We resent restraint, but we don’t want to be free. And though we chafe at duress, we all need to find some person or some cause to depend on. We cast off the encumbrance of choice, but we hit back at those who would dare to take it from us. We are born rebels, because we are born serfs. We long for liberty only with a view to selecting our own kind of subjection. We know neither what it is to be truly free nor what it would be to serve loyally. We are content to sell our liberty. But we bite and claw at those who would come between us and our borrowed wants. Those who drudge as uncomplaining servants of their own compulsions scream if the least curb from outside is laid on them.
We submit with alacrity to a slavishness which is real, present and enduring, in order to win a release which is distant, ephemeral and fake. ‘All ran headlong to their chains,’ as Rousseau wrote, ‘in the hope of securing their liberty.’
We are urged on by a servile self-regard and a busy futility. We are cringing but not humble. We cling to our self-importance, but we cede our self-reliance.
Why do subservient people make a footstool of themselves, and then squeal when their masters plant their feet on them? Some who bite the hand that feeds them are glad to lick the fist that beats them.
Slavery has oftentimes been more galling, but when has it ever been more willing? Proud of our servitude, we feel sorry for those who lack a place in the system of subordination. We seek relief from all our ills in a more highly paid serfdom. What most of us yearn for is not liberty but a more lucrative yoke. Our wages plate our chains with gold. ‘Most things free-born,’ as Charlotte Bronte wrote, ‘will submit to anything for a salary.’ We love our gilded collar, and every morning we put it on with pride. We are imprisoned by our desires, and we hope to win our freedom by satiating them. ‘We must,’ Jefferson wrote, ‘make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion and servitude.’ But who these days would choose a rugged freedom that could profit just as well from an affluent vassalage?
A noble soul hates slavery more than death. But we love our sumptuous slavery more than life.
Freedom belongs to the dimension of time, greed belongs to the dimension of space. So we are glad to waste our time in order to acquire or tour through more space. The rich still own lots of room, but now brag that they have less time than the poor. They used to be proud of possessing more leisure than the rest of us, now they are proud to be so short of it. Work, the inveterate demeaning affliction of the many, has become just as much the vaunt of the few. All now honour it, because all now sense that they have no choice but to do it. These days it’s only the most destitute who can afford not to work, and they alone are condemned to bear the ennui and reproach of leisure. We have made life rushed and bustling enough to match our sense of our own centrality. The hardest burdens to lay down are the ones that break our backs. We are all now as busy and indispensable as cabinet-ministers, overseeing our broad portfolio of vital interests. ‘Increased means and increased leisure,’ according to Disraeli, ‘are the two civilizers of man,’ but we have sold our leisure to augment our means. What we leave for our heirs will be not a lavish civilization but a meagre economy.
The poor have no choice but to sell their time, since they have nothing else to sell. And now the rich are just as eager to sell theirs, since they have nothing else to do with it.
Why do we let our greed poach from us the hours which are the sole good that we can call our own? We are now paid so well for our labour, how could any of us bear to enjoy leisure?
We value money far dearer than time, since there’s no way that we can make a great deal more time than our peers or show it off to them. Our time is our own, and so it’s scarcely real. Wealth gains its reality by being paraded before others. Time is an intrinsic good, and is therefore of far less value than money, which is a status-marker.
The right use of money is to buy more time. But we have so little use for our time that the best we can do with it is to try to make more money.
The devil finds hands for idle work.
‘Money,’ as Emerson wrote, ‘often costs too much.’ Few wares are worth the days and hours that we have to waste to earn the cash to buy them. But we can’t resist the lure of money since it is such an enviable way of using up the time that we take to get and spend it.
Work is the refuge of the intellectually unemployed.
Paid work prostitutes your real vocation. True work ennobles, but employment degrades. But we can now see no discrepancy between a calling and a career. ‘All paid posts,’ Aristotle said, ‘absorb and demean the mind.’ Work for the joy of the work, not for its wages. If you have to be paid to do it, then it can’t be worth the doing, but only worth the pay. Labouring for others doesn’t alienate you but integrates you. And it’s your alienation that might have forced you to rely on your own resources, and inspired you to find your path to the truth. You need a great deal of leisure if you’re to get your true work done. But most of us now rush at such a dizzying clip that we have no time to shape what might last. As Kraus notes, democracy ‘makes no provision for those who have no time to work.’
