Narcissism Unleashed

Obsessed with our social media, quantified popularity metrics, personal brands, and selfie sticks, humans (especially young people) are drowning in their egotism — or so the common sentiment goes.

But are we?

Let’s ask the question another way: are we — self-actualizing obsessed, postindustrial humans of the digital age — really more narcissistic than our ancestors of centuries past? Have we ever not been so concerned with how we are thought of by others?

If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
(Iliad 9.500-501, trans. Fagles 1990)

Warnings against pride and self-aggrandizement are one of the most common, reoccurring concerns of literature. For instance, Hesiod (8th-7th century BCE) denounced pride as a common evil among people: “Even a noble finds [pride] hard to bear; It weighs him down and leads him to disgrace.” (Works and Days 216-223, trans. Wender 1973:65) The 6th century BCE poet Theognis saw that pride is “first thing which the gods bestow on one they would annihilate” (Elegies 151-2, trans. Wender 1973:102)

What follows is a non-exhaustive scattering of references related to the preoccupation that history has had with the topic of fame, reputation, and renown. As we go forward, let’s keep this question in the back of our minds: what is different today?

To be Popular is to be a Pawn of the People

And as in other things, so in men, not the seller, but the buyer determines the Price. For let a man (as most men do,) rate themselves at the highest Value they can; yet their true Value is no more than it is esteemed by others. (Hobbes, Leviathan I.10)

Many writers have observed that the seekers of fame and renown must make themselves subservient to the masses. You cannot win the applause of the crowd unless you give them what they want. With great fame, comes great bondage. “Great star!” Nietzsche derides, “What would your happiness be, if you had not those for whom you shine!” (Zarathustra, trans. Hollingdale 2003[1961]:39)

The Greek stoics were particularly interested in this dimension of pride. If one is beholden to their ego, one is necessarily beholden to the masses. Ultimately, the 2nd century CE Epictetus writes, to command “the attention and respect” of others is to be a utility for them:

‘Everybody gives me their attention and respect.’
‘Right, and I pay attention to my blackboard, wiping it, and washing it; and for my oil flask I’ll even drive a nail in the wall. Does that make these things better than me? No — it just means that they are useful to me somehow. I look after my horse too, I wash its feet and brush its coat. The fact is, everyone looks after themselves; if they curry favour with you it’s as if they’re currying their horse.’ (Discourses and Selected Writings. I.19.4-6, trans Dobbin 2008)

The Scale of Human Renown

Self-blinded are you by your pride:
Look up thro’ night: the world is wide.
(Lord Tennyson Alfred, The Two Voices, 1842)

To pursue personal greatness is to beg a question: just ‘how great’ do you think you can become? And by what terms and definitions will you measure your greatness? To even begin answering this question is to court absurdity. Consider the teachings of Zhuang Zhou, the 3rd century BCE Chinese philosopher:

A frog in a well cannot discuss the ocean, because he is limited by the size of his well. A summer insect cannot discuss ice, because it knows only its own season. […] I am just a little stone or a little tree set on a giant hill, in comparison to Heaven and Earth. As I perceive my own inferiority, how could I ever be proud? […] In comparison to all the multitudinous forms of life, isn’t humanity like just a single hair on a horse? (Chuang Tzu 17, trans. Palmer et al 1996:137-8)

“Surely you see, then, how cramped and confined the fame is which you are toiling to spread and propagate,” the Roman senator Boethius (480–524 CE) laments to himself. “The desire for glory, the thought of being famed…just think how puny and insubstantial such fame really is.” (Consolation II.VII, trans. Watts 1969)

Blaise Pascal, writing up to his death in 1662, observes:

We are so presumptuous that we would wish to be known by all the world, even by people who shall come after, when we shall be no more; and we are so vain that the esteem of five or six neighbours delights and contents us. (Pensées 2.148, trans. Trotter 1958)

A Guaranteed Failure

Many in life esteem themselves great men
who then will wallow here like pigs in mud,
leaving behind them their repulsive fame.
(Dante, Inferno VIII.49-51, trans. Musa 1984)

Proposition: achieving any kind of lasting greatness in the minds of others is illogical and impossible. Enter: Cicero, the 1st century BCE philosopher and politician.

