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Michael Curran

Copyright 2013 Michael Curran


Taste and tradition


Know yourself





Success and failure




Shame and modesty

Work and independence






The end

We don’t think







Goodness, truth and beauty

The purpose of life

Time and death


Order and imagination

Causes of art
Effects of art
Amorality of art


1 Order and energy
Energy and order are the two great things in both art and life.

Order is frugal, chaste and sober. Energy is irregular, promiscuous and self-delighting.

Art must realize its energies in form, and animate its order with imagination. Writers spend half
their strength to discipline their energies, but then they have to spend half their discipline to
temper their discipline, to make words sing in their chains. The artist may be exuberant, but
beauty is calmness and control. And yet control may be so confident that it looks like
exuberance, as it does in Matisse. Intensity makes one sort of force, and restraint another, and
power is manifest in both.

Imagination is electricity, order is gravity. Order builds in stone. Imagination writes in flame. It is
the god that answers by fire. It knows the joy of speed. But beauty has the calm dignity of

Orderliness, grown to an excess, stiffens into autism. Imagination riots into schizophrenia. Form
congeals into ritual, force flares into rapture.

The energies of art are at once anarchic and organizing.

2 Imagination
In art energy is imagination, and order is form. A great work is imaginative force organized into
permanent shape.

Imagination breeds thoughts that are worth remembering, and form stamps them in the

‘Write the vision, make it plain.’ A visionary imaginer, such as Dante, Bunyan, Blake or Yeats,
must keep to the simplest style, as Coleridge said. A verbal imaginer, such as Shakespeare,
Melville or Conrad, frames a varied, profuse and highly-wrought dialect.

The sweetness of life lies all in the imagining, be it anticipating things to come, or recalling the
past, or creating works that are not to be gnawed by the tooth of time.

Break the capacious vessel of tradition, and the wine of imagination spills out wasted. Its fruit
buds and ripens on the tall tree of form. But we have now sawn this down, since it stood in the
way of our automated ascent. Nothing without imagination, but no imagination without tradition.

Imagination is the wings which we have not yet grown.

Artists imagine by shaping new forms, and when they shape new forms they make real more
than they can imagine.

3 Whole and parts

Only a dull work adds up to more than the sum of its parts. The fragment means more than the

Shakespeare, like the Bible and all true poets, is great sentence by sentence, line by line,
phrase by phrase, and not by his overarching plots and designs, which he stole from others. As
a storyteller he is derivative, contrived, naive and inefficient. As a poet he is deep, new and all-
knowing. So Emerson wrote, ‘Every poem must be made up of lines that are poems.’

Order coheres and unifies, imagination disunites and disaggregates. Mental play is a centrifugal
force that spurts out in a myriad sparkling fragments which never coalesce to form an unbroken
whole. Why else would Shakespeare’s plays be such prodigal medleys of lushly embroidered
episodes? A single page of a great writer’s book is worth as much as the whole, and its
sidelights disclose as much as its centre. ‘Digressions,’ Sterne says, ‘incontestably, are the
sunshine, they are the life, the soul of reading.’

4 Structure and lexis

Imagination is lexical, order is syntactic.
Shape sets out plain symmetrical motifs. Imagination works up a lavish palette of effulgent

Greek and roman writers used a convoluted syntax but a penurious vocabulary. Their verse is
literal and declamatory, and their prose is turgid and baroque. The hebrew Bible used the
plainest diction and syntax to make a rough music. French writers have stripped and polished
both their vocabulary and syntax. English ones have set the most copious lexicon in the
simplest structures.

In most texts more is lost in the original than is lost in translation.

Whitman’s poetry has a democratic syntax, flattened and stripped down, but a pluralistic diction.

5 Angels of order, demons of imagination

‘Good is the passive that obeys reason,’ Blake says. ‘Evil is the active springing from energy.’
God works by order, and the devil by energy. And whoever lives by imagination can’t help being
of the devil’s party. ‘Order,’ as Pope wrote, ‘is heaven’s first law.’

Some of the angels of order were the egyptians, the greeks, Johnson, Mozart, Cézanne, Mies
van der Rohe and Brancusi. And some of the demonic imaginers are Milton, Melville, Hugo,
Beethoven, Pollock, Le Corbusier. Shakespeare was unique in his fusion of controlling form and
uncontainable verbal force.

Disruptive imagination springs from the downtrodden celts and gauls. Regulation is enforced by
the legions of Rome.

Some art is charged with a stored potential energy, which strains with a vast pent force, though
outwardly mild and sedate. And some has a kinetic power, erupting into excess, gushing and
tumbling like a waterfall of delirious volubility, as it does in Milton, Hopkins, Faulkner or Joyce.

6 Pattern and variation

Pattern and repetition are the heart of beauty. And variation and strangeness are the root of
originality. Coloured writing must make good its exacting strangeness by its lush suggestions.
And plain writing must make good its plainness by the grand truths that it brings to light.
Similarity manifests the form, difference discloses the sense. Form iterates, force varies.

Form shines clearest where it shapes plain patterns out of what is similar. But it works most
potently where it frames dappled patterns out what is different.

The mind delights in similarity of structure and diverseness of hue. It loves forms when they are
repeated, and colours when they are varied.
Nature and art love imperfect symmetries. Awkwardness is at times the height of artistry, and
roughness may be the most exacting precision. And some superlative works, such as the Bible
or Dickinson’s poems, hold us in the toils of an ungainly grace.

Art, like nature, is force made form. It calls on disorderly imagination to rival the earth’s feckless
prodigality. But it subjects it to laws just as stern and fixed.

Intelligence beams like white light, pure and limpid. Imagination shivers into the rainbow’s
scattered hues. The intellect works by fission. Imagination works by fusion.

A word gains its force by its repetition or by its rarity.

7 Imagination not observation makes art

Artists don’t see what no one else has seen. They make what no one else could make. They are
fabricators, not observers, as a poet is a sayer, not a seer, a voice, not an eye. They throw a
veil of words over things that we can’t see, so that we can make out their essential form.

‘The imagination,’ Joubert says, ‘has made more discoveries than the eye.’ It lends a brief
reality to unreal things, so as to show them as they are at their most real. Artists don’t glimpse
similarities that no one has glimpsed before. They shape things that contrast with those that
have been shaped before. They don’t find beauty, they find formlessness, and make of it a
lovely work.

Creators use their style to model a new earth, not to look at this one. It is not how they view the
world but how they want the world to view their work. It reminds us of all the splendours of the
world by calling up kinds of splendour that are unknown to the world.

8 Metaphor
A metaphor doesn’t bring out the latent analogies that join two objects. It applies the words used
of one to enrich the other. It’s not discovered but invented. It does not assimilate things, but
differences language. It is a substitution, not of one thing for another, but of a fresh set of words
for a familiar one. It’s the verbal energy that is unloosed when one entity is forced to take on the
form of another. It doesn’t show that one reality is like some other, but transfigures speech so
that it resembles no other. So it is not a new way of viewing the world, but a new way of using
words. It doesn’t clarify but complicates.

We owe to our flair for substitutions both our craziest swervings from what is and our most fertile
dreams of what might be.

Far from evidencing how imaginative we are, our readiness to make out correspondences and
similarities is often a mere dull reflex.
Mathematics proves rigorous equivalences between interchangeable quantities. Metaphor spins
improbable parallels between incommensurable qualities. ‘Each thought,’ Nietzsche says,
‘originates through equating the unequal.’

To avoid clichéd collocations, some writers smash them and build up their language from the
most basic elements, and some substitute their own new compounds of metaphor.

Other languages use metaphors as embroidery. In english they are the warp and weft of the
cloth itself.

