Our self-interest turns everything into a machine to cater to our wants. But at the same time it renders us grateful, courteous, forgiving and prompt to team with those who might help us to gain our ends. It has faith in nothing, but will bow down to anything that might raise it. Though resenting all rivals, it will serve any scheme that seems to serve it. It is love of self, more than love of others, that ‘beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.’ It sits enthroned in our hearts and in the world as the great anarch and the great autocrat. No cause is too hallowed or too profane for it to conscript for its own use.
It is the world that lives by faith, hope and charity, faith in its own gratifying lies, hope that its greed will one day land the prize it craves, and charity for the rogues who keep it going.
Ambitious schemers make up a grotesque menagerie. Some puff up like toads to several times their real size. Some slither rat-like through crannies too strait for the rest of us. Others, like caterpillars, chew up a fat harvest. And some, like a troop of ants, branch into a number of sections, and seem to swarm far and near.
Those who vaunt that they are paid to do what they love are willing to love whatever they are paid to do. Those who boast of their incorruptibility often lease out their souls for a low rent. And yet some who have made their fortune from an occupation grumble and mutter how dear it has cost them.
1 All for self
I won’t do a thing if I can’t squeeze out of it some private good. Yet there’s next to nothing that I won’t do, since I soon find a private good in doing it. ‘We can all begin freely,’ as Austen points out. Though we may choose a scheme or occupation with no thought of our own gain, how could we stick at it for long, if it yields us no advantage?
It’s clear how tyrannically self-interest rules us all, not when it pays its workers profusely, but when it is slavishly obeyed by those who don’t gain a cent from it. We are so bent on prevailing, however high the price, and however mean the prize. Vainglory covets triumphs, but will make do with the most meagre ones.
We are perverted alchemists who melt down all the more precious things to the base metal of self. There’s nothing so great but we will find some means to milk it for our gain.
How could I hear the claims of others’ egoism, when I’m deafened by the dull drone and rumble of my own? Yet I still feel that they speak too loud. ‘Their own din,’ as Céline wrote, ‘prevents them from hearing anything else.’
We have the raw hunger of beasts but not their spotlessness. We have the presumptuousness of gods but not their bright capacities.
2 The hell of self
Only a cannibal god, red-fanged and ghastly, could have laid it down that life would flourish by feeding on life. It exacts from its creation the homage of blood. Our vitality feasts on all the death that we make. We dance on the roof of the shambles. The deaths of others make us feel more alive. We count our own lot richer for their loss. We build the grubby hut of our happiness on pilings sunk deep in others’ pain, and we feel no guilt since they’re so far out of sight. And we love life as it has not yet seen fit to butcher us.
It would be easier to believe that this world of cramming and copulating is the work of a crazed satyr than of a serene spirit.
Hell needs no devils. Won’t the damned be hard at work extracting gain from tormenting one another?
What but our selfishness could bear the strain of having to fill sixty minutes of every hour with self?
To get out of hell, we would have to get out of self. But all we want to do is stoke its fires.
3 Choosing interests
Chance will choose the ends that you aim at, and these ends will choose everything else for you. My thoughts and moods are the shadows of my schemes and of what it is expedient for me to believe in order to further them. I’m prompt to feel whatever emotions might advance my prospects.
Our interests are our deepest self, and yet we borrow them from the most obvious sources. We hold fast to our own schemes and desires, no matter what others may think or say. Yet we form our schemes and desires on templates that we take from others.
Our egoism is so urgent, and yet our ego is so empty, that we have to invest it in a range of external projects.
4 The fickle persistence of self-interest
I don’t hesitate to give up on those ventures that fail to yield me an instant reimbursement. So why do I stay so obdurately loyal to some of my most unproductive schemes? We persist in our fancies, but waver in our faith. Our desires are biddable yet unrelenting. Self-interest makes us both obstinate and mutable in all things, including our interests. If they weren’t so changeable, how could they adapt to each untried set of conditions and gain from every enterprise?
The will never alters. It merely swaps its objects and hones its tools. We desire one good less by desiring some other more, or else by desiring less of the one but desiring that less just as much.
Where our self-interest is not in play, our capacities are miraculous but soon discouraged, but where it is, they are unwearying but mediocre.
