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THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY
BY A. CLUTTON-BROCK
I Am, I confess, astonished at the lack of curiosity which even psychologists, and they more than most men, discover about the most familiar, yet most surprising, facts of the human mind. They have their formulae, as that the human mind is unconsciously always subject to the sexual instinct; and these formula, while they make psychology easier for those who accept them, utterly fail to explain the most familiar, yet most surprising facts.
There is, for instance, self-esteem, — egotism, — we have no precise scientific name for it; if we go by our own experience, it seems to be far more powerful and constant than the sexual instinct, far more difficult to control, and far more troublesome. The sexual instinct gets much of its power from this egotism, or self-esteem, and would be manageable without it; but selfesteem is, for many of us, unmanageable. Often we suppress it, but still it is our chief obstacle to happiness or any kind of excellence; and, however strong or persistent it may be in us, we never value it. In others we dislike it intensely, and no less intensely in ourselves when we become aware of it; and, if a man can lose it in a passion for something else, then we admire that selfVol. its — No. e
surrender above all things. In spite of the psychologists, we know that the sexual instinct is not the tyrant or the chief source of those delusions to which we are all subject. It is because we are in love with ourselves, not because we are in love with other people, that we make such a mess of our lives.
Now, what we ask of psychology, if it is to be a true science, is that it shall help us to manage ourselves so that we may achieve our deepest, most permanent desires. Between us and those desires there is always this obstacle of self-esteem, and if psychology will help us to get rid of that, then, indeed, we will take it seriously, more seriously than politics, or machinery, or drains, or any other science. For all of these, however necessary, are subsidiary to the management of the self; and all would be a thousand times better managed by a race of beings who knew how to manage themselves. There is not a science, or an art, that is not hampered by the self-esteem of those who practise it; for it blinds us both to truth and to beauty, and most of us are far more unconscious of its workings than we are of the workings of our sexual instinct. The Greeks were right when they said, 'Know thyself'; but we have not tried to follow their advice. The self, in spite of all our attempts to analyze it away in physical terms, remains unknown, uncontrolled, and seldom the object of scientific curiosity or observation.
In the past, the great masters of religion were well aware of self-esteem; and our deepest and most practical psychology comes from them, though we do not call it psychology. For them the problem was to turn self-esteem into esteem for something else; and to that all other human problems were subsidiary. By God they meant that in which man can utterly forget himself; and they believed in God because the self can sometimes utterly forget and lose itself in something which cannot be seen or touched but which does cause self-forgetfulness. They were sure that the self could not so forget itself except in something more real than itself. 'With thy calling and shouting,' says St. Augustine, 'my deafness is broken; with thy glittering and shining, my blindness is put to flight. At the scent of thee I draw in my breath and I pant for thee; I have tasted and I hunger and thirst; thou hast touched me and I am on fire for thy peace.' Augustine had, no doubt, an exorbitant self, which tormented him; and he was far more aware of his self-esteem and its workings than most men are, even to-day. He was concerned with a real, psychological fact, and his Confessions are still interesting to us because of that concern. And the Sermon on the Mount itself is also practical and psychological, concerned with the satisfaction of the self in something else, so that we are still interested in it, however little we may obey it. But still, from this supreme object of self-control, we turn to other tasks and sciences, at best only subsidiary.
We might begin by asking, if once our curiosity were aroused — Why are we born with this exorbitant self? It seems to have no biological purpose; it
does not help us in the struggle for life, any more than in the arts and sciences, or in conduct, to be always esteeming, admiring, and relishing the self. The products of our egotism, open or suppressed, are useless and unvalued; the very word vanity expresses our opinion of them. But what a vast part of ourselves is just vanity — far vaster than the part that is instinct or appetite. The demands of appetites cease, for the time, with their satisfaction, but the demands of vanity never. Consider, for instance, how your whole opinion of any man is affected by the fact that he has wounded or flattered your vanity. If he does either unconsciously, the effect on your opinion of him, on your whole feeling toward him, is all the greater; for your vanity knows that unconscious homage or contempt is the most sincere. The greatest villain in literature, Iago, acts from vanity. He did not know it; we may not know it as we read the play; but Shakespeare knew it by instinct; he saw the possibilities of his own vanity in that of Iago, saw that it was cruel as the grave, and developed it in his tragedy of vanity. Those satanic criminals who seduce and murder woman after woman are not sex-maniacs, but vanitymaniacs, and their conquests feed their vanity more than their lust. They are imprisoned in the self, enslaved to it. And the great masters of religion, intensely aware of this tyrannical self in themselves, fear to be enslaved to it and cry to God for freedom. That is why they are almost morbidly, as it seems to us, concerned with sin. Sin means to them this exorbitant self, this vanity that may draw a man into any monstrous and purposeless villainy. They will not allow the analysis of sin into other and more harmless things, or the analysis of righteousness into other things less lovely. For them there is one problem — to be free of the self and of vanity, to be aware of that which glitters and shines, which shouts and calls to the self to forget itself and be at peace. Sin is the blindness, deafness, captivity of the self when it is turned in upon the self; righteousness is its peace and happiness when it is aware of that superior reality they call God.
