Success is a hideous thing – according to Victor Hugo. I’ve just started reading Les Misérables (unabridged, trans. from the French by Charles Wilbour), and Hugo uses the first fifty pages (Book First) to tell us about the bishop Monseigneur Myriel and his life, his approach to his calling as a bishop, and especially his selfless care for the poor. Chapter (?) 12 deals with ambition and success, and I thought it to be profound and relevant to our day as well as his. He’s dealing especially with the Roman Catholic Church, but what he wrote applies to Protestants/evangelicals, Orthodox, and others as well as Catholics. In fact, I’ve personally known some “evangelicals” who fit right in with what he’s describing. And to turn it inward, I wonder how well this has described me at different times in my life.
I’m going to quote all four paragraphs, and they aren’t exactly short. He also uses some big words and has a challenging writing style, but it is worth working your way through it.
There is almost always a squad of young abbés about a bishop as there is a flock of young officers about a general. They are what the charming St. Francis de Sales somewhere calls “white-billed priests.” Every profession has its aspirants who make up the cortège of those who are at the summit. No power is without its worshippers, no fortune without its court. The seekers of the future revolve about the splendid present. Every capital, like every general, has its staff. Every bishop of influence has his patrol of undergraduates, cherubs who go the rounds and keep order in the episcopal palace, and who mount guard over monseigneur’s smile. To please a bishop is a foot in the stirrup for a sub-deacon. One must make his own way; the apostolate never disdains the canonicate.
And as there are elsewhere rich coronets so there are in the church rich mitres. There are bishops who stand well at court, rich, well endowed, adroit, accepted of the world, knowing how to pray, doubtless, but knowing also how to ask favours; making themselves without scruple the viaduct of advancement for a whole diocese; bonds of union between the sacristy and diplomacy; rather abbés than priests, prelates rather than bishops. Lucky are they who can get near them. Men of influence as they are, they rain about them, upon their families and favourites, and upon all of these young men who please them, fat parishes, livings, archdeaconates, almonries, and cathedral functions — steps toward episcopal dignities. In advancing themselves they advance their satellites; it is a whole solar system in motion. The rays of their glory empurple their suite. Their prosperity scatters its crumbs to those who are behind the scenes, in the shape of nice little promotions. The larger the diocese of the patron, the larger the curacy for the favourite. And then there is Rome. A bishop who can become an archbishop, an archbishop who can become a cardinal, leads you to the conclave; you enter into the rota, you have the pallium, you are auditor, you are chamberlain, you are monseigneur, and from grandeur to eminence there is only a step, and between eminence and holiness there is nothing but the whiff of a ballot. Every cowl may dream of the tiara. The priest is, in our days, the only man who can regularly become a king; and what a king! the supreme king. So, what a nursery of aspirations is a seminary. How many blushing chorus boys, how many young abbés, have the ambitious dairymaid’s pail of milk on their heads! Who knows how easily ambition disguises itself under the name of a calling, possibly in good faith, and deceiving itself, saint that it is!
Monseigneur Bienvenu, an humble, poor, private person, was not counted among the rich mitres. This was plain from the entire absence of young priests about him. We have seen that at Paris “he did not take.” No glorious future dreamed of alighting upon this solitary old man. No young ambition was foolish enough to ripen in his shadow. His canons and his grand-vicars were good old men, rather common like himself, and like him immured in that diocese from which there was no road to promotion, and they resembled their bishop, with this difference, that they were finished, and he was perfected. The impossibility of getting on under Monseigneur Bienvenu was so plain, that as soon as they were out of the seminary, the young men ordained by him procured recommendations to the Archbishop of Aix or of Auch, and went immediately to present them. For, we repeat, men like advancement. A saint who is addicted to abnegation is a dangerous neighbour; he is very likely to communicate to you by contagion an incurable poverty, an anchylosis of the articulations necessary to advancement, and, in fact, more renunciation than you would like; and men flee from this contagious virtue. Hence the isolation of Monseigneur Bienvenu. We live in a sad society. Succeed; that is the advice which falls, drop by drop, from the overhanging corruption.
We may say, by the way, that success is a hideous thing. Its counterfeit of merit deceives men. To the mass, success has almost the same appearance as supremacy. Success, that pretender to talent, has a dupe, — history. Juvenal and Tacitus only reject it. In our days, a philosophy which is almost an official has entered into its service, wears its livery, and waits in its antechamber. Success; that is the theory. Prosperity supposes capacity. Win in the lottery, and you are an able man. The victor is venerated. To be born with a caul is everything. Have but luck, and you will have the rest: be fortunate, and you will be thought great. Beyond the five or six great exceptions, which are the wonder of their age, contemporary admiration is nothing but shortsightedness. Gilt is gold. To be a chance comer is no drawback, provided you have improved your chances. The common herd is an old Narcissus, who adores himself, and who applauds the common. That mighty genius, by which one becomes a Moses, an Æschylus, a Dante, a Michael Angelo, or a Napoleon, the multitude assigns at once and by acclamation to whoever succeeds in his object, whatever it may be. Let a notary rise to be a deputy; let a sham Corneille write Tiridate; let a eunuch come into possession of a harem; let a military Prudhomme accidentally win the decisive battle of an epoch; let an apothecary invent pasteboard soles or army shoes, and lay up, by selling this pasteboard instead of leather for the army of the Sambre-et-Meuse, four hundred thousand livres in the funds; let a pack-pedlar espouse usury and bring her to bed of seven or eight millions, of which he is the father and she the mother; let a preacher become a bishop by talking through his nose; let the steward of a good house become so rich on leaving service that he is made Minister of Finance — men call that Genius, just as they call the face of Mousqueton, Beauty, and the bearing of Claude, Majest. They confound the radiance of the stars of heaven with the radiations which a duck’s foot leaves in the mud.
That last line reminds me of the conclusion of the young lawyer in Anton Chekhov’s short story The Bet, which I previously posted here.
Hugo’s words still ring true and aim accurately because underneath whatever exterior they try to cover themselves with, all societies are the same, and that is because all people through all of time are, indeed, the same. Which is why the gospel of Jesus Christ will never be replaced as mankind’s only hope.