There is one quality which brings to its possessor naught but ridicule, or, what is still worse, positive dislike: it is sometimes called self-conceit, but more commonly and more forcibly expressed by egotism.
Egotism and skepticism are always miserable companions in life, and are especially unlovable in youth. The egotist is next door to a fanatic. Constantly occupied with self, he has no thoughts to spare for others. He refers to himself in all things, thinks of himself, and studies himself, until his own little self becomes his ruling principle of action. The pests of society are egotists. There are some men whose opposition can be reckoned upon against every thing that has not emanated from themselves. He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals. The egotist’s code is, Every thing for himself, nothing for others. Hence it is by reason of their selfishness that they find the world so ugly, because they can only see themselves in it.
An egotist is seldom a man of brilliant parts. A talented or sensible man is apt to drop out of his narration every allusion to himself. He is content with putting his theme on its own ground. You shall not tell me you have learned to know most men. Your saying so disproves it. You shall not tell me by their titles what books you have read. You shall not tell me your house is the best and your pictures the finest. You shall make me feel it. I am not to infer it from your conversation. It is a false principle, because we are entirely occupied with ourselves, we must equally occupy the thoughts of others. The contrary inference is but the fair one. We are such hypocrites that whatever we talk of ourselves, though our words may sound humble, our hearts are nearly always proud. When all is summed up, a man never speaks of himself without loss; his accusation of himself is always believed, his praises never. This love of talking of self is a disease that, like influenza, falls on all constitutions. It is allowable to speak of yourself, provided you do not continually advance new arguments in your favor. But abuse of self is nearly as bad, since we can not help suspecting that those who abuse themselves are, in reality, angling for approbation.
Ofttimes we dislike egotism in others simply because of our own. We feel it a slight, when we are by, that one should talk of himself, or seek to entertain us with his own interests instead of asking us ours. He who thinks he can find in himself the means of doing without others is much mistaken. But he who thinks others can not do without him is still more mistaken. Conceit is the most contemptible and one of the most odious qualities in the world. It is vanity drawn from all other shifts, and forced to appeal to itself for admiration. It is to nature what paint is to beauty; it is not only needless, but it impairs what it would improve. He who gives himself airs of importance exhibits the credentials of impotence. He that fancies himself very enlightened because he sees the deficiency of others may be very ignorant because he has not studied his own. In the same degree as we overrate ourselves we shall underrate others; for injustice allowed at home is not likely to be corrected abroad.
It is this unquiet love of self that renders us so sensitive. It is an instrument useful, but dangerous. It often wounds the hand that makes use of it, and seldom does good without doing harm. The sick man who sleeps ill thinks the night long. We exaggerate all the evils which we encounter; they are great, but our sensibility increases them. Man should not prize himself by what he has; neither should others prize him by what he professes to have, or what he by vigorous talk constantly lays claim to possess. We should seek the more valuable qualities which lie hidden in his true self. He mistakes who values a jewel by its golden frame, or a book by its silver clasps, or a man by reason of his estates or profession.
The true measure of success, always lies between two extremes. Egotism and overweening self-conceit are indeed deplorable blemishes in any character; but we, perhaps, forget that he who is totally destitute of them presents but a sorry figure in the world’s battle-field. He lacks individuality, and lacks the courage to push forward his own interests. In this aggressive age it will not do to be destitute of a right degree of self-confidence. Lacking this, men are too often deterred from taking that position for which their talents eminently fit them, and at last have only vain regrets as they contemplate life’s failures. Egotism is as distinct and separate from a manly self-confidence in one’s own powers as the unsightly block of marble is to the finished statuette, which consists, indeed, of the same materials as the former, but so softened and modified as to be an object of admiration to all. Nor is it difficult to draw the dividing lines. Egotism exultingly proclaims to all, “Look at me. What strength, what ability, what talents are mine! Who so graceful? who so gifted? who so competent to be placed in position of honor or authority as I? I am sure of success. Behold my triumph!” The man who is withal modest, yet feels that he possesses acquisitions and gifts, says: “True, the way is long, the time discouraging, but what has been done can be done. I can but make the effort, and go forward to the best of my ability; and if so be I fail, with a brave heart and a cheerful face I will do what duty points out; but if success crowns my efforts, I will so use my advantages that all may be benefited.”
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