Modern sport – competition between E.P.O. and autotransfusion, or the traditional politico-demagogical spectacle: panem et circences – offers at least the interest of an easy starting point for an interrogation of the notion of merit.

After a brief etymological and lexicological review, we can use this quasi-postmodern institution of sporting competition as a starting point to examine the possible reality of merit, according to psychology and sociology, but also according to metaphysics and theology – the human race does not stop at the end of the stadium track, whose indefinite circularity is inscribed in the tragedy of the human condition.

Etymological and Lexicological Investigation.

Here we find an evolution in the meaning of “merit” in favor of valorizing people and justifying their gain.

A Latin meritum (from merere: “to earn”) was a “thing earned”: a “gain” or “salary”, a “service (good or bad)”; or “conduct (towards someone) […] (which justifies reward, punishment)”. In Low Latin, and especially in Christian Latin, it’s a “value”, especially in the plural: a “spiritual value”, or the “fact of being worthy of divine mercy”1. That is, meritum is simply the something one receives, except in religion, where divine mercy induces the recipient’s dignity or spiritual worth – adding a moral meaning and, above all, shifting merit from the thing to the person.  

The word passed into Old French as mérite (because of the Latin plural merita), with the meaning of “salary” or “reward”, as early as 11192. – meaning it retained, masculinized, until the early 17th century (according to COTGRAVE, 1611)3. However, we also find it as early as the 14th century (Songe du Verger) in its current sense, where we move from “that of which one is worthy”: a reward, to “that which makes one worthy”: skill, talent, quality4 – which illustrates the influence of the Christian sense in the century.

It should be noted that, around 1200, we already find the quasi-modern meaning of “that which gives right to (a reward or punishment)”5, i.e. the reversal is complete: the “deserving” person is entitled to his due.

The Dictionnaire de l’Académie française of 1694 (1st edition) lists merit as a quality that can be both negative and positive, but with reference to God’s judgment:

MÉRITE. s. m. That which makes one worthy of loüange, ou de blasme, de recompense, ou de punition. God chastises, or rewards according to merit. In this sense we call, The merit of works, What men do right & wrong in the sight of God. […] We call, The merits of the Passion of Jesus Christ, His sufferings & death, inasmuch as they have operated our redemption, & that they have made us capable of eternal glory.

The secular meaning is exclusively positive:

“Merite”, signifies also, Virtue, excellent quality, or the assemblage of several good qualities.

A century later, in step with its pre-Revolutionary era, the 1762 Dictionnaire de l’Académie française (4th Edition) puts the secular meaning first:

MERITE. s.m. That which makes one worthy of esteem. In this first sense, when speaking of people, we mean excellent qualities, either of the mind or of the heart.

Above all, in the logic of this appropriation of virtues, the sense of usurpation appears:

One says, “Se faire un mérite de quelque chose, pour dire, Tirer gloire, tirer avantage d’avoir fait quelque chose” (“To make a merit of something, to say, To draw glory, to take advantage of having done something”). And, “Se faire un mérite de quelque chose auprès de quelqu’un”, to say, To make good to someone what one has done for them.

For good measure in this evolution, the Christian meaning of “God will treat us according to our merits” takes on an exclusively negative meaning in everyday language: “This last phrase has passed into conversation, where it is usually taken the wrong way. “Il sera traité selon ses mérites” (He will be treated according to his merits), the opposite of the profane meaning of 1694.

At the same time, Jean-François FÉRAUD, in his Dictionaire critique de la langue française6, uses very similar definitions that need not be mentioned. However, it is significant that he openly mocks the now ancient meaning of “merit”, ending with this paragraph: “Worth, in English means price, value. “He is worth ten thousand pounds: il a 100,000 liv. sterl. vaillants Dict. de Boyer. * A translator of Pope says of the famous Hopkins that his well-calculated worth amounted at his death to nearly seven million. A ridiculous translation, as you can see! We also note, with the verb “mériter”, that the expression “avoir bien mérité de”, referring to a person, is endorsed7, and that “méritoire” and “méritoirement” were then still reserved “for supernatural things”8.

In the 1832-5 edition (Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, 6th edition), the definition of “mérite” ends with its most pejorative uses:

Par dérision, To make the most of one’s merits; to exaggerate one’s services. To make a merit of something, to draw glory, to take advantage of having done something. In a similar sense, we say: To make oneself worthy of something in the eyes of someone. Se donner le mérite d’une chose, to give oneself credit for something in the eyes of someone9

As for the 1932-5 dictionary (Dictionnaire de L’Académie française, 8th edition), it will essentially only record the laudatory meanings that relate to the person: “Mérite supérieur, éminent. Personal merit. A man of merit, of rare merit” (T. II, p. 178).

