What we long for most of all is that others should bear a bright likeness of us in their minds. ‘We want to lead a fictive life in the minds of others,’ as Pascal says. Each of us is a mere thought flitting briefly through the brains of others. Our existence is only hypothetical till proved by their attention. Our greed covets images that catch our eye. Our pride strives to sculpt our self as an image to catch the eye of others. ‘We only begin to live,’ writes Houellebecq, ‘through the eyes of others.’ Our vanity makes us feel that we glow for them, and our avarice makes all that we set our hearts on glow for us.
1 The contemptible
We are kings of conceit. Yet we all slave for the low world’s good report. Vanity gives us at no ostensible charge a rich estimate of our own worth, but then binds us to slog like drudges for its upkeep.
Your conceit may content you, so long as you don’t need a large number of people to share it, or else assume that they do. I am blest with such high merit, but I am cursed by my need to prove it to the rest of the world.
How viciously I will vie with rivals that I don’t regard, to net prizes that I don’t want. How in thrall I am to opinions that I claim not to care for. I can’t resist my greed for the baubles that I can’t quite respect. I’m glad just to be noticed by those whom I grade so low. If we can’t get what we do value, we will still fight just as hard to get what we don’t. We have to learn to esteem more than we in fact do, since we can’t refrain from hankering for more than we esteem.
We all know that the world is a sham, yet we all still hold that its good opinion of us is the one truth that’s worth striving to prove.
There’s no soul so mean but I think more of myself for being thought better of by it, and would think a lot more of it if it thought a shred more of me.
How low our souls must be, to be raised so high by such trifles.
Of all things reputation exists most in the mind, but it exists in the minds of others. So it seems more real to me than everything else, which exists solely in my own mind. I’m satisfied with my own talents, but I don’t suffice for my own approval. Whatever the world may think of me, I still think that I am all in all. But it is only the world’s opinion that makes me think that I am anything at all. I persist in thinking well of myself irrespective of what others may think of me, but I still can’t bear not to seek their good opinion. And yet there are a lot of people whose respect I would scarcely care for, were it not that I have the opportunity to win it.
2 Great and small egos
Those who are not embarked on a grand quest are still stung by the swarm of small disparities that set off their own rewards from those of the people who chance to be near them. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, but don’t we all wear the crown of our own self-consequence as if it were a crown of thorns? I have to fight anew each day to defend my image of my self. So it’s lucky for me that my vanity has forearmed me for the fray in the thickest armour. It’s a struggle that I can’t win and can’t resile from.
‘It astounds us to come on other egoists,’ Renard said, ‘as though we alone had the right to be selfish.’ Ordinary people grudge that the extraordinary should lay claim to so much. And extraordinary people grudge that the ordinary should strive so unrelentingly for such mean ends. A little talent is determined to go a long way.
The robustness of our attachments bears no correspondence to the size of the objects to which we’re attached. The ferocity of the selfishness bears no proportion to the quality of the self that it’s championing. Many people chase a cheap prize as relentlessly as they would a grand aspiration. Those whose egos make do with mean rewards are not the less egoistic for that. They strive to aggrandize themselves in the most trifling ways. A small-minded specialist struggles for a low goal with all the dedication of a conquistador, and feels like stout Cortés, dizzied by the vast bonanza that they hope to reap from some tiny patch of barren fact. Let the skies fall, but let my treatise on roman bean farming be published.
How are they able to stay so self-absorbed, who have so small a self to absorb them? How do they rear such a vast selfishness on the base of so slight a self, and lavish such a wealth of self-love on so botched an object?
Some people’s self-love must be promiscuous, to embrace all the incompatible selves that they’re quilted from.
Some people give up their claim to all life’s silvered baubles, and then solemnly spend all their force on some cause which is as arduous as it is absurd. They hold out against the world’s blandishments, but are seduced by its asperities.
Though you may outdo a person’s virtuosity and achievements, how could you get the victory over their conceit?
If there is anyone more ruthless than those who are determined to rise, it’s one who is desperate to escape from drowning.
