I ventured forth from Columbia this weekend, leaving the comfortable constraints of Morningside Heights and the throbbing beat of Bacchanal for the suburban semi-peace of New Jersey. Trying to put my own words into practice, I’m seeking rejuvenation by habitually revelling in “unproductive” breaks. Meandering through the Northeast while I should be writing papers in the buildup to finals is really quite pleasant.
The piny woods and glimmering spring mornings of Princeton are eminently conducive to reflection, rendering my Gerard Manley Hopkins reading assignment much more agreeable than the absurdly dense Nietzsche I have yet to finish perusing. My distaste for his argument makes buckling down to work an even less pleasant prospect. “On the Genealogy of Morals” tries to conceptualize human morality as the product of a perennial conflict: “The noble, the powerful, the superior, and the high-minded” portray their cruel and exploitative way of life as virtuous, while the poor and weak of society respond with bitterness and resentment, dubbing their cowardly acquiescence “good.”
Columbia campus culture is attuned to the role that class plays in our thinking, sensitive to the synergies of wealth and power, even before reading Nietzsche in Contemporary Civilization. Just look at the outpouring of responses to Susan Patton’s advice to the young women of Princeton to marry their classmates, or to Suzy Lee Weiss’ op-ed on the vicissitudes of college admissions. Both opinion pieces were, with some truth, categorized as elitist and arrogant. Weiss has also had quite a few nastier adjectives thrown at her, labeling her a privileged, whiny, suburban white girl. Ross Douthat interpreted Susan Patton’s counsel as a gendered desire to perpetuate a wealthy, educated, and rarified cultural elite.
The particular slings and arrows of outrageous Internet fortune in these debates aside, Patton and Weiss do provoke reflection on our role as Columbians. Regardless of the process that has brought us here, we are in a position of great power and privilege. We have the potential to earn quite a bit of money, launch a successful political career, or become a world expert in a field of scholarship. If our world were truly meritocratic—a world where our own choices, talents, energies, and efforts exactly corresponded to our opportunities in life—this would be entirely unproblematic. We could all claim to deserve perfectly whatever we have and live in blissful selfishness.
But we know the world isn’t like that, and it never has been. So much of our lot in life, for better or for worse, is unmerited. Virtue and wisdom do not necessarily have any bearing on success; folly and dissolution are not always punished. Birthplace, parents, upbringing, and neighborhood all play far more of a role in shaping who we are and what we do than we care to admit. We do not choose our native tongue or our historical context. Birth in 12th-century Japan would make for a very different life than birth in late-20th-century Brooklyn.
If we do not create ourselves and are responsible for being Columbians far less than we might like to think, how can we respond? I can think of at least three options. There’s the denial of any obligation or dependence on others, a kind of market anarchism. New York, from Bernie Madoff to Eliot Spitzer, certainly provides plenty of examples of wealth and power being used that way. Then there’s the spirit that leads to angry attacks on Suzy Lee Weiss—an attempt to prove merit, that we deserve to be Columbians and to suffer through Mowshowitz and Calculus III. Or we could embrace the gifts we’ve been given with gratitude and reciprocate the service of others. That service might take myriad forms, inspired by wonderful Columbian creativity, from setting an example of transparency in politics to starting a business in a depressed neighborhood to raising a family by adopting orphaned children.
A sojourn to Princeton—with its motto, “Princeton in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations”—always helps remind me to aspire to this spirit of generosity and gratitude. It is, at its roots in Medieval Europe, an aristocratic spirit of “noblesse oblige”—nobility obliges us to live magnanimously. Edmund Burke said that “the spirit of a gentleman,” coupled with the “spirit of religion,” is a cornerstone of virtue in society. Let us aspire to be ladies and gentlemen and to recognize that if we have been given power, we should use it to provide service to others, and if we have been given wealth, we should give it away. It is a difficult attitude to acquire, but courage, perseverance, humility, and grace will go a long way in attempting to cultivate it.
Luke Foster is a Columbia College sophomore. He is vice president of Delta GDP, head of content for the Veritas Forum, and a member of Columbia Faith and Action. Foster the Core runs alternate Mondays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.