The Puzzle of Vanity

C. Allen Gilbert

הבל הבלים אמר קהלת הבל הבלים הכל הבל
Vanity of vanities, said Kohelet, all is vanity. Eccl. 1:2

At first sight, and even at second, vanity makes no sense. A man boasts and brags, he trumpets wisdom and accomplishment and brains, all in the hope of gaining esteem and honor and admiration. But lo and behold, the world likes neither braggart nor show-off. Even a person of substantial accomplishment faces ridicule behind his back when he becomes a braggart; for a lesser person, bragging can be devastating.

Presumably the braggart craves esteem; that’s why he brags. But bragging results in disesteem, a result quite generally understood. Hence the puzzle: why vanity ?

I have been interested for some time in the vanities of everyday life. Parents and grandparents like to boast of the accomplishments of their offspring. Does this kind of talk endear them, or their children, to anyone ? Minor academics sometimes like to place a “Ph.D.” after their names in contexts where this is not customary. Obviously the effect is pathetic. The owner of a delicatessen store, an immigrant from a European country, calls himself “Dr. X.” in his storefront window. Why ? People with business-related titles or academic degrees, real or self-conferred, or conferred by questionable authorities, adorn themselves with such decorations on their sig-files in personal e-mail. But obviously, all such show of vanity is to no avail. None of it can stave off the ridicule that the boasters so desperately hope to forestall.

Of course vanity comes in various forms and in various degrees of severity. One interesting type is vanity-by-understatement. When Queen Elizabeth opened the Faculty Club at the University of British Columbia in July of 1959 (some nine months before I myself became a member of that Club), she was asked to sign the visitors’ registry. Her entry in its entirety read “Elizabeth R.” I was twenty-one years old when I addressed a letter to Albert Einstein, disagreeing with him about the Soviet Union. Within days I had a modestly-worded reply from the Nobel winner, signed simply “A. Einstein.” In Britain, we are told, “When a medical doctor passes the examinations which enable him to become a member of one or more of the Royal Surgical Colleges and become “MRCS“, it is customary for him or her to drop the “Doctor” prefix and take up “Miss”, “Mister”, or etc. ” (Wikipedia). I must say that where naked vanity is offensive, the vanity-by-understatement is charming. Or so it seems to me. It is the only kind, as far as I can tell, that does not produce the rebound of ridicule.

But vanity-by-understatement aside, there are obviously many degrees of vanity, and many types, and, not least, cases in which it is not clear whether the incident can be called vanity at all.

A most poignant account of vanity under extreme conditions comes to us from Arthur Goldschmidt (1873-1947), a Protestant German jurist of Jewish background who was imprisoned in the Nazi Ghetto Theresienstadt (Terezin) from 1942 until the end of the war in 1945. Immediately upon imprisonment, he established a church among the Protestant inmates, and, upon his release, wrote a “History of the Evangelical Congregation Theresienstadt, 1942-1945.” The story is one of jockeying among a number of would-be preachers among these Jews-turned-Protestants. Whatever titles and positions they had had before imprisonment — doctors, engineers, etc. — were carefully referenced in the missives they sent one another in the course of the dispute over leadership in this little church. None had had theological training, but quite a few aspired to become lay pastors in the camp. Ultimately Goldschmidt, not least because he based his polemics on the Führer principle, prevailed in his exclusive right to preach. He survived the imprisonment, but almost all of the others — his antagonists and allies alike — were killed in the Holocaust. The various vanities documented in his story did little to either aggravate or alleviate the sufferings of the protagonists, but neither do they enhance our expectations for an ennobling effect of religious practice.

In the many instances of self-assertion of daily life, what would count as vanity and should therefore be avoided ? What is necessary for a decent self-respect, and should therefore be practiced ?

Without denying gray areas that may sometimes be genuinely difficult to navigate, a number of principles seem well established:

1) It is good to pay close attention to customary practices. It is not customary, for example, to add a Ph.D. after one’s name except under very limited circumstances. It is not customary (and may indeed be illegal) to call oneself “Doctor” if one is not a licensed physician. And so forth. Obviously, any gross violation of custom will be taken as vanity and invites ridicule.

2) Avoid any deviation from veracity. Avoid half-truths. Avoid exaggeration.

3) When in doubt, use under-statement.

I do not think that my advice will affect the person of true vanity. To whom does such a person listen, anyway ? With all that, the puzzle remains. Braggarts and boasters are not liked, their actions, beyond some very short-term advantage sometimes, bring them disesteem and grief in the end. And yet they persist.

Why ?

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