9 Invention and imagination

Most people take imagination to be nothing more than invention, visualization or empathy. But
these are its mongrel likenesses which are prized by those who lack the real thing.

‘Imagination, not invention,’ Conrad wrote, ‘is the supreme master of art as of life.’ Invention is
the arid substitute for the free play of the mind. And our age is so frenetically inventive because
we have no imagination. Both naturalism and fantasy are sure signs of its atrophy.

True writers don’t dream up new worlds. They recast speech to bring out the richness of this
one. They make form strange and truth vivid. It’s not the world but words that writing makes
strange and luminous.

To imagine is not to make up things that might take place in real life. It is to see through to truths
that are obscured by real life.

If God had had more imagination, he would have had no need to make a world.

Inventiveness mints new stories, but it requires a visionary power to raise their plain prose to
poetry. Invention belongs to the mere tale, imagination to the telling. And the tale is all that most
of us can take in.

Literature begins as ritual and myth, and it ends as fantasy and realism.

Most tales of fantasy lay bare the poverty and greediness of our fantasies.

10 The emptiness of invention

Good fictions draw their plots from life or else make them up from scratch. Great ones take
them readymade from previous fictions. Shakespeare was able to find fresh words for all things,
because he felt no urge to frame new stories. He sourced his plots from second-rate historians,
chroniclers and romancers. He turned sows’ ears into silk purses, which his commentators turn
back into sows’ ears. Only his words are his own. If the making up of stories is the test of
originality, then he is the least original writer there has ever been. But now storytellers have to
surprise us with their clever plot twists, because they lack the capacity to reimagine their form.
‘It is,’ Wilde says, ‘only the unimaginative who ever invent.’

The task of art is not to give shape to life, but to give life to shape.

Good writers amuse you with their intricate tales. Great writers awe you with their lush truths.
They forgo the crude and evanescent shocks of plotting for the enduring marvel of fresh

11 Imagination defies belief

Belief petrifies imagination, and paralyses reason. What is faith but frozen vision? The mind is at
its best when it flies out into the possible. But it is at its stupidest when it stays fixed in its
beliefs. The mind at play can dare to tell the truth, because it has no desire to be believed.

Truth has one god, poetry a whole pantheon, ‘many gods and many voices.’ There are a
plethora of gods, and Shakespeare is their prophet. ‘What shocks the virtuous philosopher
delights the camelion poet.’ A poem glows, not by virtue of the one meaning that it states, but by
the hundred that it darkly hints.

The tribute due to beauty is not love but admiration. And the tribute due to truth is not belief but

‘For the life after death,’ Butler says, ‘it is not necessary that a man or woman should have
lived.’ To the imaginative mind existence is the drabbest attribute that a creature can possess.
The gods, like the rest of the beings of fiction, mean no less for never having lived. And the
stage of our dreams shrinks when they cease to play on it. A literary persona, like a deity, has
life and yet is free of the taint of being real and human. The figures of art, like those on Keats’s
urn, win the one brief immortality that this world can grant. The work of art is the city that
Tennyson wrote of, which ‘is built to music, therefore never built at all, and therefore built for

12 Art and the creeds

The gods were one of our most fertile fictions, though also one of our most fallow convictions.

Before the gods came there was art. And now that they have gone there will be nothing but

Art comes out of the decomposition of conviction, when the old gods are departing, but reason
has not yet arrived to fill their thrones. ‘Art rears its head where creeds relax,’ as Nietzsche said.
It is a gas exhaled by decomposing faith, and the christian one festered more luxuriantly than
the rest.
No kingdom has been the source of more art and thought and science than the worldly kingdom
of Christ, since none has been rent by such gory civil brawls. It gave rise to the finest works of
the mind, as dung breeds the sweetest roses and lilies.

Philosophers dissolve faith with their corrosive doubts, and art eludes it by its imaginative

13 The dance of ravishment and disillusion

Art is a dance of ravishment and disillusion. Poets dream visions as sensual and tormenting as
an unrequited lover’s. They imagine as aboundingly as they think severely and stringently. Their
task is to make us drunk with their pure and fresh distillations, while sobering us from the flat
confections of life. They dry up our trust in the lies by which we live. They don’t have enough
faith to doubt, but we lack the mental daring to be disabused.

Some writers rouse you from your sleep, and some call you back to dream again. They wake
your mind to its proper glory, and show you a new world of thought.

Only an audience of infants suspends its disbelief, and is transported out of its own place, and
thinks it can play a part in the show.

14 The savage god
Too little civilization, and art won’t germinate. Too much, and it goes to seed. Art is at length
killed by the same conditions that give it nourishment. Emerson forewarned that our race would
die of sophistication. And, as the Goncourts said, it needs a jolt of barbarism from time to time to
bring it back to life. But now that global kitsch blankets the earth, where will the scythians come
from, to reinvigorate it with their untamed sap and sinew? There are no more barbarians, but
only avid consumers. ‘If mankind does not perish through passion,’ Nietzsche says, ‘it will perish
through debility.’

For lack of brutality art will die. ‘The modern artist must live by craft and violence,’ Pound wrote.
‘His gods are violent gods.’ Like some savage idol, art will have blood. The consummate artist
would devote one half of life to making music and the rest to making war. Such a fierce creator
would be half dandy and half thug, not an artistic Socrates, as Nietzsche claimed, but an artistic
Caesar, still at work in art’s old vocation of decorating the slaughterhouse, and singing a song
‘as if he had a sword upstairs.’ Art is a priesthood, as Cézanne said. But it is a blood-steeped
priesthood which still practises human sacrifice.
15 All things adverse
How but in fret and tumult could you shape an art of calm and poise? The one place you can
write from is the end of your tether. The mind works most forcefully not in rest and composure,
but in weariness and despair. It must come to the brink of disintegration, before it can build up a
whole. Insomnia keeps a fatiguing but instructive night school. And debt has been the relentless
muse of some of the best writers, such as Balzac, Dostoyevsky or Scott, chivvying them into

Why would a soul that bathed in a tranquil bliss feel the need to make beauty or to find truth?
Force thrives on all things adverse. If you would set the artist going, make their lot a touch less
propitious. Dante was reborn by his banishment, and Machiavelli by his fall.

Paradise is decked with the works that artists make in their purgatory. The art ascends to a cool
Elysium. The artist stays below in the flames, burning and unregenerate.

16 The art of loss

Art is what we make of what we’ve lost. The work preys on the artist, to feed the art. A flawless
piece grows up on the wreck of a life. The success of a work of art is the sum of its maker’s

If it weren’t for all our failures, we would become no more than successes.

You earn perfection extremely cheap, at the mere cost of your life. A choice work is made not by
the life but by the days, and not by the days but by the hours. The days and hours make the
work. The life is a poor offering that is burnt up in its service.

The artist is happy to be a fool, that the work might grow wise.

The artist need not have lived through a catastrophe. Life itself is catastrophe enough. Each
cruel day takes from the artist and adds to the art. And for both of these the artist gives thanks.
The work gains for all that its sad maker has lost.

Neglect and obscurity, though they mar the artists, make the art, which blooms in the shade,
where they would wilt and wither. They work, as Proust said, in the abyss of the primeval fears
of silence, solitude and the dark.

17 Inspired trash
An artist must keep vigilantly on the watch for inspiration, and just as vigilantly on the watch
against it. We might have more faith in it, if it were not so undiscriminating. It throws up all the
duds as well as all the marvels. The best authors may write from the subconscious, but so do
the worst. Scribblers of the most dull-witted ditties or chirpy lyrics don’t doubt that a trance takes
hold of their soul when the muse visits. In those rare and blessed hours when the flame of
inspiration hovers over me, all I make is lacquered trash.

Creators are sure that what they make is such a miracle, that they must disclaim their
authorship of it and shyly ascribe it to some higher power, such as a god, or to some deeper
source, such as the id.