You may think them wrong in theory, but in practice they are right; they are concerned with the real human difficulty, and aiming at that which all human beings do most deeply and constantly desire. The riddle of life is this riddle of the exorbitant self, which somehow or other must be satisfied, but can be satisfied only when it forgets itself in a superior reality. I say satisfied, because suppression or self-sacrifice, as it is commonly understood, is no solution of the problem. You can almost kill the self by lack of interest; but if you do that, you will not satisfy it and, in some indirect way, its egotism will still persist and work mischief in you.
Ascetics are often the worst egotists of all, thinking about nothing but their own souls, which means their own selves, living a life of inner conquest and adventure, which is all artificial because internal. Their interest, because they refuse it to external reality, is the more intensely concentrated on themselves; their very God, to whom they incessantly pray, is but an idol made and set up within the temple of the self and has no likeness to the real God, if there be one. Or it is like a medium, or the leading articles of a newspaper, telling them what they wish to be told, and persuading them that it is true because it seems to come from outside, whereas all the time it is really only the voice of the self echoed back. By those methods we can attain to no freedom because we attain to no selfknowledge or control or satisfaction.
If one is concerned purely with psychology, freed from all biological or other assumptions, one may conjecture that
the self comes into life with all kinds of capacities or faculties itching to be exercised, and that the problem of life, for some reason a very hard one, is to find a scope for their exercise. We are born with all these faculties and capacities, but we are not born with a technique that will enable us to exercise them. And, if we never acquire it, then the self remains exorbitant, because they all, as it were, fester and seethe within it. It is as exorbitant as when we have an abscess at the root of a tooth and can think of nothing else. Any thwarting of a faculty, capacity, or appetite produces this exorbitance and tyranny of the self, but, since the satisfaction of faculties and capacities is, for most people, much harder than the satisfaction of appetites, the exorbitance of the self is more often caused by the thwarting of the former than of the latter. The problem of the satisfaction of appetities is comparatively simple, for it does not even need a technique of the mind. We can eat without learning to eat; we can make love, even, without learning to make love; but when it comes to turning the mind outward and away from itself, then it is the mind itself that has to learn, has to realize and discover its external interests by means of a technique painfully acquired. Civilization means the acquirement of all the techniques needed for the full exercise of faculties and capacities, and, thereby, the release of the self from its own tyranny. Where men are vainest, there they are least civilized; and no amount of mechanical efficiency or complication will deliver them from the suppression of faculties and the tyranny of the self, or will give them civilization. But at present we are not aware how we are kept back in barbarism by the suppression of our faculties and the tyranny of our exorbitant selves. We shall discover that clearly and fully only when psychology becomes really psychology; when it concerns itself with the practical problems which most need solving; when it no longer tries to satisfy us with dogmas and formulae taken from other
And now I come to the practical part of this article. I, like everyone else, am aware that we are kept back in barbarism and cheated of civilization by war; but behind war there is something in the mind of man that consents to war, in spite of the fact that both conscience and self-interest are against it; and it seems to me that a real, a practical science of psychology would concern itself with this something, just as the science of medicine concerns itself with pestilence. And a real, a practical science of psychology would not be content to talk about the herd-instinct, which is not a psychological, but a biological hypothesis, and only a hypothesis. It would not say, 'Man is a herd animal; therefore it is natural for herds of men to fight each other.' In the first place, it would remember that herds of animals do not necessarily fight other herds; in the second, that we . do not know that man, in his remote animal past, was a herd animal; and, in the third place, that, as psychology, it is concerned with the mind of man as it is, not with what other sciences may conjecture about the past history of man. Now, if psychology asks itself what it is in the present mind of man, of the peoples we call civilized, that consents to war, it will at once have its attention drawn to the fact that wars occur between nations, and that men have a curious habit of thinking of nations apart from the individuals who compose them; and of believing all good of their own nation and all evil of any other which may, at the moment, be opposed to it. This is commonplace, of course; but, having stated the commonplace, I wish to discover the reason of it. And I cannot content myself with the formula that man is
