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   Chapter 11 ON VANITY, PRIDE, AND AMBITION.

Practical Education, Volume I By Maria Edgeworth Characters: 29066

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03


We shall not weary the reader by any common-place declamations upon these moral topics. No great subtilty of distinction is requisite to mark the differences between Vanity and Pride, since those differences have been pointed out by every moralist, who has hoped to please mankind by an accurate delineation of the failings of human nature. Whatever distinctions exist, or may be supposed to exist, between the characters in which pride or vanity predominates, it will readily be allowed, that there is one thing in which they both agree-they both receive pleasure from the approbation of others, and from their own. We are disgusted with the vain man, when he intemperately indulges in praise of himself, however justly he may be entitled to that praise, because he offends against those manners which we have been accustomed to think polite, and he claims from us a greater portion of sympathy than we can possibly afford to give him. We are not, however, pleased by the negligence with which the proud man treats us; we do not like to see that he can exist in independent happiness, satisfied with a cool internal sense of his own merits; he loses our sympathy, because he does not appear to value it.

If we could give our pupils exactly the character we wish, what degrees of vanity and pride should we desire them to have, and how should we regulate these passions? Should we not desire, that their ambition to excel might be sufficient to produce the greatest possible exertions, directed to the best possible objects; that their opinion of themselves should be strictly just, and should never be expressed in such a manner as to offend against propriety, or so as to forfeit the sympathy of mankind? As to the degree of pleasure which they should feel from their secret reflections upon their own meritorious conduct, we should certainly desire this to be as lasting, and as exquisite, as possible. A considerable portion of the happiness of life arises from the sense of self-approbation; we should, therefore, secure this gratification in its utmost perfection. We must observe, that, however independent the proud man imagines himself to be of the opinions of all around him, he must form his judgment of his own merits from some standard of comparison, by some laws drawn from observation of what mankind in general, or those whom he particularly esteems, think wise or amiable. He must begin then in the same manner with the vain man, whom he despises, by collecting the suffrages of others; if he selects, with perfect wisdom, the opinions which are most just, he forms his character upon excellent principles; and the more steadily he abides by his first views, the more he commands and obtains respect. But if, unfortunately, he makes a mistake at first, his obstinacy in errour is not to be easily corrected, for he is not affected by the general voice of disapprobation, nor by the partial loss of the common pleasures of sympathy. The vain man, on the contrary, is in danger, let him form his first notions of right and wrong ever so justly, of changing them when he happens to be in society with any persons who do not agree with him in their moral opinions, or who refuse him that applause which supports his own feeble self-approbation. We must, in education, endeavour to guard against these opposite dangers; we must enlighten the understanding, to give our pupils the power of forming their rules of conduct rightly, and we must give them sufficient strength of mind to abide by the principles which they have formed. When we first praise children, we must be careful to associate pleasure with those things which are really deserving of approbation. If we praise them for beauty, or for any happy expressions which entertain us, but which entertain us merely as the sprightly nonsense of childhood, we create vanity in the minds of our pupils; we give them false ideas of merit, and, if we excite them to exertions, they are not exertions directed to any valuable objects. Praise is a strong stimulus to industry, if it be properly managed; but if we give it in too large and lavish quantities early in life, we shall soon find that it loses its effect, and yet that the patient languishes for want of the excitation which custom has rendered almost essential to his existence. We say the patient, for this mental languor may be considered entirely as a disease. For its cure, see the second volume of Zoonomia, under the article Vanity.

Children, who are habituated to the daily and hourly food of praise, continually require this sustenance unless they are attended to; but we may gradually break bad habits. It is said, that some animals can supply themselves at a single draught with what will quench their thirst for many days. The human animal may, perhaps, by education, be taught similar foresight and abstinence in the management of his thirst for flattery. Young people, who live with persons that seldom bestow praise, do not expect that stimulus, and they are content if they discover by certain signs, either in the countenance, manner, or tone of voice, of those whom they wish to please, that they are tolerably well satisfied. It is of little consequence by what language approbation is conveyed, whether by words, or looks, or by that silence which speaks with so much eloquence; but it is of great importance that our pupils should set a high value upon the expressions of our approbation. They will value it in proportion to their esteem and their affection for us; we include in the word esteem, a belief in our justice, and in our discernment. Expressions of affection, associated with praise, not only increase the pleasure, but they alter the nature the of that pleasure; and if they gratify vanity, they at the same time excite some of the best feelings of the heart. The selfishness of vanity is corrected by this association; and the two pleasures of sympathy and self-complacency should never, when we can avoid it, be separated.