It feels as delightful to be inspired as it does to be drunk, and it’s just as likely to lead us to the
truth. Artists lay claim to inspiration, to validate what they make by the state of mind in which
they made it. But how does the warmth that you feel when you form a thought vouch for its
truth? Is the bliss of conceiving a child a pledge that it will tell no lies?

18 Art is made by form not feeling

An age of great poetry is not an age of strong feeling but an age of rich forms. ‘All that is
beautiful and noble,’ Baudelaire says, ‘is the product of reason and calculation.’ Strenuous form
counts for far more than slack sincerity.

Inspiration is the ease and fertility that comes with the prolonged and tensed application of a
strong will. Centuries of inherited practice steer the spontaneous strokes of all true designers.
They owe their instant inspiration to the long craft and tradition which they boast it lifts them
above. They carefully fill a pot with water, light a fire under it, and then call it inspiration when it

Inspirations rain down on earth as thick as neutrinos. But they pass straight through most
people. They are detected only when they strike a genius.

Most of us speak with glib and hackneyed candour as poets create with glib and vivid artifice.
They think as frivolously as the poem thinks profoundly. But by patient craft they raise their
shallow frankness to the dispassionate veracity of art.

19 Inspiration is the consequence of creation not its cause

Poets don’t write because they have rich thoughts, they have rich thoughts because they write.
They don’t create because they are inspired, they grow inspired by creating. Inspiration, as
Renard said, is ‘the joy of writing. It does not come before writing.’ It is the bait that the muses
lay to lure you to keep working.

A poet comes to be a poet by the habit of composing poems. The poem is the parent of the
poet. ‘That which is creative,’ Keats said, ‘must create itself.’
You don’t write because you need to, you write because others have written. And then you go
on writing because you have written. ‘All fine imaginative work is self-conscious and deliberate,’
Wilde wrote. ‘No poet sings because he must sing.’

20 The effects of art
There are four great heresies of aesthetics. First we assume that style ought to try to look like its
content. Secondly we hold that the meaning of a fiction is the tale that it tells, as the meaning of
a painting is the scene that it depicts. We are sure that great art must have strong emotional
effects or ought to have a strong moral effect. And we believe that a work of art should express
the personality of the artist.

The distillations of pure thought or pure poetry leave us stone-cold sober.

Poetry is a liquor which fails to intoxicate even the few who have a taste for it.

People pay choice art the tribute of tawdry emotion which is the due of cheap soap opera. Like
Proust’s Madame Verdurin, they greet with unearned feeling works which were conceived with
rich poetic fire. And they deem that they thus confer on them the highest praise. Vermeer’s
restful scenes melt the hearts of meretricious sentimentalists. They were much loved by the

If great works of art touch deep chords in us, it is by playing on the most tenuous strings.

21 Art acts on our imagination not our emotions

The effects of art are cognitive and not emotional. But it has so little cognitive effect on most of
us, that we conclude that its function must be to stir our feelings. If a work touches us through
our emotions, it must be kitsch.

No art is dionysian, either in its inspiration or in its effects. Dionysus is the god of kitsch. Art
does not well up from the oceanic, chthonic and orgiastic. It comes by solitude, patience and
conscious craft.

We take it that the purpose of art must be to move us. But who now cares enough for art to be
moved by it? And kitsch treats us to such lavish feasts of feeling, that we have no need of art.

Most people presuppose that art at its most potent should work on them like an emotional
pornography, titillating them with an unceasing arousal of their worthy passions and climaxing in
some happy ending. But even this would seem insipid if there weren’t some villain caught in the
cogs of its moral machinery.
Art holds out to you nothing but the frail and makeshift comforts of perfect and permanent form.
It falls short of our pretend praise, but outstrips our real one.

Our reception of a work of art is at best a pallid shadow of the brightness of its own vision.

22 The impotence of art

We don’t doubt that what is precious, good or beautiful must touch the bottom of our hearts, and
that if it fails to touch the bottom of our hearts then it can’t be precious, good or beautiful. But we
know a profound work by how insipidly it affects us, a genuine work by how spuriously it affects
us, and a priceless one by how cheaply it affects us. You can tell a strong work by how limply it
moves you, and a slipshod melodrama by how evocative it seems. Don’t the hollowest tales stir
in us the most piquant effusions, be they tears or laughter, horror or condolence? A good book
knows how to play on our feelings, a great one doesn’t care to.

To hear people blather about how profoundly art moves them, you would expect galleries,
concert halls and theatres to be full to the rafters with tears, jubilation, exultation, terror and

We don’t laugh at great comedies. We don’t sob at great tragedies. ‘The wittiest authors,’
Nietzsche says, ‘elicit a scarcely noticeable smile.’ But the most asinine farce whips up gales of

Nine laughs in ten are cued by the occasion and not by the joke.

We laugh in order to please others, or because we are so pleased with ourselves.

Most witty writing, such as Dorothy Parker’s, is too palpably pleased with its own wit to please
us much.

23 Fake art has real effects

Art is the most genuine thing that we have, and so most of our responses to it are fake.

For every one who has been touched by a poem, there are a thousand whose souls have been
saved by a pop song. And they learn how to lead their lives from comic book superheroes.

Music is better at calling up a fake grief than at assuaging a real one. And if it does console us,
it does so by distracting us.

We are soothed or roused by mere dross, and thrilled by the cheapest tricks.

Life stirs us so much more feelingly than art. Life is pressing and personal, while art is cool and
ageless. We are untouched by art’s bland perfections. But we delight in life’s squalid gaudiness.
The spectators go through a far more impressive range of passions at a football game than they
would at a play or piece of music. It’s hack style that stirs us, dull art that improves us, and
phony affects that fire the soul. The only verse that calls forth instant tears or smiles is on
greeting cards.

People need to have everything adulterated for them. In its pure state it would have no effect on
them at all. They don’t need a thing diluted so that they can bear its potency. They need to have
it artificially flavoured so that they can taste it.

What impotent books ravished our youth.

24 Art does not remake us

We don’t grasp how rich a work of art is till it has remade us, and that would take more than a
whole life.

How mortifying, that a great book finds me so facile, trite and forgettable when it reads me. And
I don’t improve on a second reading.

Great books are fastidious, and have no desire to read most people.

You must be blind indeed, if you need a painting to teach you how to see, or a book to teach
you what to feel. It’s not art but kitsch that makes us see or hear the world in a new way. Art
does so only if it gets turned into an advertisement. If art could change the way we see the
world, it would make artists of us all. Art doesn’t modify how you see anything save art, and then
solely if you are an artist. A painter looks at each thing with the cold impassioned eye of a
professional, on the alert for anything that might be of use for art.

A crowd-pleaser like Renoir may open our eyes to the beauty of the world, but a true painter
such as Cézanne opens our eyes to the beauty of paint.

A book acts like a virus which must infect a long column of unaffected carriers till it latches on to
the one victim that it was meant for.

25 Surprise
Real surprises go on astonishing us over and over. Yet they don’t startle us, but pour new light
on what we see each day.

Surprise is to wonder as lust is to love. Surprise craves unremitting variation, wonder is content
with the simple and unshifting. Ignorance loves to be surprised, but only knowledge can feel
wonder. So surprise fades with familiarity, but wonder grows more bright.

The one kind of surprise that none of us likes is a new truth.

We keep on the watch for surprises, since they corroborate our stock views, which prime us to
keep on the watch for surprises. ‘In the playhouse,’ Tristan Bernard says, ‘the onlookers want to
be surprised, but by what they expect.’

