Of Ego

August 14, 2015

"Let Fame, which all hunt after in their Lives,/ Live register'd upon our brazen tombs,/ And so grace us in the disgrace of death:/ when spite of cormorant devouring time/ The endeavour of this present breath may buy/ That honor which shall bate his Scythe's keen edge/ And make us heirs of all eternity." -- William Shakespeare, Love's Labour's Lost, I.i.1-7

What is the difference between ego and pride? When the reader first meets Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, he appears egotistical and conceited, as if he were above the rest of the crowd. Darcy says, “[V]anity is a weakness indeed. But pride – where there is a real superiority of mind, pride will always be under good regulation.” In Darcy's world, it is important to seek and attain goals. He understands the world in a concrete, disciplined, rational way. He is not, however, in the habit of giving the benefit of the doubt. Elizabeth Bennet, on the other hand, has a more generous spirit, yet still, she and Darcy wind up in the same place. Darcy and Elizabeth learn vital lessons from each other that, ironically, brings them closer together. Amazingly, this connection both damages and bolsters their egos.

Pride is inherently intertwined with ego. According to Merriam-Webster, ego is the opinion you have about yourself (we are not talking about the psychological definition in today's post, FYI). And pride is the feeling that sustains or feeds your ego. According to Merriam-Webster, pride is a “feeling that you respect yourself and deserve to be respected by others”. Pride can also, however, be in excess or undeserved. The underlying emotion behind personal pride may be completely unfounded from a more objective perspective. Lessons of humility, as learned by both Darcy and Elizabeth, are taught by interactions among a larger community. Humans learn through examples set by others and through the use of their emotions as guiding forces.

This belief in self, however, often gives the power to attempt and attain new heights. To appear confident is often viewed as a positive quality. On the other hand, over-confidence produces feelings of negativity from the community. Yet, the line between confidence and over-confidence may continually move, or it may depend upon the type of community (business versus family versus neighbors, etc). There seems to be approval of the person who confidently moves through the world, such as Elizabeth Bennet. Yet, there also seems to be approval of the person who meekly moves through the world, such as Amy Dorrit.

In Dickens' novel, Little Dorrit, Amy Dorrit takes care of her father who lives in a debtors prison. She is free to come and go, yet she stays with her father. In prison, William Dorrit maintains a vestige of pride, but the reader clearly sees that true honor comes only through the virtuous actions of Little Dorrit. Without asking for anything in return, Amy Dorrit fulfills all duties towards her father and her community, and therefore proves herself worthy of great honor. Despite all success, however, she remains meek, mild, good-natured and honest. Francis Bacon writes, “[T]here is a confidence that passeth this other; which is to face out a man's own defects, in seeming to conceive that he is best in those things wherein he is failing; and, to help that again, to seem on the other side that he hath least opinion of himself in those things wherein he is best.” Amy Dorrit has an easy going manner and a simple confidence in herself, but she does not display any over-confidence as seen in the mannerisms of her sister, Fanny. In other words, there is an intricate balance between confidence and over-confidence, pride and arrogance.

The difference may lie in the fact that all of these protagonists work towards a goal of happiness. According to Aquinas, happiness is the reward “for which the virtuous work; for if they worked for honor, it would no longer be virtue, but ambition”. And the external world judges the motivations of others in an attempt to learn and grow. It is similar to Kant's idea of beauty in which he states, “We dwell on the contemplation of the beautiful because this contemplation strengthens and reproduces itself.” It is not unexpected that the path to pride would mirror the path of beauty. Instead, these forces instruct the human intellect.

Juxtapose the emotional content of human nature versus nature itself. Francis Bacon discusses the far superior power of nature versus the artisan, someone looking to copy or understand nature. He says, “For as when a carver makes an image, he shapes only that part whereupon he worketh; as if he be upon the face, that part which shall be the body is but a rude stone still, till such time as he comes to it. But contrariwise when nature makes a flower or living creature, she formeth rudiments of all the parts at one time.” The artisan is able to only see and understand a single aspect of an image at a time, much the same as humans glimpse a piece of the puzzle, but probably not the whole. Perhaps it is for this reason that the balance between ego and pride exists: we must be grateful and happy for our success, while still cognizant of the deficits.

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