What this brief overview tells us, then, is that the meaning of merit has shifted from the “simple reward for work” to the “dignity of the person who receives it”, under the influence – misguided, as we shall see – of its use in Christian language. From then on, merit can become the “right to a due”, in an environment which, on the one hand, becomes profaned (clearly visible from the 1762 edition of the Dictionnaire de L’Académie française) and, on the other, retains only the meaning that is laudatory for the individual (1932-5 edition), taking care to forget the abuse, previously spotted (1832-5 edition), consisting of “drawing glory” from an overrated or simply non-existent merit.

The Caricature of “Sport”: An Illustration of a Misused Meaning.

“Post-modern” competitive sport seems to us to lend itself particularly well to this questioning of the notion of merit. At first glance, to take a simple example from running, we might think that measuring leg size would be enough to declare the winner: the one with the longest legs, saving all the time wasted running. In other words, measuring the physical attributes that athletes are born with should be enough to determine the winner, especially as we know how to characterize the muscular, nervous and cardiac dispositions that lend themselves best to sprinting or endurance running, for example. From this point of view, the athlete’s merit lies in his or her essentially physical characteristics at birth – and we know the countries that orchestrate inseminations to allow, as with horses, genetic crosses with the highest potential.

However, it can be argued that, “with equal legs”, the one who trains more will increase his chances of winning, and that it is therefore this training discipline that makes the winner’s merit. That’s true! Nevertheless, it’s clear that we also know how to measure the psychological capacities of “players”, in which case, the one who combines the strongest psychological capacities with the best physical dispositions can be directly consecrated as the most “deserving”.

Without introducing here the use of doping agents tailored to each discipline10. – In addition to these factors – which often transform competitions into “chemical contests” – there are, of course, a number of imponderables, such as the athlete’s level of fitness on the day of the “fight”, and it’s easy to understand why we’re obliged to “race” the athlete if we want to be sure of having determined the actual winner, whose merit, it seems to us, rests with the vagaries of the day’s good form.

Before attempting to conclude on the subject of “sporting merit”, it remains to point out the somewhat surreal consecrations when all the competitors cross the finish line within a few hundredths of a second of each other (downhill skiing) or when the great winners are crowned following refereeing errors demonstrated by video (soccer), even though the distribution of these errors is not homogeneous. We’re developing very tenuous notions of “merit” here, which may even be random (skiing), or usurped (soccer).

At the end of the day, the real question raised by these paradoxical activities is what merit could possibly be, and what justifies the consecration of regional, national or world champions. Since such merit cannot be based on inequality of birth, nor undoubtedly on chance, nor certainly on the use of anabolic steroids or other glycocorticoids, it seems to us that the only thing left to bring to the pinnacle is the athlete’s training discipline. Unfortunately, we can be sure that this will never be the most universally discriminating criterion, as a “player’s” poor form on “D” day may take precedence over the best training in the world, not to mention the fact that a more gifted athlete who has had less disciplined training may win out against the very person we wanted to reward for his training discipline. What’s more, shouldn’t we assume that the person with the best training discipline was potentially born with it? If so, what merit would he have? 

So, emblematically, with sport, we find ourselves in a situation where merit, implied by festive consecrations to the sound of national anthems and the awarding of Legions of Honor, has no meaning at all, or rather seems to us to correspond to a need for justification that appears to us to be moral or psychological, justification of remuneration, glory or pride – shared – or even of the quality of the spectacle that the sportsman-actor will have given to admire…

If the notion of merit exists at all, isn’t it abused to the extreme in sport, where it’s hard to see how much of it should go to the winner?

The Social Institution of “Merit”, or the Transformation of Inequality of Birth into Inequality of Merit.