26 Bright surfaces, false depth

‘It is only shallow people,’ as Wilde says, ‘who do not judge by appearances.’ Why are we so
reluctant to rest our senses on the surface where surfaces are grace? Why prefer treacherous
clefts to translucent shallows? Surfaces alone are fathomless. ‘The less it means,’ as Warhol
said, ‘the more beautiful it is.’

We are so incapable of seeing the form, that we think that it must be a transparent window to its

What a rich text unfolds each time we read it is not more depth but more and yet more surface.

Form rescues us from the depths. And yet in order to love art, we feel we must pretend that it
goes deep. A painting or a piece of music may seem to mean something, but don’t they mean
only on the outside? Deep within they are pure form. This is their true meaning, and this is why
they are so hard to make sense of. ‘Form and colour,’ as Wilde says, ‘tell us of form and colour.
That is all.’ But we are too shallow to see the wonders that stare us in the face.

Beauty does not dive to a hidden depth. It basks on a boundless surface which dazzles our
eyes. Beauty is skin deep, ugliness is soul deep. What heart is as handsome as a handsome
face? What soul is as beautiful as a beautiful body and its lovely covering of flesh?

Ugliness is a far more solid and lasting quality than beauty.


27 Art is an antinomian
The creatures of fiction inhabit a spacious country of the mind. So why do we persist in judging
them by the stifling moral protocols of the low cavern in which we lodge? Pious writers pardon
their villains, to tout their own good heart, and to show that the villains have not earned it.
Peerless writers, like Shakespeare, Milton or Dostoyevsky, don’t indulge their malefactors with
cheap clemency. They charge them with their own demoniac force. They send their rain on the
just and on the unjust. Thus they show us kinds of justice more capacious than our suburban
codes of right and wrong.
Moralizing writers such as Dickens draw much more interesting villains than heroes, since they
feel no temptation to turn them into whitewashed portraits of themselves. Strong and unsparing
writers make self-portraits of their rogues.

Imagination, like the body, is free from sin because it has no conscience.

A true artificer treats categories of good and evil as a piece of the external furniture of the age.
It’s the ones who don’t know their own trade that try to renovate or reconfigure them. Moral
seriousness in a work of art would be a frivolous shirking of the real seriousness of art. Yet this
is the sole kind of seriousness that most lovers of art know or care for. ‘The morality of art,’
Wilde says, ‘consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.’ Right and wrong are nets
which enmesh small souls.

Creation is love. Criticism is justice.

28 Bad art, good intentions

Only secondary artists care so much for the world that they want to reform it, though some of
the best, like Dickens or Picasso, still fancy that they do. Wordsworth, who wrote so tenderly of
leech gatherers and idiot boys, joined in a scam to profit from actuarial computations of the
lifespan of old men. Faulkner said that, in order to win the time to write, ‘a writer would rob his
mother. The Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.’

‘All bad art,’ as Wilde said, ‘is the result of good intentions.’ Art is strong enough to rise above its
producer’s best purposes or worst prejudices. But it can’t fulfil the former or fix the latter. Art
doesn’t care enough about our prejudices to want to undermine them. And our prejudices are
too coarse to be touched by art.

A strong poet such as Milton dares to assert as an artist the same overweening pride that he
damns in Lucifer.

29 Sermons in story
Any facile storyteller can make the good prevail, but only one as fine as Austen can make it

People relish fictions that show the triumph of the fine qualities that they don’t doubt they
possess. I am touched by tales of people like me, who choose love and integrity instead of
lucre, and are then recompensed with a fortune. ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and all these
things shall be added unto you.’ And when they are added unto us, we take this as a sign that
we must have found the kingdom.
Sermonizing writers, like Dickens, sense that a bald moral victory will not do. They must show
you the good gaining the world, and wrongdoers forfeiting their souls and their loot. They
guarantee that if you leave off jostling to get what you want, it’s sure to fall in your lap. Though
excoriating greed, they make their heroes millionaires. And they rail at vengefulness, while
arranging a crafty retribution for the culpable. And though they paint hypocrisy as the one
unforgivable sin, their own art works by devious indirection. Their narration makes use of all the
wiles for which they so righteously condemn their villains.

30 Art does not improve the world

The world has come to such a pass, that if poets are in fact its unacknowledged legislators,
would we not do well to burn their books?

Only dull artists could improve us and crop us to the shape of the latest moral stamp.

The only writers who have any influence in the real world are those that are as shallow, vulgar
and mediocre as the real world.

A poem that could change the world would have to be doggerel.

I have no doubt that it’s myself that art improves, and my neighbours that it needs to.

Authors can’t set the world to rights by their scrupulous use of language. They can’t even set
language to rights.

31 The egoism of the artist

Art is indirect, egotistical and devouring. It acts more like vindictiveness than pity.

Arctic hearts have ardent imaginations. Those who live for art, as Keats says, ‘must have self-
concentration.’ They conceive so fervently, because they sympathize so coolly. What sets them
on is not a generous and dissipating compassion, but an omnivorous and focused self-will. Their
sympathies are both profligate and thrifty, always on the watch for scenes or feelings that might
fertilize their art, be they ever so insalubrious.

The iron integrity of an artist is one kind of ordinary egoism. They take ‘as much delight in
conceiving an Iago as an Imogen.’ They create without risk, and destroy without responsibility.
Their hearts are at once unworldly and unscrupulous. ‘I value people for what I can get out of
them,’ said the saintly Beethoven. They have an icy fascination with the lives of others, and we
mistake their fascination for pity and their iciness for impartiality.

The sacraments of great art are valid, no matter how flawed the ministrant might be. But none of
its sacraments are efficacious, however attentive the congregants might be.
We take it that the task of art must be to celebrate ordinary lives. But Stevens, when asked what
set him off as a poet from an ordinary man, sanguinely retorted ‘inability to see much point to
the life of an ordinary man.’

32 Art is irresponsible
Art gazes like an imperturbable olympian on the inferno of this world. Like the deities of
Epicurus, it sits blank and uncaring. And its makers are like the bright gods, moral infants with
more than mortal capabilities. The few who aspire to build a work for the ages must, like the
ages, be unhasting and inexorable. The finest, as Flaubert said, are calm and pitiless.

Why do we assume that artists have no better use for their imagination than to train it to view
the world as the rest of us who are not artists and have no imagination view it? They don’t feel
the same as us. They think quite differently from us, and have a gift for fashioning forms which
we would be at a loss to frame. Thus they work not by empathy, which stays behind to nurse
aching hearts, but by audacity, which dares to press on and leave them uncared for. Sympathy
sees likenesses, art makes differences. Empathy is a mirror, imagination is a torch.

We are now so incurably ill, that we mistake artists for healers, and look to them to relieve us.
But they have the ruddy carelessness of the hearty, while those who write for therapy make
their readers sick.

The artist’s thought is as apt to flash out in playful cruelty as in heart-rending pity. Shakespeare
could see the jocular side of Gloucester’s blinding as well as its horrors.

33 Art does not make us pity

The sterile sympathies of art don’t rouse us to share the sorrows of live men and women. I
gorge myself on pity in literature, as I would choke on it in life. Have we learnt to pity by
simulating bad art? Or have bad artists grown maudlin by mimicking us? We think that we feel
for figures in books because they seem real. But it may be that we feel for people in life because
we look on them as if they were figures in books. We are vigilant to see justice done at every
turn, save where it might do some real good. History or fiction lack the power to make you care
for what lies outside them. They may move you to feel for others, but only for the others of
history or of fiction.

We always care too late, when we have no cure left but words. It’s then that we can flaunt our
stricken artistry and air our agonized perplexity. The wounds that we feel for others speak
eloquently, but they don’t bleed.

Great characters have such pathos, not because they are like people in life, but because life
holds no place for such as they. They belong to an eternal country.
By reading fiction we don’t learn to pity the afflicted. We learn to feel that we must be as grand
and as significant as its heroes, and that others are as unreal and as marginal as the bit parts.

