The uses and abuses of self-love - Happy + Well : Happy + Well

The uses and abuses of self-love

Written by on June 17, 2014 in Relationships with 0 Comments

imagesThere’s a lot of discussion these days about that family of emotions that describe concern with one’s self: pride, vanity, conceit and, in particular, narcissism which many commentators (such as Professor Jean Twenge, a keynote at last month’s Happiness & Its Causes conference) argue has reached epidemic proportions, especially amongst young people.

Academic philosopher and author Simon Blackburn has also studied the phenomenon, even writing a book on the subject called Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love in which he explores the history of self-regard as well as asks whether, in all its various forms including narcissism, this trait is something to be deplored or a healthy and necessary part of life.

It’s an important question because as Blackburn explains in this presentation, “so often when you’re thinking about traits which get either a good or a bad press, the picture is going to be nuanced.” Yet, as he says, this hasn’t stopped folk throughout history from making simplistic moral judgments.

He points the finger, for example, at author Iris Murdoch, who “thought self-consciousness, egoism and selfishness were kind of worms in the bud and if you could lose those, you would achieve an almost artistic or objective vision, you’d see the world as it ought to be seen.”

Blackburn claims he doesn’t entirely agree with this view, noting there are plenty of selfishly motivated people capable of seeing reality perfectly clearly. He cites as a case in point some London art dealers at a country art auction who formed an agreement not to bid against each other for a painting they all recognised as being a valuable masterpiece so they could on-sell it instead for a massive price and then divvy up the proceeds.

But he does agree with economist Adam Smith’s distinction between pride and vanity, namely that a “proud person is vulnerable to self-criticism, a mortification that arises from an awareness that what he thinks deserves praise actually may not. The vain person doesn’t care whether what he did was good or not. What he cares about is to harvest the applause of other people.”

Then there’s conceit, a characteristic many people mistakenly confuse with vanity. Blackburn says, “ I think the distinction is if vanity is a greed for the approbation of others, with conceit you’re tipping into narcissism and the great thing about conceit is you don’t need other people.”

He explains how the Greek myth of Narcissus bears this out. The solitary shepherd boy sees and falls in love with his image in a pond and not realizing he’s besotted with a mere reflection, eventually dies of unrequited love with himself. His companion during this otherwise solipsistic reverie is the nymph Echo whose former habit of chattering so enrages the goddess Juno she condemns Echo to only ever being able to repeat the last thing someone says to her.

Blackburn says Echo gives the myth its poignancy because she represents the voice of self-admiration in Narcissus’ own head “but it’s his own voice. It’s basically the reflection of his own self-love. I think conceit is the point at which you tip from vanity which does require the applause of others to narcissism where it’s no longer necessary.”

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