This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 1 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
A meritocracy insists that a person’s sense of identity and value is grounded in his or her own performance or action. For Christians, however, being is a divine gift. Thus, identity and value are determined by divine action, not by personal effort. If we rest in this divine action, we can withdraw from competing identities and from the perpetual and exhausting demands of ambition. But meritocratic values and their attendant anxiety have spread, in part, because the notion of vocation has all but disappeared from public consciousness. How might we recapture a sense of vocation? T. S. Eliot offers a case in point. His play, The Confidential Clerk, depicts a young man who must choose one of two paths: meritocratic success or vocation. Socially, he is drawn to a position of influence. He finds there, however, little joy. He desires less to be known than to serve. In the end, he realizes that his definition of success is tainted by his experience and the experiences of those around him. He must break through his preconceived notions of affluence and accept his role of influence as a second-rate musician. Only then does he realize that affluence and influence are not the same thing.
God’s calling on our lives may not align with what society tells us is successful. However, we are responsible to be only what God has called us to be, whether that is a person leading a large business or a musician playing at a local nursing home. Our vocation should lead us to a deeper relationship with our Creator. If we are in Him, we will never be second-rate.
Most people know something of the anxiety endemic to life in a modern, competitive economy — the pressure to perform, the desire for prestige, the experience of perpetual assessment and evaluation. When do I own enough? When have I done enough? How can I be enough? There are manifold reasons for our feeling these pressures. They are, after all, the pressures of the modern meritocracy. Political analyst David Brooks describes them in “The Merits of Meritocracy”:
Starting at birth, middle-class Americans are called on to master skills, do well in school, practice sports, excel in extracurricular activities, get into college, build their résumés, change careers, be good in bed, set up retirement plans, and so on. This is a way of life that emphasizes individual achievement, self-propulsion, perpetual improvement, and permanent exertion….The way we realize our potential is through our activities. By ceaselessly striving to improve at the things we enjoy, we come to define, enlarge, and attain our best selves. These activities are the bricks of our identities; if we didn’t write or play baseball or cook or litigate (or whatever it is we do well), we would cease to be who we are.1
In this vision of human virtue, actions determine identity. Although some people may thrive under such pressure, for many, dreams of perfection become a temptation to despair because if we create the self solely through action, then we retain it in the same way. Brooks has described a rubric of identity that precludes rest.
Meritocratic values and their attendant anxiety have spread, in part, because the notion of vocation has all but disappeared from public consciousness. Deriving from the Latin word for calling, vocation, in the Christian tradition, is a divine call that claims (and ought to define) one’s whole life. It refers to far more than occupation, profession, or other narrow specialty, as it points us to the person we are intended to become. In losing a sense of vocation, we also lose the ancient belief that our being is a divine gift, that this gift is given with purpose, that this purpose is realized in the tension between the limits of our circumstances and the freedom of our choices made in the light of self-knowledge. Indeed, Josef Pieper connects modern anxiety directly to the modern loss of vocation. He insists that “the senselessly exaggerated workaholism of our age [a workaholism implicit in meritocracy] is directly traceable to acedia….a sin against the third of the Ten Commandments, by which man is enjoined to ‘rest his spirit in God.’…One who is trapped in acedia has neither the courage nor the will to be as great as he really is.”2 Acedia — a sadness concerning God that leads to the neglect of one’s soul — is a type of spiritual laziness. But spiritual laziness can, according to Jean-Charles Nault, manifest as perpetual activity, when we make human action, rather than God, the foundation of human identity.3 Instead of receiving “greatness” as a divine gift embedded in vocation — and often unrelated to any sort of social prestige — the modern meritocrat chooses the sorts of greatness that come with achievements his society lauds.
