The philosopher George Berkeley, for all his interesting theories, led an uneventful life. Born in in 1685, he moved to in his youth and there earned his Master’s degree. Berkeley later became a dean and a bishop, also taking several years off to simply observe society in and France (Berkeley Biography). The bulk of his life, however, was spent doing something for which philosophers are known: learning. Why, one may ask, was Berkeley so devoted to learning about life and forming philosophical theories? Perhaps he did it for the pure joy of thinking. I believe, however, that a much more sinister, if unintentional, force caused George Berkeley to spend his life pondering conundrums: the competitive spirit enforced by society.
We are often plagued in society by an all-or-nothing attitude in most aspects of life. You are the best or you are not- there is no in-between. This attitude is not the product of genes; it is the product of a culture that is more focused on winning than it is on inner motivation. Philosophers illustrate this point by spending their lives seeking only to disprove others. The rest of us illustrate it by competing over grades, material objects, jobs, and lives in general. We are influenced to compete not by genetics but by our surroundings.
I am, by most accounts, no philosopher myself. I do, however, have a great deal of experience in the field. In high school, I took a class about philosophers throughout history (including theories and the lives of the philosophers), and my first year of college was spent at Oglethorpe University (known for its philosophical emphasis). At Oglethorpe, I read endless works of various philosophers, wrote seemingly endless papers about them, and discussed the works in class. One theory few philosophers ever mention- but that is present in the work of all of them- is the need of each thinking man to improve and build upon the theories of other philosophers. No happier is a philosopher when he has disproved a theory of a colleague, tearing his life’s work to shreds and laughing at the tattered remains. Being a competitive person myself, I have long wondered what makes the human race rejoice so fervently in others’ pain. What makes me secretly thrilled to know that I outperformed a classmate on a test or attained a coveted handbag while a friend did not? Through my experience in dueling GPAs, my experience regarding the emphasis for higher, higher, higher standardized test scores, and my experience in the Gifted program since second grade, I have come to a single conclusion as to what makes society so competitive: society itself.
We, as a culture of the world, have been trained and bred to believe that when someone else feels bad, we should feel good. Why is it that people crowd around when two people start fighting, cheering them on, hoping one will be wounded? This is the lowest action of human beings: this malicious hunt for pain in others. When two people fight, their emotions have become exposed and raw, making them vulnerable, without that protective layer they normally have, because the emotions they were feeling became too much for them to bear. Instead of offering to help rebuild that protective wall- to protect from the scrutiny of others- what do we do? We laugh at them and cheer them on. “Make him feel awful! If you lose this fight, you’re nothing! Hit him, kill him, he hurt you and now it’s your time for revenge!” I have witnessed such fights numerous times in school: two people begin to fight, and instead of being horrified, classmates whoop and encourage the spectacle. People enjoy the display of raw emotion because it makes them feel better for not being a part of it. It makes them feel better than “those” people because they still have their safety zone. But on a lot of levels, the fighters are more true to nature than the onlookers because they just stopped caring what society had taught them since birth: that it is important to be the best, as long as you try to do it covertly.
When did we get this idea that being the best is important? Have humans always had this as some sort of survival instinct, or is it a recent development? Charles Darwin, the leader of the theory of evolution, would say that even the earliest humans had to be competitive to survive. The stronger, faster, and smarter humans got the food and the rest died off, weeded out by survival of the fittest. Supposedly, our competitive nature is instinctive to us because we innately want to preserve our genes and, in turn, the human race as it is right now. However, if we are constantly evolving to be better suited to our environment, why has is the competitive “nature” not eased? What is the point, for instance, of feeling the need to compete with someone over grades? It seems a rather long process of connecting one thing to another to consider that a survival instinct. You might say that you needed better grades than someone else so that you can go to a better school than them, to in turn get a better job than them, have more money than them, have a better life than them, and finally have better, healthier children than them. This seems unlikely and stretches the idea to a huge extent. If being competitive is solely based on our subconscious need to perpetuate our gene pools, wouldn’t insignificant factors over which we feel the need to compete have been eliminated over the years? You might think so- but it is not the case. Humanity’s need to compete, to be the best, has only gotten worse (why is it important to have the most money? Why is it important to be the most famous?), and I do not believe it has anything to do with science, but instead it is our disgusting societal infrastructure that claims scientific findings but then gives us no basis for why they currently do not hold true. It is that whisper of a society that craves competition, that deathly cold hiss that tells us we are right for finding glee in others’ pain. It makes us better people than them. My belief, though, is that it makes us worse people as a race.
Philosophers are only one example of the need to compete with others and tear down their ideas. Some philosophers, like Nietzsche, even admit this: “In the (The Origin of the Moral Sensations by Dr. Paul Ree), on which I was then engaged, I made opportune and inopportune reference to the propositions of that book, not in order to refute them-what have I to do with refutations!-but, as becomes a positive spirit, to replace the improbable with the more probable, possibly one error with another.” We find examples of this competition in everyday life, from the time we are small children even leading to our death in attaining the best cemetery plot. I feel that it is society that creates this idea and perpetuates it to an enormous, unnecessary extent. It is important to understand the motivation of competition so that we may better address it. As a culture, we each must take responsibility for our feelings and actions and not assign all unfavorable traits to evolution: we must take a stand against the insane race to be the best and simply compete with ourselves.
Landry, Peter. “George Berkeley.” Biographies, 2004. 26 June 2005.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. Trans: Clark, Maudemarie & Swensen, Alan. On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic. New York: Hackett, 1998.