Without further concern for sports-champions-Chevaliers-de-la-Légion-d’Honneur but discovering the societal use of medals of merit: Ordre national du Mérite, Mérite agricole, Pour le Mérite (Prussian “Blauer Max” decoration), Ordre du mérite militaire, Ordre du mérite militaire de Bavière, Order of Merit (from the UK), Mérite agricole du Québec, Ordre national du mérite agricole, Mérite Christine-Tourigny (from the Quebec Bar), Ordre du Mérite maritime, Mérite diocésain Monseigneur-Ignace-Bourget, Ordre du Mérite civil, Croix du mérite de guerre, Ordre du Mérite social (France, 1936), Ordre du mérite militaire (Canada), Ordre du Mérite commercial (France, 1961), Ordre du Mérite combattant (replaced by the Ordre national du Mérite), Institution du mérite militaire, Ordre du Mérite de Savoie, Ordre du mérite militaire (France, 1957), etc. , we realize the extent to which we are dealing with real institutions, whatever the country or socio-cultural context.

Encouraging the inhabitants of a country (national merit) or a profession (military, agricultural, maritime merit…) to work for what is considered to be the public good is certainly legitimate (and we won’t discuss the ethics of possible manipulation for the public good here). But our question is a different one: what is institutionalized? The work as a result, or the work as an act? and if we go from the result to the act, don’t we arrive at the person who accomplishes it – which would then be his/her merit? One way of shedding light on the subject might be to look at that other institution, the school, whose role, it seems, is essentially to transform inequalities of birth into inequalities of merit11. Here we find the semantic shortcut of attributing a person’s merit to mainly innate qualities, be they physical (the long legs of a runner or basketball player) or moral, whether these are deemed individual (willpower, self-discipline) or cultural (social environment, constraints linked to a particular educational context).

Psychological Interpretation of the Notion of Merit.

Assigning merit to a person, because we have identified the work with the personal act that produced it, is the commonplace observation of societal practices; but this identification rests on the presupposition that the person has something to do with his or her actions.

The need for children to be valued has been amply demonstrated by “positive pedagogy”: positive encouragement – whatever “negative” limits it may be necessary to set – will promote healthy development in children, while they can easily be “broken” by negative judgments every time they try something (the usual “you suck”), or even by simple categorical labeling, reducing the person to a single aspect or tendency of their character.

In all cases (positive encouragement or not), whether the appreciation is specific to the results or to the child’s own action, it’s clear that, in the construction of his identity, the child will understand this appreciation (positive or negative) as characterizing his very person. Thereafter, naturally – and rightly so – the young adult or adult will rely on his or her strong points, on his or her “qualities”, or will remain blocked by the labeling in which he or she has been trapped.

In other words, the infantile confusion between work, act and the person who accomplished it is an initial phase in the child’s development – which Piaget would no doubt confirm – and the ego – which could properly be assimilated to this confusion – appears to be a necessary stage in development, the ideal adult being one who no longer makes this confusion.

We haven’t yet answered the question, more philosophical than psychological, of responsibility for the act. On the other hand, we have seen that the association of a merit with a person is more a psychological process necessary to the child’s development. Hence, certainly, the often childish nature of sports awards and medal ceremonies, via the recognition of one’s positive existence due to one’s qualities.

Philosophical Analysis of the Notion of Merit.

Philosophically speaking, the notion of merit, which primarily means reward, is inseparable from the notion of justice, and if this justice exists, it is of course because man has a sense of what is “just”.

This sense of “justice” relates to distributive justice (we might say: “to each according to his due” or “treating unequal things unequally”), which is distinguished from commutative justice (contracts between “equal” parties) and penal justice. Adding now the Kantian distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments12, we could say that, compared to an “analytical sanction” where the “reward” is the consequence of the act itself (having passed your baccalaureate, being drunk from having had too much to drink), the law proposes “synthetic sanctions”, i.e. with no direct link to the works that motivate them. In this sense, merit is added to the act in a synthetic, extrinsic or external way: there is no rational connection between a child’s stupidity and the spanking he receives, or between bad parking and a 35-euro fine. These sanctions are said to be objective, non-logical, arbitrary…

However, it’s important to realize that the existence of synthetic sanctions is an insignificant privilege, compared to an implacable consequence that would follow from the act committed, which would be the act itself, and which would only be discovered afterwards.

Metaphysical Insight into the Notion of Merit.

In the metaphysical ideal, it is obvious that God owes us nothing. Thus, neither merit nor demerit can exist: only the consequence of the act’s nature. Thus, it is not God who sanctions, but the act itself that destroys or realizes (in the literal sense). This is why, in the “angelic world”, angels are purely in Heaven or Hell – with no possibility of redemption.

