Why papa is vain

Dear Hannah,

One thing I hate about publishing my thoughts has been that some people have called me arrogant.  I actually had two people say I was full of myself within the same week -- which makes me consider it a bad week.  It's always good to hear someone call you out on your faults, especially when there might be an inkling of truth to it.  It's better than going your whole life being an ass and everyone thinking it except yourself.  Sometimes we learn more from our enemies than our friends.  Occasionally they'll tell us things our friends won't.  An enemy's happiness doesn't usually rely on ours.  Even if an insult is unfair, sometimes it allows us some good reflection, which may result in our improvement.  I advise almost everyone to listen to their enemies.  They may do you more good than you realize*.

But if arrogance is an insult I think almost the opposite of vanity.  Vanity, after all, is simply admiring yourself and wanting other people to admire you -- which everyone would benefit from if they'd do it.  There are lots of people out there who think the human race would be better if everybody stopped caring what other people think.  My personal opinion is that not enough people care already.  

To get my meaning, imagine if everyone in the world suddenly wanted to love himself for being gracious, or kind, or generous, or courteous, or learned, or funny; and they went around trying to improve these qualities however they could.  Some people think this might make us unbearable because it would make us prideful.  I like to think it would make us much easier to get along with.  I could even do with a few more people slitting their wrists because they stole someone's parking spot at Safeway.  Not enough people jump off a bridge for reasons of shame these days.  They'd rather do something rotten and then face the person they wronged in a grocery store -- all over saving a few steps.  In this regard the Japanese have us beat.  They're easily embarrassed about everything but pornography.  I believe Americans have the opposite problem.

It's possible some people think less of me by reading my essays.  After all I'm always dreaming about something I'm not.  At least, something I'm not entirely.  Within each and every man lie two extremes: his base desires and his lofty ones.  Every one of us lies somewhere in between.  But when a man spends a lot of time talking about his dreams of how he might be, the result is that people will realize what he isn't.  The more vocal the dreamer, the more lofty the dream, the more disappointing the man.

Plato once said that good men look worse than their inferiors simply because good men were honest about their faults.  I would add that lofty dreamers look worse than men with low thoughts because dreamers have much more distance to fall.  A man with big dreams is a midget in giants' clothes.  He's always trying to fit into something larger than himself.  

But imagine a world in which everyone imagined too little of how things could be, and ask yourself if this would make us any better.  If we're only the compromise between our lusts and our ideals, then we may certainly never reach our dreams -- but we may never reach at all if we don't dream them.  It's better to try for something good and fail than to try for something mediocre or never try at all.  And aside from having someone you're madly in love with fall madly in love with you, there's nothing that gives us better purpose than sharing a good dream.

If you're going to be vain, be vain in the healthiest way possible, which means to see something you love in someone else and to want other people to think of you the same way.  The great value of vanity is that you can't steal someone's goodness.  You will have to build it yourself.  It isn't quite covetousness if you can't rob someone of it.  If you have to be better than them you aren't dealing with vanity, but pride.  If you can't tolerate other people questioning your behavior then you're dealing with arrogance.  If you want to destroy people's love for someone else you're dealing with envy.  These are all perversions of a healthy vanity, as all evils are perversions of otherwise good things.  I want to be vain because I want to be loved -- and I want to be loved because I have something worth loving.  In other words, I want to be my own work of art and enjoy being myself.  But in order to enjoy being myself I will have to make myself enjoyable.

The fastest and surest way to make yourself a better person is by falling in love with the best kinds of people.  Become a connoisseur of human greatness.  You'll want to know all the greatest heroes and thinkers of history and become intimately acquainted with them.  If you step outside your own era, you'll begin to find that we used to breed men of a different character.  We used to breed men of real passion, eloquence, intellect, and soul.  I desperately want to be one of them.  I want to be the man Seneca would invite over for dinner, and the man King David would want alongside him in battle.  I want to make Mark Twain laugh and make Shakespeare stroke his beard in thought.  Big dreams.  Big stumbles.

You're free to search history for your own heroes (Ben Franklin and Cyrus the Great are two of mine); but if you really want to get to the heart of the matter quickly, try reading Montaigne and Plutarch.  Both of these men excel in painting pictures of human greatness and folly -- and not only saying what's beautiful and ugly, but in giving historical examples of all of it.  Next I would recommend Chesterton and Samuel Johnson, the former for his hilarious commentary on the the modern man, and the latter for his precise and sturdy examinations of human nature.  Ayn Rand will help you discover heroism and individuality in the modern world, and Macaulay will examine the development of Western Civilization in the most lively, profound, and insightful way possible.  All of these people are excellent writers, which will make you a good communicator.  You won't be much good to anyone with a head full of knowledge if you can't share it with others.  And if you can't share it with others, what's the point?

If you're going to read Montaigne, read his Essays (the Donald Frame translation is best).

If Plutarch, then his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (any of the Penguin translations will do)

If Chesterton: nearly anything he wrote, but I recommend beginning with Heretics and What's Wrong with the World, and Varied Types.

If Samuel Johnson, The Rambler.

If Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness and For the New Intellectual

If Macaulay: The History of England, or any of his essays (the ones on Dryden, Milton, and Machiavelli are especially good) 

This being said, remember that if you're going to take yourself seriously, take yourself seriously enough to not take everything seriously.  Being entertaining is just as important as being righteous.  If only bad people are exciting, nobody will ever want to grow up to be good.   And the best defense against other people's envy is a healthy dose of self-deprecation.  Be high-minded, but remember to make people laugh -- at you, if necessary. 

Your father,

*Sam Johnson says there are some "issues" with taking an enemy's criticism, and one of them is that many times he'll lie about you.  If he doesn't outright lie he might skew things against you.  A tendency to represent you unfairly can result in a tendency to be skeptical.  Republicans don't trust the news now, many times, because of the way we and our ideas are represented in the news.  The Democrats could tell us some life-saving truth and we wouldn't believe it because we don't believe in Democrats.    



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