Roger Federer, the most successful tennis player in the recorded history of the game and winner of his 15th Grand Slam championship on July 5 at Wimbledon, is — contrary to suspicions voiced by Roger Cohen of The New York Times, in a column titled “Roger Federer Unbuttoned” — a human being. Cohen’s column is mildly funny but also a bit disturbing for its hint at what seems like a serious endorsement of misanthrope.
Cohen argues that Federer is such a good tennis player that, well, he couldn’t be human and must be some kind of cyborg. (He adduces as one piece of evidence that Federer’s shirt button never came undone throughout his Wimbledon finals match with Andy Roddick (who gave his all and still lost in this marathon five-set match, with the final set going to 16-14). So what? Maybe his shirt was well constructed — by human beings — and so it withstood all the twists and turns it was put through in the match!
That’s what bugs me about Cohen’s piece; it intimates that for someone to be as good a tennis player as Federer is — so excellent at the game as well as comporting himself in nearly flawlessly civilized fashion over his adult career — one cannot be human. Of course it is a joke, but it does suggest a sad perspective on human beings. It seems to reflect a dominant modern misanthropic idea, given ample exemplification in the arts where the anti-hero is pretty much the norm these days, at least so far as the connoisseurs would have it.
To their chagrin, it seems, Federer and other athletes —Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer, and a host of basketball players come immediately to mind — just cannot be human. And so when they turn out to be, it has to be something bizarre.
Excellence, by its very nature, is something rare. So are heroes and geniuses. But all of it is every bit as human as are the opposites. That’s because human nature is not wired either for superiority or inferiority. People are born pretty much having the capacity to excel or to fail, and most will very likely hover somewhere in between. A bell shape curve captures it well. Now and then this picture is upset either by the sudden emergence of incredible and widespread excellence or its opposite. History, I think, bears me out.
However this plays, it is wonderful to have, here and there, examples of superior human performance in many spheres of life, sometimes even in all of them at once. That, I believe, is the more accurate picture of the human situation instead of the notion that excellence must be something artificial, which is what Cohen seems to have suggested with his admittedly lighthearted essay. Because it was lighthearted I may be making too much of it for the worse. Yet, for me the suggestion that human beings couldn’t possibly manage greatness, even at tennis, is upsetting.
No, there is no way to engineer human beings to be excellent. This is precisely what makes them so human — however they turn out is to a large measure their own doing, following their beliefs and choices. But encouragement from their fellows is no small part of the total picture here. So discouragement could be a serious impediment, one no one needs right now (or ever). And, by the way, cyborgs are human artifacts — human-machine systems — and follow the law of garbage in, garbage out!
Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. He is author of "The Morality of Business, A Profession for Human Wealth-Care."E-mail him at email@example.com