But in the relative world, it’s fortunate that merit is added to the act – in a synthetic or external way, then, that man can dispose of this play, this free space, between more or less causal influences and more or less inescapable consequences. To see this, we need only think of little children, who are absolutely obliged to receive this kind of objective, non-logical, arbitrary punishment… So, rather than being an insignificant privilege, this game is in fact inseparable from divine mercy.

Theological Elements on the Notion of Merit.

Unquestionably biblical13 as the idea of a “judgment of God” corresponding to the good or evil done by man during his life, the notion of merit, probably introduced into theological usage by Tertullian, appears, at first glance, as a “right to a reward”.

Nevertheless, a distinction is immediately made between strict entitlement, in which case we speak of condigno merit14, and simple propriety, in which case we speak of congruo merit15. In addition, it will be remembered that eternal life, for every created being, cannot be other than a supernatural grace, and that grace itself, the principle of all merits, cannot be deserved16.

“In this way, Saint Thomas can say that we merit eternal life de condigno through the grace that works in us, but that, in relation to our free will, this merit can only ever be de congruo, insofar as the free will, by the virtue of grace itself, adheres to it”17.

In other words,

“merit is therefore and only a proportion established by God between free beings and the gifts he destines for them, which does not make these gifts less gifts for that reason, but rather that they are effective gifts: which do not remain external to us and as if foreign, but which effectively become ours, without ceasing for that reason in the least to be radically God’s and God’s alone.”18

Finally, if grace makes our actions meritorious, it is through the infusion of charity, i.e. the love of God poured into our hearts by his Holy Spirit (Rom., V, 5)19.

We had left open the question of a person’s responsibility for his actions. Without denying all responsibility, it seems to us that we can conclude here in any case that there is no merit whatsoever, whether it be the “ultimate merit” of condigno – the absolute non-merit of a dignity received – or the “relative merit” of congruo – that merit of convenience or apparent merit, when man’s free will, under the effect of grace, allows him to adhere to the divine plan.

Merit and the Spiritual Life.

To conclude on the whole of these perspectives – which we have seen are certainly not counterposed, but hierarchically ordered – it seems preferable to us to formulate what the notion of merit will mean for us today.

We have seen the meaning of the word merit transformed from “the simple reward of work” to “a dignity proper to the person who has performed it”, through a kind of usurped and profaned appropriation of the original Christian meaning, according to a societal model legitimately seeking the public good and a psychological enhancement necessary for the development of children, while ultimately, in theological as well as metaphysical terms, this notion simply has no meaning.

Ultimately, then, we believe that, for its own sake, this hollow concept must be absolutely and totally excluded from the thinking of our actions. This, we believe, is the deepest meaning of the teachings of humility, self-denial (the abneget semetipsum of Matthew, 16:24), detachment (Meister Eckhart), to which those of Zen archery or nishkāmakarman20 of Hindu tradition.

For others, on the other hand, it seems to us that recognizing their merits, in addition to those of the children we will be responsible for educating – and in relation to whom we have identified the provisional necessity of the ego – is, referring to condigno’s “ultimate merit” (the absolute non-merit of a dignity received), to recognize the dignity of man who “infinitely passes man” (Pascal), it is to re-recognize the Other in every other.

And, indeed, if we realize that Christ is Relation par excellence: the relation of God to God (Father and Son), the relation of God to the world and of the world to God (Creation, Redemption) and the relation to our neighbor, we can show, with Jean Borella, that if “the neighbor is Christ, it is because Christ is the neighbor”, or, put another way, because Christ is the only neighbor, being the relation of closeness itself. From then on, the other is the neighbor only through participation in the Christic relationship of nearness21.

So Jean Borella could write: “‘You did it to Me’, not to the Father or the Spirit, but to the Son! it is the divine Next, the hypostatic Proximity, which, to develop its effects in the order of the relative, uses others and myself as created supports of the uncreated Proximity”. Thus, “the end of the act of love is not ‘other’ as such, but other as neighbor”, and the only neighbor is Christ. In other words, “the neighbor is the material of neighborhood, Christ is its eternal form22.


