Home > Emerson R. W., Philosophy > Pride over vanity

Pride over vanity

Emerson would rescue the vice of pride, as the natural counterpart to the vice of vanity. If we are suckered into love of opposites, we will believe that against vanity stands humility. That is a mistake, a half-truth. Pride is needed.

The virtues are economists, but some of the vices are also. Thus, next to humility, I have noticed that pride is a pretty good husband. […] Pride can go without domestics, without fine clothes, can live in a house with two rooms, can eat potato, purslain, beans, lyed corn, can work on the soil, can travel afoot, can talk with poor men, or sit silent well-contented in fine saloons. But vanity costs money, labor, horses, men, women, health, and peace, and is still nothing at last, a long way leading nowhere. (1004)

Pride is prudent, is a good economist. Vanity is a spendthrift. Let us have no talk here of the moral, the good in itself. Pride pays, while vanity costs. There is a first egotism, a first self-interest in the choice of that pride which can dispense with vanity.

Emerson, being himself the finest egotist the world produced, does not rest content with this single egotism. Pride has another:

Only one drawback; proud people are intolerably selfish, and the vain are gentle and giving. (1004)

The vain wish to be believed to be such-and-such, whereas the proud have no need for such “being believed to be.” Thus the vain will be sure to keep up appearances, to treat others well, so as to be thought well of – and not only by others. This is vanity’s egotism, the preening sort. Pride is too proud of itself to chase such shifting opinions, and neglects to make a show of giving. Pride cares for what it is, let the appearances land as they may. This is its second egotism.

Emerson offers a choice between egotisms: that of the vain and that of the proud. I cannot see that he leaves open a third path, one free of egotism altogether. He will stand no pure humility.

This choice of pride over vanity sheds light on Emerson’s finest formula for egotism: self-reliance. In the essay of that name, self-reliance is set apart from conformity. To be self-reliant is to be nonconformist. But nonconformity comes in two forms: the vain and the proud.

If the non-conformist or æsthetic farmer leaves out the cattle, and does not also leave out the want which the cattle must supply, he must fill the gap by begging or stealing. (1006)

This is a vain nonconformity, a form of self-obsession that imposes itself on its material without consideration for that material’s properties, that has not yet learned the rule of “Impera parendo” – command by obeying. (1007) How much pride it has to sacrifice, when it reduced to begging and crime!

Emerson speaks of self-reliance as a form of freedom, but this vain nonconformity ends in a version of slavery. It has not learned the secret of power, which secret might be called friction. The material obeys its own laws, and will tolerate no impositions, but learn what friction it offers up for use, and it offers up its wealth for the use of individual power. The greatest freedom is always built on the bedrock of the greatest constraint.

It is the pride of egotism to recognize this truth, and the vanity of egotism to ignore it.

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