When I give up my grand aims for mean ones, I claim that I have renounced them. But in my defeat and desperation I set up a still paltrier replacement for what I hoped to gain from success. When a tall undertaking burns down, a hundred squat weeds soon shoot up in its place, and I tend one of these, and put my former pet out of mind, and marvel that I gave so much time to a thing so slight and unrewarding. We don’t remit our zeal when we retrench our ambitions.
We may cease to hanker for any one thing, but we can’t rest from hankering for something. I crave so much, yet I care for so little. And I care for so little, because I crave so much.
It’s not hard to lack. But it’s killing to lose. It is, as Pascal says, ‘horrible to see all that one possesses slipping away.’ It may be easy to renounce success, but it’s tough to live without it.
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.
6 Illusory interests
We are hustled on by our mad compulsions, and held back by our irrational inhibitions. There are two kinds of people, the crazy and the dead. ‘Madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.’
Our lives are lit up by our bright illusions, and warmed by our boiling desires.
To make a success of some ventures, all you need do is hold fast to the glittering lies which hide how little they will satisfy you.
I know the world through my projects and ambitions. I let my self-interest choose my ends, and these choose what I will or won’t know of the world and of my own heart. ‘Self-interest,’ wrote Amiel, ‘is an inexhaustible fount of commodious illusions.’
We consent to be served by reason, but not to be ruled by it. And we want to be guided by cunning, but not governed by wisdom. Calculating prudence grunts and sweats as the lackey of our crazy compulsions. The ego yields to the reality principle as a ruse to reap its unreal gratifications. Most of our illusions are interested, and most of our interests are illusory. We use our godlike knowledge to slave for our low and delusive desires. Our delusions serve us so well that we would be mad to give them up.
A worldly climber is a combination of cunning realism and childish narcissism.
Passion and convenience cue us to say what we don’t mean, so that we can convince others of what they don’t believe.
Most of us think and act judiciously only in what serves our own ends, a few in all but that.
7 Illusion and advantage
We are so used to taking false for true when it profits us, that we continue to do so even when it has ceased to. Our dull wants constitute our inmost reality, yet they frame for us a world of gaudy flummery. Any object seems to shine, once it has come in range of the halo of my own self-seeking.
We prefer our own advantage to most truths. And yet we prefer our own errors to many advantages. We’re chained to rusted lies, because we are slaving to reach our goals. But we can’t reach our goals, because we are chained so tight to our lies. We will do anything to expedite our schemes. But if they miscarry, we’re glad just to keep our grip on our false opinions. We hold fast to our bright fantasies, to help us sate our sullen lusts, or else to salve our chagrin when we fail to do so.
My illusions land me in real troubles, which hurt me so bad, that I’m forced to seek sanctuary in further illusions.
8 Self-interest forecloses self-knowledge
We are more foreign to ourselves than we are to our ambitions. We dwell farther from our hearts than we do from our schemes. Our concupiscence keeps us close to others and far from ourselves. We are whirled on blindly by our greed, and we are gulled by our own self-belief.
We hone our self like a tool to implement our aims. And we want to learn who we are in so far as we want to learn the tool’s trade, in order to squeeze the most use from it.
The eye reposes most agreeably in the middle distance, and that’s where we live, with our compulsions and career. We don’t dare to grasp who we are, and we don’t care to know what we aim at. These would just hold us back from getting what we want.
We have to hollow out our hearts in order to lay hold of the junk that we are sure will fill them up.
9 We don’t know what we want
We don’t quite know what we want, but how unwaveringly we fight to get our hands on it. I don’t know what I want, and yet there’s nothing I won’t do to grab more of it.
We squander all our selfish initiative on ventures that yield us no gain. What won’t we suffer or sacrifice to reach a goal which will bring us no good?
We never know what it is that we want. So it’s lucky for us that we have our self-satisfaction to tell us that we’ve got it.
We can’t stop wanting not just what we do want, as Schopenhauer showed, but even what we don’t want. ‘We not only keep wanting what we cannot have,’ Hoffer says, ‘but go on wanting what we no longer really want.’
I oppose those who try to injure me with the same ferocity that I do those who try to save me from injuring myself.
