Tuesday, October 28, 2014

On Thinking Well Of Yourself: A Rumination

Among the problems made possible by the loose use of words -- i.e., a use that distorts their meanings or applies them in a tendentious fashion -- one of the most nagging is our treatment of two of the capital sins: specifically, pride and envy.

These days, you'll hear quite a lot of persons denigrate pride unconditionally, as if there were no such thing as just pride. But there is: pride in accomplishments of one's own that acknowledges the just pride of others in their accomplishments. Sinful pride -- in Latin, superbia -- is of the sort that exalts oneself categorically over others. This is deemed a capital sin because it encourages us toward contempt and lack of charity, and in the worst cases, the dismissal of others' rights.

Our problem with envy is similar but worse. We misuse the word when we apply it to the admiration of another person's special gifts or attainments, perhaps coupled to a yearning for similar things for oneself. That might seem harmless enough, and would be so if it were to stop there. Unfortunately, there are many to whom another person's gifts or good fortune are an inducement to something much worse than innocent admiration or yearning: what Ayn Rand and others have described as "hatred of the good for being the good." That becomes sinful when it morphs into covetousness: the willingness to plot against another, whether it's with or without result, spurred by envy.

But to me, the fascinating part of this is how pride and envy are linked. For it is observably the case that there are persons among us who need to think well of themselves, but are so enviously fixated upon the different or greater gifts of others that they're unable to do so.

Everyone wants to think well of himself. It's innate to our natures as thinking beings. Fortunately, it's possible for anyone, once he's absorbed the right fundamental assumptions and attitudes.

The key to thinking well of yourself -- i.e., acquiring and maintaining just pride -- is the concept of the personal best.

We are united in our common natures, but not in our individual aptitudes. (NB: That is, we are not "equal," never have been, and never will be, but that's a subject for a politically focused tirade.) To achieve the just pride that allows one to think well of oneself requires:

  1. That he learn where his personal strengths and weaknesses lie;
  2. That he strive ceaselessly to improve upon his strengths and remedy his weaknesses;
  3. That he never deceive himself about those things, or fixate on the different or greater gifts of others.

Yes, it's that simple. He who focuses upon personal improvement, rather than on how he compares to others, has a very good chance of achieving just pride. Indeed, if he can maintain that mindset, it's practically guaranteed.

This isn't an epoch-defining discovery by a Twenty-First Century Certified Galactic Intellect; it's something we've known since Socrates. Indeed, it was he who said "Only one thing do I know, and that is that I know nothing:" the ultimate admission that even he, the foremost philosopher of his day, could still improve upon his personal best. Ralph Waldo Emerson rephrased that sentiment with a slightly different focus: "Every man is my superior, in that I can learn from him." That's the proper approach to appreciating and harmlessly exploiting the different and greater gifts of others.

But if this is something "we" have known for many centuries, it doesn't show in the behavior of a lot of our contemporaries.

"To be" means "to be in competition." -- Screwtape

Competition is a useful spur to self-improvement, but if not constrained by the limits to just pride, the competitive urge can carry us far beyond self-improvement. It can lead to a willingness to damage others that we might "rise above them:" a textbook case of hatred in action.

Have a little more C. S. Lewis to that effect:

No man who says I’m as good as you believes it. He would not say it if he did. The St. Bernard never says it to the toy dog, nor the scholar to the dunce, nor the employable to the bum, nor the pretty woman to the plain. The claim to equality, outside the strictly political field, is made only by those who feel themselves to be in some way inferior. What it expresses is precisely the itching, smarting, writhing awareness of an inferiority which the patient refuses to accept.

And therefore resents. Yes, and therefore resents every kind of superiority in others; denigrates it; wishes its annihilation. Presently he suspects every mere difference of being a claim to superiority. No one must be different from himself in voice, clothes, manners, recreations, choice of food: “Here is someone who speaks English rather more clearly and euphoniously than I — it must be a vile, upstage, la-di-da affectation. Here’s a fellow who says he doesn’t like hot dogs — thinks himself too good for them, no doubt. Here’s a man who hasn’t turned on the jukebox — he’s one of those goddamn highbrows and is doing it to show off. If they were honest-to-God all-right Joes they’d be like me. They’ve no business to be different. It’s undemocratic.” [from Screwtape Proposes A Toast]

That "itching, smarting, writhing awareness of inferiority" is what impels the man dominated by envy to contemplate destructive measures. John Ringo exploits the nature of destructive competition brilliantly in his recent novel The Hot Gate. His South American characters are depicted as persons consumed by unjust pride -- pride in status-by-birth, a non-achievement for which they cannot justly claim credit -- who, compelled to confront superior performances by others, don't strive to improve themselves but rather attempt to corrupt those others' achievements, even if it should result in injury or death.

That's how unjust pride -- superbia -- gives rise to sinful envy: covetousness.

The beginnings of sinful envy are often manifested verbally, in the denigration of others or their achievements. Perhaps if it could be halted at that stage, it would be merely a peccadillo. Yet it is a form of injustice, and God is nothing if not just. I can't help but think that even verbal injustice will have unpleasant consequences in the life to come.

Yes, all of this is part and parcel of the need to think well of oneself. If we lacked that need, we would be immune to the temptations of sinful pride and sinful envy. However, as individuals with individualized motivations and gifts, we are right under the crosshairs of both those infernal guns.

Unfortunately, there is no way to immunize oneself against such temptations. Humans are social creatures, forever destined to rub up against one another in ways both pleasant and unpleasant. It's guaranteed that, with the possible exception of lifelong hermits, each of us will repeatedly confront others who are our superiors in some ways...and now and then, perhaps even in all ways.

I've often written of the importance of humility. That virtue is as frequently misinterpreted as is just pride. Humility is merely the willingness to acknowledge reality:

  • That we cannot merely decree that what we want is what shall be;
  • That reality's laws are superior to our desires, opinions, and wills;
  • That others are what they are and have a right to be so, despite our preferences to the contrary.

Inversely, humility is not self-abasement or an imposed belief in one's own inferiority. The humble man need not subjugate himself to anyone or anything. He merely accepts that the world is what it is, and that events will sometimes run contrary to his desires.

The humble man is quite capable of attaining just pride and averting destructive envy. Indeed, humility of that sort is prerequisite to the rest.

If you've been wondering what brought this subject to the top of my stack this fine October morning, yesterday's exceedingly brief piece has garnered invidious reactions that caused me to wonder what I might have said or done. I've concluded, tentatively at least, that any discussion of intelligence and its political and socioeconomic importance simply flicks some persons on their sensitive bits. But perhaps it's because of the writer rather than the subject; that's a possibility I shouldn't overlook.

Well, you can't please everyone, and anyway, I gave up trying long ago. I'm too taxed by struggling to do something others find valuable while striving to concentrate on exceeding my personal bests. As my gifts are few, the former demands more focus from me than it would from more fortunate persons; as my energies are steadily waning with the passage of the years, the latter is more challenging than ever before. Yet those are the things that I must do to think well of myself.

This might seem a strange way to conclude so philosophical an essay, but I'll do it anyway:

Don't expect too much from me. I'm as human as you.

1 comment:

Reg T said...

You can certainly take just pride in the pleasure your writings have brought to many of us.

As one whose physical and mental infirmities have recently caused significant limitations, I am becoming aware that "personal bests" may no longer mean an improvement over what we were capable of before.

But that, alas, it part of being human.