A new book about an old thing: the sack of Rome. Few records survive of the Visigoth culprit Alaric (well, if you will destroy a literate culture . . .) but the historian Douglas Boin knows enough to clear up some misapprehensions.
Alaric the Goth is not about a grunting primitive from the soggy forests. No, this is a Latin-speaker who longs for nothing so much as to be Roman. He fights for the emperor but to no great thanks. He is tantalised with imperial postings that are eventually denied him. Even mid-siege, he is open to being bought off with high office. One snub too many, and he and his mob show the Eternal City to be fleeting.
The book strains for relevance (Alaric is a “talented immigrant”) but it understands what drives personal success far better than modern treatises on management and self-help. That is, it understands the power of an inferiority complex. What the English call “chippiness” is as potent a source of motivation as exists in life. And the least celebrated. At close quarters, I have seen it drive lots of unremarkable people to the apex of electoral politics and business. I have then seen the same careers — most credulously in business — written up as feats of “passion”, “optimism” and a “desire to change things”.
The modern view seems to be that success flows from our virtues. It is there in the bookshelves that creak under volumes of Oprah-ish life advice. It is there in the internet’s gooey trove of motivational videos. The trouble is that success also flows from our sourness and resentment. That ambition is often a dark thing — negative energy put to good use — goes under-discussed in a culture otherwise obsessed with how winners win.
The strange thing is that vivid case studies are all around us. And over us. Today’s ruling populists are eerily Alaric-like. If liberal elites were half as sly as billed, they would have defanged their enemies long ago with the equivalent of Roman citizenship. Manhattan’s salons would have welcomed in Donald Trump, the better to soothe his bridge-and-tunnel grievances. A seat in parliament, which Nigel Farage has sought seven times, an almost heart-rending number, would have been brokered for him across some Islingtonian dining table.
No doubt there is more to populism than the hurt feelings of a few social also-rans. The modern creed was more or less shaped by the French shopkeeper Pierre Poujade, who did not pine by the doormat for society invitations. It is just that its most successful exponents of late are nothing like him. What drives them can seem more personal than doctrinal.
Politics has always known the type — Richard Nixon founded an underdog fraternity at college — but it is even more prevalent in business. Put about by The Social Network, the embittered-wallflower theory of what drives Mark Zuckerberg is probably too much. It is hard to spend time in and around tech, though, without meeting people who waited through school and university to become popular. Great wealth, rather than public office, is their means of redress. But redress is what it is.
As the examples accumulate, still the industry devoted to life advice tends to gloss over the uses of resentment. To that extent, it misleads. The “traits of successful people”, if compiled honestly, has to go beyond the righteous virtues. As a personal feature, chippiness is unattractive. As a source of energy, it is irreplaceable. Those who learn to harness it will always bestride public and private life.
I don’t write any of this with analytic distance. It was chippiness that pushed me as a younger person and the gradual loss of it that promises to slow me down. In a sense, the improvement of my character is deleterious for my career. To be at ease with one’s place in the world is a wonderful thing, but also inhibiting. Of all the highest-flyers I have encountered up close, precisely one, David Cameron, has seemed entirely free of any social resentment whatever. In the end, perhaps a bit more of the stuff might have focused the mind. An “Outsider’s History” is how Boin describes his book about Alaric. History is seldom anyone else’s.
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