Category Archives: vanity

How to Achieve Fame and True Recognition

Do you feel that perhaps you have not accomplished as much in life as you might have ?  Or do you perhaps feel a little under-appreciated ?  Fear not, help is on the way.

Today’s mail brings a proposition from a  religious organization that offers to list me in its forthcoming journal as a man of high accomplishment,  one deserving great honor and recognition.  Just how much of these, however, depends on how much I am willing to pay.  Here are the choices:

“Patron”              $6,000
“Benefactor”       $3,500
“Supporter”        $4,500
“Angle”               $2,000
“Champion”        $1,500
“Guardian”          $1,000
“Hero”                  $  500
“Shepherd”          $  300

Can there be anyone who values the important things in life who would resist such an offer ?  Hint:  “Hero” seems the best buy, giving a lot for very little.

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 ?

On Vanity and Pride and Bragging

All is Vanity
Painting by Charles Gilbert (1873-1929)

Praising oneself (or one’s children) inordinately is something that is frequently practiced but never condoned. All the sacred sources that I could find, religious and secular, with the only possible exception of Ayn Rand, condemn the practice. “Pride cometh before the Fall,” or words to that effect, expresses the professed attitudes. Our language generally implies a negative evaluation of “braggarts,” of “vanity,” “vainglory,” and “boasting,” with positive evaluations of the “unassuming” and the “modest.” But practice, as I said, is often different.

The question is, in a world that depends so much on selling and buying (of goods and esteem), could we do entirely without just a bit of exaggeration, say just now and then ? When I want to sell, say, a new automobile, can I say that what I have to offer is just about as good, or maybe a little inferior, to the wares of my competitors ? American law allows “puffery” in advertising, defined as an exaggeration that no reasonable person will take literally, but it does not allow misrepresentation, which, presumably, may mislead. Some “exaggeration,” when it does not mislead, is something we seem to have accepted and are willing to live with. (Of course outside the sphere of advertising legality, or even within it, the line between “puffery” and misrepresentation may often be far from clear.)

Granted that bragging is something we all do to some extent some of the time, at least three important questions present themselves. First there is the extent, insistence, and sheer volume of claims made at any one time. A second question is how customary or expected an incident may be, considering community standards. Finally, there is the question of the veracity of the claims. I am mostly interested in claims that are 1) insistent and shrill; 2) relatively rare, i.e. not customary in the given circumstances, and 3) essentially lacking in veracity. (Lawyers might see a three-prong test here for what is flagrant bragging.)

Disclaimer: My observations and conclusions are not based on systematic research. Nor have I been able to find such systematic research in the literature, pace Erving Goffman and his school of “ethnomethodology.”

The Groves of Academe

To some extent, self-promotion by academics is as necessary as self-promotion in any other field. It’s hard to imagine a scholar advancing in his own field — receiving necessary research grants, obtaining good graduate students, achieving promotions in the academic ladder, etc. — if he does not spend a certain amount of time informing others of his accomplishments. As long as the interactions take place among peers, who can be assumed to understand the difference between meaningful accomplishment and embroidery, there is little opportunity for vainglory. But when self-promotion is directed to people outside academia proper, the door opens to claims that are no longer veracious, or are, at least, borderline veracious.

Before the internet, it was difficult to see who does the unacceptable bragging. Information tended to remain local, or confined to small circles of insiders. But now, when so many professors have their own websites, the braggarts — for better or worse — can be observed far and wide. I will give just one case study to illustrate what can go wrong. Although I don’t cite the name of the individual, the details are all based on the information given by the person’s websites.

Professor X. is at a large denominational university. He is the chair of his department and he also holds other administrative posts at his university. He has at least three websites, which, in addition to the more customary material of such sites, also feature

a. “downloadable publicity shots of Dr.[X]”
b. the claim that he is frequently consulted by the media on matters of public interest
c. the claim that he has had “conversations” with a former president of the United States
d. his schedule of occasional lectures at other universities now and in the future. (One such appearance, claimed by X to have been a “Keynote Address” to a learned society was listed on the website of that society as no more than an address.)
e. the fact that one of his books had “forwards” (sic) by two well-known (but controversial) men
f. testimonials of his work by a number of well-known (but controversial) public figures
g. laudatory descriptions of these public figures
h. details of X’s travels in various parts of the world
i. nomination for a prize that he did not ultimately receive
j. lavish self praise (“Professor X’s work extends beyond the … analysis usually offered by the media to encompass the essence of spiritual evolution…”)

This material, as I see it, adds up to the portrait of a flagrant academic braggart, using the three-prong test that I have suggested:

1. There is high “volume;” the claims are shrill, insistent, numerous
2. The claims, taken together, do not seem customary in academia
3. They lack veracity, at least by implication. Professor X. claims, by implication, that praise by the cited well-known personages is relevant to his own scholarly merit. Of course other scholars in his field cannot be misled by such claims, so to them the claims may be no more than “puffery,” material that reasonable men will ignore. But Professor X. addresses himself, by his own insistence, to people outside the scholarly community. When addressing this larger audience, Professor X’s claims lack veracity.

Professor X is a braggart, flagrantly so.

The Synagogue World

I know very little about Orthodox and Reform synagogues. I have been a member and guest at a number of Conservative groups over the years, and find, when it comes to a bar or bat mitsvah, that every one of these youngsters, to believe the rabbi, is always the brightest, the best, the most learned, the most selfless of all creatures. The volume of this praise is high and the veracity, obviously, is low. But here is the problem: this bragging seems customary in the Conservative community. Which community standards should be operative: that of the Conservative world, or that of the larger community ? In other words, is this synagogue practice an instance of flagrant bragging ?

I will end my little disquisition on boasting on this uncertain note, just to prove my own modesty: I don’t have all the answers.

It is clear that flagrant bragging, as the Parsonian sociologists used to say, serves important “functions.” The world would certainly be different without it. But I myself think that it is at least useful to identify bragging, especially flagrant bragging, because the practice impinges so importantly on the ethic of truth. Even if we do not wish to be “moralistic” and condemn bragging (God forbid !), we should at least know the difference between a braggart’s account and that of someone more restrained by the truth.