The Pleasures and Perils of Conceit

Here’s a paper by my colleague Steven Weiner on how Aesthetic Realism explains a matter that everyone needs to understand.


Portrait of a Lady, by Henry JamesAesthetic Realism explains these two crucial things about conceit: 1) the pleasure one gets from it is that of contempt; a conceited person gets to an exalted opinion of himself by having a low opinion of the world and looking down on everything; 2) Because this is a false basis for liking oneself, a person can never really feel confident, and he will also punish himself by feeling inferior. This is one of the large perils of conceit.

Learning this, first in Aesthetic Realism consultations, and then in classes I attended taught by Eli Siegel made for a large change in my life.

The logic of Aesthetic Realism is very clear: we come from the whole world and have its structure of opposites in us. Therefore, our opinion of ourselves is in direct relation to our attitude towards it; the more we honestly think well of the world, respect it, the more we will truly esteem ourselves.

I. My Conceit: A Primer
In an issue of The Right Of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known, Mr. Siegel describes the two ways people have tried to think well of themselves:

 The first is honestly to respect a thing, give it meaning. The second way is to diminish as much as possible, give as little meaning to things as we can; and feel the less we have given meaning to other things, the more the edifice of ourselves is substantial.

 As a child, the place I respected things most was in school, as I eagerly read such books as It’s Like This, Cat and worked on math problems. But I also used getting good grades, along with how often my mother commented on them, to be conceited. I was very competitive, making sure everyone was aware of my superiority. If another child came from a family better off than mine, I’d say “Peter may be richer but I’m in the Intellectually Gifted Class, he’s not.” And if someone else got higher marks, I’d tell myself “All Mitch does is study. At least, I know how to have fun.” In the sixth grade, I was such an obnoxious showoff that my teacher, Miss Jourdan, once said to me: “Stop acting as if you’re the most important child in this class–because you’re not!”

One of the pleasures of conceit is thinking that you’re so much sharper, keener than anyone else but this can make a person stupid in many ways. In a high school social studies class, I finished a test about halfway through the period even as everyone else was busily writing away. I didn’t ask myself why this was; I just smugly sat back, glorying in my brilliance. But when I got my test back, I got a 35!  In my arrogance, I had carelessly misread the instructions and hadn’t answered all the questions.

Aesthetic Realism taught me that because conceit is based on making other people and what they feel unimportant, a large peril is that a conceited person inevitably feels ashamed. Once, a friend came to talk to me after he had argued with his girlfriend. He felt very bad and I could have tried to be useful. Instead, I mocked him, acting as if he were ridiculous for getting so wrought up. I’ll never forget his shock and then the disgusted look on his face. It was after times like these, when I got a sight of how unfeeling I was, that I would call myself a “jerk” and say, “Why can’t you keep your big mouth shut?” I’d then sleep for hours on end, and not talk to anyone for days.

I was, as Eli Siegel once said of another person, a painful relation of “too much confidence, too much despair.” But I never saw a connection between thinking I was too good for nearly anybody, and then feeling that I really didn’t matter much in this world; between my inflated picture of myself and my abilities, and feeling I was an uninteresting person who hadn’t done anything useful. A great peril of conceit is this: if we have a disproportionately high picture of ourselves, we will also have a very low one. In The Right Of, Mr. Siegel explains:

Once you start making yourself out better than you are, you will make yourself out worse than you are. Man is the only animal who can call himself names. People make themselves stupider, more criminal, more vicious than they are. One reason is that they have come to their good points too easily.

My life changed because I heard criticism of my contemptuous purpose with people and the world. This stopped the agonizing seesaw I was on between excessively praising and then condemning myself. And I’m grateful that I learned my life had a much larger goal: to value things truly, to try to have a good effect on people. I began to see meaning and wonder in things that I once hardly paid attention to such as a leaf, a pussycat, a painting; and by caring so much more about what people deserve, which took in my work as a union official–I honestly thought much better of myself without any painful kickbacks. I had an ease and pride that was new.

