Featured Reviews

Costica Bradatan – In Praise of Failure [Feature Review]

In Praise of FailureWeaving Failure Into Our Life Story

A Feature Review of

In Praise of Failure: Four Lessons in Humility
Costica Bradatan

Hardcover: Harvard University Press, 2023
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Reviewed by Karen Altergott Roberts

“Humility is the cardinal democratic virtue, the antidote of arrogant pride: it is the quality of being aware of one’s own and others’ limits.”
–John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy (2009)

Failure is the experience of “disconnection, disruption or discomfort,” and can help us toward self-realization (9) and humility.  In Costica Bradatan’s work, In Praise of Failure, we read stories of some who aimed for good and others who aimed for power; all experienced failure. The stories are so interwoven, it is challenging at times to follow the clear thread.  The philosophical eyes of the author see four types of failure: physical, political, social, and biological.

Simone Weil represents physical failure.  Born extremely frail, an odd, and awkward child, she had lifelong empathy for the suffering.  Stumbling through life as an unorthodox teacher, a clumsy factory worker, an anarchist self-injured (not in battle), an ecumenical Christian, a mystic, and a lifelong, self-starving intellectual, she failed and failed again. Bradatan connects her story to those who reject much of the physical world as evil or at least secondary (Gnostics, Cathars, Plato).  Bradatan shows the nature of a fallen world through her life, the Gnostic spirit rejecting the evil in the world, and the practice of denying oneself.

In a career of many failures, Gandhi provides Bradatan’s first case of political failure.  Gandhi valued non-violence. Yet, he did not achieve his political vision.  In practice, his utopian community vision of all living in selflessness, poverty, and purity, put followers under the power of his word.  The violence he witnessed throughout his life, including the death of millions, culminated in his violent death by assassination. Did he live in humility?  His 100 volumes of writing suggest he never gave up trying to do better.

Bradatan says that all spiritual traditions facilitate “detachment from the domain of power” (119). Stories of political failure show what happens when an entire community is turned away from common meaning derived from religion, symbols, language, and meaningful lives and turned toward the domain of power of the few over the many.  Profound failure is exhibited by oppression and killing.  Bradatan writes about the political failures of Hitler, the French Revolution, and the Bolshevik Revolution to give depth to the idea of political failure and its morally crippling potential.  How can one come to humility?  Democracy.

The author compares every story of political failure to the ideal of democracy.  “Democracy is the social and political exercise of modesty” (Camus, 68). Bradatan defines the humility of genuine democracy as “I may be wrong, another may be right.” Further, Athenian democracy “reduced the amount of unnecessary suffering in the world” (82). Democracy might not be perfect, but isn’t that goal one we could share?  Is humility a call to move toward a democratic ideal?

Next, consider social failures.  These stories centered around Emil Cioran, born in Romania.  He moved to France, publishing his essays in French. An idler intellectual, a self-labeled loser, a nihilist, and someone who felt a relative failure as a writer, he proudly identified himself as born to fail.  And he identified with many failed ideas, including dictatorship (178).  Claiming the Romanian language has many words for failure, he points to “it wasn’t meant to be” as a common explanation for one’s own failure.  Cioran, like the Gnostics, posits the world as creation, is an utter failure.  John Calvin, who posited we are born one or the other – saved or damned, a failure or a success, fits with Cioran’s acceptance of failure. The radical notion that God created some to succeed and others to fail is embedded in our culture.  An opposing point of view referred to by Bradatan is the idea of universal salvation by a good God.  In both, humans must be humble.

Tramping is another way of living humbly.  The author George Orwell spent years living in poverty as he tramped around the world. He comes to understand social failure to be a result of what others think of us.  Even though people are fundamentally the same, we make some people out to be failures, another result of Calvin.  This is a social creation, far from the basic equality underlying the notions of democracy.  Cioran lived and died humbly. Facing dementia, he planned suicide but lost the ability to act on his plans.  He realized his ultimate failure.

In the book’s last section, the author considers biological failure, death.  Dying occurs in a myriad of ways.  For some reason, suicide is a focus in this section.  Suicide is a negative response to the question, “Is life worth living or not” (Camus).  Broadening the types of death considered would have deepened the analysis, as death is universal, but suicide is not.

The central story of ultimate failure is about a Japanese author, Mishima.  He commits hari kari in an elaborate planned ritual, claiming the identity of a samurai.  This is in the ancient Japanese tradition of death, an honorable way to leave life after failure.  His writing rival, Dazai, attempted suicide many times before succeeding.  Other philosophers faced death in forced ways, such as Socrates and Seneca.  Seneca’s Stoic philosophy suggested that every day of life, we are dying.  He advocated for becoming ever more aware of death, which may help us live a good life.

It was a lesson in humility and a satisfying venture to read and reread this book.  Each of the four failures in this book – physical, political, social, and ultimate– shows us the importance of philosophy for finding a good life.  How shall we live today?  We live in a fallen world, and the author inspires us to consider how to weave a life story, around and through our failures, into a better future.

Karen Altergott Roberts

Karen Altergott Roberts has been a faculty member at several midwestern universities, a pastor in Indiana, and a writer. She writes on social issues, teaches public speaking, and paints as a spiritual discipline.

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