1 We live in the minds of others
Our greed covets images that catch our eye. And our pride strives to sculpt our self as an image to catch the eye 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. Our self justifies our wants and all that we do to sate them. And our wants justify our self and all that we do to serve it.
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. ‘We only begin to live,’ writes Houellebecq, ‘through the eyes of others.’
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 regard 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 The contemptible
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 rate 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.
People are willing to act contemptibly to buy a good name, and to do demeaning things in order to earn praise.
3 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.
‘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. And 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?
If there is anyone more ruthless than those who are determined to rise, it’s one who is desperate to escape from drowning.
4 Pride and disdain
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.
Proud souls disdain to conceal anything, apart from the craft that they use to conceal their pride.
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.
5 Pride is pretending not to care
Arrogant people want to win the race, yet ridicule it a touch in case they don’t. And they display a slight scorn for their own victories, to show that they are worth more than these 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 thumb their nose at 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.
6 Trying to impress the indifferent
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.
‘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.
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.’
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.
7 We want to be respected in our own way
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.
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. And we think nothing of any kind of reputation except the one that we’ve set our 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.
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?
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.
Futility is the lives of others. The goal that’s worth aspiring to is the one that happens to lie within my reach.
8 We want the respect of those we don’t respect
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 slightingly of some people, I might not go to so much trouble to impress them. It galls me that those for whom I have such low regard should have such low regard for me. ‘Man seeks to acquire a rank among his fellow men,’ Kant wrote, ‘whom he detests but without whom he cannot live.’
9 The perspective of egoism
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 feelings,’ 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 deserves 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.
10 We care and don’t care for others’ approval
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.
I use up my life vying to win the praise of people whom I barely know. But in the end I may not much mind what people say of me, so long as they don’t say it to my face.
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 hope to dazzle. Does the respect of each, of no worth on its own, make the other’s worth the winning?
11 The self and society
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 comes from 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. 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 person loves others for his or her own ends.
12 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. 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.
A whisper of others’ praise is enough to silence what slight shame I might feel at the mean 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?
13 We respect whatever wins us respect
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.
Nothing seems small to me that shows me a hair taller to the small men and women whom I hope to impress.
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 aid or amuse us.
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.
We think as well of a thing as we think it makes the world think of us.
14 We love the world as much as it loves us
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. And no world is so small that we don’t think it worth trying to cut a big figure in it.
‘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.
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.
15 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.
Though you may outdo a person’s virtuosity and achievements, how could you get the victory over their conceit?
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.
How could our self-opinion be overthrown, when it’s 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?
16 Pride torments, conceit comforts
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.
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.
17 Conceit and illusion
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. But 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 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.’
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.
A group is maintained by a corporate vanity of its own which feeds but exceeds that of its several members.
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.
19 The self and its accoutrements
‘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 further 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 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.
20 Everything adds to our self-regard
It is so necessary for me to think highly of my own gifts, that it’s lucky that I find it so easy.
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.
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.
Our smugness is like an ever-flowing fountain. It can’t get any fuller, but nor can it run down.
21 First in all comparisons
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.
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 sure 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. So 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.
22 Conceited knowledge
I don’t doubt that my ideas are unique. But it shocks me 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.
Messengers bulge with the heft of their news. They ought to be shot from time to time, to lance their tumid pomposity.
23 We are proud of what we don’t know
We glory not just in what we do know but even in what we don’t know. And 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 scathing 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 respect 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.