II. Conceit is Perilous to Love
Once, I was in a position many other men in America are in now: while I hoped to care for a woman, I didn’t want to give up my conceit. My purpose was not to respect a woman, use her to see more meaning in things but to have her join me in building up the “edifice of [myself].” When a woman was critical, as she inevitably was, I got hurt and angry, and our relationship would end bitterly. Then I would despair and feel I was never going to have love.

At a time a woman and I were giving each other pain, in a class Mr. Siegel had me see what she objected to. He asked me:

 ES: Do you believe you represent a tradition in men?

 SW: Yes, the unwillingness to respect women.

ES: Do you think Ms. Chapman doesn’t like your arrogance? As soon as something good happens to you, you get arrogant. [And he explained:] An arrogant person is one who takes things unto himself that do not belong to him. You think Ms. Chapman needs you more than she needs truth.

And he asked me: “Do you think [your arrogance] causes you any sorrow?” It did. I thank Mr. Siegel for explaining something that hurt my whole life–how I used fortunate things that came to me, including a woman showing me care, not to ask more of myself, but to be complacent and add to my conceit. I began to see that my arrogance, which I tried to convince myself was a blessing, was really an enemy: it made love out of the question.

III. A Study in Male Conceit
A novel I love is The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James. This classic is the story of Isabel Archer, one of the finest heroines in all literature; it is also the portrait of a very conceited man, Gilbert Osmond.

Eli Siegel is the critic who showed the tremendous importance of Henry James’ work. In his landmark book, James and the Children: A Consideration of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Mr. Siegel describes James’s purpose as author that is so against the coldness of conceit:

[James is] asking us to participate more in the lives of others. [He is] asking us to know that other things feel and that the feelings of others are things which we diminish or are not interested in at a loss to ourselves.

Osmond, as character, is useful in showing not only how much a man’s conceit robs him of emotions he can be proud of, but makes him mean, even sinister. These words of Mr. Siegel in The Right Of describe him:

Conceit can make one satisfied where one shouldn’t be, but also can make one dissatisfied where one shouldn’t be. Persons would rather be dissatisfied with the world than dissatisfied with what they take to be themselves.

An American living in Italy, Osmond is described by James as “indolent” and a “dilettante” who acts like a “prince”–he is smugly self-satisfied, seeing himself as vastly superior to the rest of what he calls “dingy” humanity. He is a snob and uses his supposed taste in art to build up the “edifice of [himself]” and be in a “state of disgust” with nearly everything else. “Osmond was certainly fastidious and critical,” James writes,

His sensibility had governed him. It had made him impatient of vulgar troubles and had led him to live by himself, in a sifted, arranged world.

I learned that when we take an aspect of the world–it can be music, sports, computers, or cars–and use it for our own conceit, we will inevitably be dissatisfied both with that thing and ourselves. We see this when Osmond, after being complimented on his furnishings, says “I’m sick of my adorable taste.” And James shows that under all his seeming self-assurance, Osmond has misgivings—he knows he doesn’t have large feelings, isn’t pleased enough by things. He writes:

Osmond was too often–he would have admitted that–too sorely aware of something wrong, something ugly; the fertilizing dew of a conceivable felicity too seldom descended upon his spirit.

 IV. How Should a Man See a Woman?
In Self and World, Mr. Siegel explains what every man is hoping for in love: “To know and feel the self of another is a beautiful thing. To see another person as having meaning and beauty and power is a lovely procedure.”

And he also shows how conceit corrupts this when he writes: “But to see another person as having meaning, having beauty, having power because one can use that person as an argument in behalf of one’s self-love–that is really to despise a person; to hate him; to deindividualize him.”

In his seeing of Isabel Archer, an American girl traveling in Europe, James shows some of the greatest “meaning” and “power” a woman has ever had. In beautiful prose, he says of her:

Isabel Archer was a young person of many theories; her imagination was remarkably active. It had been her fortune to possess a fine mind, to have a large perception of surrounding facts and to care for knowledge that was tinged with the unfamiliar. She spent half her time thinking of beauty and bravery and magnanimity; she had a fixed determination to regard the world as a place of brightness, of free expansion, of irresistible action.