Few people care enough for us to do us as much harm as we do ourselves. ‘When others start to think of you,’ Céline wrote, ‘it’s to figure out how to torture you.’ This seems to hold for the gods and fortune most of all.
10 We don’t know what is good for us
We sacrifice our principles for the sake of our profit. And then we sacrifice our profit to indulge our giddy freaks and whims. We are willing to ruin ourselves for a caprice, but we won’t so much as discompose ourselves for a conviction.
Our most potent motives lurk in the hiatus between long obsession and brief whim. ‘So little are we governed by self-interest,’ as Hazlitt wrote, ‘and so much by imagination.’
If we weren’t so devoted to our own interest, our folly would be sure to undo us. And if we weren’t handicapped by our folly, our self-interest would lay waste the whole world. The harm which we cause by our flailing avarice is abated less by our fine charity than by our gross ineptitude.
We rarely pursue our real interests, much less our best ones. So how could they bring us true contentment? Many people are too grasping to see where their profit lies. Some care for a small segment of their own self, and their egoism sunders them not just from others but from their own being as well. What they serve is a baseless semblance of their present self, and they sacrifice to this the part of them that is most real and lasting.
We are too much the tools of our compulsions to be truly self-serving.
11 Self-destructive self-interest
Our own interests treat our self with the same brutish indifference that the national interest treats our land. We exploit and rifle it for gain. What we feel for it is both more and less than love. We love our self as the fire loves the coal, and yet, like the fire, we love nothing else.
I do my neighbours no more good by my altruism than I do myself by my selfishness.
We are both more self-seeking and more self-destructive than we know. We care as icily for the good of others as we toil clumsily for our own. Though we’re disinclined to do a charitable act if it has no prospect of furthering our own ends, we are lured to do a mess of discreditable ones that disadvantage them.
A human being is a selfish and self-lacerating animal.
12 We are swindled by our own self-seeking
If we weren’t in such a sweat to snatch what we want, would we be so readily defrauded of it? We are as ruthless in the pursuit of our own good as we are ready to be swindled out of it. People try to bluff us for their ends, and we allow them to for our own. Our egoism, so versed in cheating others, at last cheats itself. We gain nothing from the intrigues for which we make them pay so dear. We submit to be robbed by the arch deceiver, our own self-flattery. Our guileful self-interest is tricked by our gullible self-regard. ‘A person’s vanity,’ Balzac says, ‘is a pretender that never lacks for a butt.’
I’m glad to be gulled by my own mad fantasies, so long as I can brag that I’m an astute exception. But most of the time I choose to be swindled with everyone else, rather than profit on my own. We need them to share our delusions as much as we need to be deluded. It’s only the naive, who don’t see how the world works, that decline to be defrauded like all the rest of us.
We don’t trust those who tell the truth, yet we are snared by those who forge plausible falsehoods. The faithless compel our cunning faith. We see straight through the few who have seen through themselves. But we are hypnotized by the bright opacity of a self-swindler, especially when the swindler is us. ‘All other swindlers upon earth,’ Dickens writes, ‘are nothing to the self-swindlers.’
We feel a great need to believe in the wisdom of those who fool us, so that we won’t need to see that we are such fools.
13 Our cunning credulity
We fool ourselves ingenuously but not innocently. The self-seeking that makes us cunning makes us credulous. Our heart is the dupe of our wants more than the head is the dupe of the heart. We are so prone to being hoaxed, not because our uncorrupted heart is too trusting to heed our judicious misgivings, but because our clamorous voracity drowns them out. We are so easy to cheat, not because we are so guileless, but because we are so greedy. ‘How willing the vulgar are,’ Scott says, ‘to gull themselves when they can find no one else to take the trouble.’ As Machiavelli knew, a mark always meets a quack half way.
We make headway in this crooked world by becoming clever fools and conniving dupes.
The world distrusts all solid realities, and yet is determined to be deceived by the hollowest appearances. Venal people are fleeced with ease but reluctant to trust. The cunning can be entangled by their own subtlety. A chump may be still more disillusioning than a cheat.
Some people are credulous because they are innocent, and some because they are corrupt. The guileless can be bought for a pittance, because they naively trust that the world will keep its promises. And the crooked are not hard to bluff, since they are so keen to hear what might bring them the least gain.
