One of the biggest rumors since the time of the Greek philosophers who talked so much about “knowing thyself” is the narcissistic lie that the self is a real thing, that there is something inside us, a sovereign running the show. Although we have “big fat egos,” our selves are false and arrogant social constructions that other people enable. We suffer from a social malady in which we love to stand out. We ambitiously drive to being a top dog. In this regard, we are truly a bunch of sick animals. Driven by emotions, we humans (or primates) have little, if any, self-control.
According to Simon Blackburn, we have unhealthy and sick egos and lack a true sense of love for others and ourselves as equals to the rest of humanity. In Mirror, Mirror: The Uses and Abuses of Self-Love (Princeton University Press, 2014), Blackburn argues that our egos are fictions with emotions such as pride that makes an unjustified demand that others are inferior in comparison to us. Believing we’re superior we look at down at the herd of people and ignore them as humans. We only want people around us so that they can be envious of us. Like those celebrities who have no real talent or competency, we would like to be in their emulated social sphere.
There are a few who are not so sick. Those with healthy and beautiful egos do not “comprehend the idea of being flawed, dependent, and insecure like the rest of us” (47). As for who we realy are, “there are processes, but no inner agent guiding and directing them. When the processes happen properly, then we as agents do things and decide things, but we are the upshot of the processes, not the sovereign who controls them” (20). Most of us are trapped in a world of illusions and branding. There is no such thing as self…the self is not “who we really are inside or a ‘wonderful inner thing that is ours alone’ nor the framer of our destiny….but rather the sum of our experience…think of others…..”
Blackburn attacks the corporate system of advertising (we can all now understand that the men and women in MAD MEN are truly messed up). His point of departure is L’Oréal’s iconic advertisement “Because you’re worth it.” L'Oréal's message is sumptomatic of the pandemic of self-centered greed that is the modus operandi of the world today. “The generation that over the years has so shamelessly implemented the idea that greed is good, that there is no such thing as society, that, because they are worth it," our author laments, provides the justification and legal framework for the banksters and ruling elites to prey on the weak, for "their predations on the common good given them no more than their due.”
The good news is that, if we apply to ourselves the powerful medicine of rigourous honesty, we can be the best person possible. This kind of self-critical analysis allows us to embrace a moral obligation to society. The solution involves the practice of the golden rule or mean. Let us not be indifferent to the world and let's try to be courteous. Blackburn writes that ”good manners are a small but constant adjustment to the reasonable expectations or needs of others, little tokens acknowledging their right to a certain space, the offering of a certain security in what they may expect from one” (27). Let us then adopt a stoical approach and recipe “to maintain decency, composure or moderation, when they (emotions) threaten to overwhelm us,” so that we can put into action kindliness and give way to deference to the feelings of others. (For a succint review of Blackburn see, Joan Acocella, “Selfie: How Big a Problem is Narcissism?” The New Yorker, May 12, 2014, 77-81.)