Section 3c

The Principle of Self-estimation

September 18, 2015

22 The principle of self-estimation may be too high or too low.

We like to think highly of ourselves. We feel that some excessive regard is better than any shortage.

But it is different to the impartial spectator. To him, the shortage is less disagreeable than the excess.

We frequently complain of the excess than the shortage.

  • When they set themselves before us, their self-estimation mortifies our own.
  • Our own pride and vanity prompt us to accuse them of pride and vanity.
  • We cease to be the impartial spectators of their conduct.

However, when the same companions suffer any other man to assume over them a superiority which does not belong to him, we not only blame them.

We often despise them as mean-spirited. On the contrary, when they push themselves forward among other people and scramble to a higher elevation, we are often diverted with their conduct, to their merit, even if we may not perfectly approve of it. If there is no envy, we are almost always less displeased with them than if they sunk below their proper station.

23 There are two standards which we naturally estimate our own merit or judge our own character and conduct.

Our individual idea of exact propriety and perfection That degree of approximation to this idea commonly attained in the world Most of our friends, companions, rivals, and competitors, may have actually arrived at this perfection. I think we never attempt to judge of ourselves without giving more or less attention to these different standards. But the attention of different men, and even of the same man at different times, is often very unequally divided between them. It is sometimes principally directed towards the one, and sometimes towards the other.

24 The wisest and best of us can only see weakness and imperfection in his own character and conduct, as long as our attention is directed towards perfect propriety.

We can discover= no ground for arrogance and presumption a great deal for humility, regret and repentance

We may be affected in the one way or in the other, as long as our attention is directed towards common propriety. We feel ourselves really above or below the standard to which we compare ourselves.

25 The wise and virtuous man directs his principal attention to exact propriety and perfection.

This idea exists in every man’s mind. It is gradually formed from his observations on the character and conduct of himself and other people. It is the slow, gradual, and progressive work of the great demigod within the breast, the great judge and arbiter of conduct. In every man, this idea is more or less accurately drawn. Its colouring is more or less just. Its outlines are more or less exactly designed according to the delicacy and acuteness of that sensibility. That sensibility makes those observations according to the care and attention employed in making them. In the wise and virtuous man, they have been made with the most acute and delicate sensibility. The utmost care and attention have been employed in making them. Everyday some feature is improved. Everyday some blemish is corrected. He has studied this idea more than other people. He comprehends it more distinctly. He has formed a much more correct image of it. It is much more deeply enamoured of its exquisite and divine beauty. He endeavours as well as he can, to assimilate his own character to this archetype of perfection. But he imitates the work of a divine artist, which can never be equalled. He feels the imperfect success of all his best endeavours. He sees, with grief and affliction, in how many different features the mortal copy falls short of the immortal original. He remembers, with concern and humilation, how often he has violated the exact rules of perfect propriety in words and actions and in conduct and conversation from his= lack of attention, lack of judgment, and lack of temper.

He has so far departed from that model he wished to fashion his own character and conduct. When he directs his attention towards the second standard or the excellence which his friends have commonly arrived at, he may be sensible of his own superiority. But as his principal attention is always directed towards perfect propriety, he is necessarily much more humbled by the one comparison, than he ever can be elevated by the other. He is never so elated as to look down insolently on those below him. He feels his own imperfection so well. He knows so well the difficulty he attained in his rectitude, that he cannot regard other people’s greater imperfection with contempt. Far from insulting over their inferiority, he views it with the most indulgent commiseration. By his advice and example, he is at all times willing to promote their further advancement. If, in any particular qualification, they happen to be superior to him (for who is so perfect as not to have many superiors in many different qualifications?), far from envying their superiority, he, who knows how difficult it is to excel, esteems and honours their excellence, and never fails to bestow upon it the full measure of applause which it deserves. In short, his whole mind is deeply impressed. His whole behaviour and deportment are distinctly stamped with the character of real modesty. Real modesty is the very moderate estimation of one’s own merit and a full sense of other people’s merit.

26 The liberal and ingenious arts are painting, poetry, music, eloquence, and philosophy.

The great artist in those arts always feels the real imperfection of his own best works. He is more sensible than any man how much they fall short of his concept of the ideal perfection. He imitates that ideal as well as he can. But he despairs of ever equaling it. Only the inferior artist is ever perfectly satisfied with his own performances. He has little conception of this ideal perfection. He has only thought about this ideal a little. He compares his own works chiefly to the works of other artists of, perhaps, a lower order.

