Injured Merit

How a righteous sense of grievance can lead to a better world

<em>Satan Exulting over Eve</em> by William Blake (Wikimedia Commons)
Satan Exulting over Eve by William Blake (Wikimedia Commons)

Early in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan, having been defeated in his battle against God, announces to his compatriots that his mind remains “fixed” in a “sense of injured merit.” The reason is explained in the poem’s Book V by the angel Raphael during his visit to Adam and Eve in the garden. Satan, explains Raphael, is: “fraught / With envy against the Son of God … / [he] could not bear / Through pride that sight, and thought himself impaired.”

It is a testament to the psychological complexity of Milton’s poem that his villain’s feelings are familiar to most readers. Satan is motivated not by some abstract evil but by a sense of injustice—of being superseded in a case of nepotistic favoritism—that we can understand and even sympathize with. William Blake famously remarked that Milton was “of the devil’s party without knowing it”—which is to say that Milton, like Satan (and like many of us), probably suffered from injured merit. One might even postulate that Milton wrote Paradise Lost not only “to justify the ways of God to man” but also to demonstrate his genius to insufficiently adulatory peers. As this suggests, injured merit can have constructive effects.

But in its most obvious expression, injured merit encourages the denigration if not the destruction of the individual or group that the injured party feels has usurped his place. If Milton’s Satan is one example of this, another is the biblical Cain. The story, as told in Genesis, is brief but heavily weighted with meaning:

the Lord had respect unto Abel and to his offering. But unto Cain and to his offering he had not respect. And Cain was very wroth, and his countenance fell. … And Cain talked with Abel his brother: and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Cain rose up against Abel his brother, and slew him.

Even in this terse account, one senses that Cain’s inadequate offering is less a cause than a symptom—a form of “acting out” in the face of his brother’s existence. The idea of losing ground to a younger sibling—for it is central to the story that Cain is the older brother—is quite literal here: Cain had the world to himself before Abel came on the scene; now, he must share it. The story exemplifies a primal form of injured merit: injury to the sense of entitlement of the first born.

Although nowadays we may make light of birth order as a form of precedence, its continued psychological power is undeniable. It is dramatized in almost any family, in the tendency of older children to cling to their sense of precedence long after they are grown.

Primogeniture has largely disappeared in civilized societies because the injured merit of younger siblings has been strong enough to compete with that of older ones. Shakespeare’s As You Like It makes this a central theme: a gifted younger brother becomes threatening to an older brother, who tries to kill him to preserve his sense of entitlement. At the same time, in a complementary subplot, another younger brother wrests power and banishes an older brother. The situation is repeated with variations in The Tempest. In these instances, Shakespeare shows the importance of primogeniture in the maintenance of social order while also critiquing it, pointing forward to a new era in which legal favoritism is no longer tilted toward the oldest (male) child.

Initially, the entitlement of birth was bolstered by force: knights in fealty to the king (according to “divine” edict, always the oldest child in the male line) protected his power and supported him on the battlefield. But eventually, military might came to pose a threat to hierarchical succession, as the valorous defender began to suffer a sense of injured merit. The “divine right of kings” began to be breached. Shakespeare, once again, offers an illuminating instance of this in his Henriad tetralogy. In Richard II, Richard, who attains the throne based on the rule of primogeniture, initially lords it over his cousin, Bolingbroke, who, once he acquires a grievance that his cousins, fellow aristocrats, can relate to, uses his superior force to depose Richard and seize the crown for himself. In Henry IV, Part I, Shakespeare takes this a step further. Hotspur, another cousin to Bolingbroke (now Henry IV), challenges the new king’s authority, using the precedent of Henry’s earlier challenge to Richard. Prince Hal, Henry IV’s son, defeats Hotspur, invoking divine right (as the son of the new king). Yet this has become a hollow claim, and we sense that the defeat is fortuitous, and that Prince Hal’s real skill lies in his political acumen. This is dramatized in Henry IV, Part II and Henry V, in which inherited position and military might are shown to be less important than political cunning and statesmanship.

The value system that emerges at the end of the Henriad is one that prevails in a democratic society. Here, everyone, theoretically, is entitled to compete for precedence but the means of assessing value is more difficult. In the old order, blood and bravery signified worth. In the new one, worth is more subjectively measured, more bound up with elusive, individual qualities. Injured merit is consequently more pervasive—everyone is entitled to a grievance. Now, however, it is not the older brother or the king, but society itself—that vast fabric of interests and prejudices that fail to give the individual his, now also her, due.