  1. CNTRL (Centre National de Ressources Textuelles et Lexicales); (accessed July 7, 2008).[]
  2. Ph. de THAON, or “BENEDEIT, St Brendan, ed. E. G. R. Waters, 64″; ibidem.[]
  3. J. DUBOIS, H. MITTERAND, A. DAUZAT, Dictionnaire étymologique et historique du français, Larousse, 1993 ed.[]
  4. For example “remarkable moral quality” in CORNEILLE, Cid, I, 2 ds Œuvres, ed. Ch. Marty-Laveaux, t. 3, p. 111, as early as 1636; and “habileté, talent” in 1668 in LA FONTAINE, Fables, VIII, 8 ds Œuvres, ed. H. Régnier, t. 2, p.248 CNTRL, ibid.[]
  5. In Elie de St Gille, ed. G. Raynaud, 1034: “Par selonc le merite le loier en avrès”; CNTRL, ibid.[]
  6. Marseille, Mossy, 1787-1788; t. II, p. 642b.[]
  7. “Bien mériter de, c’est avoir rendu de grands services à… “He has deserved well of the State, of the Fatherland, of Religion. – In this use, it is neutral. – We owe this expression to the Romans, bene mereri. It is written more often than it is used in conversation. The Romans made great use of it. – La Touche says that some people didn’t approve of this way of speaking, but that it’s a very good one, and that you can use it without scruples.”[]
  8. MÉRITOIRE (meritorious), which deserves eternal rewards. – It is therefore only used to refer to good works. “This is meritorious towards God, before God. Acad. “Fasting and almsgiving are meritorious works. – For some time now, the use of this word has been extended. “Cela est ou n’est pas fort méritoire, très-méritoire: there is merit in having done it. It smacks of company jargon and neologism. MÉRITOIREMENT (meritoriously), in a meritorious way. “To give alms meritoriously, you have to do it for God, for God’s sake. – It is said only of supernatural merit.”[]
  9. T. II, p. 194.[]
  10. For example, anabolic steroids derived from male hormones are particularly successful in specialties such as throwing, where some 50-70% of athletes use them, especially synthetic anabolics, in extraordinary doses, which lead to spectacular increases in weight and muscle mass; cf. Encyclopædia Universalis 1995, s.v. (“doping in sport”).[]
  11. The school does not teach, but serves to verify whether the child does indeed come from an intellectually developed family; it completes, formalizes and ratifies the family’s education: “The school serves to dress up inequalities of birth into inequalities of merit”, cf. Ivan Illich, quoted by Jacques Neirynck, Le 8° jour de la création, introduction à l’entropologie, Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes, Lausanne, 1990, 2nd edition, p.262 .[]
  12. The analytic judgment (which is always a priori) is called “analytic” by Kant because it tells us nothing we didn’t already know, such as that the sum of the angles of a triangle is two rights, or that every body is extended. On the other hand, the synthetic judgment adds something to the concept of the subject, which was not contained in it; it teaches us something![]
  13. All the elements presented here come from the Dictionnaire de théologie, L. Bouyer, Desclée & Co., Tournai, Belgium, 1963, s.v. (“merit”).[]
  14. De condignus, a, um: altogether worthy; this can be translated as “dignity merit”, this dignity being that which man derives from God.[]
  15. De congruo, ĕre, grui: (Lebaigue p. 270 and p. 271) – intr. – 1 – to fall together, come together, meet, gather. – 2 – coincide (in speaking of time), arrive at the same time. – 3 – fit together, agree with, concur. – 4 – s’entendre, être d’accord, s’accorder, être en harmonie, se ressembler(to agree, to be in agreement, to agree, to be in harmony, to be alike) (Latin-French dictionary compiled with the help of Jean-Claude Hassid, consulted at on July 18, 2008). It can therefore be translated as “merit of convenience”.[]
  16. S. Augustine will thus say that God, by crowning the merits of his saints, is ultimately only crowning his own grace.[]
  17. Cf. Dictionary of Theology, op.cit.[]
  18. Dictionary of Theology; emphasis added.[]
  19. On all this, see S. Thomas, Sum. Theol., Ia, IIæ, q. 114; cf. Dictionary of Theology, op.cit.[]
  20. This is indifference to the fruits of action, by which being escapes the indefinite chain of consequences of actions. It is opposed to the sakāmakarman, action with desire, performed in view of its fruits (cf. Bhagavadgītā).[]
  21. We might take as a reference the way Christ himself states that he is the Neighbor in Matthew: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes the One who sent Me” (10, 40), “Truly I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to Me” (25:40 & 45).[]
  22. La charité profanée, Éditions du Cèdre, 1979; chapter XIV. Les fonctions trinitaires des hypostases, section III. Le Verbe comme fondement de la relation de proximité, § 4. Le prochain est le Christ parce que le Christ est le prochain, pp. 287, 288; we emphasize. English translation of a later French edition: Love and Truth, Angelico Press, 2020[]