How long will this go on? Assume, if you like, that future generations, having inherited our praises from our fathers, will indeed retain the desire to hand them down to their children as well. Even so the deluges and conflagrations which inevitably descend upon the earth at fixed intervals will make it impossible for any glory we may have in this way to be eternal — or even to last for any length of time. But in any case why do you regard it as so important to be talked about by people who have not yet been born? After all, you were never spoken of by all the multitudes who lived before you — and they were every bit as numerous… (The Dream of Scipio 23, trans. Grant 1971)

Dead people, by all appearances, do not care about being remembered anymore. Being celebrated is obviously only a concern of the living. It makes far more sense to learn how to be comfortable with the prospect of being utterly forgotten as time carries on. This lesson, subsequently, ought to inform how we consider ourselves while we are living.

Your earthly fame is but a gust of wind
that blows about, shifting this way and that,
and it changes quarter, changes name.
Were you to reach the ripe old age of death,
instead of dying prattling in your crib,
would you have more fame in a thousand years?
What are ten centuries to eternity?
Less than the blinking of an eye compared
to the turning of the slowest spheres.
(Dante, Purgatory XI.100-108, trans. Musa 1985)

Haughtiness is Repulsive

Cyprian, the 3rd century CE bishop of Carthage, taps into something primal and timeless in the human psyche: what is your judgment of other people when they present attitudes and exhibitions of self-ascribed superiority?

You see, forsooth, that man distinguished by his brilliant dress, glittering, as he thinks, in his purple. Yet with that baseness has he purchased this glitter! What contempts of the proud has he had first to submit to! what haughty thresholds has he, as an early courtier, besieged! How many scornful steps of arrogant great men has he had to precede, thronged in the crowd of clients, that by and by a similar procession might attend and precede him with salutations, — a train waiting not upon his person, but upon his power! for he has no claim to be regarded for his character, but for his fasces. (Epistola ad Donatum 1.11, ed. Roberts 1886:278)

The Accolade-Seeking Species

Entitlement. Narcissism. Self-aggrandizement. It’s not that we’ve been here before. Its that we never left. It seems like Pascal’s words of the 1660s might be spoken today:

He who does not see the vanity of the world is himself very vain. Indeed who do not see it but youths who are absorbed in fame, diversion, and the thought of the future? But take away diversion, and you will see them dried up with weariness. They feel then their nothingness without knowing it; for it is indeed to be unhappy to be in insufferable sadness as soon as we are reduced to thinking of self and have no diversion. (Pensées 2.164)

Diversion. We must constantly strive to see ourselves through the eyes of others. Why? Humans survive by cooperating in organized societies… and organized societies require hierarchy. Evolution has given us certain strategies, signals, and markers to establish the pecking order, and these do not seem to change very quickly over time. We might study them, ridicule them, and moralize them, but at the end of the day, we need ways to figure out who ought be the president, keynote speaker, teacher, and superstar.

If there is anything ‘different’ about today, I suspect it is the numerical precision with which we personally can quantify our own popularity. We can now (literally) count how many other people ‘like’ what we are doing. We possess the overt capacity to treat the networks of our social relationships like a sport — with increasingly clear scores; winners and losers. Will these mechanisms for constant, accelerated social feedback drive us into different patterns of attention- and respect-seeking behaviours? (Or will our tech-enabled yearning for recognition eventually drown us in our own little oceans of obscurity? I have no idea.)

Whatever you think about personal branding and selfie sticks, just remember this: you are not the first person to make value judgements about the narcissistic tendencies of your fellow humans. Perhaps we all ought to remember what Plato reportedly said to Diogenes: “You betray a great deal of pride in pretending not to be proud.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives 6.26, trans. Dobbin 2012)

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