Arrogant people want to win the race, yet ridicule it a touch in case they don’t, and display a slight scorn for their own victories, to show that they are worth more than them too. If I can’t win, I make sure that I lose ostentatiously, to prove that I’m not trying. ‘Since she was not winning strikingly,’ George Eliot commented, ‘the next best thing was to lose strikingly.’ Those who spurn the world still care so much for it that they want the world to know it. Those who hate the world still want it to love them. What brag could be haughtier than Landor’s line, ‘I strove with none, for none was worth my strife’?
Some people are so perversely proud, that they won’t rest till they’ve been nominated as members of an exclusive club, so that they can dispraise it without being accused of sour grapes. Others think it best not to try, since they know that the prize is out of their reach. ‘I cannot be first. I do not deign to be second. I am Rohan,’ proclaimed the highborn motto.
We want to look down scorningly on success from the high citadel of our own impregnable success.
Proud souls disdain to conceal anything, apart from the craft that they use to conceal their pride.
I have no doubt that people esteem me much more than they do, and that I care for their esteem much less than I do.
How could renown be what I thirst for, when all I taste is the sickening indignities that I have to lap up to get it?
We want to show that we outshine others by showing that we don’t need to, and that we set too low a price on them to try to prove it. ‘We particularly wish to be praised,’ says Ebner-Eschenbach, ‘for giving the impression that praise means nothing to us.’
High-minded people don’t deign to try to please, yet they grow exasperated when they fail to. They prefer to disappoint than to presume. At least that proves they have the power to move people in some way, or that they didn’t care enough to impress them.
We don’t guess how highly people think of themselves, and how meanly they think of us. ‘If we saw ourselves as others see us,’ Cioran remarked, ‘we’d vanish on the spot,’ and if we thought as well of them as they think of their own excellence, we’d burst with envy. Most of them give us no consideration, unless to confirm that we are not worth considering. But we take so much offence which is not meant, because we don’t see how little thought people give us.
What tolerant disdain we feel for others, just because they are not us, and want differing things, and think differing thoughts. But our sneaking self-interest mantles the sneering which our intolerant self-regard would parade naked.
4 We want the respect of those we don’t respect
My self-regard, which is the most real thing that I feel, craves the respect of others, which is the least real thing that they feel. Of all their opinions, they give least thought to the one that they hold of me. But that is the only one of theirs to which I give any thought at all. But having gone to such great pains to win their approbation, it may be that in the end I care no more for it than they do.
‘We are so vain,’ said Ebner-Eschenbach, ‘that we care for the regard even of those we don’t care for.’ I toil so unwearyingly to win the notice of those who never think of me. And they don’t think of me because they’re in such a sweat to win the notice of those like me who never think of them.
I want to win the approval only of those whose good sense I respect. And yet I respect the good sense of anyone who approves of me.
A fool cares nothing for the wisdom of a sage, but a sage still craves the accolades of fools. So who is the bigger fool?
Why do we long for applause which we know is unworthy of us, yet feel unworthy if we fail to obtain it? You may think nothing of a person’s praise, and yet think nothing of yourself if you don’t win it. Like all the rest of the cheap stuff that I pine for, the less I prize their good opinion, the more I crave it, and the more I crave it, the less I prize it. And no matter how slenderly I may value reputation, I don’t value myself less for prostituting my best gifts to woo it.
If I didn’t think so little of them, I might not go to so much trouble to impress them. I’m galled that those for whom I have such slight regard should have such slight regard for me.
5 We care and don’t care for the approval of others
In our inmost hearts we scorn the world and esteem only ourselves. In our inmost hearts we scorn ourselves and esteem only the world. ‘Deep down in his heart no man much respects himself,’ Twain said, but deep down in their hearts none respect anything but themselves. I may think little of the world and of the view it holds of me, and yet I think of little else apart from the world and the view it holds of me. We may spend no thought on others, but we still want them to spend all their thought on us. We may look down on the rest of their opinions, but not the one they form of us. ‘The notice of others,’ Hazlitt said, ‘is as necessary to us as the air we breathe.’