Who can tell whether our deceitfulness is more credulous or our credulity more deceitful? We allow ourselves to be cozened in our urge to snatch a brief advantage.
The charmer thrives by the adage, Self-love conquers all. All the world loves a self-lover, like Alcibiades or Rupert Brooke, who seems to be in love with all the world. Their charm is their velvet selfishness turned outward, and their brashness supercharges them with a high voltage charisma.
Charm, as Amiel wrote, is ‘the trait in others that renders us more pleased with ourselves.’ The vanity of others delights or disgusts me, depending on how much it seems to gratify or snub my own.
Charisma is one of the fake forces whose effects in this world of fakery are all too real.
We are beguiled by the self-belief of those who puff their own importance as much as we are repelled by the scornful disdain and detachment of the few who mock at the impostures of the world.
A smile may betray more deep disdain than a sneer, since it doesn’t care even to show how little it thinks of those it beams on.
Most of us are willing to take others at the high valuation that they place on their own merits, since we do the same with ourselves and we expect them to do so too.
The charmer has learnt that if you tickle people’s conceit, they won’t mind when you filch their real advantage.
15 The ruses of self-interest
Our self-seeking stoops so low to pocket the least gain that it seems meek. It consents so readily to be foxed that it seems ingenuous. It schemes so wholeheartedly with anyone to get what it wants that it seems trustworthy.
Like a menaced nation, we have three options to deal with the world, appease, ally or attack.
By promoting our schemes, we grow both brutal and accommodating. We forward them with implacable economy and implacable excess. We’ll drop any principle that might hold them back, and we stop at nothing to push them on.
I am scarcely aware of all the guile that my machinations prompt me to, and I don’t foresee the vexations that they’ll heap on me.
Our self-interest serves us well by appearing not to serve us better. It is advantageous to miscalculate once in a while, to make clear that you are not calculating. We gain so little from our compromises with the world, that they seem guiltless. And we reap so much from our misconduct, that we feel no need to justify it.
16 Little interests
The tiniest particle of life is worth more to itself than the rest of life as a whole. ‘What is the entire world,’ asked Sade, ‘compared to a single one of my desires?’ And what is the long chain of life and its delicate gestation weighed in the scale with my own brief term here?
We are more presumptuous than ambitious. Our hopes are modest yet insatiable. Our views are microscopic, but our pretensions are megalomaniac. We are so swollen with vanity, that we can let our true pride starve. Egotism surveys life through a magnifying glass, not through a telescope. Our selfishness, which knows no bounds, sets very tight bounds to our world.
Since we are too weak to dominate the big world, we decide that our own cramped tract of it must be all that matters. But the foreshortened arc of our job, household or cluster of friends looks real from the inside alone, since no one else has any interest in behaving as if it were real. The smaller the world in which we view ourselves, the larger the place that we seem to fill up in it.
We are stitched together from such multicoloured odds and ends, so how do they make up such a monochrome whole?
Self-interest is as monotonous as the self, and as multifarious as the ten thousand things that it covets. What could be meaner and more predictable? What could be more irresistible and engrossing? How did unvarying interest frame so floridly variegated a world?
Some people’s self-love must be promiscuous, to embrace all the incompatible selves that they’re quilted from.
17 Zealots and opportunists
Those who have no principles may be induced to spill their blood for a cause that gains them nothing. And yet it may take a few short years to turn a dreamy fanatic into a crafty careerist. A deranged militant such as Hitler may act with wily duplicity.
Opportunists presume that they owe it to their high merits to squeeze the most out of all the low opportunities that they’ve not earned.
Some people are better than their ambitions, but by prosecuting them they grow worse. Like Macbeth, they act by the rule that ‘For mine own good all causes must give way.’ They don’t have the high integrity to follow their best projects, but they lack the self-command to eschew their mean ones.
We pursue goals that are unworthy of us, but by pursuing them we grow unworthy of anything better.
18 Insatiable and easily satisfied self-satisfaction
Our self-seeking is insatiable but easily appeased. I covet so much, yet I’m content with such scanty takings. I rate my place so high, so why am I overjoyed at the lowest prize? How readily we are disaffected, yet how cheaply we are delighted. We crave so much, we make do with so little, but we are not satisfied with a single thing. Such dull pleasures tickle us. But a world would not be enough for us. Our hearts would not be surfeited with paradise, yet how hungrily they fall to feast on the broken meats of this corrupted world. We are impossible to satisfy, but easy to please.