A CHRISTIAN VIEW OF VOCATION
The contrast is stark: a Christian understanding of vocation grounds human identity in divine action while meritocratic thought grounds it in human effort. And though these two views will inspire some overlapping behaviors, the difference of motive is significant for how a person lives. According to Pieper, “Man’s worth, as that of a being possessed of a soul, consists solely in this: that, by his own free decision, he knows and acts in accordance with the reality of his nature — that is, in truth.”4 Pieper, employing a Christian view of vocation, makes human identity the source rather than the result of human action. By presupposing a unique and specific identity for each human being, his view eases the competitive angst that arises when we compare ourselves to each other. Though it requires action, it allows for rest because it views identity first as a divine gift. By contrast, the meritocrat — just because he creates himself through his actions — makes action the source of his identity and relinquishes the privilege of existential rest. Pieper, like Brooks, recognizes that each person has a responsibility to his or her identity, a responsibility to become — so to speak — what he or she is. Because, however, such identity is a gift from God, though it requires faithfulness, it does not require perpetual effort because it does not originate in, nor is it wholly sustained by, our choices.
Vocational identity may, in fact, restrict our choices. As Flannery O’Connor famously observes, “Vocation implies limitation.”5 A similar view of vocational identity — one that liberates as it limits — appears in the writings of the nineteenth-century Roman Catholic theologian Cardinal John Henry Newman:
I am what I am, or I am nothing….My only business is to ascertain what I am, in order to put it to use….My first elementary lesson of duty is that of resignation to the laws of my nature, whatever they are; my first disobedience is to be impatient at what I am, and to indulge an ambitious aspiration after what I cannot be, to cherish a distrust of my powers, and to desire to change laws which are identical with myself.6
Newman, too, believes vocation implies limitation. By resigning ourselves to the laws of our being, we accept our identity as given, and we turn away from competing identities. As a result, we are liberated from the perpetual demands of “ambitious aspiration.” When, however, we lack a clear sense of vocation, we struggle to know whether we are what we ought to be — hence, the ceaseless activity of the modern meritocracy. We look at the world around us and take our cues for how to live from those whom society marks as successful.
THE CONFIDENTIAL CLERK
In T. S. Eliot’s dramatic play, The Confidential Clerk, Colby Simpkins is a young man facing this sort of dilemma. He must choose between meritocratic success and his vocation. Trained as a musician — an organist, to be precise — Colby has a rich, poetic grasp of music, which serves, according to his friend Lucasta, as “a means of contact with a world / More real than any I’ve ever lived in” (emphasis in original).7 Colby longs to use his musical gift to bring such people as Lucasta into this other world, into the transcendent experiences that music offers, experiences he dimly perceives as opening upon the Divine. As musicians go, however, he is, by his own estimation, only second-rate.
I should never have become a great organist,
As I aspired to be. I’m not an executant;
I’m only a shadow of the great composers.
Always, when I play to myself,
I hear the music I should like to have written,
As the composer heard it when it came to him;
But when I played before other people
I was always conscious that what they heard
Was not what I hear when I play to myself.
What I hear is a great musician’s music,
What they hear is an inferior rendering.
So I’ve given up trying to play to other people.8
(Emphasis in original.)