Children, who are well educated, and who have acquired an habitual desire for the approbation of their friends, may continue absolutely indifferent to the praise of strangers, or of common acquaintance; nor is it probable that this indifference should suddenly be conquered, because the greatest part of the pleasure of praise in their mind, depends upon the esteem and affection which they feel for the persons by whom it is bestowed. Instead of desiring that our pupils should entirely repress, in the company of their own family, the pleasure which they feel from the praise that is given to them by their friends, we should rather indulge them in this natural expansion of mind; we should rather permit their youthful vanity to display itself openly to those whom they most love and esteem, than drive them, by unreasonable severity, and a cold refusal of sympathy, into the society of less rigid observers. Those who have an aversion to vanity, will not easily bear with its uncultivated intemperance of tongue; but they should consider, that much of what disgusts them, is owing to the simplicity of childhood, which must be allowed time to learn that respect for the feelings of others, which teaches us to restrain our own: but we must not be in haste to restrain, lest we teach hypocrisy, instead of strength of mind, or real humility. If we expect that children should excel, and should not know that they excel, we expect impossibilities; we expect at the same time, intelligence and stupidity. If we desire that they should be excited by praise, and that, at the same time, they should feel no pleasure in the applause which they have earned, we desire things that are incompatible. If we encourage children to be frank and sincere, and yet, at the same time, reprove them whenever they naturally express their opinions of themselves, or the pleasurable feelings of self-approbation, we shall counteract our own wishes. Instead of hastily blaming children for the sincere and simple expression of their self-complacency, or of their desire for the approbation of others, we should gradually point out to them the truth-that those who refrain from that display of their own perfections which we call vanity, in fact are well repaid for the constraint which they put upon themselves, by the superior degree of respect and sympathy which they obtain; that vain people effectually counteract their own wishes, and meet with contempt, instead of admiration. By appealing constantly, when we praise, to the judgment of the pupils themselves, we shall at once teach them the habit of re-judging flattery, and substitute, by insensible degrees, patient, steady confidence in themselves, for the wavering, weak, impatience of vanity. In proportion as any one's confidence in himself increases, his anxiety for the applause of others diminishes: people are very seldom vain of any accomplishments in which they obviously excel, but they frequently continue to be vain of those which are doubtful. Where mankind have not confirmed their own judgment, they are restless, and continually aim either at convincing others, or themselves, that they are in the right. Hogarth, who invented a new and original manner of satirizing the follies of mankind, was not vain of this talent, but was extremely vain of his historical paintings, which were indifferent performances. Men of acknowledged literary talents, are seldom fond of amateurs; but, if they are but half satisfied of their own superiority, they collect the tribute of applause with avidity, and without discrimination or delicacy. Voltaire has been reproached with treating strangers rudely who went to Ferney, to see and admire a philosopher as a prodigy. Voltaire valued his time more than he did this vulgar admiration; his visiters, whose understanding had not gone through exactly the same process, who had not, probably, been satisfied with public applause, and who set, perhaps, a considerable value upon their own praise, could not comprehend this appearance of indifference to admiration in Voltaire, especially when it was well known that he was not insensible of fame. He was, at an advanced age, exquisitely anxious about the fate of one of his tragedies; and a public coronation at the theatre at Paris, had power to inebriate him at eighty-four. Those who have exhausted the stimulus of wine, may yet be intoxicated by opium. The voice of numbers appears to be sometimes necessary to give delight to those who have been fatigued with the praise of individuals; but this taste for acclamation is extremely dangerous. A multitude of good judges seldom meet together.

By a slight difference in their manner of reasoning, two men of abilities, who set out with the same desire for fame, may acquire different habits of pride, or of vanity; the one may value the number, the other may appreciate the judgment of his admirers. There is something not only more wise, but more elevated, in this latter species of select triumph; the noise is not so great; the music is better. "If I listened to the music of praise," says an historian, who obviously was not insensible to its charms, "I was more seriously satisfied with the approbation of my judges. The candour of Dr. Robertson embraced his disciple. A letter from Mr. Hume overpaid the labour of ten years."[93] Surely no one can be displeased with this last generous expression of enthusiasm; we are not so well satisfied with Buffon, when he ostentatiously displays the epistles of a prince and an empress.[94]

Perhaps, by pointing out at proper opportunities the difference in our feelings with respect to vulgar and refined vanity, we might make a useful impression upon those who have yet their habits to form. The conversion of vanity into pride, is not so difficult a process as those, who have not analyzed both, might, from the striking difference of their appearance, imagine. By the opposite tendencies of education, opposite characters from the same original dispositions are produced. Cicero, had he been early taught to despise the applause of the multitude, would have turned away like the proud philosopher, who asked his friends what absurdity he had uttered, when he heard the populace loud in acclamations of his speech; and the cynic, whose vanity was seen through the holes in his cloak, might, perhaps, by a slight difference in his education, have been rendered ambitious of the Macedonian purple.

