Squarely challenging a culture obsessed with success, an acclaimed philosopher argues that failure is vital to a life well lived, curing us of arrogance and self-deception and engendering humility instead.
Our obsession with success is hard to overlook. Everywhere we compete, rank, and measure. Yet this relentless drive to be the best blinds us to something vitally important: the need to be humble in the face of life’s challenges. Costica Bradatan mounts his case for failure through the stories of four historical figures who led lives of impact and meaning—and assiduously courted failure. Their struggles show that engaging with our limitations can be not just therapeutic but transformative.
In Praise of Failure explores several arenas of failure, from the social and political to the spiritual and biological. It begins by examining the defiant choices of the French mystic Simone Weil, who, in sympathy with exploited workers, took up factory jobs that her frail body could not sustain. From there we turn to Mahatma Gandhi, whose punishing quest for purity drove him to ever more extreme acts of self-abnegation. Next we meet the self-styled loser E. M. Cioran, who deliberately turned his back on social acceptability, and Yukio Mishima, who reveled in a distinctly Japanese preoccupation with the noble failure, before looking to Seneca to tease out the ingredients of a good life.
Gleefully breaching the boundaries between argument and storytelling, scholarship and spiritual quest, Bradatan concludes that while success can make us shallow, our failures can lead us to humbler, more attentive, and better lived lives. We can do without success, but we are much poorer without the gifts of failure.
Bradatan, a philosopher, writes with elegance and wit, his every thought and sentence slipping smoothly into the next...I was absorbed by Bradatan's book even-or especially-when I felt uncomfortable with its implications. -- Jennifer Szalai * New York Times * Bradatan wears his erudition lightly. He is a pleasure to read, and his prose conveys a happy resilience in the face of life's inevitable contradictions. His lessons in humility remind us that the pursuit of success is often motivated by the dread of failure-and that our attempts to create things are often driven by an avoidance of our mortality. -- Michael S. Roth * Washington Post * Charming and brilliant...Bradatan transcends the pessimistic visions of Cioran and co, for it is clear that he believes in the possibility of spiritual progress once we have been sufficiently humbled by failure. -- Anna Katharina Schaffner * Times Literary Supplement * Gleefully breaching the boundaries between argument and storytelling, scholarship and spiritual quest, Bradatan concludes that while success can make us shallow, our failures can lead us to humbler, more attentive, and better lived lives. * Englewood Review of Books * What [Bradatan] offers is a normative argument for why we should be humbled by failure rather than, like Hitler and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, see failure as a mere 'stepping-stone to success'...Humans in Bradatan's eyes are not featherless bipeds or rational animals but the only creatures who can recognize failure. It is this failure-detecting faculty, rather than, say, Aristotle's nous, that makes us fully human...Thought-provoking. -- Alexander Raubo * Literary Review * Bradatan argues that we should not run from failure, but face it, clear eyed, because facing our failures makes us humble, and, by becoming humble, we can live better lives...This book is about the art of living a good life, and Bradatan's voice is like a steady and charming guide through a moonless night. -- Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn * Hedgehog Review * [Bradatan] has an encyclopedic knowledge combined with the gift of a master storyteller who knows how to stay out of the weeds. His prose is limpid and calm but spiced with just the right dash of irony. Most chapters move gracefully along, with switchbacks between a tale about one blunderer and a story about another. A rarity, In Praise of Failure is at once a substantial history of ideas and a page-turner. -- Gordon Marino * Christian Century * 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 * Englewood Review of Books * 'More than a form of behavior...humility should be seen as a form of knowledge,' writes Bradatan. Such a knowledge has always been essential, but it is now so more than ever as our creaturely existence is threatened on every side...In Praise of Failure is a helpful orientation into this way of knowing-one that is an invitation toward the ground of our being. -- Ragan Sutterfield * Plough Quarterly * Bradatan makes a persuasive case for failure's generative ability to knock us out of our self-centeredness...Give[s] us good reason to hope that failure and disappointment are better understood as preludes, not conclusions, to the messy but fascinating narrative of becoming we call 'life.' -- Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen * Yale Review * The ideas are boldly counterintuitive, and the illuminating historical examples complicate what it means to succeed. This is, ironically enough, a triumph. * Publishers Weekly * Provocative, stimulating, wise-the book that our success-obsessed age needs to read. -- Tom Holland, author of Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World In this deeply inspiring book, Costica Bradatan invites us to humble up and embrace the fact that we are all prone to failure. But the real lesson is that this embrace is a first step on a long journey toward self-transformation and growth. We all fail, but only the wise understand that their imperfections are what make them whole. -- Marcelo Gleiser, author of The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning I have nothing but praise for this revealing and riveting, probing and provocative book. Bradatan has succeeded in reminding us why failure is not only inevitable, but, if viewed properly, so very vital. A brilliant tour de force. -- Robert Zaretsky, author of The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas In Praise of Failure takes a set of corrosively prophetic lives and makes them new again through a compelling, cross-cutting, swift, and entirely original mode of narration. Costica Bradatan writes with the same daring, the same interpretive anger that made his subjects notorious in their own day for choosing failure over what their respective worlds counted as success. A gripping read, start to finish. -- Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography A belletrist following in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin and Susan Sontag, Costica Bradatan exhibits, yet again, that he is an original thinker of real merit. -- James Miller, author of Examined Lives: From Socrates to Nietzsche With eloquent passion-and compassion-Costica Bradatan puts fear of failure at the heart of human existence, yesterday, now, and forever, from the failures that frustrate our daily existence to the ultimate failure that is death. Weaving together the life and work of such disparate souls as Simone Weil, Seneca, Gandhi, E. M. Cioran, and Yukio Mishima, he reminds us why our fellow humans have always ascribed to the mad, the misfits, and those on the verge of death an uncanny capacity for second sight. A unique, insightful meditation on the essential questions of human existence that aims to heal as well as to provoke. -- Ingrid Rowland, coauthor of The Collector of Lives: Giorgio Vasari and the Invention of Art