The Age of the Looking Glass

Allow me to recommend this short article appearing over at FIRST THINGS, a review of a book on the Narcissism that afflicts the current era. 

Of all the astonishing features of the medieval cathedrals, one feature must stand out as particularly surprising to the modern mind: We have no idea who designed and built them. In a fashion quite foreign to contemporary practice, the architects and builders did not bother to sign their names on the cornerstones. The anonymity of the great souls responsible surely seems strange to our age. Why build the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Chartres if you can’t take credit for it? No lasting fame? No immortalized human glory? We are, if not scandalized, at the very least perplexed by the humility of these forgotten artists who labored in obscurity. Do and disappear? This is not how we roll in the America of the twenty-first century.

The artistic and cultural norm of the anonymous artist or craftsman began to change during the so-called Enlightenment. Witness Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, a book he dedicated “to me, with the admiration I owe myself.” The book opens with these lines: “I have entered upon a performance which is without example, whose accomplishment will have no imitator. I mean to present my fellow-mortals with a man in all the integrity of nature; and this man shall be myself.” Rousseau deliberately chose his title as a response to Augustine’s work by the same name. In contrast to Rousseau’s vain self-aggrandizement, Augustine gives all glory to God, as in his opening quotation from the Book of Psalms: “Great thou art, and greatly to be praised.” One has to add, however, that even if we admire Augustine’s humility, Rousseau’s language strikes us as more familiar. “To me, with the admiration I owe myself” is a dedication that would look right at home today on a Facebook or MySpace page.

In the eighteenth century, Rousseau’s narcissism, although fashionable among the philosophes, was still something of an anomaly in the wider culture. Indeed, if you believe the statistics in the book under review, such self-conscious narcissism remained an anomaly until roughly forty years ago. Not so today, argue authors Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell. The Narcissism Epidemic opens with this claim: “We didn’t have to look very hard to find it. It was everywhere.” Indeed.

The book reviewed points out how antisocial narcissism is. Having high self esteem, as it turns out, does not make you easier to get along with, more loving, more humane, more productive, or less violent. Quite the opposite. At the risk of stealing thunder from the author, let me quote the final paragraph: 

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” saith the preacher. “Hell, yeah, I’m hot!” saith the Facebook home page. This is vanity on steroids, and it is becoming the norm. From whence will we find the cure for this disease? As the authors argue, we need to implement reforms in parenting styles, the media, education, economic policy, and the tone of political and social life. No one who reads this book can reasonably disagree with these prescriptions. But we need more. The virtue of humility is the real antidote, and Twenge and Campbell endorse this. But even among the noblest pagans such as Aristotle, humility was not included among the list of virtues. Humility is a distinctively Christian virtue, grounded in the doctrine of Christ’s kenosis. It is not triumphalism, but simply a fact of history: Christianity was the leaven that shaped a more humble and humane culture; gave rise to America’s founding values; and, ultimately, prevented us from worshipping ourselves. The cure? Either we will become the salt and light that purge and dispel the insipid narcissism that surrounds us, or our culture will continue to descend deeper into the loud, crass, and aggressive cult of self-worship.
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