Gifted though he is, Colby does not command the world-class artistry of the musicians and composers whom he most admires. He is frustrated by the gap he perceives between the composers’ visions, as rendered in their musical scores, and his communication of that vision through his performances. Because he can only suggest the glorious musical beauty that he perceives but to which his skill is unequal, he resolves to quit music and take up business, convinced it is better to succeed as a man of finance than to fail as a musician.9
Colby has some precedent for his decision in the example of the man for whom he clerks and whom he believes to be his father, Sir Claude Mulhammer. Like Colby, Sir Claude had dreams of being an artist — an artisan potter, to be precise. Concluding, though, that in this art he is only second-rate, he abandons any professional hopes therein and takes up finance, the profession (and vocation) of his father. Explaining his decision, Sir Claude tells Colby, “I came to see / That I should never have become a first-rate potter. / I didn’t have it in me. It’s strange, isn’t it, / That a man should have a consuming passion / To do something for which he lacks the capacity? / Could a man be said to have a vocation / To be a second-rate potter?… / I don’t think so.”10
But Sir Claude also communicates some regret in his own choice to give up pottery for finance, reflecting that while his own father was a great financier, he is merely a successful business man, not second-rate in terms of monetary success but lacking the visionary inspiration that had motivated his father.11 Indeed, Sir Claude hints that his father’s greatness arose from some essential fit between the art of finance and his soul — that finance was, in some way, consonant with his vocation — but that for Sir Claude, finance is a substitute for vocation, a choice made when he perceives the gap between the work of great ceramicists and his own less glorious creations. In the lovely ceramic forms of his private collection, he encounters his vision of ideal, formal beauty. But in his own creations, that vision is, he concludes, only clumsily approximate.12
With Sir Claude’s life as his example, Colby prepares for life in business. But he yearns to live a whole life, one not bifurcated between his public persona and his private dreams. As he tells Lucasta, “If you have two lives / Which have nothing whatever to do with each other — / Well, they’re both unreal.”13 Like Sir Claude with his ceramics, Colby expects to pursue his music wholly in private — in a private garden, so to speak, to which he will, periodically, retreat for renewal and refreshment. But he dislikes the altogether private nature of this option and longs to open the world of music to other people, longs to nourish others from his musical garden and, so also, nourish himself.
In contrast with both Colby and Sir Claude, Eliot develops a third character whose life suggests a more integrated way to live. He is Eggerson, the retiring confidential clerk of Sir Claude, whom Colby is slated to replace. Eggerson, too, has a vocation — one, incidentally, that is not realized in his professional life. He, too, has a garden, a literal one, from which he nourishes his own body and soul with fruits and flowers. He nourishes others, too, with whom he shares the fruits, flowers, and formal beauty of his garden. At one point, he invites Colby to visit him and his wife “in the Spring / When the garden will really be a treat to look at.”14 Eggerson’s is a common (even mundane) vocation, neither grand nor exotic. As unremarkable a vocation as can be, it is, nevertheless, wonderfully fecund, both physically and spiritually. In it, the ideal realm of abstract beauty is incarnate in the concrete world of matter. Of the three gardens in this play (musical, ceramic, vegetable), Eggerson’s is, at first, the only one that nourishes others because it is the only one that joins its gardener to other people and other people to a world of transcendent beauty. As Colby notes, “But for Eggerson / His garden is a part of one single world.”15 The seamless nature of Eggerson’s vocation is appealing to Colby, suggesting, as it does, a life in which the things one loves are also the things by which one serves the world.
As the plot develops, there occur several comical misunderstandings concerning the parentage of various characters — Colby included. As these confusions are slowly overcome, Colby learns that Sir Claude is not his father — a revelation that surprises them both. Only, however, when Colby’s true father is revealed — himself a second-rate musician — does Colby find the strength to reclaim his vocation and consider music as the calling upon which he should shape his life. Rejecting Sir Claude’s reiterated offer of employment, Colby explains,
But now I know who was my father
I must follow my father — so that I may come to know him….
I want to be an organist.
It doesn’t matter about success —
I aimed too high before — beyond my capacity.
I thought I didn’t want to be an organist
When I found I had no chance of getting to the top —
That is, to become the organist of a cathedral.
But my father was an unsuccessful organist….
And I wish to follow my father.16
Colby’s decision to follow his father is the major shift of the drama. It represents a return of Colby to himself as a human being with a gift and purpose. His move from business back to music signals a shift in his self-understanding, from a valuation of himself rooted in competitive performance (meritocracy) to a valuation rooted in vocation. And it signals a revaluation of other humans when Colby accepts part-time employment as a church organist among quite ordinary people in the rural parish where Eggerson lives.17 Now, Colby will employ his musical gift to draw common, unsophisticated people into some measure of communion with the divine, through the beauty of the musical compositions he performs.
A VALUABLE VOCATION
In this new relation to life, Colby ceases to live by a performative evaluation of himself. Through his transformation, Eliot challenges the reader’s own self-understanding. No longer is the crucial question how successful one can be in terms of wealth or fame, in short, by making a lot of money in business or by stunning crowds of people with world-class art. Instead, through Colby, Eliot evokes a vocational valuation of human life: What can I do that arises from my knowledge of who I am and moves outward, joining me to the community of human beings by pointing them and myself to God?