Art does not enlarge our sympathies. It plays on them.

34 The infernal method

Art owes more to evil than to good, both for its content and for the alienated energies which
drive those who frame it.

Scrupulous writers don’t waste their evil or their truth on life. They save their justice for their
style, and their mischief for their works. They teach their malice to think, and their virtues to

The artist moulds celestial shapes from infernal fires, marrying calm harmony and wild fantasy.

35 The corrupt creator

The artist stems from a long and august lineage of magicians, mountebanks, pimps, quacks,
counterfeiters, grifters, forgers, thieves and liars. Great writers may have the traits that go to
make a great banker, as Stendhal claimed. But don’t they need still more the traits that make a
great bankrupt, reckless audacity and a carelessness with truth? ‘I have heard of no crime that I
should be incapable of committing,’ as Goethe said.

Writers are the sort of people who would eavesdrop at keyholes and then make up what they
have heard.

Artists are people who prefer to lie even when they could get away with telling the truth, and
who insist on telling the truth where we want them to lie.

The artist is a liar that art makes use of to reveal the truth.

A work of art, like the resurrected flesh, ‘is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption.’ How is
it born, but by debauching innocence? An artist is an undiscovered traitor. They are so eloquent
in broadcasting their love for our sad dust because they have left it so far behind them. The only
pacts they make are with the prince of sin.

Hold fast to your integrity, but don’t let it taint your work. As Catullus wrote, singers ought to be
chaste, but not their song. ‘Art,’ Picasso said, ‘is never chaste.’

The medium
Forms and genres

Taste, like all the rest of our traits, is disjointed and fragmentary. Try to trace the shape, and
you’ll miss the colours. Contemplate the colours, and you’ll fail to catch the form. And few of us
have much zest or judgement for more than one or two of the arts.

Imagination is the car, taste is the driver.

Let pleasure guide what you read, but only if you have first learnt to read for some worthier end
than pleasure.

‘He that ploweth should plow in hope,’ as Blake urged. Create your work in hope, but judge it in
despair. Who of us has not felt the exhilaration of working better than we know, and then the
dismay of discovering that what we have made falls far short of what we planned?

A writer has a brace of adversaries to tussle with, first the blank page, and then the full one.

Tact is the passive of taste. Taste selects, tact forbears.

Few of us have the taste to be disgusted by anything that flatters our own taste.
1 Taste begins in disgust
As we grow more discriminating, the more things we see and hear both to delight and to disgust
us. Cursed are they who have the taste to see how ugly we have made the world, but not the
vision to remake it. ‘Taste,’ Renard wrote, ‘ripens at the expense of happiness.’ Life for the
discerning is one long process of getting disgusted.

‘Taste,’ as Valéry wrote, ‘is made of a host of distastes.’ All discernment begins in disgust. A
fastidious taste has a distasteful prehistory. Bad taste is made by our desires. Good taste is
made by our disgust.

What a swamp of mortifications you have to wade through in learning how to judge cleanly.
Shame piques us to acquire a fine taste. Yet we are still vain of whatever taste we have
acquired. Taste is honed by shame, imagination is heightened by pride.

Some people are not hard to please because they have no taste, and some because they have
enough to know that most things are not worth their displeasure.

2 Debauched by success
Each day good taste gives up a touch more of its influence, but bad taste goes on insensibly
gaining ground.

When style seems to have won out over substance, most times it is a crass and smug manner
that has won out over subtle style, as in the case of Chesterton. Gaudy writers boast that they
love form, but they are just enamoured of its crude effects. Style too has its hypocrites and
pharisees, who confuse it with the frills, flounces, flourishes and embroidery which mask its
absence. ‘All their work they do for to be seen of men. They make broad their phylacteries, and
enlarge the borders of their garments.’ When they think that they’re mastering their craft, they
are in fact learning the flashy stunts that will take in their audience.

Years of success had depraved his taste. He had lapsed from plain dignity into purple
decoration, and had bought publicity by peddling his judgment. He ‘ruined a fine tenor voice for
effects that bring down the house,’ as Auden phrased it. May you be spared the misfortune of
success. And may you die before praise gets a chance to debauch you.

All that cultured sight-seeing, the brilliant friendships, those fine dinners and great
conversations, have gone to make us the complacent mediocrities that we are.

Life is a slow erosion of all our standards. You must leave them to sink if you want to succeed.
3 Taste and prejudice
We can’t rid ourselves of our prejudices. So we should try to make them as discriminating as we

Take care that you don’t allow your quirks, habits and reflexes to do the job of your taste. We
raise our prejudices to the rank of principles and our predilections to the rank of taste. We
pervert our precepts to give a pretext for our likes and dislikes. Instead of elevating our taste by
undergirding it with our judgment, we contort our judgment by coercing it to ratify our choices.
‘How quick come the reasons for approving what we like,’ as Austen said.

4 Taste and wealth

My taste calibrates its standard to suit the class of things that I have had the means to pay for.
Like my conscience, I use it not to weigh what I ought to do or get, but to weave shrewd pretexts
for what I have done or got.

The rich use their wealth to hide how cheap their taste is or else to show it off. Their taste is
their avarice straining to live up to the demands of their coarse or cultivated snobbery. Elegance
is the plush luxury that the rich have in place of beauty. It’s the bourgeois substitute for real

Our greed keeps ruthlessly up to date. But our taste lags hopelessly behind the times.

Most people get the taste for the costliest grade of vulgarity that they can pay for.

Most of us don’t doubt that we deserve the best. But we feel sure that the best must be
whatever we have the money to buy.

Others lay waste their powers by getting and spending, but I flex and strengthen mine. Their
covetousness disfigures life. But if I had a fortune, I could make mine graceful. My plain need is
their uncontrolled greed.

Anyone poorer than me must lack the sense to know how to get money, and anyone wealthier
lacks the taste to know how to spend it.

5 Fastidious bad taste

Those who have a decided taste are sure that they have an exquisite one. If they prize
discernment, they presume that they know what it is. And if they presume that they know what it
is, they have no doubt that they possess it.

Lax taste discriminates as fastidiously as finicky taste. And a nice taste is as pleased with itself
as a nasty one. A fine palate spurns most foods, but so does a coarse and uncultivated one.
People are exceptionally choosey, and most of what they choose is trash. We aren’t deaf to
style, but most of us prefer a trite style to a choice one. ‘People do not deserve to have good
writing,’ as Emerson said, ‘they are so pleased with bad.’

What we find disgusting in others we find natural and healthy in ourselves.

6 Bad taste is natural

Bad taste is born, good taste is made. Nature will supply you with your fake taste. Your true
taste you have to piece together by your own efforts. ‘It is,’ Reynolds said, ‘a long and laborious
task to acquire it.’ First you have to learn what is worth admiring, then you have to act as if you
admired it, till at last you start to admire it for real, and gather why it has earned the admiration
that you give to it.

We keep up our good taste by battling our natural inclinations.

There’s more vitality in vulgarity than there is in good taste.

Fashion makes our naturally false taste even worse than it might have been. It is only the sluice
of tradition that can cleanse it.

Our natural bad taste craves what is false and spurious, while the only taste that we learn is to
disguise or deck out the vulgarity that we are born with.

Most people have bad taste, but it is not even their own bad taste. And if it were, it might be a
great deal worse.

A good heart is a likely sign of bad taste. But bad taste is no proof of a good heart.

Our parents give us a template of bad taste, first of all in their choice of each other.

7 Good taste, bad reasons

If you want to gauge the quality of a person’s likes and dislikes, don’t ask them what they
admire, ask them why. It’s much easier to acquire good taste than good reasons.

