1 Vanity triumphs over time
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.
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.
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.
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. They still presume on their title, though they lack the means to keep it up.
2 Our botched 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.
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.
How hard I toil to improve, but how enamoured I am of the botched job that I make of it.
Perfection is mediocrity polished to a high sheen.
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?
3 So vain of our imperfect self
Those who are irreparably flawed still flog themselves to prove how marvellous they are.
Our vanity projects for us an enhanced self, but tells us that we have already formed 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.
How could we make ourselves the best that we might be, when we are so intent 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.
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 they have rectified these. 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.
4 Our deepest belief is our belief in ourselves
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 cajole 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.
5 The metaphysic of our ego
Providence is the metaphysic of our ego. Our littleness stretches a vast way.
We’ve long known that the earth is not the pivot of the universe, and so I’m thankful that I am still the axis round which all bright things revolve.
We may not believe in God, but don’t we all trust in a power immeasurably bigger than ourselves 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.
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.
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.
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.
6 Providence and justice
Providence 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.
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 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.’
Has anyone had a revelation that told them that they don’t matter enough to damn or to beatify?
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.
7 My merit, others’ luck
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.’
I have as much as I have by dint of my own merit, but I have no more than that due to my poor luck.
I have my moral sunshine, in which my good fortune assures me that God is in charge of events, and my rainy days, when I know that none but the righteous must go through the ordeals that I do.
Many people 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.
8 Conceit consoles us
Conceit 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.
9 Generous conceit
Our conceit is our staunchest guard, our kindliest nurse, and our most persuasive pleader.
Who is so poor that they can’t keep up an exorbitant estimate of their own value?
People’s 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. The clapping deafens them, 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. What triumphant nobodies we are.
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.
Vanity gives its possessor an ease and confidence which mere good looks or talent could never provide.
10 Vanity the tormenting comforter
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’s an erring counsellor, but an infallible consoler.
Our conceit sweetens or curdles all that we feel. It may assuage our pains, yet it poisons our joys. It both intoxicates and embitters us, rendering some of us serene and others savage. While maddening some, it mollifies others. ‘The golden fleece of self-love,’ Nietzsche writes, ‘is proof against cudgel blows but not against pinpricks.’ It makes some respected, and some ridiculous. Pride binds up the wounds that our pride inflicts on us, and finds a balm for most of the disorders to which it predisposes us.
Self-love 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.
11 Dependent conceit
Why do we sweat for the pay of the world’s regard, when we could live at ease on the independent income of our own self-regard?
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.
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.
We are self-absorbed but not self-sufficient. ‘We seek for knowledge,’ Pascal wrote, ‘to show it off. So we would never go on a trip if we had no hope to talk of 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.’
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.
12 Conceit shows too little self-respect
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. No one has a monopoly on conceit. But some blowhards manage to squeeze more profit out of it than the rest of us.
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 they 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?
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.’
13 We can’t see our own vanity
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. But nor can we conceive the rare accomplishments that might prove our right to our ambitions.