a herd animal, not only because it is not proved, but also because there is no promise of a remedy in it. There is something in me, in all men, which rebels against this blind belief that all is good in my nation, and evil in some other; and what I desire is something to confirm and strengthen this rebellion. When we can explain the baser, sillier part of ourselves, then it begins to lose its power over us; but the hypothesis of the herd-instinct is not an explanation — it says, merely, that we are fools in the very nature of things, which is not helpful or altogether true. We are fools, no doubt, but we wish not to be fools; it is possible for us to perceive our folly, to discern the causes of it, and by that very discernment to detach ourselves from it, to make it no longer a part of our minds, but something from which they have suffered and begin to recover. Then it is as if we had stimulated our own mental phagocytes against bacilli that have infected the mind from outside; we no longer submit ourselves to the disease as if it were health; but, knowing it to be disease, we begin to recover from it. The habit of believing all good of our own nation and all evil of another is a kind of national egotism, having all the symptoms and absurdities and dangers of personal egotism, or self-esteem; yet it does not seem to us to be egotism, because the object of our esteem appears to be, not ourselves, but the nation. Most of us have no conviction of sin about it. such as we have about our own egotism; nor does boasting of our country seem to us vulgar, like boasting of ourselves. Yet we do boast about it because it is our country, and we feel a warm conviction of its virtues which we do not feel about the virtues of any other country. But, when we boast and are warmed by this conviction, we separate ourselves from the idea of the country, so that our boasting and warmth may not seem to us egotistical; we persuade ourselves that
our feeling for our country is noble and disinterested, although the peculiar delight we take in admiring it could not be if it were not our country. Thus we get the best of both worlds, the pleasures of egotism without any sense of its vulgarity, the mental intoxication without the mental headaches.
But I will give an example of the process which, I hope, will convince better than any description of it. Most Englishmen and, no doubt, most Americans, would sooner die than boast of their own goods. Yet, if someone says — some Englishman in an English newspaper — that the English are a handsome race, unlike the Germans, who are plain, an Englishman, reading it, will say to himself, 'That is true,' and will be gratified by his conviction that it is true. He will not rush into the street uttering the syllogism:'The English are a handsome race; I am an Englishman; therefore I am handsome'; but, unconsciously and unexpressed, the syllogism will complete itself in his mind; and, though he says nothing of his good looks even to himself, he will Jeel handsomer. Then, if he sees a plain German, he will say to himself, or will feel without saying it, 'That poor German belongs to a plain race, whereas I belong to a handsome one.' Americans may be different, but I doubt it.
So, if we read the accounts of our great feats of arms in the past, we ourselves feel braver and more victorious. We teach children in our schools about these feats, and that they are characteristic of Englishmen, or Americans, or Portuguese, as the case may be; and we never warn them, because we never warn ourselves, that there is egotism in their pride and in their belief that such braveries are peculiarly characteristic of their own country. Yet every country feels the same pride and delight in its own peculiar virtues and its own preeminence; and it is not possible that every country should be superior to all others.
Further, we see the absurdity of the claims of any other country clearly enough, and the vulgarity of its boasting. Look at the comic papers of another country and their patriotic cartoons; as Americans, look at Punch, and especially at the cartoons in which it expresses its sense of the peculiar virtues, the sturdy wisdom, the bluff honesty, of John Bull, or the lofty aims and ideal beauty of Britannia; or those other, less frequent, cartoons, in which it criticizes or patronizes the behavior of Jonathan and the ideals of Columbia. Does it not seem to you incredible, as Americans, that any Englishmen should be so stupid as to be tickled by such gross flattery, or so ignorant as to be deceived by such glaring misrepresentations? Have you never itched to write something sarcastic to the editor of Punch, something that would convince even him that he was talking nonsense? Well, Englishmen have just the same feelings about the cartoons in American papers; and just the same blindness about their own. Disraeli said that everyone likes flattery, but with royalty you lay it on with a trowel; and nations are like royalty, only more so: they will swallow anything about themselves while wondering at the credulity of other nations.
What is the cause of this blindness? You and I, as individuals, have learned at least to conceal our self-esteem; we are made uneasy by gross flattery; we are like the Duke of Wellington, who, when grossly flattered by Samuel Warren, said to him: 'I am glad there is nobody here to hear you say that.'
'Why, your Grace?' asked Warren.
'Because,' answered the duke, 'they might think I was damned fool enough to believe you.'
But when our country is flattered, and by one of our countrymen, we do not feel this uneasiness; at least, such flattery is a matter of course in the newspapers and at public meetings in all coun