How blessed I would be, if I were as charmed with everything else as I am with my own self. I’m never less than thrilled with my own merits, though that won’t quite suffice me. And I’m so well pleased with myself, that anything else can please or displease me. Most of us are too delighted with ourselves to be discontented. Yet we are all too self-seeking to sit still.
Our defeats are more bitter than we feared. Our victories prove more insipid than we hoped. But our self-satisfaction helps us to digest the one, and lends seasoning and savour to the other.
How modest or how conceited we must be, to have achieved so little and still to be so self-satisfied.
All satisfaction springs from self-satisfaction. Most people are so pleased with themselves, that they are pleased with all the rest of the world as well.
19 We are proud of our demeaning self-interest
Since we can’t sate our greed without the forfeit of our proper self-respect, we all protest that the schemes that profit us do not demean us. But we may still blush to seek the prizes that even our pride wants us to get. We have to make our profligacy our pride, since we are too much in thrall to our greed to break its shackles. ‘The jingling of the guinea,’ Tennyson wrote, ‘helps the hurt that honour feels.’ Pride may be ashamed to calculate, but it’s yet more ashamed to lose.
Proud of all that helps us to lay hold of what we desire, we yet deny that it is doing any such thing. Though vain of our plans, we shy from acknowledging the mean ploys that we stoop to in carrying them out. If we didn’t set our price so high, how could we bear to crouch so low from day to disgraceful day to snaffle up such trim gains?
What we crave are the slight but solid prizes which we hope will consolidate or magnify the slight and doubtful distinctions which lift us an inch above our peers.
20 Self-interest is self-repairing
Self-interest is unashamed, yet is prompt to mend when it fails. Self-regard is quick to feel shame, but refuses to reform when it has been disgraced. Ambition learns from its stumbles, but vanity denies that it made them. Some of us would sooner be ruined than admit that we were wrong. We would rather weather our acts’ calamitous outcomes than mitigate them by recognizing that we had brought them on our own heads.
Some people recover from reverses because they’re so limber, and some because they’re so unbending. My self-seeking makes me pliable but persevering, and my self-regard makes me obstinate and unwavering.
21 Self-regard trumps self-interest
My greed and my pride, like president and congress, form part of the same administration, but they may come from adverse parties and are incessantly bickering.
We are sustained by the solid diet of our self-seeking. But we breathe each instant the impalpable air of our delusion and self-conceit.
Our self-belief keeps us afloat, and our self-interest sweeps us on down the cascade of life.
Some people sell their real self-interest to gild the sheath of their self-regard. And some abdicate their dignity to promote their mean designs.
We need the luxury of our self-regard still more than our obligatory self-seeking. Our mad arrogance outwits our scheming avarice. We keep up a fervent faith in the fetish of our self. But pride is a jealous god, which may demand the immolation of its firstborn, our advantage.
Even the most unhinged people don’t lack shrewd reasons to confirm their mad immodesty or to find excuses for their mad resolutions.
We act in order to push our self-interest. And we think in order to puff up our self-regard. We act in order to do well for ourselves. We reflect in order to think well of ourselves. Our thoughts frame a continuous appreciative gloss on the text of our conduct. Conceit is our faith, and our self-seeking is our works, and we trust that we are justified by both.
Our reason is busy and ingenious in devising means to serve our advantage and pretexts to justify our vanity.
Our self-seeking tells us how to act, and our self-conceit tells us what to believe. Domineering self-regard truckles to low self-interest. And our deft self-interest is the dupe of our simple-minded self-regard.
22 Self-sabotaging self-regard
A selfish person, as the proverb says, will burn down your house to roast his eggs. But blusterers will burn down their own house, to show that they know how to roast eggs more skilfully than you.
Some people are so conceited, that they don’t deign to walk on two legs. So they hack off the limb of their self-interest, to show how nimbly their self-regard can hop to and fro on one.
We are too selfish to repent the wrongs that we do to others. And we are too smug to regret the harms that we do to ourselves. The very damage that we cause ourselves saves us from recognizing that we were responsible for it.