In attempting to convert vanity into pride, we must begin by exercising the vain patient in forbearance of present pleasure; it is not enough to convince his understanding, that the advantages of proud humility are great; he may be perfectly sensible of this, and may yet have so little command over himself, that his loquacious vanity may get the better, from hour to hour, of his better judgment. Habits are not to be instantaneously conquered by reason; if we do not keep this fact in our remembrance, we shall be frequently disappointed in education; and we shall, perhaps, end by thinking that reason can do nothing, if we begin by thinking that she can do every thing. We must not expect that a vain child should suddenly break and forget all his past associations; but we may, by a little early attention, prevent much of the trouble of curing, or converting, the disease of vanity.

When children first begin to learn accomplishments, or to apply themselves to literature, those who instruct, are apt to encourage them with too large a portion of praise; the smallest quantity of stimulus that can produce the exertion we desire, should be used; if we use more, we waste our power, and injure our pupil. As soon as habit has made any exertion familiar, and consequently easy, we may withdraw the original excitation, and the exertion will still continue. In learning, for instance, a new language, at first, whilst the pupil is in the midst of the difficulties of regular and irregular verbs, and when, in translation, a dictionary is wanted at every moment, the occupation itself cannot be very agreeable; but we are excited by the hope that our labour will every day diminish, and that we shall at last enjoy the entertainment of reading useful and agreeable books. Children, who have not learnt by experience the pleasures of literature, cannot feel this hope as strongly as we do, we, therefore, excite them by praise; but by degrees they begin to feel the pleasure of success and occupation; when these are felt, we may and ought to withdraw the unnecessary excitements of praise. I

f we continue, we mislead the child's mind, and, whilst we deprive him of his natural reward, we give him a factitious taste. When any moral habit is to be acquired, or when we wish that our pupil should cure himself of any fault, we must employ at first strong excitement, and reward with warmth and eloquence of approbation; when the fault is conquered, when the virtue is acquired, the extraordinary excitement should be withdrawn, and all this should not be done with an air of mystery and artifice; the child should know all that we do, and why we do it; the sooner he learns how his own mind is managed, the better-the sooner he will assist in his own education.

Every body must have observed, that languor of mind succeeds to the intoxication of vanity; if we can avoid the intoxication, we shall avoid the languor. Common sayings often imply those sensible observations which philosophers, when they theorize only, express in other words. We frequently hear it said to a child, "Praise spoils you; my praise did you harm; you can't bear praise well; you grow conceited; you become idle; you are good for nothing, because you have been too much flattered." All these expressions show, that the consequences of over-stimulating the mind by praise, have been vaguely taken notice of in education; but no general rules have been deduced from these observations. With children of different habits and temperaments, the same degree of excitement acts differently, so that it is scarcely possible to fix upon any positive quantity fit for all dispositions-the quantity must be relative; but we may, perhaps, fix upon a criterion by which, in most cases, the proportion may be ascertained. The golden rule,[95] which an eminent physician has given to the medical world for ascertaining the necessary and useful quantity of stimulus for weak and feverish patients, may, with advantage, be applied in education. Whenever praise produces the intoxication of vanity, it is hurtful; whenever the appearances of vanity diminish in consequence of praise, we may be satisfied that it does good, that it increases the pupil's confidence in himself, and his strength of mind. We repeat, that persons who have confidence in themselves, may be proud, but are never vain; that vanity cannot support herself without the concurring flattery of others; pride is satisfied with his own approbation. In the education of children who are more inclined to pride than to vanity, we must present large objects to the understanding, and large motives must be used to excite voluntary exertion. If the understanding of proud people be not early cultivated, they frequently fix upon some false ideas of honour or dignity, to which they are resolute martyrs through life. Thus the high-born Spaniards, if we may be allowed to reason from the imperfect history of national character. The Spaniards, who associate the ideas of dignity and indolence, would rather submit to the evils of poverty, than to the imaginary disgrace of working for their bread. Volney, and the baron de Tott, give us some curious instances of the pride of the Turks, which prevents them from being taught any useful arts by foreigners. To show how early false associations are formed and supported by pride, we need but recollect the anecdote of the child mentioned by de Tott.[96] The baron de Tott bought a pretty toy for a present for a little Turkish friend, but the child was too proud to seem pleased with the toy; the child's grandfather came into the room, saw, and was delighted with the toy, sat down on the carpet, and played with it until he broke it. We like the second childhood of the grandfather better than the premature old age of the grandson.