The self is everything and nothing. We are all in all to ourselves. But we are nothing by ourselves. Our aims and ends are entirely egoistic, and our egoism is entirely social. The worth that we have in our own eyes is determined by the regard that others have for us. We believe in ourselves, but we depend on others. I barely exists, but me is the nave of the world. Our self justifies our wants and all that we do to satisfy them, and our wants justify our self and all that we do to serve it. I scarcely exist for myself, but I don’t doubt that everything else exists for my sake. Self and the narrow worlds that it nests in each weigh not an ounce on their own but an infinity when twinned. These low worlds raise the self to a priceless me rather than a lone and worthless I. Society beams on us like a glad sun. All our inclinations are selfish yet social. Our egoism finds its meaning only in a group. Even the most selfish person lives for others, and the most selfless one loves others for his or her own ends. We are self-absorbed but not self-sufficient. ‘We seek for knowledge,’ Pascal wrote, ‘to show it off. We would never go on a trip if we had no hope of conversing about it afterwards.’ For all our selfishness, don’t we need one more soul at least to share our self-satisfaction and to participate in our greed? ‘I relish no enjoyment,’ as Montaigne says, ‘if I can’t share it.’ We have not slaked our self-love, till we have found another to partake in it, another’s eyes into which we can gaze and glimpse our own bright reflection. I spend my days in the search for some cause to have faith in and some soul to have faith in me, who will tell me that people like me deserve to be loved and admired. Pious people find both in the Lord.
I don’t think much of a goal if I’m not in the chase for it, but I don’t think much of myself if I have no hope of reaching the goal I choose. Neither myself nor my ends amount to much on their own. But when paired they make up the miniscule infinitude for which I would gladly burn up the plenteous world.
I use up my life vying to win the praise of people whom I barely know. But in the end I may not mind what people say of me, so long as they don’t say it to my face.
6 Judge for yourself
When people judge for themselves, they adopt the received opinion that sorts best with the rest of their received opinions. They have eyes only for the sorts of things that they have seen in the past, or for the things that others have seen. They can see to appraise only what others see, and even then they use a borrowed yardstick. ‘We take unconsciously the opinion of others,’ as Trollope says. ‘We drink our wine with other men’s palates, and look at our pictures with other men’s eyes.’ We are able to see only what we have been trained to look at. And for most of us that’s not much.
I stand by my own assessment of things, yet I praise whatever others praise and scorn what they scorn. I cleave to my own opinions, though I don’t know what I think till the unthinking world tells me. ‘The number of those who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves,’ Sheridan says, ‘is very small indeed.’ We form our judgments, as we do most things, egoistically but not independently. I preen myself on my own evaluation of people and things. So why does their status and success sway me more than the inherent traits which prove their true worth? ‘Most judge people,’ La Rochefoucauld says, ‘by the favour that they’ve gained or by their fortune.’
In this world it is the fools who fix the grade of the wise, chiefly by the repute in which they are held by their fellow fools. ‘The touchstone of truth,’ Montaigne wrote, ‘has come to be the multitude of believers, when the dolts in the crowd are so much more numerous than the wise.’ Most of us know or admire nothing of a rare work save its reputation. ‘The more a work is admired,’ Gourmont said, ‘the more beautiful it grows to the multitude.’
How low I stoop to keep up my standing in the world. And how clever I feel when I acquiesce in popularly held opinions.
If you can hold fast to your own standpoint when no one else agrees with you, you must be a sage or else a crackpot.
Are there any so indigent, that they can’t afford the luxury of assessing others? Are there any so downcast or obscure, that they don’t have the right to judge the whole show by their own bleared lights?
7 We are not ashamed to seek praise
We have such a rich store of self-esteem, that we can afford to spend a large sum of it to buy a crumb of others’ esteem. And yet some fling away all the world’s regard, in their rage to banquet their own yawning self-regard.
Some people market their golden gifts to purchase a moment of the dull world’s attention. To snap up the refuse that they want, they trade all that they cherish. They sprint so fast to reach a goal, that they lose their way. They are willing to act contemptibly to buy a good name, and to do demeaning things in order to earn praise. If they thought less grandly of their worth, how could they bear to sacrifice it for the paltry awards that they crave? What low dodges we sink to, in order to keep up our high opinion of our own deserts.
We don’t mind how we are thought of in towns that we pass through, as Pascal showed. Why would we go to great lengths to impress either our friends, whom we see each day, or strangers, since we will see them no more? Thus Gaskell’s Cranford ladies would ask, ‘What does it signify how we dress here at Cranford, where everybody knows us?’ and if they were absent from home, ‘What does it signify how we dress here, where nobody knows us?’ So the tactic that we opt for is to try to dazzle our friends when we’re in company with strangers whom we have the chance to dazzle. Does the respect of each, of no worth on its own, make the other’s worth the winning?