Nicolas Boileau was a great French poet.

In some of his works, he is perhaps not inferior to the greatest ancient or modern poets. He used to say that no great man was ever completely satisfied with his own works. His acquaintance Santeuil was a writer of Latin verses, which was a schoolboy accomplishment. Because of his accomplishment, he had the weakness to fancy himself a poet. He assured Boileau that he himself was always completely satisfied with his own works. Boileau replied with an arch ambiguity, that Santeuil certainly was the only great man that ever was so. Boileau compared his own works with the standard of ideal perfection. In the poetic art, I presume that he had meditated as deeply and conceived as distinctly, as it is possible for man to conceive it. Santeuil compared his own works chiefly to the works of the other Latin poets of his own time. Most of those other poets were not so much superior to him. But to support a whole life’s conduct and conversation to some ideal perfection is much more difficult than to create perfection in the ingenious arts.

The artist sits down to his work undisturbed, at leisure, with all his skills, experience, and knowledge. The wise man= must support the propriety of his own conduct= in health and in sickness, in success and in disappointment, in the hour of fatigue and drowsy indolence, and in the hour of the most awakened attention. must never= be surprised by the most sudden and unexpected assaults of difficulty and distress, be provoke to injustice by the injustice of other people, be confounded by the violence of faction, nor be disheartened or appalled by all the hardships and hazards of war.

27 Some people direct most of their attention to the second standard.

The second standard is the ordinary degree of excellence commonly attained by other people when they estimate their own merit. Some of them really and justly feel themselves very much above the common standard. They are acknowledged to be so by every intelligent and impartial spectator. However, their attention is always principally directed to ordinary perfection, not to the ideal perfection

They thus have little= sense of their own weaknesses and imperfections, and little modesty. They are often= assuming, arrogant, and presumptuous, great admirers of themselves, and great haters of other people. Their characters are generally much less correct. Their merit is much inferior to the merit of the man of real and modest virtue. Their excessive presumption is founded on their own excessive self-admiration. Yet it dazzles the multitude. It often imposes even on those who are much superior to the multitude. The frequent success of the most ignorant civil and religious quacks, demonstrate how easily people are imposed on by the most extravagant pretensions.

But even the man of sober judgment often abandons himself to the general admiration when those pretensions are= supported by real and solid merit, displayed with all the splendour of ostentation, supported by high rank and great power, are often successfully exerted, and attended by the loud acclamations of the multitude. The very noise of those foolish acclamations often confounds his understanding. While he sees those great men from afar, he often worships them with a sincere admiration, superior even to that which they worship themselves with. When there is no envy in the case, we all take pleasure in admiring. We naturally render their characters perfect in our fancies, so very worthy of admiration. The excessive self-admiration of those great men is well understood. It is perhaps even seen through with some derision by those wise men who= are familiar with them, and secretly smile at those lofty pretensions which are revered and almost adored by people from afar. In all ages, such have been the majority of those men who have procured to themselves= the noisiest fame, and the most extensive reputation. These fame and reputation, too, have often descended to the remotest posterity.

28 The following have very seldom been acquired without some of this excessive self-admiration=

Great success in the world Great authority over mankind’s sentiments and opinions.

Many of the following have been more distinguished for their degree of presumption and self-admiration than their very great merit=

the most splendid characters, the men who have= performed the most illustrious actions, brought about the greatest revolutions in mankind’s situations and opinions, the most successful warriors, the greatest statesmen and legislators, and the eloquent founders and leaders of the most popular and successful sects and parties. Perhaps this presumption was necessary to prompt them=

to undertakings which a more sober mind would never have thought of, and to command the submission and obedience of their followers to support them in such undertakings When crowned with success, this presumption has often betrayed them into a vanity that approached insanity and folly.

Alexander the Great appears to have= wished that other people should think him a God, and at least very well disposed to fancy himself as a God. His death-bed was the most ungodlike of all situations. On it, he requested his friends that his old mother Olympia might also be added to the respectable list of Deities. He himself was inserted into that list long before.