This means Isabel wants to like the world, and have a great emotion about it. She has a deep care for beauty, but unlike Osmond, doesn’t use it to look down on everything.

At first, Osmond becomes interested in Isabel because of the large fortune she has inherited. But as he gets to know her, he is deeply affected by her loveliness and depth of mind. Despite himself, he comes to care for her and for a time has less of an ugly dissatisfaction with the world. “Osmond was in love,” James writes, “and he had never deserved less the harsh criticism passed upon him.” Osmond says to Isabel:

It has made me better, loving you. It has made me wiser and easier and even stronger. Now, I’m really satisfied, because I can’t think of anything better.

But there are two huge mistakes Osmond makes: one, he is too satisfied, is not ambitious enough to have an even greater emotion about Isabel and the world she stands for; and two, he feels that in thinking so much of Isabel, he has lessened himself. So Osmond does what other men, including myself, have done: he turns the very qualities that have moved him in a woman into, as Eli Siegel explains, “an argument on behalf of [his] self-love,” to add to his conceit. Writes James:

[Osmond] was immensely pleased with his young lady. What could be a finer thing to live with than a high spirit attuned to softness? For would not the softness be all for one’s self? What could be a happier gift in a companion than a quick, fanciful mind which reflected one’s [own] thought on a polished, elegant surface?

Osmond says that Isabel has only one fault: she has “too many ideas” which “must be sacrificed.” The only purpose of her intellect, he feels, should be to adorn his own being.

During their courtship, Osmond affects a humility and nobility that impress Isabel very much. But as admirable as she is, Isabel’s desire to see in Osmond the large qualities she is hoping to find in a man run ahead of seeing whom he actually is, including his conceit. Despite the warnings of her family, she accepts Osmond’s proposal of marriage. It is a fatal mistake, and one can see that Isabel, with all her goodness, hasn’t been sufficiently interested in all the facts. And when we next see them three years after their marriage, James shows that Osmond is furious because Isabel has refused to become an extension of himself. James writes: “He had thought at first he could change her,” but he then sees with chagrin that he cannot.

Like many men, Osmond felt he could and had the right to mold a woman to fit in his with his arrangements. I was learning about this ugly, conceited purpose in myself. In a class, when I said I was too jumpy in my thought about a woman I was hoping to care for, Ms. Reiss asked:

ER: What do you think is the interference to knowing a woman?

SW: I can feel I want something to happen in my life now, and I’m looking for someone who fits the bill.

ER: To have your plans is all right. But what has to be present? The thing one is looking for has to be beautiful enough, and there has to be a large enough desire to know that person before deciding whether or not that person “fits the bill.” Otherwise, we are looking for someone to fulfill a function of ours. If we have to do with a person and are not interested in knowing her, what are we interested in?

SW: Someone to make us important.

ER: As much as we don’t want to know another person, it is self-love. Meanwhile, how much true satisfaction do you think you can get from knowing a woman?

The answer to that I’ve been seeing is much, much more than I knew. I thank Ellen Reiss for this discussion and the questions she asked. I am seeing the true pleasure and pride there is in knowing a woman, how she sees everything, not just me.

In the novel, Gilbert Osmond had expected his wife to join him in his conceited scorn for the world. But Isabel, because she still hopes to care for things, will not become a partner to this. In fact, she is a critic, despising the ugliness in him. Writes James:

[Osmond] had plenty of contempt, and it was proper his wife should be as well furnished; but that she should turn the hot light of her disdain upon his conception of things–this was a danger he had not allowed for. When one had a wife who gave one that sensation there was nothing left but to hate her.

There is much in the book I cannot discuss, but throughout, we see how Isabel tries to remain true to herself despite Osmond’s ill will and we feel she is beautiful.

Because of Aesthetic Realism, men today do not have to be run by cruel conceit; we can learn how to be kind–to the world and a woman. And we can learn from what Eli Siegel describes in Self and World how true love is always a means of honestly thinking better of reality and ourselves:

A self can say to another being, “Through what you do and what you are and what you can do, I can come to be more I, more me, more myself; and I can see the immeasurable being of things more wonderfully of me, for me, and therefore sharply and magnificently kind and akin.”

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