“The Arch Flatterer is a Man’s Self”*

“O wad some pow’r the giftie gi`e us,
To see ourselves as others see us!
It wad frae mony blunder free us . . .”

Robert Burns, “To a Louse” (c. 1785)

Burns wrote these lines after he spotted a louse capering on the bonnet of a particularly proud and vainglorious woman who was sitting before him in church.  In her own mind, Jenny was a lovely object of envy and admiration; to everyone else she was a lousy popinjay and a slovenly groomer.  And so we have all blundered, at one time or another, swelling with vanity at the very moment a booger dangled from our nose, or our fly stood open to the four winds, or a louse did the jitterbug on our bonnet.

It may of course be objected that only a malevolent power would grant us the gift of seeing ourselves as others see us, for the hideous vision would drive us mad.  A man gifted with this nightmare would throw himself from a bridge with a cinderblock tied round his neck.  It is not pleasant to consider, but most people see us as no more important than the lice that suck our scalps and infest our hats. And for most if not all of the tiny remainder, we are risible figures of fun.

We would none of us enjoy the witty remarks that pass between a man and wife as they begin to load the dishwasher after we have sat at their board.

I was reminded of Burns’ line as I listened to last Sunday’s homily.  The homilist was a deacon at whose homilies I have previously demurred, and his subject was professing Christians’ want of love for their fellow man.  In words presumably directed to his audience, he said that our niggardly hearts gave Christ a bad reputation, and cited as evidence the remark of a “close friend” who had said to him:

“You cannot possibly be a follower of Christ because you are not a self-righteous jerk.”

As I whispered to my son, it would be very hard to surpass the self-righteous jerkiness of telling that vainglorious story. A metaphorical louse was, it seemed to me, jitterbugging on the end of the poor deacon’s nose.

It is, of course, very hard for anyone to resist paying himself (or, of course, herself) a compliment, especially when this can be done with a sly humble-brag or by quoting a third party.  Quoting a critical third party, and then trusting one’s audience to infer the manifest injustice of their criticism, was, it seemed to me, a sort of triple-bank-shot of sly vainglory.

I should add that I am not free of vainglory, and that lice have also been known to jitterbug on my nose. There is, indeed, a certain amount of vainglory in telling you this, for by confessing my fault I lay claim to credit for the merit of candor.

A Latin proverb tells us that “self-praise is odious.”  Proprio laus sordet in ore.  Unfortunately, it appears that it is also a permanent and universal curse of the human condition, not unlike head lice, or body odor, or sour breath.  The best we can hope for is to be alive to these odious tendencies, and set for ourselves the Sisyphean task of endless personal grooming.

 

*) Francis Bacon, “Of Praise” (1597)

5 thoughts on ““The Arch Flatterer is a Man’s Self”*

  1. You know what they say, Prof. Smith: “Humility is the sincerest form of bragging.” There is of course a lot of truth in that saying. With age generally comes some measure of wisdom, as they also say, and a part of that wisdom gained is in recognizing one’s own weakness for vain glorious self-promotion.

    O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death.

    • Some degree of vainglory is inescapable. It’s part of human existence, and in many cases affords us some quiet amusement. I think we should all try to keep it under control, but pride seems to stand behind efforts to repress it altogether. But pride goeth before the fall, here as elsewhere, as we see in Burns’ poem. It was the extravagant vanity of Jenny that made the louse so significant.

  2. It’s a painful thing to truly think poorly of oneself, so most of us try to find a sort of humility that stings us less. For example, I might admit that I’m not very good at something I don’t care about. In my case, I am sometimes stung by the thought that, despite my ambitions to think important thoughts, past performance suggests I am probably not very intelligent or creative. I compensate by writing about my very low (but unmeasured) IQ so that if I overshoot enough I will be able to think to myself “probably I’m not quite as dumb as I’m letting on”, which is a pleasing thought.

    C. S. Lewis used to say that humility shouldn’t be forcing oneself to think uncomplimentary things about oneself (e.g. an obviously pretty girl trying to convince herself that she is plain) but ceasing to be preoccupied with oneself at all. Even this, though, is probably beyond the grasp of mortal men.

  3. I find downward adjustment especially hard, and have reached an age when real deterioration is enhanced by the evaporation of some vain illusions. I now see that I was never so smart, handsome, strong or good as I thought I was, and also that I am not now so smart, handsome or strong as I used to be (goodness may still be holding steady at a pretty low level). I also now see that I was the very opposite of shrewd, and do not seem to be especially wise.

    People sometimes praise my wisdom, but I expect that flatter wisdom when all other forms of flattery have become preposterous. When it is no longer possible to flatter a man with praise of his mind, or his looks, or his prowess, people fall back and flatter his wisdom. And I can’t say I blame an old fool if he needs to believe them.

  4. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 05/26/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

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