Religion is a celebration of excellence: Review of ‘Born Rich’
- Published on 19 August 2010
- Written by Patrick McNamara
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One of the major theories of religion advanced in the 19th century, most particularly by Nietzsche, is that it is fueled by envy, fear, and resentment of the heroic virtues. People used religion to reinforce their own mediocrity and to justify their hatred of excellence. Religion was a manifestation of resentment. The theory is certainly consistent with the fact that if you possess any virtue or excellence at all you will eventually become the object of a murderous, venomous envy. Resentment is out there and is ubiquitous. It and envy are certainly major social forces. Religion scholars ignore them at their peril. Resentment in particular has been harnessed by unscrupulous politicians for millennia and used by these ‘leaders’ to perpetrate murder and dispossession and all kinds of other less bloodthirsty but no less nefarious social projects.
But it can also be argued that ’resentment’ is the anti-religious attitude par excellence. Religion, when it still has teeth, is essentially a celebration of treasure, of excellence. It is recognition that something of the highest possible value can be found and possessed in this life. When you have acquired this treasure, you are not to ‘cast your pearls before swine’. One of the things religion teaches you is how to handle resentment and envy—hot to turn it into socially harmless and maybe even useful channels. Thus if we look at religious people themselves they tend not to be petty and envious but instead they tend to deflect resentment when they are its object and turn that evil into socially useful things.
The people who most often have to face the envy of others, however, are not the religious people but instead are the ‘rich and famous’. The rich and famous, particularly those born into their wealth or fame, are watched with a ferocious intensity by the paparazzi and through them by all of us. The rich and famous must therefore learn how not to be controlled by the venomous envy directed at them on a daily basis. How do they do it? Most rich and famous people these days are not religious. So how do they deflect envy and resentment? Or do they? What might their successes and failures in deflecting resentment tell us about the religious situation we find ourselves in at the beginning of the 21st century?
To help answer these sorts of questions we can do worse than listen to a series of interviews on these sorts of topics with the rich and famous themselves. Born Rich is a 2003 documentary about young people who have inherited enormous wealth produced by Jamie Johnson, heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune. It consists primarily of interviews by Johnson with other wealthy heirs concerning their experiences and challenges of living such privileged lives.
S.I. Newhouse IV, heir to the Condé Nast Publications fortune, reflects intelligently about possessing great wealth and how you can lose it all in a second. He chooses to room with his peers in the cramped quarters of on-campus housing en route to getting a Ph.D. He does so, he says, not because he wants to deflect envy but because he finds it more enjoyable to live with his friends on campus. Josiah Hornblower, of the Vanderbilt and Whitney families, is a soft-spoken sensitive man who tells the story of an Uncle taking him around NYC when he was a young boy and telling him, “you own this” while pointing to Grand Central Station and “you own this” pointing to some other massive New York City icon. Josiah exclaims “What a thing to tell a young kid!” He also occasionally denigrates past family actions of aggrandizement alluding to some of these acts as bordering on outright theft. Thus, he distances himself from the caricatures of the rich and famous by denigrating those caricatures.
Georgina Bloomberg, daughter of New York mayor and media mogul Michael Bloomberg, cultivates a passion for competitive horsemanship and evinces a very healthy contempt for opinions coming either from her own family or from less wealthy friends that do not respect her passion for the sport.
Stephanie Ercklentz, "finance heiress," is an extraordinarily beautiful woman who tried a stint as a financier but got bored with the 20-hour days. She saw no sense in trading off time with friends for time sitting in front of a bunch of numbers on a computer screen. She thus does not expend much effort in fending off the envious stares of others. The equally beautiful Ivanka Trump, daughter of real estate tycoon Donald Trump makes no apology for her parent’s success and expresses an ambition to add something of excellence to the NYC skyline just as her father did.
Cody Franchetti, heir to Milliken & Co, doubles as a high fashion male model. He too makes no apology for the money he has access too or the good looks he was born with. He eschews any feelings of guilt and points (erroneously) to “puritanical Christianity” as the purveyor of such ignoble attitudes.
Juliet Hartford, A&P heiress, daughter of Huntington Hartford cultivates her talents as an artist and Christina Floyd, "professional sports heiress", daughter of golfer Raymond Floyd expresses pride in her father’s accomplishments and healthy bemusement regarding all the exclusive country clubs she toys with in her spare time.
Perhaps the most interesting and intelligent of the bunch (besides the filmmaker himself) are Luke Weil, heir to the Autotote gaming empire, and Carlo von Zeitschel, heir to the German Kaisers (presumably the House of Hohenstaufen). Weil appears to be struggling with opposing tendencies in his soul: On the one hand, he finds the life he leads as vacuous and empty and on the other hand, he looks at the alternatives and finds them wanting too. Same with von Zeitsche. Later we discover that Weill sued the filmmaker for defamation of character but lost.
Obviously all of these young men and women faced the intense desire to be loved and to belong to the rest of humanity even while realizing that they simply, through accident of birth, were special and did not belong to the masses. The question then became what do you do then? Most settle on developing some excellence of their own whether it be competitive fencing, competitive horsemanship, historical interests, fashion, real estate development and so on. After sitting through this documentary one develops an admiration for the ways in which these young people have navigated the treacherous waters of wealth and how wealth sets them apart from all others, thus making them objects of envy in a very real sense making them ‘sacred’.
The ‘sacred’ were the ones who were prepped for the sacrifice—they were usually beautiful people, worshipped for a while, treated like Royalty for a while, made the object of envy and then made to carry the sins of the rest of the people. At the end of their allotted period in the Sun, they were sacrificed so that the sins of the community could be destroyed. For a long time the Kings and royalty embodied the excellence, the beauty, power and intelligence all aspired to. When the royal traditions were destroyed by bourgeois modernity the world needed new models of excellence. The world briefly alighted on the ‘rich and famous’ and what is extraordinary is that some of these frail, all too human, human beings carried the burden with grace and intelligence. Nevertheless, it cannot last. Eventually the world will need other models of excellence and divinity.
So, it appears that at least some of the rich and famous deal with resentment by treating it with the contempt it deserves. They take the advice of religion and they do not cast their pearls before swine, as they know that the swine will turn on them and trample them underfoot if they do. This group of the rich and famous seems to have somehow learned the religious lesson concerning deflection of resentment. Other rich and famous people use all kinds of distancing mechanisms to separate themselves from the rich so that they can be treated just like anyone else.
Again, however, these strategies cannot last. As Nietzsche said, resentment is intimately bound up with the religious sense so it needs a religious solution. Individuals need to treat resentment with contempt (i.e. follow Jesus’ advice to not cast your pearls before swine) but societies need some longer-term solution, some way of channeling resentment into socially useful directions. If that is not attempted then those unscrupulous politicians will step into the breach and transform the sentiments of envy and fear of excellence into murderous hatred.