I must be getting old because I didn’t know what a \”selfie\” was until a few months ago, when a friend referred me to a short, hilarious essay by the actor James Franco on \”The Meanings of the Selfie\” in The New York Times. What partly defines the genre, Franco says, is that you immediately post them on Facebook, Instagram, or your favorite Internet portal. \”The selfie,\” he concludes, \”is the new way to look someone right in the eye and say, ‘Hello, this is me.’\”
\”Narcissus might remind us of the swarms of egoists who infest places of interest,\” Simon Blackburn writes about people who take selfies, in Mirror, Mirror. \”The egoist imagines all his or her friends fascinated by what they had for breakfast or how they looked standing in front of, or half-obscuring, the ‘Mona Lisa’ or the Taj Mahal.\”
In fact, Blackburn seems to have missed something narcissistic about the selfie that Franco understands. While Blackburn supposes that a person posting a selfie wants mostly to express \”Look at me, here at interesting place X or Y,\” Franco realizes that the selfie’s only true purpose is just to say \”Look at me\” and, ideally, \”Look at me often.\” It’s not surprising that the young celebrity would grasp something fundamental about this digitized form of amour-propre that the older philosopher didn’t quite catch.
But unlike Franco, Blackburn does not find anything redeeming—or even amusing—about this increasingly popular form of portraiture (what sort of selfies might Frida Kahlo have taken, one wonders?), describing the phenomenon and its practitioners as \”grotesque\” and \”a curse.\”
Adam Smith observed that \”vanity is always founded upon the belief of our being the object of attention and approbation.\” That is what’s interesting about selfies: It’s not so much that the selfie-photographer believes that he is the object of attention and approbation as that he hopes to be, seeks to be. Andy Warhol got it almost right: In the future, everyone will try to be famous for 15 minutes.
What is most worrisome about a culture of self-love, Blackburn points out, is that narcissism, vanity, and hubris all work together, and insofar as we culturally encourage those attitudes—he uses the example of the cosmetic company L’Oréal’s successful ad campaign \”Because you’re worth it\”—we do so not just at our own but at society’s peril. According to Blackburn, both George W. Bush and Tony Blair were dangerous narcissists who, because of their grandiose self-love, did tremendous damage to the world.
The radical disparities in income distribution in the West are also, Blackburn argues, a consequence of a culture of self-aggrandizement. He mentions Mitt Romney’s presidential-run gaffe of characterizing a \”middle income\” family in America as earning up to $250,000. He also cites a disturbing 2007 study of the top 1 percent of earners in Britain, who consistently ranked their economic position as well below what was actually the case: One fellow making the equivalent of about $300,000 annually reported that he was earning an average British income.
Blackburn finds this alarming but not surprising. For him it is another aspect of the \”kleptoparasitism\” that is the financial expression of our burgeoning narcissism. When I am wearing the blinders of an excessive concern with my own narrow world, I tend to ignore the realities of anyone who doesn’t share a world similar to mine. Because vanity depends on status, the narcissist becomes obsessed with those who are in a position superior to his own. Like jealousy, vanity mocks the meat it feeds upon. The narcissist’s vanity and envy increase each other, and his capacity for compassion is correspondingly diminished. Rousseau warned that to open our hearts to others, there should be \”no vanity, no emulation, no boasting, none of those sentiments which force us to compare ourselves with others.\”
Blackburn is in favor of what Rousseau called amour de soi, what Kant called self-respect, and what both Aristotle and Hume recommended as pride. Blackburn approvingly quotes Milton: \”There is yet a more ingenuous and noble degree of honest shame, or, call it, if you will, an esteem, whereby men bear an inward reverence toward their own persons.\” That recalls a claim Blackburn makes early in the book, that the fear of being ashamed before our fellow human beings tends to make us act in ways—through a kind of vanity—that prevent us from suffering that shame.
Milton’s \”honest shame\” is the flip side of appropriate self-esteem. I often tell my freshman students before an examination: \”You may be tempted to cheat on this test. If you are, ask yourself what matters to you more: being able to look at yourself in the mirror with self-respect, or making a better grade on an intro-to-philosophy exam.\” It seems to help. A recent study has shown that if you tell your students the room is haunted, they will cheat less—the point in both cases being that invoking their sense of appropriate shame, whatever the technique, discourages acts we collectively view as shameful. For Blackburn, this pride or self-esteem is not just important for a successful life; it also helps cultivate morality.
Showing the ways pride and shame work together is Blackburn at his best. He tells the charming story of when the philosopher G.E. Moore \”was about to deliver one of his best-known papers to the Aristotelian Society\” and \”was full of anxiety and misgivings. ‘Don’t worry,’ said his wife, ‘I am sure they will love it.’ ‘Well, they shouldn’t,’ replied the morose Moore.\”
Blackburn’s attacks on the vice of vanity and its prevalence in contemporary culture are convincing, if a bit clichéd: I doubt there has ever been a critic of his own culture in any century, at least since the Buddha, who wasn’t convinced that most people were spending too much time worrying about themselves and not enough worrying about others.
But when he uses such diverse thinkers as Plato, Erasmus, John Adams, Nietzsche, Sartre, the contemporary ethicist Allan Gibbard, and the neuropsychologist Benjamin Libet to show how the appropriate love of one’s self is a virtue, albeit one that takes time and thought to cultivate, Blackburn’s Mirror, Mirror reminded me of another work of wise, good-natured humanism: Lionel Trilling’s classic Sincerity and Authenticity (also referenced by Blackburn).
This is a book by a philosopher who knows the history of ideas as well as anyone working today, written in Blackburn’s witty, accessible, self-deprecating style. I recommend it with enthusiasm. With my own tendency toward misanthropy, I closed the book envying him his evident respect for and even love of other human beings.
Author Bio: Clancy Martin is a professor of philosophy at the University of Missouri at Kansas City and the author of the forthcoming book Love, Lies, and Marriage (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).