The rest of us work for our living, artists must work for their lives.
Even the luminous moment wins its worth only by being transfigured into the hard lustre of a lasting work.
Your own work is always easy. If it’s not easy, then it’s not yours. If you find it hard, you have not yet hit on your true calling. ‘All that is good is effortless,’ Nietzsche said. ‘What is divine runs with light feet.’ With no strain Ulysses strings the bow, Aeneas plucks the bough of gold, and Arthur draws the sword from the stone.
Those who get nothing done are nonplussed by how little others get done.
Those who have no work of their own are keen to serve as the tools of others. They strive to make themselves indispensable because they are slaves to their own ambition, and they do so by enslaving themselves to the ambitions of others.
Why are the haughtiest people so proud to serve a world that is not worth mastering? They need to have the courage to grapple with the world, because they lack the courage to retreat from it. The brave must come to craven accommodations with the world, since they are too weak to defeat their lust to bend it to their will.
Few of us have independent means, still fewer have independent ends. Some people are as self-reliant in small things as they are subservient in big ones. They stick obstinately to their own how, while wantonly misappropriating another’s why. ‘Many are stubborn in following the path they have picked out,’ as Nietzsche tells us, ‘few in following the goal.’ They are parasites of purpose. The noble have high aims, which they choose freely, and work at on their own. Delegate anyone else to mark out your goals for you, and you have sold your soul as a willing slave.
Is it crazier to live in such a way as to win the approval of others, or to dream that you can live without it? When I try to rely on myself, I rely on the regard of others than those whose regard I rely on most of the time. And when I try to think for myself, I let myself be fooled by those who are not the usual ones to fool me.
4 True pride
Kill pride and self-will, and you kill all that is fearsome and precious that we make. ‘Pride and egoism,’ Keats said, ‘will enable me to write finer things than anything else could.’ They are the forces that frame all style and find out all our truths. Where there is no pride, look for no truth, no worth, no achievement. Where there is no greed, look for no hope, no pleasantness, no progression, no life. So the world, by indulging these two worst sins, mindlessly accomplishes what the most mindful divine planning could not, and out of evil brings forth good.
Truth alone could shame us out of our pride. Yet none but proud souls can pluck up heart to seek out the truth.
Only the proudest people feel called on each day to make good their claim to fill up a place on earth. They must disagreeably prove that they are exceptional, the rest of us just assume it. We take our self-estimation for granted as an axiom, but they have to put their pride to the test of incessant experiment.
The proud feel that they must defend the steep price that they set on their own merits. But they scorn most of the usual undertakings that could prove it to their peers, and so they spend their force on the rare ones which fail to.
High aims work you like a navvy and shackle you to anxiety, but show you all mercy in the end. If you don’t reach them, then you don’t matter. And if you do, then nothing else matters. Fame will ransom you from obscurity, or obscurity will ransom you from scorn. In the grave, as Housman wrote, ‘silence sounds no worse than cheers.’ Time is both the justest and most lenient judge. It pays the deserving their due, and dismisses the rest with no penalty. It discounts your divided aims, and crowns the best that you have made. Death will ask the carver just one question, Did your works warrant the expenditure of so much fine marble?
We are unable to shrink our selfishness. So we ought to strive to make the most capacious self that we can. Most of us do this arithmetically, by supplementing it with more selves, by our love of kin, tribe or native land.
Heroism is the healthiest exertion of a soul mortally disordered by pride.
The brave are spurred on by a grand and self-forgetful egoism. They may forget themselves, but not their heroism. Though they hold their own lives cheap, they hold others’ still cheaper. ‘They weighed so lightly what they gave,’ as Yeats wrote. They are ready to lay down their lives for a cause, which they would cast off as readily for the sake of their own renown. The finest things are achieved by selfish men and women who set aside their self-interest in the achieving.