A whisper of others’ praise is enough to silence what slight shame I might feel at the shifts I had to stoop to on the path to attaining it. The fake acclaim that I gain is enough to cool the slight bruise to my vanity that I incur by having stalked it so doggedly. How could I doubt the value of any triumph that I’ve won?
Futility is the lives of others. The goal that’s worth aspiring to is the one that happens to lie within my reach. Our ego frames the perspective by which we gauge all that we think good and estimable. ‘Egoism is the law of optics in the realm of our emotions,’ as Nietzsche wrote. ‘What is closest appears large and weighty.’ Anyone who dwells far from me and from the world that I project seems to dwell far from reality. I exist only in the minds of others, but they exist for me in my own mind. Anybody not lit by the sun of my presence must live a gloomy spectral life in the shade. ‘Whoever lives at a different end of town to me,’ Swift said, ‘I look upon as persons out of the world, and only myself and the little scene about me to be in it.’ The world is a smudged backdrop, from which I stand out as the one glowing figure who has a right to last and be happy. The persians had no doubt that they were best and that the rest of the nations were of less and less worth the farther they were removed from them. The navel of the earth is always situated in our own backyard.
All of us want the same thing, to be well thought of. But each of us wants it in our own way. We want to be valued for the one accomplishment that we see most value in. Who could think of desiring any kind of reputation but the one that they’ve set their hearts on? But don’t we all cheerily make do with whatever one we get? How pliantly we adjust the narrative of our self-satisfaction to follow the ebb and flow of our fortune.
8 We respect what makes us respected
Most of us think as well of the world as we think it thinks of us. And we think as well of a thing as it allows us to think of ourselves, unless we might think even better of ourselves by disdaining it. We are pleased with anything that makes us pleased with our own lot. We extol any skill that we excel in. We are willing to love the world as much as we judge that it loves us. So it’s lucky that we judge that it loves us a lot more than it does. Nothing seems small to me that shows me a hair taller to the small men and women whom I hope to impress. And no world is so small that we don’t think it worth trying to cut a big figure in it.
We think as well of a thing as we think it makes the world think of us.
We don’t think much of any kind of talent that we don’t have, unless we believe that it was conferred on others to help or amuse us.
Who is strong enough to resist becoming what the world lauds them for? Few of us have the nerve to be hypocrites. We try to live up to the false views that people hold of us. So we come to be more or less what others take us for.
‘No one,’ as Leopardi says, ‘is so wholly disenchanted with the world, that when it begins to smile on him he does not become in part reconciled to it.’ We will kneel to kiss its foot, as soon as it shows us the least favour. We judge its prizes unfulfilling and deceptive till we’ve won a small clutch of them. And we don’t see what good sense some people have till they come to share our own point of view. We know that the boss who fills the place one rung above us is a fool. And yet when we are at length ensconced in it, we have no doubt that it proves how savvy we are. My success is proof of my own merit, their success is confirmation of the world’s conniving stupidity.
The soul is a beaten dog, now growling, now whimpering, which at last learns to fawn on the brute world.
‘A man must be a fool indeed,’ Greville wrote, ‘if I think him one at the time he is applauding me.’ When we are praised by those whose vision is bleary, we take it that our worth shines so resplendently that it gives sight to unseeing eyes. I make much of the perspicuity of anyone who is perspicuous enough to make much of me. What dearer compliment can I pay people than to appreciate how much wit they must have to appreciate my own gifts? The simplest way to coax self-believing people to think more highly of your merits is to coax them to think more highly of their own. And that’s never hard.
9 Pride and conceit
True pride is cool and nonchalant. Conceit is at once touchy and dependent.
Our conceit shields us from humiliations which would prove fatal to our pride.
Pride is obnoxious to itself and all the world. The proud are dangerous, but the presumptuous are disarmed by their own presumption. Pride is a querulous radical, conceit a complacent tory. Pride is solitary, conceit is clubbable. Smug people are more straightforward, less tortured, less venomous and too vain to be vindictive. The conceit that makes them deaf to real derision makes them receptive to feigned praise. Stroke their ego the right way, and they will purr like kittens. So long as they’re sufficiently flattered, they will be quite amicable. And since they’re always flattering themselves, they are friendly and accommodating. They are so pleased with themselves, that they are not hard to please, and that’s enough to make everyone else pleased with them.
