and fully understood and embraced modern godless materialism - that without God I was basically free to do anything in self-interest and that anything (lying, etc.) was on-the-table and that everyone did it to get ahead - as long as it wasn't illegal.

It worked too. I became financially successful, and only started to crawl out of it once I realized 1) the promises are empty, materialism is very tedious and boring (AFAIK, all of the wealthy who focus on buying "nice things" get no pleasure from it, they just feel pain at not-having) , 2) the implications for my children.

It also can leave a permanent stain on the soul of sorts: If you rely on money, rather than totally on God, to provide security you really never feel secure - no matter what. Market losses, lawsuits, competition, etc. can take it away. I think this is why you see so many really rich never satisfied, but trying to accumulate more endlessly like dragons.

Faculty X said...

Colin Wilson's main idea of a further development of consciousness as a necessary and inevitable step in human development is a high bar indeed. It's similar to making enlightenment a requirement for success.

Since achieving enlightenment has historically been extremely rare, usually said to be less than one in one million, that's not happening anytime soon, especially not culture-wide.

It's impossible to have a truly spiritual life without having a life that is Not a Life by modernity's standards.

Separation from the System is mandatory.

The main problem from that era, the 1970s, is the removal of a Higher Power and replacing it with Human Potential, as if we are all X-men waiting to be powered up by our own selves only.

I, as Faculty X, have thought often of Colin Wilson's work about Faculty X, and conclude that there are built-in limitations to the concept. Where to go from here is the question.

Jonathan said...

You are still ploughing your own unique furrow, Bruce. I still know of no other source that connects wisdom, meaning, and divinity to the modern context as firmly as this blog does. It is still my daily touchstone for reality; without it I might be swept away by the AbsurdWorld all around us.

a_probst said...

The promoters of atheism seem to derive so much energy from shocking, mocking, berating, and lampooning the religious that one wonders what they would experience without them to 'kick around' any longer.

An Earth peopled entirely by materialists but which the believers could watch safely from an extra-dimensional sideline would be morbidly fascinating to see unfold.

I'm not saying that I want it to be any more than a thought experiment.

TonguelessYoungMan said...

@John Irwin - And what does "A successful man is a fella who doesn't do anything he doesn't want to do" mean? It doesn't mean anything, or it can mean anything. What if what the fella wants to do is insane?

At the risk of getting too abstract, how do we define want? Desire ("wanting") is often incoherent. For an easy example, how many alcoholics, habitual gamblers, nicotine addicts etc. simultaneously Want to be free of their addiction and also still want their alcohol, cigarattes, and gambling thrills?

Bruce Charlton said...

@FX - At the time of the Outsider and the next few books, I don't think CW had developed his ideas about consciousness, at least not so explicitly as later.

At any rate, I didn't reall get this idea until reading the later works, which also introduced Faculty X.

In the Outsider era, I think CW was evaluating his exemplary Outsiders by a mixture of artistic excellence and cultural-religious impact. He also (as a healthy, vigorous young man) made no allowance for ageing, illness and death upon achievement; because CW regarded these (GB Shaw fashion) as symptoms of a causal, underlying, mental and spiritual decline, loss of will, demoralisation - rather than sickness etc being causes of decline.

(Interestingly, this Shavian attitude (especially in Back to Methuselah) that ageing and death is potentially 'curable', with the right attitude, has made a bit of a comeback with transhumanism - but this time lacking utterly the abstract spirituality of Shaw's creative evolution. BTW have you read CW's writings on Shaw? It seems clear to me that CW saw himself as following Shaw's 'creative evolution' ideas, at least in the earlier part of CW's career, up to the late 60s, and maybe beyond.)

It is easy to forget that for the Outsider and Religion and the Rebel, Wilson was explicitly Christian, indeed a Romantic Christian, tending towars Roman Catholic monasticism (he kept telling his wife he might become a monk).