Sophisticates cry up a masterwork for reasons no less fatuous than those for which oafs hoot at
it. Cultivated people have no more valid grounds for admiring fine things than bumpkins do for
deriding them, though they may have more valid grounds than the perfunctory ones that they
profess. They bolt them, and then belch their appreciation in stale patter. ‘A painting in a
gallery,’ the Goncourts wrote, ‘hears more ludicrous opinions than anything else in the world.’

Some people’s enthusiasms are good for nothing but to warn you not to waste your time on
what they praise.
Admiration knows more than understanding. We prize the right things for the wrong reasons.

It’s more surprising when an uncommon mind is fêted than when it’s vilified, since in both cases
it is misunderstood. ‘To be great,’ as Emerson says, ‘is to be misunderstood.’

8 Popularity
Popularity is the anteroom of oblivion. An artist who works to win an audience must be content
to be forgotten. The book that millions now can’t put down in a few years no one will want to
pick up. The most enduring writers have the fewest readers in their own or any other age.

We take it that a work of art will be no good if it aims to make money, but that if it is any good it
will be sure to make bags of it. Our estimates of value are both mawkish and hardheaded.

A bestseller is a book that everyone reads because everyone else is reading it.

To refer to a book as a bestseller used to be to dismiss it. But now that we fetishize numbers
and success, popularity is the sole endorsement that we take note of. ‘Nothing indeed can be a
stronger presumption of falsehood,’ Hume wrote, ‘than the approbation of the multitude.’

An age that prides itself on its individualism is a slave to number, quantity and the mass of

These days in order to make the rich works of the past palatable, they have to be so cheapened
and vulgarized, that they are not worth preserving.

Most of us know or admire nothing of a rare work save its reputation. ‘The more a work is
praised,’ Gourmont said, ‘the more beautiful it grows to the multitude.’

The one sure way to spruik a thing these days is to tell people that hordes of other people are
sold on it.

9 Taste and fashion

A masterpiece lasts, because it gives each age the rich ideas which it can misinterpret in its own
way. Tradition links a chain of fecund misconstructions. Time tells you what to value, but fashion
tells you why. People keep up in the sweep of the centuries the same catalogue of great works.
But they adjust the reasons for which they praise and misread them to suit the stock views of
their own age. So they come to admire them for the very traits that they lack. They make them
their contemporaries by misconstruing them.

We read great and desolating books to find the anodyne cant which dull and pious preceptors
have trained us to look out for.
The one style for which we now have any relish is a debased democratic realism. And so we
can’t praise Shakespeare except by demoting him to a democrat and obsequious realist. But the
few times that he brought commoners on stage it was to make them the butt of a joke. His aim
in writing was not to crack the canonical mould of form by forcing it to make room for real life.
He took it over and filled it with more and more imagination.

10 Rules
Where there are no strong rules, there will be no sweet exceptions. ‘The law alone brings us
liberty,’ as Goethe wrote. A strong artist must frame strong laws, though it’s all case law.
‘Precept must be upon precept, line upon line.’ By revering rules artists are freed from following
fads and trends.

In art it is the exceptions that must set the rules, and the purpose of the rules is to spur further

Poets must create the taste by which they are relished, as Wordsworth said. First they mould
their own, to make it both exacting and permissive. And then they need to raise their readers to
be the next best thing to poets. They must enable the most impetuous flights, yet build to fit the
most stringent specifications.

Artists are not like moralists. They practise better than they preach. Most of them have a theory
of art, so it’s just as well that they don’t keep to it. Shakespeare’s plays give the lie to most of
what he wrote about play writing. And Flaubert, if he had paid heed to his own impeccable
aesthetic code, would have disciplined his scandalous brilliancy into dry correctness. Had he
excised his own persona from his books, he would have robbed them of their richest character.
Few tellers intrude so unremittingly in their tale.

11 Breaking the rules

Artists don’t breach the rules, they lay down better ones, to found a new freedom and a new
rigour. They strengthen them by enlarging their writ and by showing what they can bring forth.
Genius, as George Eliot said, ‘comes into the world to give new rules.’

Half the pleasure of creating lies in the destruction it entails.

Where personal taste reigns, standards don’t just fall. The very notion of standards is bound to
be done away with, and replaced by the criteria of relevance, popularity, profit and feeling good.
Kitsch is the democracy of taste.
‘Beauty,’ as Alberti said, ‘is the revelation of law.’ But each timid conformist now parrots the
platitude that precepts are made to be transgressed. The ordinances of art are as trite and
disregarded as the ten commandments.

Our iconoclastic age has smashed art and set up kitsch on its gilt plinth.

12 Freedom and decadence

Artists these days don’t lack the aptitude to create, but they have lost the power to conceive
what a fine work might be. ‘All men can do great things,’ Butler says, ‘if they know what great
things are.’ How could they craft a piece of abiding beauty, when they can’t make out the most
basic axioms or won’t obey them?

In vigorous eras artists make strong works, though they may hold incorrect views on art. In
spent eras they can do nothing great, even if they hold the right ones. They glean leaden
lessons from golden instructors. We have now swallowed such a crop of faulty postulates, what
could purge us but the dawn of a new dark age of unlearning?

It’s often said that if Shakespeare were on earth today he would be a copywriter or a
screenwriter. But that is just the reason that there can be no more Shakespeares.

We now churn out great reams of shoddy verse, since it’s not the age of poetry, and great
reams of shoddy prose, since it is the age of prose. Most novels are written by people who are
too bright to write them or not bright enough.

13 The good and the great

Major artists don’t do better what minor ones do well. They have quite contrary aims, and gain
quite contrary ends. They differ in kind, not in degree.

The best, as Voltaire said, may be the enemy of the good. But in politics the better is as deadly
a foe of the good as the best, while in art the good perverts the best and promotes the dull. A lot
of good books are much better than great ones, and the best have more in common with the
bad than with the good. And some of the finest books, such as Wordsworth’s or Hawthorne’s,
are not much good. ‘In art,’ as Goethe points out, ‘the best is good enough.’

The few great books differ more from the many good ones than a good book differs from the
mass of bad ones. Or else they may differ less, but the differences matter far more.

Good art has an eye for the telling nuance. Great art cleaves to the abstract and elemental.
Good art is detailed, fluent and relaxed. Great art is stark, stilted and hieratic. Good art reflects
life. Great art imprints on it its own strange vision. A good writer shows you how life looks and
feels. A great one shows you what it means. ‘Art,’ as Aristotle notes, ‘does not detail the
outward guise of things but their inward import.’

14 At home in the world

A good artist makes you feel more at home in the world, a golden one makes you wish that you
were and content that you are not. Good art soothes us with its predictable satisfactions. Great
art desolates and exhilarates us, ravaging us with its lacerating truths, and delighting us with its
intrepid imagination.

We want stories to take us to a threatening place and make us feel safe there, just as we want
to go abroad and feel familiarly at home.

People treat a fiction as if it were a guide book to another time and place, a historical document
or an archaeological artefact. So they deal with it as they would with a record of real acts and
persons, on which they must pass moral judgment. And they call it complex if it poses a moral
conundrum in which there is some right on each side. They enjoy it as if it were a piece of
gossip about neighbours who lead slightly more exciting and scandalous lives. Those who have
no imagination respond to fictions as if they were recitations of real life.

15 The mind is matrix to the medium
The deepest thinking is neither conscious nor subconscious. And great thought is not
unconscious but extra-conscious. It goes on outside the mind in the medium that begets it, be it
numbers or words or paint. The mind is the womb which the medium must make pregnant. As
Dirac said, the equation knows more than the mathematician. The work knows more than its
maker. And the metaphor knows more than the poet.