We would be much less pleasing to others, if we were not so pleased with ourselves.
Those who feel most pride are bound also to feel the most shame. I’m stung by my pride, since I have to justify it. But I’m comforted by my conceit, because it justifies me. ‘Pride, a noble passion,’ Lichtenberg says, ‘is not blind to its faults, but hauteur is.’ The independent weigh their own and others’ worth by their intrinsic merits, the smug by the prestige that they’ve won in the eyes of the world.
Proud people pay too dear for good turns. Braggarts deem that they are due all the favours that are done them, and so they pay them back too stintingly.
The brazen beg so much for themselves. The proud demand so much of themselves. ‘The gentleman,’ according to Confucius, ‘strives to deserve. The arrogant wish to get.’
Pride pioneers new concepts. But conceit satisfies us with the rusty banged-up idols of our tribe. Conceit contents you with humbug, but honour contents you with nothing short of the truth. Most people’s self-assurance is sturdy enough to buttress all their trumpery, though few have a springy enough pride to propel them to seek out the truth. Principled people give up their chance of happiness to serve the truth. The vain give up happiness to serve a lie.
Our pipedreams cost us nothing but our true pride. And we’re always ready to shop that to keep up our sham self-belief.
We agree with Pope, that pride is ‘the never-failing vice of fools,’ and since we know that we are no fools, we conclude that neither are we proud. You need not be undeserving to be vain. Vanity dogs pride wherever it goes, as hyenas tag a lion. The conceited may have too little pride, but the proud still have no end of conceit. ‘To be vain,’ as Swift points out, ‘is rather a mark of humility than pride.’
Many of us are less modest or less proud than we seem, but none are less conceited. No one has too little self-esteem. But it may be that all of us have too little self-respect.
Some people set such a high value on themselves, not so much because they overrate what they are, but because they underrate what they might be. They think too well of what they are to be humble, but don’t think well enough of what they might be to be proud. They shoot at such a low mark, how could they fail to hit it?
We judge that those above us are arrogant when they assert their preeminence over us, and that those below us are presumptuous when they assume an equality with us.
We are gratified both by our enemies, since we know that we are not like them, and by our friends, since we’re sure that they are not like us. We feel that our friends are better than everyone else, and that we are better than our friends. And so they give us a double reason to think well of our own worth. Two will jog on well in tandem, so long as each feels superior to the other in some respect. And as Chesterfield wrote, ‘most people enjoy the inferiority of their best friends.’
A group is maintained by a corporate vanity of its own which feeds but exceeds that of its several members.
We live inside a bubble blown by our own self-flattery.
Some vainglorious people babble to you about all the wonderful things that they’re up to, and some are sure that they are so well known that they have no need to. They don’t want to insult you by assuming that you alone of all the world could be ignorant of it.
‘One speaks little,’ La Rochefoucauld says, ‘when vanity does not make one speak.’ Some people have nothing to say of a thing if they have no part in it. And some can find something of their own to talk of in everything.
Ambitious people tell themselves the self-serving lies that most of us only tell others, and they dare to tell others the mad self-glorifying lies that most of us keep locked in our own breast.
‘A man’s self,’ says William James, ‘is the sum total of all that he can call his.’ It takes in all that pertains to us, from our body and clothes to our husband or wife, our sons and daughters, clan, car, club and address, firm, homeland, faction or church. The self that my vanity fancies I fill up juts out much farther than the self that others can see. So without perceiving it they are constantly bumping and bruising my imaginary being. We use words to fix the outline of our shape, and they have the elasticity to stretch it farther than we reach.
I reckon myself richer for each of my belongings. And I reckon my belongings so rich because they are mine. Custody is nine tenths of how we rate a commodity. Our beaming self-satisfaction gilds all the dross that we manage to scoop up.
11 Everything makes us more self-regarding
It is so necessary for me to think highly of my own gifts, that it’s lucky that I find it so easy. We are cursed to be all the time comparing our own merits with those close to us. But we have the good fortune to come out first in all our encounters.