The self-command which the fear of disgrace insures, can produce either great virtues, or great vices. Revenge and generosity are, it is said, to be found in their highest state amongst nations and individuals characterized by pride. The early objects which are associated with the idea of honour in the mind, are of great consequence; but it is of yet more consequence to teach proud minds early to bend to the power of reason, or rather to glory in being governed by reason. They should be instructed, that the only possible means of maintaining their opinions amongst persons of sense, is to support them by unanswerable arguments. They should be taught, that, to secure respect, they must deserve it; and their self-denial, or self-command, should never obtain that tacit admiration which they most value, except where it is exerted for useful and rational purposes. The constant custom of appealing, in the last resort, to their own judgment, which distinguishes the proud from the vain, makes it peculiarly necessary that the judgment, to which so much is trusted, should be highly cultivated. A vain man may be tolerably well conducted in life by a sensible friend; a proud man ought to be able to conduct himself perfectly well, because he will not accept of any assistance. It seems that some proud people confine their benevolent virtues within a smaller sphere than others; they value only their own relations, their friends, their country, or whatever is connected with themselves. This species of pride may be corrected by the same means which are used to increase sympathy.[97] Those who, either from temperament, example, or accidental circumstances, have acquired the habit of repressing and commanding their emotions, must be carefully distinguished from the selfish and insensible. In the present times, when the affectation of sensibility is to be dreaded, we should rather encourage that species of pride which disdains to display the affections of the heart. "You Romans triumph over your tears, and call it virtue! I triumph in my tears," says Caractacus; his tears were respectable, but in general the Roman triumph would command the most sympathy.

Some people attribute to pride all expressions of confidence in one's self: these may be offensive to common society, but they are sometimes powerful over the human mind, and where they are genuine, mark somewhat superior in character. Much of the effect of lord Chatham's eloquence, much of his transcendent influence in public, must be attributed to the confidence which he showed in his own superiority. "I trample upon impossibilities!" was an exclamation which no inferiour mind would dare to make. Would the house of commons have permitted any one but lord Chatham to have answered an oration by "Tell me, gentle shepherd, where?" The danger of failing, the hazard that he runs of becoming ridiculous who verges upon the moral sublime, is taken into our account when we judge of the action, and we pay involuntary tribute to courage and success: but how miserable is the fate of the man who mistakes his own powers, and upon trial is unable to support his assumed superiority; mankind revenge themselves without mercy upon his ridiculous pride, eager to teach him the difference between insolence and magnanimity. Young people inclined to over-rate their own talents, or to under-value the abilities of others, should frequently have instances given to them from real life, of the mortifications and disgrace to which imprudent boasters expose themselves. Where they are able to demonstrate their own abilities, they run no risk in speaking with decent confidence; but where their success depends, in any degree, either upon fortune or opinion, they should never run the hazard of presumption. Modesty prepossesses mankind in favour of its possessor, and has the advantage of being both graceful and safe: this was perfectly understood by the crafty Ulysses, who neither raised his eyes, nor stretched his sceptered hand, "when he first rose to speak." We do not, however, recommend this artificial modesty; its trick is soon discovered, and its sameness of dissimulation presently disgusts. Prudence should prevent young people from hazardous boasting; and good nature and good sense, which constitute real politeness, will restrain them from obtruding their merits to the mortification of their companions: but we do not expect from them total ignorance of their own comparative merit. The affectation of humility, when carried to the extreme, to which all affectation is liable to be carried, appears full as ridiculous as troublesome, and offensive as any of the graces of vanity, or the airs of pride. Young people are cured of presumption by mixing with society, but they are not so easily cured of any species of affectation.

In the chapter on female accomplishments, we have endeavoured to point out, that the enlargement of understanding in the fair sex, which must result from their increasing knowledge, will necessarily correct the feminine foibles of vanity and affectation.

