The American Success Syndrome

by Harold Y. Vanderpool

Dr. Vanderpool is assistant professor of religion and director of American studies at Wellesley College.

This article appeared in The Christian Century, September 24, 1975, pp. 820-823. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Athena, goddess of careers, is fast becoming the most admired deity in our contemporary American pantheon. American studies, biblical literature and Reinhold Niebuhr’s social ethics focus on careerism, are issues consuming attention on American campuses, especially at predominantly women’s colleges.

Despite academic pretensions of rational discourse and objective standards, mythmaking is alive and well in American colleges and universities. For almost a decade Aphrodite reigned as goddess of the academic heaven. We danced and rejoiced over her virtues of refined and lustful love, and even introduced Dionysius for the sake of variety.

Yet lately a new goddess has surfaced in our midst. Athena, patron deity of crafts and professions, has emerged as an ideal to be emulated. She incarnates careerism. And for women and men alike she offers an ultimate promise and purpose for human living. Athena is not without divine rivals, but choruses of praise are offered increasingly to her both on American campuses and throughout the popular media. Athena, goddess of careers, is fast becoming the most admired deity in our contemporary American pantheon.

But America has regularly manifested an ingenious propensity for disguising and updating the myths of ancient Greece to create more palatable cultural stories. Thus our version of Athena has characteristically been packaged under the name of Horatio Alger, whose heroes embody the virtues and blessings of success through careerism. Alger’s heroes were aggressive, individualistic, lucky, hardworking, honest enough to secure the trust they needed to succeed, and, of course, male. A casual reading of such scintillating novels as Ragged Dick and Mark, the Match Boy reveals how Alger created a virtual American mythology of success, the praise of which surely rivaled the hymns sung for Athena in ancient Athens.

The word "success" summarized for Alger what is now commonly referred to as "the Good Life." The Good Life -- or, as I shall call it, the "American Success Syndrome" -- consists of having a lot of money, making the right kinds of connections, and achieving social power through success in the business world or one of the professions.

Purveyors of Success

At the outset, it should be emphasized that Horatio Alger was but one of many American writers who depicted in graphic and glowing terms the benefits of hard work at a good job and the ultimate rewards of achievement through wealth. His books are only one expression of a deep and pervasive tradition in our society -- a tradition which, for economic, social and psychological reasons, is surfacing with renewed force today in American life.

In modern history the work ethic was first given a great impetus by the Protestant Reformation, in which context Martin Luther and John Calvin argued convincingly that the great and good life was ultimately experienced not in the monastery or convent, but in working at one’s job in everyday life. The great American Puritan John Cotton declared in more than one sermon that it was God’s good will that men and women should spend most of their time and energy working. It was this kind of emphasis that prompted H. L. Mencken to remark that the Puritans were so thoroughly devoted to the work ethic that they proceeded to dig clams all winter so that they would have enough energy to plant corn all summer; and in turn they planted corn all summer so that they would surely have the energy to dig clams all winter.

It was none other than Benjamin Franklin who gave this work ethic a thoroughly all-American sanction. In Franklin’s mind, work virtually defined the successful and patriotic American. It was Franklin’s Poor Richard who bequeathed to us such tidbits of timely wisdom as "God helps them that help themselves," "The sleeping fox catches no poultry," and of course "Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise." These phrases have been etched into the American character, if not on the doorposts of our public buildings.

Horatio Alger, Andrew Carnegie, the Episcopal Bishop William Lawrence of Massachusetts, and a host of other late 19th century figures regarded Franklin in essence as a patron saint and patterned their writings and lives according to his precepts. This tradition continues to live rather famously in our own time.

American religion always manages to reflect our cultural myths, and the great purveyor of the American Success Syndrome in our own era is the popular Protestant minister Norman Vincent Peale. Peale is variously known for such best-selling books as The Power of Positive Thinking (with 14 printings within two years of its 1952 release) and for his regular appearances at presidential prayer breakfasts. A typical Peale statement:

A . . . method for drawing upon that Higher Power is to learn to take a positive, optimistic attitude toward every problem. . . . There is a Higher Power, and that Power can do everything for you. Draw upon it and experience its great helpfulness. Why be defeated when you are free to draw upon that Higher Power?

