Stories of Faust come in many versions and forms. In each one, the hero sold his soul to the devil in return for nearly unlimited success in all his endeavors. Predictably, his life of success brought neither happiness nor the sense of a purposeful, well lived life.
I don’t believe the devil is wandering around offering to buy souls in return for success, but I do think the seductive power of that image exists. At a heavy cost, evil tempts and seduces some to surrender themselves and their moral values in an effort to achieve material signs of success for themselves. Succeed or not, they do material and emotional damage to those around them, the organizations and institutions they serve, and the legacy they leave behind.
We’re familiar with the Faustian story because it is the theme of every western movie and dime novel where a land grabbing rancher sacrifices everything to take over the town, steal all the land, and dictatorially rule his neighbors. It never ends well for him. In different forms, it is a story acted out in every place and part of society. Frequently the subject of novels and film, it is most visible in real life when it’s made public in positions of power at top levels of business and government – examples of which have bombarded us for the past decade. Kevin McCarthy’s cowardly surrender of everything he could surrender to become a cypher of a Speaker is only the most recent example. Matt Gaetz is reported to have said he finally voted for McCarthy because, like Faust’s devil, he couldn’t think of anything else to ask from McCarthy. This will not end well for most of the trumpian aficionados who have done and will continue to do considerable damage to the nation and its people. What is performed on the national stage and obsessed over by cable news is present aslo in states and cities, small towns and families. The scale may be different but it’s the same thing in essence with the same proportional results.
Question – so what is the difference between a Faustian bargain and more virtuous ambition to succeed and do well in Iife, achieving happiness if not total success, whatever success means?
It helps to understand happiness. To be happy is to possess a feeling of satisfied contentment about one’s life lived well insofar as one is able. Overall happiness does not rule out disappointment and tragedy, nor does it keep score counting wins and losses. It does strive for constant improvement but not perfection. It values lifelong learning in whatever way learning works for each person. To the extent one is able, it is a feeling of comfortable ease in the presence of others from any standing or class, with expressing neither superiority nor deference, but always respect.
To achieve the success of happiness is to apply one’s talents and knowledge to the best of one’s abilities at whatever task. Competition is more about competing with one’s self than others. If and when one achieves the top rung of the ladder of success, it will not be because others were stepped on or sabotaged along the way. It will be because, through one’s respect for them, others were lifted and guided to their own achievements.
This kind of happiness and success are characteristics of the leadership needed at every level of society, and most especially in and at the highest level of government and corporate America.