“Success” and the Walrus

The Almanac, celebrating what should have been John Lennon’s 74th birthday today, outs his walrus as a greedy capitalist. John didn’t know that himself, even though his mostly-nonsensical-seeming lyrics clearly include a line about the ubiquitous “corporation tee-shirt” we’ve let ourselves billboard for the walrus for free.

John just knew the walrus as Lewis Carroll’s poetic subject in “The Walrus and the Carpenter.”

“To me, it was a beautiful poem. It never occurred to me that Lewis Carroll was commenting on the capitalist and social system. I never went into that bit about what it really meant, like people are doing with Beatles work. Later I went back and looked at it and realized that the walrus was the bad guy… I thought, Oh, shit, I picked the wrong guy. I should have said, ‘I am the carpenter.’ But that wouldn’t have been the same, would it?”

“I never went into that bit about what it really meant, like people are doing with the Beatles…”

We do that in philosophy too, to a fault sometimes. But this little walrus tale nicely complements the discussion we had in CoPhi yesterday about happiness, hard work, goals, and “success.” What if you work hard, discover your passion in life (poetry, say, or music, or philosophy), become really good at it, and end up a “failure”?

Well, as one student succinctly put it, “that sucks.”

It does. But it sucks less for us (and more for them) when we remind ourselves that unexamined, conventional notions of success probably leave most “successful” people less than happily fulfilled. They are not Aristotle’s flourishing eudaimons. We still can be, regardless of monetary reward or deprivation.

Or as William James wrote to H.G. Wells in 1906,

“The moral flabbiness born of the exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess SUCCESS. That -with the squalid cash interpretation put on the word ‘success’ – is our national disease.”

Don’t be the walrus. Be the carpenter.


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