This Higher Power is one of the most amazing facts in human existence. I am awestruck, no matter how many times I have seen the phenomenon, by the thoroughgoing, tremendous overwhelming changes for good that it accomplishes in the lives of people. . . . This power is constantly available. . . . It drives everything before it, casting out fear, hate, sickness, weakness, moral defeat, scattering them as though they had never touched you, refreshing and restrengthening your life with health, happiness, and goodness [The Power of Positive Thinking (Prentice-Hall, 1952), pp. 265, 267].

With the Higher Power of Peale one can blast all defeat out of life. Yield, White Whale of Hawthorne! Yield, tragedy and evil! Come, health, beauty and success! God becomes the Mascot of Careerism, the Guardian of the Good Life, who frees his people from all worry, business failure, ill health, fear of death, loss of vitality, and heartache. Peale emerges as the 20th century version of the patent-medicine man -- selling bottles of divine cure-all potion from the pulpit of his Marble Collegiate Church. His books are virtual paeans of praise to Athena.

These versions of the American Success Syndrome are essentially quasi-religious promises of salvation. Status, jobs, professionalism, and a dash of optimism and the Higher Power are said to lead to human wholeness, meaningfulness and happiness. Here there is faith -- faith in the promises accompanying the Good Life. Here there is hope -- hope in the belief that one shall enjoy the benefits of higher status and prosperity. And here there is love -- love for the system as it stands, with little if any concern for a transformation of values.

Exposing the Bogus Promises

But the American Success Syndrome cannot be denounced wholesale. It is a tradition filled with ambiguity, latent with both positive and negative human and moral values. People can make fine contributions through their careers. Dignity in American society often does accompany being paid, and paid well. So also influence. And we must be realistically conscious of the need to protect our security in a society that is individualistic and achievement-oriented. Yet without attempting to resolve these ambiguities, genuine critical light can be thrown on the presuppositions of the American Success Story.

In the, first place, as a holistic point of view, it simply does not work. It is patently reductionistic. A case in point is the real Horatio Alger. Alger himself was graduated from Harvard Divinity School and for a while served as a Unitarian minister. But despite the fact that his popular success stories brought him wealth and fame, his own life was little short of tragic. He never married or experienced the fulfillments of genuine mutuality with men or women, though he seems to have wanted these relationships desperately. He had two affairs with women who remained married to their spouses; he eventually suffered serious mental illness and spent his last days in the kind of boarding house which Ragged Dick and the other successful heroes of his novels had forever left behind. For Horatio Alger wealth and social prestige were hardly the marrow of salvation.

The human and moral inadequacy of the American Success Syndrome is yet more thoroughly discredited by the honest and timeless realism of the biblical literature. Excepting parts of Proverbs and Psalms and the tenth chapter of I Kings (in which the uncritical praise of "Solomon in all his glory" is based on his power, pleasure and wealth), the biblical literature exposes the American success dream as mythical and full of false confidence.

For the biblical writers life is tragic as well as successful. To experience life is to experience weakness as well as power, sickness along with death, anxiety as well as confidence, the abyss of Hades as well as the heights of Mount Sinai. This point is dramatically illustrated in the Book of Psalms, in which there is ecstatic celebration and joy: "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all ye lands. Serve the Lord with gladness: come before his presence with singing." Yet the Psalms also contain, intense and profound laments over the miseries of life -- miseries which are seen as a genuine part of the world created by God:

Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;

O Lord, heal me, for my bones are troubled.

My soul also is sorely troubled

I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears;

I drench my couch with my weeping.

My eye wastes away because of grief, it grows weak because of all my foes [Ps. 6:2-7].

This full-fledged view of life is depicted beautifully and profoundly in the book of Ecclesiastes, the words of which expose the bogus promises of Athena’s cultus and of the Horatio Alger panacea.

For everything there is a season and a time for every

matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance ...

time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away [Eccles. 3:1-4, 6].

