Tuesday, February 19, 2013

In Defence of Mediocrity

            Only a mediocre writer is always at his best – W. Somerset Maugham

Yesterday’s blog proved to be rather popular. Today’s follow-up “single” is likely to be comparatively mediocre; which is probably quite appropriate as I intend to play with this pithy saying, this time by Somerset Maugham. If it is true that only a mediocre writer is always at his best, this is also true of most other forms of human endeavour. Indeed, it is probably true of life itself. “Only the mediocre life is always at its best.” The mediocre life is lived on a relatively level plain, with very few contours. It is safe, but uninteresting. It is at its best, but its best is not very remarkable. Those few who rise above the plain, scaling the heights, do so at great risk, because they expose themselves to falling, to failing. What can be said of a life, can be said also of an era:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

There is always a price to be paid for achieving greatness; and they are not to be despised who choose not to pay it.

I find myself, surprisingly, coming to the defence of mediocrity. The world would be an unbearable place if everyone strived for greatness. Imagine a nation in which everyone was like (or believed themselves to be like) Leonardo DaVinci or Winston Churchill. Imagine a committee with only “high achievers” as members. I suspect that not much would be achieved, despite the talent and brainpower available.

I suppose that the distribution of “greatness” within the human race, however we might measure it, probably follows a Normal curve. Sure, it might be nice to be one of those at the extreme right of that curve, some of the time. At other times, though, I imagine it would be hell. And yes, I would probably not want to be one of those languishing at the left extremity. But somewhere in the middle? It looks pretty good to me. And let’s not forget that the word “mediocre”, although it sounds as though it means “not very good”, actually derives from the Latin words “medius” (middle or halfway) and “ocris” (a broken, stony mountain). Halfway up the mountain is not a bad place to be, after all.

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