Vanity

Beauty jilts the loveliest and leaves them bereft. But vanity stays loyal to the homeliest. Beauty is as delicate and fleeting as vanity is resilient and enduring. Time despoils beauty. But vanity triumphs over time.

Vanity gives its possessor an ease and confidence which mere beauty or talent could never provide.

Our vanity inventories each slight alteration in our aspect, while overlooking its long geological collapse. Our very flaws help to conceal from us the wrecks that we’ve become.

We take most notice of our own mirrors, since they have learnt to flatter us so well. How did we teach them? And there are no more gratifying mirrors than our friends or spouse.

Beauty is a rapidly depreciating asset, which vanity preserves in its balance sheet at its initial value.

Some women who were once graced with a sumptuous beauty comport themselves like ruined duchesses, who still presume on their title, though they lack the means to keep it up.

Our vanity, like our hypocrisy, may be the best part of us. In all our low compromises with the world, what else could call us back to the high aims that we once aspired to? ‘Virtue would not go so far,’ as La Rochefoucauld tells us, ‘if vanity did not keep it company.’

Some people rate their worth so high because they can envisage a better self that they might one day become, and some because they can’t. We’re too vain of what we are, but we lack the imagination to see what we might be. ‘No one,’ as Multatuli says, ‘has a high enough estimation of what he could be, or a low enough one of what he is.’

Our smugness is like an ever-flowing fountain, which can’t get any fuller, but can’t run down.

1 Perfection

What extraordinary toils the most ordinary of us cumber our lives with, in order to prove that we are not ordinary. All that work and worry, just to become a nobody. Our fate, as Cioran wrote, is ‘to have accomplished nothing, and to die overworked.’ I give way to my lusts without tasting fulfilment, and I harrow my heart without obtaining glory. Those who are irreparably flawed still flog themselves to prove how marvellous they are. We can’t be at peace, unless we are embarked on some mad scheme of self-betterment which is predestined to leave us no happier than we were before. Why not on the contrary follow the character in Balzac, who ‘was wise enough to estimate life at its true worth by contenting himself in all things with the second best’? We ought to thank life each day for illustrating that we were right to rate it so cheap. What pangs I cause myself and others by striving to perfect my perfectly mediocre life.

Our vanity projects for us an enhanced self, but tells us that we have already formed it. How hard I toil to improve, but how enamoured I am of the botched job that I make of it. I tense all my nerve to perfect myself, yet I’m smugly satisfied with the faulty self that I patch up. I go through life, assuming that I am extraordinary, and evincing that I am not.

Perfection is mediocrity polished to a high sheen.

How could we make ourselves the best that we might be, when we are so bent on demonstrating to our peers that we are superior to them? We spend all our strength striving to prove to ourselves that we’re better than we are and to others that we’re better than they are. We judge that we are struggling to make the best of our gifts, but aren’t we just scrabbling to get the most into our grip?

Some people are sure that they have no faults because they have darned and patched them so many times, and some are sure that they have no faults because they have never felt the need to. I don’t doubt that I must be wise today, since I now see what a fool I was till yesterday. Vain people are not unaware of their flaws, but they assume that they will have won through to perfection once these have been rectified. My past botches promise me that I must be progressing, rather than alerting me to how far I’ve gone adrift. And my own faults are mere chips which I’ll set right with a few revisions, but others’ are unquestionable proofs that their design was wrong from the start.

We don’t want to change, but we do want to grow perfect, and we trust that we will have done so once we have grown more perfectly who we are.

2 Beliefs

The belief that sustains us is our belief in our own importance. And the faith that justifies us is our faith in our own integrity, which is the one catholic and universal creed. Our day to day self-trust beats the blazing certitude of the most fanatical ranter. So long as we trust in our own unique gifts, we don’t need to trust in much else.

Vanity, like faith, is the evidence of things not seen by others. And yet the vain still need others to have faith in them.

How did we end up with so many illusions yet so few beliefs? Though I am willing to trade most of my misconceptions, I cling to the overestimation of my self-worth. ‘We can bear to be deprived of everything,’ Hazlitt says, ‘but our self-conceit.’

We use up our potential for belief by believing in ourselves. The only things that we have a strong belief in are the good things that we believe about ourselves. I trust so fervently in my own destiny, that I have a cold credit to spare for anything else. But I can coax myself to give my faith to all sorts of things, since my faith in all of them is transferred from my faith in myself. Our creeds are dim halos emitted by the fiery core of our self-belief.

We’ve known for a long time that the earth doesn’t stand at the pivot of the universe, and so I’m thankful that I am still the axis round which all bright things revolve.

I am resigned to my small and undistinguished place under the sun, not because I think so little of myself, but because I think so much of it. It is not our modesty but our conceit that makes us content with our lot.

