Tuesday, May 21, 2013


"Three faults, which are found together and which infect every activity: laziness, vanity, cowardice. If one is too lazy to think, too vain to do something badly, too cowardly to admit it, one will never attain wisdom."

"Sloth rots the intelligence, cowardice destroys all power at the source, while vanity inhibits us from facing any fact which might teach us something; it dulls all other sensation." (Cyril Connolly, The Unquiet Grave, pp. 20, 30)

I went out hiking with a couple of friends yesterday. Trying to explain the point of a recent post on my other blog, I remarked in passing that I take vanity to be one of my vices. Like I say, I was hiking with friends, so this confession was not allowed to pass unchallenged. (I am fortunate to have good friends.) Vanity, I was told, is not one of my more conspicuous traits, at least not in any conventional sense. So we talked a bit about what I meant by it.

I think Connolly's way of putting it is very apt. The problem lies not in the ordinary worry about how good we are at what we do or how highly other people think of us. Everyone is entitled to think of themselves as competent and to enjoy the praise of others; they are even entitled to think they are a bit better and a bit better liked than they really are. The problem arises when this concern makes us unwilling to perform our talents publicly, i.e., unwilling to put ourselves in a situation to test the abilities we, and our peers, think we have. We can be "too vain to do something badly", unwilling to "[face] any fact that might teach us something." It is in this sense, I would argue, that I am vain, and it has (along with the other faults) so far prevented me from a successful career as a scholar, among other things.

I am too vain, of course, to consider the possibility that I am not smart enough. And while I don't approve of what is happening to our universities these days, I am not ready to blame my lack of success on these changes. They just provided me with new tasks that I was too vain to learn how to do well by first doing badly.

"Pull down thy vanity," Pound admonishes us. Hopefully it is never too late to do so, but I am, in any case, convinced that the sooner you do it the better. Put your ideas out there, let people tell you what they think of them. And listen to those thoughts. Don't think that all your ideas have to be brilliant, or even coherent. Sometimes, finally, the best thing to do is get away from your desk, out of the city; it can put things in perspective. "Learn of the green world," as Pound says, "what can be thy place."

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