Socrates did not fancy himself a God.

The oracle probably followed the voice of the public applause. It pronounced Socrates the wisest of men amidst the= respectful admiration of his followers and disciples, and universal public applause. Yet Socrates was not great enough to hinder himself from imagining that he had secret and frequent intimations from some invisible and divine Being. Caesar’s head was not so perfectly sound as to hinder him from being much pleased with his divine genealogy from Venus.

He pretended Venus to be his great-grandmother. Before the temple of Venus, he received the Roman Senate without rising from his seat. The Senate came to confer to him the most extravagant honours. This insolence, joined to some other acts of an almost childish vanity, seems to have= exasperated the public jealousy, and emboldened his assassins. It hastened the execution of their conspiracy. His vanity is not expected from a person with a very acute and comprehensive understanding. The religion and manners of modern times give our great men little encouragement to fancy themselves as Gods or even Prophets.

However, success, joined to great popular favour, has often turned the heads of the greatest of them. It has made them ascribe to themselves an importance and ability much beyond what they really possessed. This presumption led them to precipitate themselves into many rash and sometimes ruinous adventures.

598d5cc1-2e98-490b-ad28-a8bfb1fed185_g John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough It is a characteristic almost peculiar to the great Duke of Marlborough.

He had 10 years of uninterrupted and splendid success that no other general could boast of. His successes never betrayed him into= a single rash action, nor a single rash word or expression. I think the same temperate coolness and self-command cannot be ascribed to any other great warrior of later times. It cannot be ascribed to Prince Eugene, the late King of Prussia, the great Prince of Conde, not even to Gustavus Adolphus. Turrenne seems to have approached the nearest to it. But several transactions of his life demonstrate that it was not as perfect in him as in the great Duke of Marlborough.

29 In the beginning, great abilities and successful enterprise have frequently encouraged undertakings leading to bankruptcy and ruin in=

the humble project of private life, and the ambitious and proud pursuit of high stations.

30 Every impartial spectator admires the real merit of those spirited, magnanimous, and high-minded persons.

It is a just, well-founded, steady, and permanent sentiment. It is independent of their good or bad outcome. It is otherwise with the impartial spectator’s admiration for those persons’ excessive self-estimation and presumption.

He is often perfectly conquered and overborne by them while they are successful. Success hides their enterprises’= great imprudence, and great injustice, frequently. He often admires this defective part of their character instead of blaming it. When they are unfortunate, things change their colours and names. What before was heroic magnanimity, becomes extravagant rashness and folly. The blackness of that avidity and injustice, which was before hidden under the splendour of prosperity, comes full into view. It blots the whole lustre of their enterprise. Had Caesar lost the battle of Pharsalia, his character would have been ranked a little above Catiline’s character.

The weakest man would have viewed Caesar’s enterprise against his country in blacker colours than perhaps even Cato viewed it then, with all the animosity of a party-man. Catiline had many great qualities. The following abilities of Caesar would all have been acknowledged in the same way that Catiline’s real merit is acknowledged today= his real merit, the justness of his taste, the simplicity and elegance of his writings, the propriety of his eloquence, his skill in war, his resources in distress, his cool and sedate judgment in danger, his faithful attachment to his friends, and his unexampled generosity to his enemies. But the insolence and injustice of his all-grasping ambition would have darkened the glory of all that real merit. Fortune has great influence over mankind’s moral sentiments. It can render the same character the object of general love or of universal hatred, as fortune is favourable or adverse. This great disorder in our moral sentiments is not useless. We admire God’s wisdom even in the weakness and folly of man. Our admiration of success is founded on the same principle with our respect for wealth and greatness. It is equally necessary for establishing the distinction of ranks and the order of society. By this admiration of success we are taught= to submit more easily to those superiors assigned to us by the course of human affairs, to revere and respect that fortunate violence which we can no longer resist from= the splendid characters such as those of a Caesar or Alexander, or the most brutal and savage barbarians, of an Attila, Gengis, or Tamerlane. To all such mighty conquerors, the great mob of mankind are naturally disposed to look up with a wondering but very weak and foolish admiration. By this admiration, they are taught to acquiesce less reluctantly under that government= imposed on them by an irresistible force, and from which no reluctance could deliver them.


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