Imagination is a mind spurred to a high pitch of activity by the possibilities of the form in which it

The creative spark gives light to the work, but leaves the man or woman who made it in the
dark. And the work, which is all on the surface, is far more profound than the soul that gave it
birth. Imagination inheres in the medium. It is only an occasional visitant to the maker.

A great artist shapes a world as rich and inexhaustible as the medium. A poor realist makes one
as thin and meretricious as life.

16 Imagination is an affinity for a particular medium

Genius is not a gift for general creativeness but a preternatural affinity for a single medium.
Imagination is at its core material. It grants the power to realize all the promise of its medium. It
is morally wayward, but fixed in its sensible form. Shakespeare makes a world of pure words,
Mozart of notes, and Velasquez of paint. And if words, notes or paint had been taken from them,
they would have ceased to create. As the soul lives in this flesh and would die outside it, so a
prolific mind can think only by immersion in its medium.

There is more imagination in Le Corbusier’s austere modifications of the built form than in all
Gaudi’s grotesqueries. And there is more vision in one of Cézanne’s unobtrusive still lives than
in the nightmares of Fuseli or Piranesi. Art must be perennially revolutionizing its means of

17 The medium is the true muse

A great work of art is born, not when an idea finds its fitting form, but when a form begets fresh

The passion that fires a painter is the passion for paint. And the love that stirs a poet is the love
of language, ‘smit with sacred song.’ Their true muse is the medium of their art. Writers see
visions, but only visions of words and their translucent forms. They labour more to clarify form
than meaning.

The poet does not put ideas into poetic form. Poetic form puts ideas into the poet.

Prophets and religious poets are stupefied by their narrow faith, and must be redeemed by the
abounding grace of language.

Forms call forth imagination, and imagination shapes new forms.

18 The muse of language

A poem is not a thought struggling into words, but words giving birth to thought. ‘The real artist,’
as Wilde wrote, ‘proceeds not from feeling to form, but from form to thought and passion.’

For a poet language is the code that cracks the safe.

Language is like rain. Where it waters the ground, thoughts will spring up. Most will be common
weeds. But in a few receptive minds the seeds of fresh ideas will sprout.

Speech has tormented a few men and women to perfect them as the organs of its power. They
are the pipes through which it plays its airs.

A poet is a bird gliding on draughts of language.

If tradition didn’t think one third of poets’ thoughts for them, and speech one third, they would
conceive no thoughts of their own at all.

It is not the job of poets to think. Their job is to find the words that will think for them.

The crucial influence for writers is not their family or country but the state of the language into
which they have been born. They live in a language more than in a country.

19 The poet is the tool of language

Poetic souls are a dime a dozen. What is needful is poetic craft. When this is lacking, the soul of
the poet is stillborn or sterile. The soul that a poet gives voice to is the soul of language.

A weak poet uses language as a tool. A strong poet is a tool used by language.

The soul of the poet is so thin and empty, that words have space to jiggle about in it and form
new compounds.

It is the hand of the painter, not the soul, that is inspired.

A poet is a mind that has plugged in to one of the high-voltage powerlines of language.

Before the poet can choose the words, language must first choose the poet.

Words make use of ordinary speakers when they want to go on foot. When they want to fly, they
use a poet.

A poet must be born again into language. In composing a poem, they give birth to a being who
is able to retrieve the poem which is already there in words. They are absorbed in words as the
mystic is absorbed in God.

20 The guide of language

Words are the one net in which we can catch the truth. We can grope our way through the
dimness only by following the echo of language.

Words are the best and worst of us. We pack them with all our hollowest freaks and all the
fullness of our imagination.

A poet is saved by words or not at all. And writers live by language, but know that it will not
avail. They feel empty if they can’t empty out their soul each day in words on a page.

Form guides a great writer to deep insights, but it waylays a mannered one into the paths of
cheap imposture.
True writers use the imagination inherent in language to guide them to new paths of thought.
And then by clarifying their thought they purify their language.

For the philosopher life is mediated through schemes of thought. And for the poet life is
mediated through speech. ‘Between me and life,’ Wilde said, ‘there is a mist of words always.’

21 Language is imagination
Language is hidden poetry in wait for its bright revealer. It is, as Wilde wrote, ‘the parent not the
child of thought.’

The play of language leads us to deeper springs of truth than the strait path of belief.

Speech has more imagination than any of its users. So the best writers are content to serve as
the clear spouts of its up-welling.

Instead of striving to make our language the image of our minds, we would do well to make our
mind more like language, promiscuous, open, free-flowing and constantly recreating itself.

The poem has a wisdom that the poet lacks. And poetry has a wisdom that the poem lacks.

The writer’s struggle is not with the poverty of speech but with its plenitude. It holds out to them
at every turn a more exuberant range of possibilities than they know what to do with.

Shakespeare’s plays are a field of dancing verbal energy, and speech is their one true hero.
There’s magic in each line. They are a perennial springtime of language.

The true drama of a great fiction is the drama of its author’s vision travailling to find the shining
words to blaze forth its splendour. It’s what Lawrence calls the ‘struggle for verbal
consciousness.’ But our sense for words is so dulled, that the true drama is no more than a
dumb show to us.

22 Words are deeper than we are

It is we who are glib, not words. Words go deeper than we do.

We are too glib to grasp to what depth words might tow us or to what height they might loft us.
Poets do both by ravishing us with their ecstatic dialect.

It’s those who have impoverished ideas that rail at the poverty of language. For poets it is all too
rich for their poor passions, which they therefore feel they must exaggerate. And then when we
read them, we take it that we have these outsized passions too. And so we think words must be
too poor to communicate them.
Why do glib and mawkish people insist that writing is deeper than words, and a picture deeper
than paint, and that all music tends toward silence, and that the poetry lies in the pauses? If
there is anything in the pauses, it is the fake feelings that we put there. We try to read between
the lines of a poem, so that the blaze of its verbal fire won’t blind us.

23 The specificity of the medium

Why do people celebrate one form of art for doing imperfectly what some other does so much
better? Why praise a book for appearing cinematic, or a statue because it seems to move, or a
building as if it were readable, or prose for being poetical, or a tune as if it could recount a tale?
‘The attempt to stir astonishment by means that form no part of the art in question,’ Baudelaire
said, ‘is the great resource of those who are not born artists.’

A painting manifests pure matter by remaining purely abstract. The sole body that a painter can
mould is a body of paint.

A painting should be seen and not read, as writing should be heard and not seen. So a picture
that tries to relate a story is as false to its form as words that try to paint a picture. A picture is
worth a thousand words only to those who have learnt what it means from some other source.
Most of us don’t care for a painting, if we can’t turn it or its maker or its making into a corny tale.
And many of the most renowned painters, such as Michelangelo, have been mere illustrators.

A sense can put up with discordance in inverse ratio to how primitive it is, the nose least of all,
and the ear less than the eye.

24 Words are not pictures

A book must be feebly written, if it means more than the words that it’s made of, though if it’s
undergirded by nothing but its words it will soon crumple.

The standard view holds that writing encodes pictures in words, which we then project as a film
on our mind’s screen when we read. So inadequately do we grasp what goes on in our own
heads, and so prone are we to mouth borrowed nonsense rather than make our own sense.

Words stand for concepts, not for sense impressions. And their true sensory power lies in their
sound, not in the pallid duplicates that they form of the entities that they refer to. In order to take
in their glory, you have to shut your eyes and unstop your ears. They become flesh by making
their subtle music, not by forging crude images. But we have no ears to hear their melody.

Words are not pictures. They impart vague, imprecise and indistinct visual images, and bland
and watery feelings. ‘Nothing we use or hear or touch,’ Clausewitz said, ‘can be couched in
language that equals what is presented by the sense.’ Language is translucent to thought, but
not transparent to action or sensation. Who would read a description of a peach to find out how
it tastes? Just bite its pulp.