‘Egoism,’ as Nietzsche said, ‘is the lifeblood of a grand soul.’ Noble minds have the most unflinching dedication and the coldest contempt of rewards. They’re thrust on by a fiery pride, and disciplined by a chill aloofness. They don’t care how dear an act might cost or how much it will pay, but what its true worth is. They have found a devotion as deep as their despair. ‘Real nobility,’ as Camus wrote, ‘is based on scorn, courage and profound indifference.’ If you hope to bring off some great feat, you must love it with a reckless ardour. But it will turn all your love to derision, and look on it with sightless shining eyes, and hear it with deaf ears, and grant you no return. The sole comfort that I have for the failure of all my work is to go on hopelessly working. I prayed that nothing of me should matter but my work. I got half my wish.
Aim high, shoot straight, claim little. The great-souled ask for nothing and yield nothing, confide nothing and conceal nothing. They demand no more than is their due. They seek only those goods that they have a real regard for. Yet they retain all the ardent disproportion of youth.
The noble have the steadfastness to keep up the first bounteous impetus for their chosen course all the way to its tedious end. They wait but are not corrupted by their own impatience. They give in to passion without letting go of restraint.
The corpse of archaic heroism stiffened into the rigor mortis of roman stoicism.
Life may plunge you in such degradations, that you have to strive for dignity as a drowner struggles for breath.
Heroes need both the courage to defy all illusions and the confidence to keep up the supreme illusion of their own heroic devotion.
A hero, such as Joan of Arc, does with a fierce awareness the mad deeds that a crank does with none. Yet a blockhead may be trivially right where a hero goes tragically wrong.
A hero may fight in a bad cause but not in a small one.
A hero needs a cause, but any cause will do, and the more bloody it is the better. Caesar’s, in the words of Montaigne, ‘had as its vile objective the ruin of his country and the debasement of the whole world.’ The brave feel that they have to prove themselves, but all that they prove is their own bravery. Each fateful creed has its heroes, the obnoxious no less than the honourable, and the most illegitimate no less than the justified. The SS pullulated with them. All the virtues can be used in a bad cause as well as in a good one. The force of courage may trump the claims of right. The grossest hokum arms them in a sterling resoluteness.
Some people have all the flaws of a hero but none of a hero’s high merits. They are headstrong, overreaching, defiant and unyielding, willing to waive their own good to keep up their exalted self-conception. But where is the grand cause that would breed from these failings golden feats? There may be some people who have the vices of their own virtues, as Sand said. But don’t most of us have only the vices of other people’s virtues?
The independent are incorruptible. But it’s the corrupt that are indispensable. It is they who keep the world turning so smoothly. The self-sufficing are too proud to submit and too disengaged to rebel.
Admiration is the intellect in love. ‘To love,’ Gautier says, ‘is to admire with the heart, to admire is to love with the mind.’
True admiration is a stern justice and proportion. When distilled as form it shapes the most appealing style. Fake admiration is a crafty self-aggrandizement posing as generosity. ‘The worship of God,’ Blake says, ‘is honouring his gifts in other men, each according to his genius.’
Be sure to commend and contend with the right people. How could you grow an inch larger than these? Rivalry makes you as puny as your puniest opponent or as ample as your own best self.
Those who would excel can’t afford to admire what does not deserve their admiration, but those who aim to climb can’t afford not to. We learn by genuinely esteeming what merits our respect. But we please and thrive best by pretending to prize what does not. We rise in the world by lowering our standards. ‘Among the smaller duties of life,’ said Sydney Smith, ‘I hardly know of any one more important than that of not praising where praise is not due.’
The best we can hope to attain is neither true humbleness nor true heroism but a mere semblance of them. But by aspiring to nobility we may bring off rare achievements, whereas when we try to put on lowliness we stunt and deform our high faculties.
True nobility precludes all acting and dissembling. Noble souls remain just what they are, since there is nothing in this world that they respect enough to change for it. Their pride won’t stoop to pretend to be what it is not, and it forbids them to act contrary to their own nature. Yet they reach their best by becoming greater than they are. The truly proud take pride not in what they are but in what they might make of themselves. The vain preen themselves on what the world takes them for.
Imagination makes the coward as imagination makes a hero. The faint-hearted see the threat in all its horror. The fearless see the fine figure that they might become by defying it.
The resolute have both the imagination to glimpse how much they might gain by losing all and the fortitude to lose it.
Heroes must be the sculptors of their own lives. Artists strive to make new forms that they imagine. Heroes strive to remodel their clay as an ideal that they imagine. Saints dream that they can turn themselves into paragons that they take to be real.