3 Providence

Providence is the metaphysic of our ego. It justifies the fortunate, since their good fortune is blessed by God and will go on for all time. And it comforts the unlucky that their bad luck will one day be paid back in full. Our littleness stretches a vast way. We may not believe in God, but don’t we all trust in a power immeasurably bigger than us which is there to smooth our pathway through the briars of this world? Our inflated sense of our own entitlement translates the most inconsiderable coincidence into momentous destiny. No event that turns out in my favour is too insignificant to form part of God’s plan. How ready the unassuming are to see fate busy in their own small lives. We know that the hand of God is at work when we prevail, and that blind chance must be in charge when our rivals do. ‘No victor believes in chance,’ as Nietzsche points out. Providence has patently awarded us most of the merit, but has unaccountably awarded others most of the luck. ‘The power of fortune,’ as Swift wrote, ‘is confessed only by the miserable.’

When you’re young, you may fancy now and then that you can hear the loom of the fates weaving your destiny, but when you’re old all you feel is the threads unwinding.

Some of us would rather believe that we are dogged by a malevolent demon, than that we have been abandoned to a cold universe. ‘Our egoism,’ Renard says, ‘is so excessive, that in a deluge we believe the thunder to be directed at us alone.’

Many people sigh and whine that luck has allotted them such scant pay, but few that it has allotted them such scant talents. The humblest people presume that they would be blissfully happy, if only they got what was due to them. Has anyone had a revelation that told them that they don’t matter enough to damn or to beatify?

Many people reckon their success so massive, that they feel obligated to ascribe it modestly to luck or to the gift of God. So they disguise their self-worship as gratitude to some superhuman source.

We swell our self-worth by our insistence that we are self-made or else by our praise of those who have made us what we are.

The poor know that God loves them because he loves the poor, and the rich know that God loves them because he has made them rich. Providence is the complacence of the prosperous and the consolation of the afflicted.

Some mortals believe in divine intervention, not from faith in the most high, but from faith in their own dim star. They trust in the Lord because they trust in their own lofty destiny, and they hire him as an assistant to help them bring it to fulfilment. God plays a part in our story, not we in his.

Some people who don’t believe in God still act as if they were placed in the world to serve as his chosen instruments, and that they are under his particular protection so that no harm can come to them.

4 Conceit consoles us

Our conceit is our staunchest guard, our kindliest nurse, and our most persuasive pleader.

Touchy conceit is the self’s skin, so easy to wound, yet insulating us from scores of wounds. Our self-belief is the part of us that’s most prone to blister but speediest to heal. ‘I’ve never any pity for conceited people,’ wrote George Eliot, ‘because I think they carry their comfort about with them.’ My faith in my own worth solaces me for my inveterate mortifying failure to coax others to share it. Vanity brings on us the hurts that our vanity salves us for. It advises us erroneously, but tends us compassionately. It is an erring counsellor, but an infallible consoler. It finds the right words to soothe us for all our humiliations. We brazen out most batterings by relying on our essential conceit and our casual distractions. And we live down any truth by applying the sovereign antidote of our grandiosity. In the wilderness of our neglect angels come and minister to our self-belief.

Why strive to get gaunt wisdom with toil, when you can have plump conceit with ease? A sage would need to work for a lifetime to win the self-possession that smug people have by birth. We set up our vanity in the seat where our sagacity ought to be, and how much more competently it does the job.

Who is so poor that they can’t keep up an exorbitant self-estimate?

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. Their conceit, which promises them that they have a right to the best, makes them sure that they’ve got it. It turns their life into one long victory lap. They’re deafened by the clapping, even if they’ve pressed just a few bored stragglers to sit and watch them in the grandstand. We stride from one conquest to the next, to find at the end that each day we’ve been surrendering a portion more to death. We are such triumphant nobodies.

We are ballasted by the freight of our self-importance, and we are buoyed up by our expansive self-delight. Kept afloat by our swollen self-opinion, we don’t drown, but don’t see that we need to be saved. We are so light and hollow that nothing can sink us.

5 Vanity the tormenting comforter

Our conceit sweetens or curdles all that we feel. It may assuage our pains, and yet it poisons our joys. It both intoxicates and embitters us, rendering some of us serene and others savage. It maddens some, and mollifies others. It makes some respected, and some ridiculous. Pride binds up the wounds that our pride inflicts on us, and finds a salve for most of the disorders to which it predisposes us. The conceit whose hackles are raised by an insult smooths the bristles of our ruffled honour, and damps down the envy which it fans in us. Self-love, like any brand of passion, fells some like a blow, but sustains most like an unfaltering faith. Though ravishing some, it desolates others. Like the fabled divine charity, it strips these bare, and leaves them with nothing to clothe them but their egoism. It contents some like an untroubled marriage, but buffets others like a squally romance. In our self-adoration most of us love not wisely but too well.

If we felt less need to think so well of ourselves, we might be more contented. And yet if we thought less well of ourselves, we would have no grounds to be content at all.