The idea that the world is corrupt and unfair was the subject of medieval morality plays and sermons. They taught a vast population to reconcile itself to misery and subjugation by promising rewards in the afterlife. But in a democracy, everyone is moderately free and potentially subject to rewards in this life, though few receive the rewards they think they deserve. Thus, the perspective of the medieval morality play—that the world is hopelessly corrupt—gets deployed to rationalize injured merit. The viewpoint has particular power because it tends to be self-fulfilling. One may begin with a sense of not getting one’s due and quickly proceed to the view that social rewards are based on false or biased standards. Any subsequent slight or sign of neglect reinforces this view. Eventually, this can lead to the rationalization that social rewards are not worth having.

A useful work to consider in light of this tendency to extrapolate from a personal slight to a general moral perspective is Molière’s play The Misanthrope. Molière had already written a diatribe against religious hypocrisy in Tartuffe; The Misanthrope extends his satire from religion to society. But though the play does a masterly job of delineating the petty corruption of the 17th-century French court, the real target of satire is the hero, Alceste, who sets himself up as the moral scourge of those around him. Although the play was written in the context of a monarchy (the court of Louis XIV), the nobles in Molière’s play are engaged in a struggle for precedence based not on some inherited idea of pedigree or military might but on the more ineffable qualities of style, charm, and political savvy. Like the two Henrys in Shakespeare’s plays, they operate according to the more amorphous aspects of merit associated with the more democratic society that lay in the future.

Although Molière’s play gives Alceste a certain credibility—he is the most articulate and interesting of the characters and, with the exception of the honnête homme Philinte, the least posturing and vain—the play also shows that Alceste’s self-righteousness is itself a kind of vanity. He is as ridiculous and self-deluded in his way as the other farcical characters because he is so stubbornly wedded to a hierarchy of merit in which he places himself at the top. In the first scene, this is revealed as he explains his philosophy to his friend:

What satisfaction can there be in having a man express his consideration for you, profess friendship, faith, affection, esteem, and praise you up to the skies when he’ll hasten to do as much for the first worthless scoundrel he comes across? No, no! No man with any self-respect wants that sort of debased and worthless esteem. There’s precious little satisfaction in the most glorious of reputations if one finds that one has to share it with the whole universe. Esteem must be founded on some sort of preference. Bestow it on everybody and it ceases to have any meaning at all. Surrender to the foolish manners of the age and, by Gad, you are no friend of mine! I spurn the all-embracing, undiscriminating affection which makes no distinction of merit. I want to be singled out and, to put it bluntly, the friend of all mankind is not my line at all.

The passage contains a wealth of explicit and implicit information about Alceste’s relationship to society. He begins by speaking in generalizations—using the third person and the plural “you” form and ends by invoking a personal sense of injured merit as he complains that Philinte lacks discrimination in his friendship for him. At the same time, Alceste pronounces the notion of being singled out an impossibility in what sounds suspiciously like sour grapes. Thus, he both berates his friend for not singling him out and appeases himself for not having been singled out by concluding that this would mean nothing in the world as it exists.

For all Alceste’s criticism of society, Philinte quickly points out a glaring contradiction in his behavior:

although you are so much at odds, as it seems, with the whole human race, you have found, in spite of everything that makes it odious to you, one member of it who has power to charm you. What surprises me still more is the strange choice on which your affections have come to rest.

Celimène, the woman whom Alceste loves, is the embodiment of all the falseness and posturing that he finds abhorrent in the society around him. Yet a moment’s reflection shows that his choice is ideal given the dynamics of injured merit. Celimène is Alceste’s ultimate test case. If he can get her to love him above all others, he can symbolically win the kind of esteem that he feels is his due. This is precisely why he can’t win her and why, given his view of human nature, he would choose her as his love object to begin with. For if Celimène were to agree to go off with him alone—if she proved more loyal and self-sacrificing than he believed she is—he could no longer be a misanthrope, and he would lose his moral superiority. This is the double bind at the center of injured merit, which must forever find reinforcing examples of hypocrisy and corruption in order to support a position of self-righteousness.

Molière also critiques the idea of an objective standard for judgment. Alceste is possibly more intelligent and certainly more honest than his rivals, but is he, therefore, more worthy? On what basis are we to judge Alceste’s worth in a society in which standardized notions of merit (precedence, blood, title, wealth) have begun to erode? Who is to say that other qualities—the ability to be gracious, to flatter, to conform, to do what is expected—might not be more valuable to the social system than the qualities exhibited by Alceste? Society’s conclusions about meaning and value contain interests and prejudices that skew it in certain directions. The replacement of a hereditary and militaristic order with a democratic one, while it would seem to favor a more equitable system of values, merely replaces a concrete form of favoritism with a more subjective one. Under this system, fewer people are likely to feel properly rewarded, even as more people are allowed to compete for recognition. The political philosopher Michael Sandel addresses this paradox in his 2020 book, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?

But the more subjective nature of judgment under democracy also allows for change and permits a philosopher like Sandel to postulate how rewards might be better distributed. Democratic societies, promoting the idea of merit without defining it fully, allow groups to feel justified in trying to rectify unfair treatment. This fuels social change—and, indeed, social justice, insofar as such a thing can be defined. The minority rights movements that have evolved over the course of the past century can be understood as the crystallization of injured merit across groups formerly ignored or dispossessed, now in a position to seek political and social redress.