We so hunger to think well of ourselves, that we would starve if such stingy rations failed to fill us. We thirst for praise, yet such quick sips of it slake us. There’s no need to make your truckling too subtle, since most people’s appetite for it is so gross. Vanity is a most efficient organism. It can draw nutriment from the driest crumbs, and yet digest the most noxious toxins.
Self-belief can induce us to do anything at all. And anything at all is apt to swell our self-belief. Our mere performances lend us a false sense of proficiency. We gain more reason to rate our deftness favourably just by doing a thing than we lose if we do it ineptly.
Messengers bulge with the heft of their news. They ought to be shot from time to time, to lance their tumid pomposity.
I think so well of myself, and others think so little about me, that nothing I do could make either think any better of me.
Even the most dim-witted people are never at a loss for ingenious pretexts on which to preen themselves.
Those who don’t know what I didn’t know till yesterday I deem disgracefully benighted. And I jeer at those who fear what I was frightened of till yesterday.
Self-admiring people don’t overrate their attainments so much as their importance. So they are bound to waste their gifts on arduous but arid ventures.
I weigh my own worth by what I aspire to, but others’ worth by what they have achieved. I dignify my own purposes, but discount their accomplishments. I trust that my aborted undertakings will vouch for the value of those that I completed. If this is what I had to leave aside, you can guess how great are the ones I did get done.
We size our own stature by those near to us. If we live with pygmies, we judge that we must be giants. And if we live with giants, we judge that we must be giants too.
A snob is anyone whose pretensions reach higher than my own. I want to act like a snob up to the threshold of my pretentiousness. But I lambast as a snob anyone who dares to overreach it. Anyone more punctilious than me must be a pedant, anyone less is lax and neglectful.
12 Conceited knowledge
I don’t doubt that my ideas are unique. But I’m shocked that no one else seems to share them. I flatter myself that I differ from others, and yet that they must be like me.
Numbers are always on our side. If all are of the same mind as me, then I am unquestionably right. And if no one is, then I am not merely right but bold and far-seeing.
Most of us swallow the same slop and nonsense as everyone else, but we’re sure that we do so for deeper reasons. We like to feel both the security of belonging to our herd and the complacence of presuming that we are at the forefront of it. I glance to my flank at all of them galloping in the same direction as I am, and I pity them for blindly stampeding the way that I chose by reflection.
We glory not just in what we do know but even in what we don’t know. We are vain of what we don’t know, since we take it that it certifies the value of what we do know. We feel like great landlords, who don’t deign to attend to all that occurs on our vast estates, and are too grand to seek to grasp such trifling details. What we modestly pretend tops our competence we in fact judge falls below our concern. If you can’t take pride in your good sense, you can at least take pride in your folly. We pique ourselves on our lazy preconceptions as much as we would if we had found out strenuous reasons.
I think little of what I don’t know, so that I won’t have to think less of myself for not knowing it. ‘We scorn a lot of things,’ Vauvenargues says, ‘so that we won’t have to scorn ourselves.’ We heap some of our most sincere disparagement on the great achievements that we are least worthy of. Few things fill ordinary people with more contempt than great art, as few things fill them with more true veneration than cheap kitsch.
We don’t fear what we don’t know. If we did, what would we not have to be afraid of? And how could we fear it, when we don’t so much as know that we don’t know it? We mock and scoff at what we have no grasp of, since we have too little regard for it to quaver at it. ‘All that seems strange we condemn,’ Montaigne says, ‘as well as all that we do not comprehend.’
People plume themselves even on the mannerisms that they’re not conscious of.
13 Conceit is invulnerable
How could our self-opinion be overthrown, when it is based on nothing at all? If it weren’t so groundless, it might not be so hard to shake. No success reared it, so what shock could topple it, or even leave a dent in it?
Why do we sweat for the pay of the world’s respect, when we could live at ease on the independent income of our own self-regard?
None but the proudest people have the modesty to grasp how immodest they are. How could we see our own vanity, when it’s the eyes that we use to scan ourselves and everything else? It is the parent of our plans, habits, outlook and feelings, which they are too abashed or too insolent to own. Conceit saves us from recognizing that conceit has spawned the bulk of our deeds. Something in the style of our own egoism assures us that we are not egoists.
We can’t break the grip of our egoism which stings us to act with such ruthlessness. Yet nor can we conceive the rare accomplishments that might prove our right to our ambitions.