On Vanity
Thomas T. Lawson

Vanitas Vanitatum

Harry Steeves and I had just met. He was with me fishing for trout on the Jackson River in the Virginia mountains. Harry is an entomologist — a bug expert. He has fished widely, written books, and he designs his own flies. He’s a sort of fishing celebrity. We were wading together in a favorite pool of mine. A good trout rose to the surface ahead of me. I maneuvered into position and cast, just so. The trout came to the fly, was hooked, and duly landed; I was exhilarated. But, as I released the fish, the thought entered my mind: why am I more gratified in making a nice catch in front of Harry than I would have been, doing the same thing alone? Some might not have given it a further thought, but it struck me. I had had a successful law career, and I thought of myself as a seasoned adult. To become all puffed up about catching a fish in front of an expert was all but silly. At this point of life, I should have been beyond that.

I have ruminated on this during the years since. A person of the image I had fashioned for myself would not have shown excessive pride over such an event — and I am pretty sure I didn’t. But any but the most jaded of souls would have felt it. So there it was: vanity. Pride made me vain about my fishing competence, but — maybe the worst vanity of all — it also brought me to disguise the pride I felt. And I am especially beset with this last today: the fear of being caught out being vain.

I now write books. Because of one, Carl Jung, Darwin of the Mind, I tend to take a Jungian perspective on matters of the psyche. Jung considered the ego to be the center of consciousness. Of course we know today that there is no location in the brain


for such a thing, no “Cartesian theater,” as proposed and aptly dismissed by philosopher Daniel Dennett, in which the goings on in the mind might be viewed. Indeed, there is no audience, no locatable “ego,” to see the show. Regardless, while knowing it to be a metaphor, let’s stay with the term “ego,” as employed by Jung in his day. Essentially, we are talking about that which one thinks of as himself or herself. Going then to Jung’s view of the ego as the center of consciousness, we oppose it to the collective unconscious, the element of psyche in which reside Jung’s archetypes. Jung considered it to be of a magnitude all but beyond imagining.

It is a mistake to think that one’s conscious mind is all there is to the personality. The collective unconscious is a part of the personality — indeed by far the greatest part. Since Freud, we have understood that, known or unbeknownst to ourselves, the unconscious mind bears powerfully on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. For one thing, it sets the agenda: determining what psychic contents come to consciousness. And, at the deepest level it governs the autonomous functions — such as heart, respiratory, and temperature regulation; sensory perception; and reflex. These control the body without the intervention of consciousness. Below them, the stuff of the psyche becomes one with material substance — at bottom, as Jung puts it, “the body’s carbon is simply carbon.” Although the ego can be seen as but a tiny part of the personality as a whole, evolution has invested it with a centrality that gives it an importance well beyond its scope. There must be a director for the show.

As opposed to the relatively ordered state of affairs in consciousness, the natural state of the unconscious is chaos — a boundless flux. This likewise would have been the state of mentation before consciousness came on the scene. Unconscious contents


would have streamed through the brain, one thought following another in a continuous flow of cause and effect, unbroken by anything outside the causal chain. Consciousness changed that. Long ago, William James, dean of American psychology, noted a signal exception to the causal chain: it could be broken by the effort of concentration. And subsequent science has borne this out: in the experiments of neural researchers, the effort of concentration bears, more reliably than anything else, the distinctive signature of conscious brain activity. Exerting that effort is the ego.

Jung saw the role of the ego as changing as one moved through the stages of life. As the ego establishes itself, it becomes, in childhood and adolescence, the focal factor in the individual’s development. With maturity, separation from the parents must be achieved, food put on the table, a family raised — and our energies are devoted in this direction. Midlife, on the other hand, tends to bring on a more reflective orientation. The ego gains a sense that it might not be the most important thing in life. This may prompt an encounter with the true center of the personality in the Jungian scheme — the archetypal ordering principle of the psyche: Jung’s “Self.”