Of course, this role is limited. Colby will remain relatively obscure, unknown to the wider artistic world. But he will be known, more intimately, by the people among whom he lives and works. Thus does Eliot’s play support the value of a common life among common people, a value rooted in his belief that humanity bears the image of God and was visited — incarnationally — by God Himself. It suggests, in a way that is less obvious in Eliot’s poetry, that art is for ordinary people because God is for ordinary people, that even second-rate artists (poets, painters, musicians, and essayists) have a profound gift to offer the world.
In the discovery of vocation, Colby is now free to be a second-rate musician. Of more significance, though, he is free to forget altogether whether he is first, or second, or third-rate. Instead, he offers his gift to others, inviting the people of his parish to divine communion via the beauty of music. Eggerson, incidentally, forecasts an additional move in Colby’s future when Colby “[will] be thinking of reading for [religious] orders.”18 This prediction suggests that Colby’s real vocation lies beyond even music (and thus beyond art) to the preparation to meet God. Therefore, it cannot really be accurate to say that Colby is second-rate. For Colby is Colby. His vocation is to be what he is, something none but he could be. Consequently, he leaves behind the rankings inherent to competitive hierarchies. Divine gift, not performance, now justifies Colby’s life. Indeed, if anyone is to be a first-rate Colby Simpkins, it can be only Colby Simpkins himself.
Some may object that this view of human vocation is naïve, that it overlooks those whose circumstances prevent from realizing their vocation in their daily work. Will there not always be some whose daily work serves primarily to feed and clothe themselves and their dependents, work done from necessity rather than from a deep sense of vocation? In the actual world we inhabit, does not need rather than love often compel our choices? The point has merit, but, in fact, neither Colby nor Eggerson realizes his vocation in full via his profession. Although Colby will receive a small stipend for serving as church organist, the money is insufficient to sustain a living. He is, therefore, compelled to find other gainful employment. Similarly, the retired Eggerson made his living as a clerk to Sir Claude, not as a gardener. Thus, both Colby and Eggerson remain, in an important sense, amateurs, with all that is included of love in the etymology of that word.19 Our vocation, it appears, does not always — perhaps does not usually — coincide with our earned living. Professions notwithstanding, Eliot’s play reminds us that vocation demands our response to the divine call seeded deep within our own being. That call is to become what, in fact, we already are: a specific and limited person who manifests God’s image in growing communion with Him. In this endeavor, one cannot be second-rate.
Stephen Mitchell teaches English at Covenant Day School in North Carolina. He holds a PhD in humanities.
- David Brooks, “The Merits of the Meritocracy,” The Atlantic, May 2002, accessed September 22, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/05/the-meritsof-meritocracy/302481/. Although Brooks writes approvingly of the meritocracy in this article, he takes a more critical view of meritocracy in his most recent book, The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (Random House, 2019).
- Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 118–19.
- Jean-Charles Nault, The Noonday Devil: Acedia, the Unnamed Evil of Our Times (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2015), 34 and 72–73.
- Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love, 102.
- Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), 221.
- John Henry Newman, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (New York: The Catholic Publication Society, 1870), 334.
- T. S. Eliot, The Confidential Clerk, in The Complete Poems and Plays of T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1969), 474.
- Eliot, The Confidential Clerk, 466.
- Eliot, The Confidential Clerk, 463.
- Eliot, The Confidential Clerk, 465.
- Eliot, The Confidential Clerk, 494.
- Eliot, The Confidential Clerk, 464, 494.
- Eliot, The Confidential Clerk, 473–74.
- Eliot, The Confidential Clerk, 461.
- Eliot, The Confidential Clerk, 474.
- Eliot, The Confidential Clerk, 516.
- Eliot, The Confidential Clerk, 517.
- Eliot, The Confidential Clerk, 518.
- Ultimately, from Latin amator, “lover.”