A Sermon on Arrogance versus Vanity

Man has always been shy about his tendency to be consumed with himself.

Adam Smith writes, “Though it may be true…that every individual in his own breast, naturally prefers himself to all mankind, yet he dares not look mankind in the face, and avow that he acts according to this principle.”

And Hume: “Vanity is so closely allied to virtue, and to love the fame of laudable actions approaches so near the love of laudable action, for their own sake, that these passions are more capable of mixture, than any other kinds of affection; and it is almost impossible to have the latter without some degree of the former … To love the glory of virtuous deeds is a sure proof of the love of virtue.”

Philosophers and theologians have responded to this problem in divergent ways. The early Christian church, specifically, had some difficulty with it: on the one hand, perhaps vanity is a sign of false virtue; on the other hand, perhaps it is the very thing that motivates a man to cultivate virtue. Nietzsche and Stirner, rebelling against Christianity, embraced vanity fully. Oscar Wilde, too, played with it, believing that a tempered vanity could renew the Greek ideal of youth and health. “Nothing makes one so vain as being told that one is a sinner,” he writes.

For too long we have been afraid to admit our own self-absorption, our proclivity to put ourselves, and those bound to us, first. I and afterwards I. Need this be a source of shame? I do not think so. Stamping it out only imposes a dam in our spirits, and like material dams it only redirects the flow of water. It would be a far better response to man’s natural vanity to let him express it untempered, but to point to where our concern for self naturally extends to concern for others. Of course, because of the biological limits to altruism, this would completely preclude a humanist ethic (see “Taking Rewilding Seriously“; “The Origin of Civility” in Repent to the Primitive; and “Notes on Humanism and Progressivism“).

This is only a more rigorous account of what the early Deep Ecologists meant by having a sense of an “expanded self.” Taking their cues from Buddhism, theorists like Gary Snyder and George Sessions argued that a true sense of self would include the world around us. This is absolute hokum, but, like the mystical systems before, they were reaching at the same old problems humans have been dealing with for thousands of years, namely, the problem of moral priorities. If we root our understanding in the material world, or Nature, which seems to be the only thing we can trust, then those with clear eyes will see that man is undoubtedly a self-interested organism, but that this self-interest necessarily entails altruism and community. For the evolutionary science behind this, see Repent to the Primitive, pp. 61-64.

In our modern world it is of course difficult to live by this philosophy perfectly. As I’ve written before, our material conditions decide our manner of life before our ideologies do. In our current world, then, we must recognize that larger social groups are a necessity: “those in a small town of a few thousand people may not have any obligation to include the entire town as equal in their sphere of moral consideration, but an amount of cooperation is still necessary for at least the material necessities of life that each person in the town is joined together in acquiring.” For more on this, see “Notes on Humanism and Progressivism.”

Do not be afraid, then, to prioritize yourself, and, by extension, those you love and are bound to necessarily. First you, then your family, then your community, and only after everything else.

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