Strong, prophetic, eloquent praise, like that which the great lord Chatham bestowed on his son, would rather inspire in a generous soul noble emulation, than paltry vanity. "On this boy," said he, laying his hand upon his son's head, "descends my mantle, with a double portion of my spirit!" Phillip's praise of his son Alexander, when the boy rode the unmanageable horse,[98] is another instance of the kind of praise capable of exciting ambition.

As to ambition, we must decide what species of ambition we mean, before we can determine whether it ought to be encouraged or repressed; whether it should be classed amongst virtues or vices; that is to say, whether it adds to the happiness or the misery of human creatures. "The inordinate desire of fame," which often destroys the lives of millions when it is connected with ideas of military enthusiasm, is justly classed amongst the "diseases of volition:" for its description and cure we refer to Zoonomia, vol. ii. Achilles will there appear to his admirers, perhaps, in a new light.

The ambition to rise in the world, usually implies a mean, sordid desire of riches, or what are called honours, to be obtained by the common arts of political intrigue, by cabal to win popular favour, or by address to conciliate the patronage of the great. The experience of those who have been governed during their lives by this passion, if passion it may be called, does not show that it can confer much happiness either in the pursuit or attainment of its objects. See Bubb Doddington's Diary, a most useful book; a journal of the petty anxieties, and constant dependence, to which an ambitious courtier is necessarily subjected. See also Mirabeau's "Secret History of the Court of Berlin," for a picture of a man of great abilities degraded by the same species of low unprincipled competition. We may find in these books, it is to be hoped, examples which will strike young and generous minds, and which may inspire them with contempt for the objects and the means of vulgar ambition. There is a more noble ambition, by which the enthusiastic youth, perfect in the theory of all the virtues, and warm with yet unextinguished benevolence, is apt to be seized; his heart beats with the hope of immortalizing himself by noble actions; he forms extensive plans for the improvement and the happiness of his fellow creatures; he feels the want of power to carry these into effect; power becomes the object of his wishes. In the pursuit, in the attainment of this object, how are his feelings changed! M. Necker, in the preface to his work on French finance,[99] paints, with much eloquence, and with an appearance of perfect truth, the feelings of a man of virtue and genius, before and after the attainment of political power. The moment when a minister takes possession of his place, surrounded by crowds and congratulations, is well described; and the succeeding moment, when clerks with immense portfolios enter, is a striking contrast. Examples from romance can never have such a powerful effect upon the mind, as those which are taken from real life; but in proportion to the just and lively representation of situations, and passions resembling reality, fictions may convey useful moral lessons. In the Cyrop?dia there is an admirable description of the day spent by the victorious Cyrus, giving audience to the unmanageable multitude, after the taking of Babylon had accomplished the fullness of his ambition.[100]

It has been observed, that these examples of the insufficiency of the objects of ambition to happiness, seldom make any lasting impression upon the minds of the ambitious. This may arise from two causes; from the reasoning faculty's not having been sufficiently cultivated, or from the habits of ambition being formed before proper examples are presented to the judgment for comparison. Some ambitious people, when they reason coolly, acknowledge and feel the folly of their pursuits; but still, from the force of habit, they act immediately in obedience to the motives which they condemn: others, who have never been accustomed to reason firmly, believe themselves to be in the right in the choice of their objects; and they cannot comprehend the arguments which are used by those who have not the same way of thinking as themselves. If we fairly place facts before young people, who have been habituated to reason, and who have not yet been inspired with the passion, or enslaved by the habits of vulgar ambition, it is probable, that they will not be easily effaced from the memory, and that they will influence the conduct through life.

It sometimes happens to men of a sound understanding, and a philosophic turn of mind, that their ambition decreases with their experience. They begin with some ardor, perhaps, an ambitious pursuit; but by degrees they find the pleasure of the occupation sufficient without the fame, which was their original object. This is the same process which we have observed in the minds of children with respect to the pleasures of literature, and the taste for sugar-plums.

Happy the child who can be taught to improve himself without the stimulus of sweetmeats! Happy the man who can preserve activity without the excitements of ambition!

[93] Gibbon. Memoirs of his Life and Writings, page 148.-Perhaps Gibbon had this excellent line of Mrs. Barbauld's in his memory:

"And pay a life of hardships with a line."

[94] See Peltier's state of Paris in the years 1795 and 1796.

[95] See Zoonomia, vol. i. p. 99.

[96] V. De Tott's Memoirs, p. 138, a note.

[97] V. Sympathy.

[98] V. Plutarch.

[99] Necker de l'Administration des Finances de la France, vol. i. p. 98.

[100] Cyrop?dia, vol. ii. page 303.

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