When an artist draws a self-portrait no one calls it a selfie.
And, when an artist draws a self-portrait no one believes that he is trying to find himself, or even to know himself.
In truth, the famous words inscribed over the portal at Apollo’s temple at Delphi—Know thyself!—do not instruct you to introspect in order to find yourself. They do not tell you to examine your image, the better to know it.
They tell you to know that you are not a god. It’s the right attitude to have before entering a temple.
One might say that, in the age of the selfie, everyone who has a cell phone can become an artist. Or else, that everyone can believe he’s an artist. It might be the next best thing… good for the old self-esteem.
Of course, iPhones take lots of pictures that are not selfies. Either way, precious few iPhone pictures are art. And yet, how many of those who take these pictures believe that they are performing something like a creative action?
If everyone is an artist, if everyone should have the chance to express his creativity, then, I hate to say it, but the dignity of art is being compromised.
If everyone’s an artist, if becoming an artist is as easy as a click on your iPhone, then the term has lost most of its meaning.
If it’s not a self-portrait, what is a selfie? How about an exercise in narcissism? So suggests the Economist in a review of two new books about narcissism. It entitles its review: “Know thy selfie.”
The Economist credits Freud with the current mania about narcissism, and, to some extent the point is well taken. Even though Freud did not invent narcissism, he did produce the most popular application of the myth. He took the story of the mythic youth who drowned in his reflection and made it a psychological staple.
Nowadays, narcissism is the go-to diagnosis for just about everything. That serial killer who lived down the road: clearly, a pathological narcissist. The cheating spouse around the corner: another raging narcissist. The plutocrat on the other side of the town: yet another malignant narcissist.
Culture critics know nothing of sin, so they denounce everything in Western civilization as a function of narcissism. Consumer culture is a symptom of narcissism. So are fashion, capitalism, imperialism, colonialism, racism, sexism, homophobia. They are all symptoms of narcissism.
The more the term is used, to refer to more different conditions, the less it means anything.
Of course, Freud did not invent narcissism. He borrowed the term from Havelock Ellis and Paul Nache. I suspect that Freud was first intrigued by the concept because both Ellis and Nache were using it to refer to a new type of sexual perversion.
A narcissist, they argued, takes his own body as a preferred sexual object. When Ellis introduced the term he was talking about people who are excessively involved in masturbation.
Strangely, Freud took the erotics out of narcissism and made it into a primary form of self-love.
But, why did we need the concept in the first place?
It’s not as though its components were unknown.
The deadliest of the seven deadly sins was pride or arrogance. Proverbs 16;18 told us: Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.
Western philosophers and theologians were well aware of the dangers that lay in vanity and vainglory. They did not need the medical profession to recast it as a Greek myth.
But, Freud did accomplish one thing. He helped bring more character flaws into the domain of medical treatment.
Some people believe that narcissism is the same as the Greek hubris. In fact, the myth of Narcissus differs significantly from the myth of Oedipus. Even if you believe that Narcissus died tragically, by drowning, he did not fall from a great social height, as do tragic heroes.
Within religious tradition, the sin of pride or arrogance is a sin of excess, not a sin of transgression. Arrogance is excessive confidence, confidence that has no basis in reality. Arrogance is a bluff.
The antidote to arrogance, for religions and ethics, is humility. These traditions do not tell you to analyze your childhood fantasies to discover why you are too fond of yourself. They tell you to moderate your pride with humility.
Contemporary therapists, strung out on the narcissism of high self-esteem have no real use for humility.
It also worth noting that when Freud read human pride into pagan myths, he was claiming that they contained higher truths than did the precepts, principles and parables that articulate Judeo-Christian Western ethics.
As was his wont, Freud folded narcissism into a drama. The Economist explained his definition:
There was a receptive audience for the Freudian idea that repressed self-hatred could lead to self-absorption, grandiosity and shallowness in individuals, and for the notion that this personality disorder could somehow be reflected in the spirit of a wealthy, coddled and self-indulgent age.
Saying that you can treat narcissism by uncovering this drama is not the same as saying that arrogance is a bad habit that can be replaced with humility.
Freud suggested that narcissism should normally yield to object love. It is a reasonable thought, though it leaves no place for character building. By that I mean that conducting a romantic relationship, or any other relationship, requires good character. Transferring your love of your own body onto another body does not really do the trick.
Call it a significant flaw in Freud’s theory.
In today’s psycho world, the cure for narcissism seems to be more, better narcissism. Surely, the self-esteem movement, an important cultural infestation, encourages narcissism.
One of the major proponents of self-esteem, Carl Rogers, laid down this predicate:
Every human being, with no exception, for the mere fact to be it, is worthy of unconditional respect of everybody else; he deserves to esteem himself and to be esteemed.
I don’t need to tell you that this sentence is a syntactic and conceptual mess.
In truth, being a member of the species by virtue of your biology does not give you any self-esteem. Some people might offer you a minimum of respect because you are human, but they do not offer you unconditional respect because you are a human being.
To feel good about yourself and to earn the respect of other people, you need to do something. You need to behave in this way and not in that way.
Being biologically human does not confer value, in any sense of the terms. It cannot be the ground for respect, conditional or unconditional.
Self-esteem depends on your membership in a community or a group. It is earned through achievement. Handing it out to all comers, regardless of whether they are champions or chumps, honorable or dishonorable, lovers or scoundrels is perfectly amoral, to say nothing of meaningless.
Sometimes people denounce the self-esteem movement for its propensity to hand out empty praise. Proponents of self-esteem often counter that this is a caricature. Unfortunately, it is exactly what Carl Rogers said. I would respect him more if he had said it more cogently with correct English grammar.