Biblical Models of the Good Life

We should seek, however, to push beyond a critique of the American success myth -- to move beyond criticism to construction, to formulate a set of positive redefinitions and affirmations. We might begin by asking a terribly simple yet exceedingly complex question: "What is my definition of ‘the Good Life’?" In seeking answers to this question, I suggest that we look at biography, at real-life models. Three biblical models, three remarkable lives, summarize much of what the Hebraic and Christian writers regarded as central definitions of goodness.

The first is that of David the King, who is referred to more than once as a "man after God’s own heart." David can be described briefly as a courageous creator. Finding Israel in a state of social disintegration and great political weakness, at a time when it was being brutally defeated by the Philistines, David became the creator of new institutions -- social, governmental and religious. These institutions helped Israel achieve new wholeness, purpose and, indeed, a viable political existence. Success for David was not primarily fame, fortune and wealth within a closed system, but rather creative leadership toward the remolding of a new and meaningful society. Despite his manifest imperfections -- of which the Bible speaks with amazing frankness -- David represents a Hebrew worthy of emulation.

A second model is Amos the Prophet. By any standard of the American Success Syndrome, Amos was a failure. He was poor and remained in poverty. He was not popular, or even well known. His only "job" was gathering fruit -- an occupation somewhat like that of present-day migrant farm workers. And the only power he possessed was latent in his words. Yet his words were filled with power -- the kind of power that transforms human life, crystallizing it into social and community action. He is supremely characterized by the words of the prophet Micah:

He has showed you, O man, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God? [Mic. 6:8;

emphasis added].

The Good Life for Amos was summarized in his concepts of love and justice, principles rooted in his devotion to community-creating, community-building virtues. It is the egalitarian life in the community that counts -- where the rich do not lord it over the poor (or in Amos’ words, where the "rich do not sell the poor for a pair of sandals"), nor men over women. The Good Life is shared with the other -- friend, husband/lover, wife/lover, child, the aged, the over-30, the under-30. The Good Life is a life of relationships and sharing -- of ideas, of possessions, of values, and of experiences of a thousand kinds. This perspective was captured beautifully by the English poet Thomas Hardy, who in the face of romanticism about nature said that human fulfillment could not ultimately be found among rocks and vines and trees.

Since, then, no grace I find

Taught me of trees,

Turn I back to my kind,

Worthy as these

There at least smiles abound,

There discourse trills around,

There, now and then, are found


A Threefold Ideal

A third definition of the "Good Life" in the biblical literature comes from Jesus’ parable about the Good Samaritan. Putting Jesus to the test, a professionally accomplished lawyer asked for a definition of a "neighbor," the love of whom Jesus had set forth as the second great ideal for human life. Jesus defined the "neighbor" by telling the story of the Good Samaritan, in which, among other things, two ideals are apparent.

To be a neighbor is to be concerned for the other, concerned enough to seek self-fulfillment (I would not argue for "selflessness") by caring for the wounded, the robbed, the poor. We do that in part because we realize how very easily, save for the grace of God, we are the robbed, the beaten, the forsaken, the imprisoned and the infirm.

The Samaritan was also a person who risked himself. Quite obviously he might have been ambushed and beaten to the point of death by the same set of robbers who rolled the traveler in the first place. I suspect that it was precisely because of fear of just this sort of treatment that both the priest and the Levite refused to aid the traveler, but "passed on the other side" of the road. So to be a neighbor is to take risks, to have courage, to venture beyond the ordinary, safe norms of keeping to oneself and one’s small circle of friends.

Biblical redefinitions of success and "the Good Life" thus include a threefold ideal: to be creative, to help build and nurture human community, and to live as loving, risking neighbors. We are challenged to seek to shape our careers toward such redefined ethical goals. To decide to live by these ideals is surely also to decide to live with ambiguity, with possible career interruption and with no little degree of anxiety. Yet there are pleasures here that far surpass the promises of Americans like Alger and Peale, or the praises offered to Athena.

In the case of Jesus we find a person who lived by biblical standards of goodness. In so living he left those of us who are his disciples an ultimate ethical model. He represents an individual who became a creator, a community-builder, and a risking neighbor without surrendering his principles or losing his courage. We will need grace to live by his example.