The author of the 1990 novel, The Devil’s Advocate, Andrew Neiderman, was a guest this week on MSNBC’s The Beat with Ari Melber (August 22, 2022). Neiderman’s book was made into a movie in 1997 starring Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves. During the filming, the stage and film star Helen Miren, the wife of the film’s director Taylor Hackford, told Neiderman that she regarded his book as a morality play in which the characters embodied the personification of absolutes.

The book and film are about an aspiring Florida defense lawyer named Kevin Lomax (played by Keanu Reeves) who accepts a high-powered position at a New York law firm headed by the legal shark John Milton (played by Al Pacino). Neiderman explored how ambition, temptation, vanity, and the pursuit of power can compromise one’s conscience and ultimately be one’s undoing. He explained on The Beat that what he wrote more than thirty years ago presaged what is happening across America today:

“Milton (Pacino) is the personification of evil and Kevin (Reeves) is the personification of every man in his quest for success and wealth. Over time, good and evil, the standard of behavior has changed. … Winning has become the new good and losing has become the new evil. If you accept that, if you live that life, if you think winning is IT, then all the sisters and brothers come along with it, like hypocrisy, denying the facts, refusing to believe things in front of you, distorting, lying – Trump is said to have lied more than 30,000 times in his four years as President – that is the new standard that we are fighting against. If we accept that, if winning and losing are the new good and evil, then everything else is okay. It’s okay to be a hypocrite. It’s okay to lie. It’s okay to look at a fact and say it’s not there because what I want the most is to win. The best examples are the two Supreme Court Justices who lied to Congress saying they wouldn’t overrule Roe v Wade, and then when they could, they did it; and it’s okay. Nobody is asking for them to be removed from the Supreme Court. They lied to win.”  

Lying, cheating, hypocrisy, distorting and fabricating facts, denial of the truth, denigrating, humiliating, and delegitimizing opponents, saying anything and everything to win power, increase wealth, and become the top alpha-dog, all these are corruptions of the best of America’s tradition of secular religion, culture, and values that emphasize humility, industriousness, honesty, integrity, compassion, generosity, tolerance, and appreciation of the “other.”

Those who embody the corrupted self-centered “morality” did not invent it in the last number of years. Remember the 1987 film Wall Street starring Michael Douglas, a barracuda stock-broker who proclaimed that “Greed is good!” Contemporary practitioners merely capitalized on the worst of the human condition, emphasizing the yetzer ha-ra (“the evil inclination”), monetized and weaponized it, accelerated it, and over time, facilitated its spread into politics, government, business, the media, and in other arenas.

The current malignancies that are metastasizing throughout our culture raise a fundamental question for us all – “What is a successful life?” Our response tells us who we are, what we value, and that to which we aspire.

Here are two quotations that resonate with me:

“Those people are a success who have lived well, laughed often, and loved much; / Who have gained the respect of intelligent people and the love of children; / Who have filled their niche and accomplished their task; / Who leave the world better than they found it, whether by an improved poppy, a perfect poem, or a rescued soul; / Who never lacked appreciation of earth’s beauty or failed to express it; / Who looked for the best in others and gave the best they had.” –Bessie Anderson Stanley (1879 – 1952)

“Don’t aim at success – the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue… as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.” –Viktor Frankl (1905-1997)