We encounter the Self in its supreme, unchallengeable majesty — it presents itself to the mind as a god-like figure, an imago dei, as Jung put it. In most religions the relationship to the Self is analogous to that of man to God. Clearly, then, the encounter with the Self can lead to belief in an external God — whether there is one or not. And the truth is, there is no way of knowing. As I have said elsewhere, just because a person believes a thing doesn’t mean it isn’t so. What we can know is that, if there is a God out there intervening in human affairs, She/He would register first in our minds through the medium of the unconscious — wherein all stimuli, external or internal


(generated by the brain itself), first register. One can get a sense this through the example of sight. Photons striking the retina do not form a picture there; they are processed — unconsciously — through the optic nerve and neuronal pathways in the brain somehow to produce the images of the external world we perceive — the “Cartesian theater.”

To recognize and accept the Self as a supreme entity requires that the ego be prepared to give up the very things it has theretofore held most dear: it must reassess in terms of its relation to a higher principle all its certainties — not least, the moral principles the individual had come to embrace implicitly in making her/his way through life up to this point. Central tenets of one’s cultural life heretofore accepted become relativized. Does one really believe all that was espoused by one’s parents, growing up — by the church, the school, the coach, the employer, herself or himself? Now one has to make up one’s own mind as to what is right.

The brain, in the wisdom of evolution, has produced both the unconscious and the conscious mind. The mind works best when the two function harmoniously together, and this affords the ego — an island of consciousness in the vastness of the unconscious — its crucial role. This, however, notwithstanding, the most powerful effects still come from what has been in the unconscious from the beginning. There are ready examples of its priority in this respect — some of the clearest come from the arts and athletics. Many a dancer can master a routine, but with some special ones there is magic in the execution — Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire, for example. Of a fine painting brought to conclusion, a great artist, Sargent, I think, observed that the important thing was to have been there when it was done. The mastery of such


performances is way beyond the achievements of consciousness. When an athlete speaks of “concentration” in sport, what is meant is not a volitional thing, but rather an ability to act in the desired way spontaneously, reflexively, and without the intrusion of conscious thoughts.

When consciousness overrides the unconscious, which happens all too often in our consciousness-proud culture, it can get in the way. A child can consistently knock a golf ball reasonably close to a hole, but a golfer who thinks too much can knock it way past or leave it way short. I have done it. An old golf pro I knew had a typically colorful way of making the point. “Hell,” he’d say, “anybody can hit a tennis ball — it’s moving!” When there is no time to think, the unconscious is free, unhindered, to work its wonders. We perform truly at peak, however, when consciousness and the unconscious are harnessed smoothly together. The best putter will have thought keenly about the line of the putt, the slope of the green, the grain and moisture of the grass, and the wind, before the putt “happens.”

What bearing does all this have on the question of vanity? Just going through life with the bruises to the ego of everyday existence should invest most of us with some element of humility — but the ego does not bow down easily.

At the time of the fishing episode I had thought that the ego would somehow yield up its pride of place. Now, however, after reflection over time and some self observation, my attitude has changed. Not only do I find that I am just as vain as I ever was, I have also come to the view that it is a good thing. Pride and self-respect, kept under control, can have beneficial effects. Vanity spurs one to take care of oneself; it


promotes discipline against excess and over-indulgence; and it can engender high aspirations.

I have always liked to read, and from an early age I have learned to husband reading time carefully, and to focus on books of unquestionable worth. This disposition has, I think, served me well — and it is the product of the purest vanity. I wanted people to think I was smart. Moreover, one can hope that extensive exposure to the books of and about the great minds of history might serve as a buffer against hubris. Hubris can give pride and self-respect a bad name — as we know from the epics.

But be all this as it may, the ego yet remains an essential part of the enterprise, and it is entitled to recognition as such. So, I say, let us give vanity its due, learn to live comfortably with it — and enjoy our vain selves. The worker in the vineyard is worthy of his wage.