Like minorities seeking justice, Milton’s Satan and Molière’s Alceste have a case. Satan, the most talented and impressive archangel, has been shunted aside by parental favoritism. Alceste, a right-thinking, intelligent man, must kowtow to fools if he is to win the lawsuit that the preposterously vain courtier Oronte has brought against him (for responding truthfully when Oronte asked him to evaluate his poem). Both cases aren’t fair.

And yet, in both there is a potent counterargument: Christ is not just a flagrant usurper of Satan’s position but an emanation of divine love; and Alceste, although technically in the right when he tells Oronte that his verses are awful, is rude in his brutal honesty: “one must observe such outward forms of civility as use and custom demand,” explains Philinte. You might quarrel with my implication that Christ’s love is akin to Philinte’s civility, but the two ideas are related, in that the latter is capable of leading to the former. In a modern society, the ability to treat others with civility can lead to love. For without civility—which may require bending the truth and compromising standards—people cannot come to know each other well enough to form mutually supportive bonds (this is what Jane Austen’s novels are about). Both Satan and Alceste favor a rigid sense of honor and truth over a more flexible sense of these values. They lack respect for humanity because they cannot accept that human beings are less than perfect. They support justice over love.

Shakespeare addressed this issue in The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock argues for justice and Portia for love. We can understand Shylock’s position; the man suffers in the extreme from injured merit. He has been treated abominably by his society, but so has his whole race. Shakespeare goes some way in presaging the minority rights movement when he has his character recite the now famous “hath not a Jew eyes?” speech. When Shylock is offered his bond many times over if he will give up his suit against Antonio, he refuses because the debt he feels he is owed is not material but emotional. Like so many sufferers of injured merit, he does not have an issue about money but respect—demonstrating that a lack of civility can breed the worst sort of discord and hate. Sandel makes this point in The Tyranny of Merit: a lack of dignity more than a lack of wealth fuels the anger and resentment of many in our population today. Shylock’s feelings are more understandable than those of Satan and Alceste; he has more reason to hate a society that spits on him and calls him a dog.

Yet even as Shakespeare grants Shylock his sense of injured merit and shows some understanding of his call for justice, the play favors Portia’s argument on behalf of mercy—or, to use the terminology I prefer, of love. This is because love offers the possibility of transcending the double bind on which injured merit is based. It is the way out of that circular sense of outrage that needs society to feed it. Portia’s argument on behalf of love acknowledges human error and frailty as inherent to the human condition and advocates letting go of anger and resentment, or “turning the other cheek.”

Unfortunately, Portia does not practice what she preaches. The sentence she dispenses to Shylock in the end is stringent and cruel. She moves from advocating for love to meting out justice because she moves from being a fictitious character, the prodigy “Doctor Bellarius,” who exists outside the constraints of real society, to being what she in fact is: a woman in disguise as a man, an object herself of society’s injustice, and hence a sufferer of injured merit in her own right. She falls to earth, as it were, and abandons love for justice as it is narrowly defined according to her society’s interests.

The play dramatizes the limitations of justice, which is always constrained by the way society defines itself at a given moment. Portia’s justice serves Antonio, the merchant, but not Shylock, the Jew, or even Portia herself, insofar as she is a woman, a subordinate to a man in her society. Yet it is the nature of a modern justice system to harbor the possibility of addressing at a later point the grievances of groups it excludes in the present. Shylock has come to seem a tragic victim in our day, although he was seen as a clownish villain in most earlier productions. The play has become his advocate to posterity. Portia is also seen anew in a contemporary context: now her disguise is read as a heroic act of patriarchal subversion—a feminist expression of protest in advance of its time.

As socially marginalized groups have lobbied for justice, voicing their sense of injured merit, society has responded, if slowly and grudgingly, allowing for some form of redress and for better and fairer laws. This has not appeased the sense of injured merit that many people feel. Injured merit is, perhaps by definition, unappeasable (Freud might argue that it springs from the early loss of maternal love; in the case of marginalized groups, from a historical wound that can never be fully healed). But insofar as it can be drawn upon to right palpable inequity, it fuels the creation of a better world.

But what about the case for love? In the Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare pointed out a basic disjunction, not only between justice and love, but between preaching love and practicing it. The profundity of Shakespeare’s play lies in the awareness that injured merit can be self-consuming and that, even when one is justified in seeking redress, there comes a time when it is best—not so much for others but for oneself—to give up the case and embrace the enemy as one’s friend. This, as Portia showed, is easier said than done. Even the most devout and eloquent espousers of love often seem unable to practice it and find that, like Milton, they are “of the devil’s party without knowing it.”


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Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


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