25 Genres
For a true artist a genre is no more than an incitement to find fresh forms of words. Order is
generic, imagination is wayward and perverse. Genres are the bowls into which artists pour their
vision. They fix its shape, but not its quality.

Creative energy, like a people, is real and enduring. Genres, like the borders that enclose them,
come and go.

An epic is a core of one third intense tragedy filled out with a wadding of more or less tedious

Tragedy is not a particular kind of story. It is a particular choice of language. It is a grand

character responding to the deepest outrages with a commensurate depth of imagination. So in
life there are no tragedies, but mere mishaps.

Greek and french tragedies are formally frigid, imaginatively impoverished and emotionally
incontinent. The sole reason to read any of them is to learn how great Shakespeare is, and how
right he was to keep clear of their bombastic minimalism, pompous choral insipidities, kitsch
mythology, crass spectacle, sophistic debates, copybook moralizing, pretentious yet prosaic
rhetoric, and formal monotony. All their bellowing has less to say to us than one quiet work of
heartbreaking savagery by Conrad or Faulkner. And yet you can learn as much from some bad
writing as you can from good.

Great stories of crime, such as Dostoyevsky’s, Hawthorne’s or Hugo’s, tell of the vindication of
the culprit’s soul or of the damnation of the detective.

26 Great fiction is greater than its story

In good fiction the tale justifies the telling. But in great fiction the telling justifies the tale, ‘the way
to do a thing that shall make it undergo most doing,’ as Henry James phrased it. And yet we
treat the workmanship as a gaudy and wasteful packaging which we rip off to unwrap the tale as
fast as we can.

A fiction is as great as it is greater than the story that it chronicles. And it means nothing at all if
it means no more than that. Its grand characters outshine their fables as art outshines life, by
illuminating its drift. Form and imagination are the pearls of writing, the tale is the dry twine on
which they are beaded. Plot is not the soul of a great fiction. It is its dry bones.

Great writers know that a good plot is necessary to a great fiction. Readers think that it is

27 The stupidity of story

The plot counts as little in literature as opinions count in speculation. Stories are the despair of
art, as opinions are the desolation of thought. ‘The story,’ Henry James wrote, ‘is just the spoiled
child of art.’

The tale belongs to mere entertainment, the treatment to high art. But we care for art only
insofar as we find it entertaining.

Stories are the thralls of our wishes. Art sets free our imagination.

Lesser writers know how to narrate a plot most effectually, since they have no rich insights to
deflect them from it. There are so few great short stories, because they have no time to do more
than get through a piquant tale.

28 Selection
Why do we assume that an artist makes art by extracting the illustrative details from life? As if
life, when its quotidian slag were scummed off, would leave a concentrate of unalloyed gold. But
not even the fire of imagination burns at a high enough temperature to transmute banality’s
refractory ore. A writer who knew how to delete would not, as Stevenson claimed, make an Iliad
out of a morning paper. They would just report trite details in the random vein of a morning
paper. Art does not select from life, but adds to it. It distorts and reshapes, intensifies and

29 Music
Music arranges formal associations between sound and sound. It does not forge associations of
meaning between sound and sense. Though we call it a universal language, it is in fact neither
universal nor a language. It gives expression neither to rich ideas nor to complex moods. The
only ideas that music gives play to are musical ones. And it evokes a restricted range of coarse
and obvious feelings, not much more than sad or glad, up or down, sunny or spooky. And it’s
the crudest sort that sparks the most intense effects.

Music is made with notes, not with emotions. And these notes touch our musical imagination,
not our moral or narrative or pictorial one.
Music can’t tell the truth, because it can’t say anything at all. And yet so much of it is still a lie.
Music like Wagner’s is even worse than it sounds.

Music is how the gods do mathematics. It’s an ineffable algebra for the ears. It is, as Leibniz
says, ‘the pleasure the mind feels from counting while not being aware that it is counting.’ It is at
once the most sensual and the most abstract of the arts.

It was a great mischance for music that it came of age in the nineteenth century, just as
european taste was declining into kitsch.

Bad music now sounds like good film music, overblown, mushy and thrusting, cuing our
responses scene by scene to lead up to some grandiose climactic fanfare.

30 Savage dance
Ballet is the Fabergé egg of the arts, the over-refined knick-knack of an epicene age. It is a vain
attempt to mime feelings by exaggerated and stereotyped gesticulations, and to rival feline
poise by an unachievable bodily control. If it makes music visible, as Balanchine alleged, then it
plays it on a sorry instrument. It’s like performing Bach on a kazoo. It should leave off straining
for fluid organic grace, and aspire instead to the affectless awkwardness of a puppet. Nijinsky
alone by his rigorous anti-ballet gave back to the dance its savage vitality.

31 Painting and sculpture

We hold that a portrait can lay bare the depths of a soul, since we know only the dry husk of
both life and art. Is the heart so thin and transparent, that mere paint can unveil it? The face
may be a map of habits and experiences, but only those of its own flesh, and not what lies
behind it. The phrenologist Lavater, when asked to differentiate a sketch of Kant from that of an
infamous highwayman, singled out the markers of the true metaphysician in the robber, and the
unmistakable tokens of a brigand in Kant.

A good portrait is one that doesn’t pretend to know a thing about the soul of its sitter.

Cézanne is the ideal painter. He framed a style scoured of feeling, ornament, history and
expression. He kept nothing but the solid and fundamental, and purged his art of all the
extraneous seductions for which even connoisseurs love a painting. So he made pictures that
hold out to us nothing to flatter, to soothe or to allure, no fable, drama, psychology, sympathy,
depth, memory, mystery or meaning.

Sculpture is a more one-dimensional art than painting. A sculpture has more spatial facets, but
a picture has more formal ones.

Only the most infamous tyrants deserve to be satirized by a brazen public statue.
32 Architecture
Architecture is art contaminated by utility. It fouls pure form with gross functionality. Literature
lights it up with truth.

Mawkish people claim that no building is worth as much as the acts that take place beneath its
roof. But the form of a great edifice is worth far more than what it does. And it doesn’t start to
live its real life till it has ceased to work. It’s as great as it is greater than its use. The best
structures outlast their function for the longest time. And a building that is perfectly fit for its
present purpose will soon be pulled down. A pyramid was a tomb for a booby, a cathedral a
barn for superstitious cows to congregate in. Do the grubby fingers brighten the ruby that
bejewels them?

33 Modern builders
If form does follow function, then every building would be a uniform precast box.

The rest of the arts may despair, but architects must frame an art of hope, since they are
building a new world.

Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe shared out modern architecture between them. Wright
was the builder for those who don’t like modern buildings. Le Corbusier made titanic, protean,
joyous, southern structures, Mies reticent, cool, sleek and serene ones. Le Corbusier fashioned
the fresh morning poetry of the new design, Mies its taut and severe prose. So the complete
writer would blend the barbaric force of Le Corbusier and the delicate discipline of Mies.

34 Film
Cinema is beggared by the wealth of its resources. Like Orson Welles, it will do nothing great,
since it can do such a spread of facile things so well. Like life, it is vibrant but insipid, saturated
but vacuous, raucous but inarticulate. It thrills us with the pap of fantasy and the infantile
delights of plot. It feasts our greedy hunger for happy endings and our need to identify with
attractive stars. A pseudo-intellectual is one who treats films as if they were works of art.

Film is as mechanically precocious as it is aesthetically regressive and juvenile. It is advanced

in everything except its sensibility. It is the epitome of present-day art, since it is neither modern
nor art but a lucrative branch of the global business of kitsch.

A film is too rushed to paint luminous images, and too stuffed with visual details to make
thoughtful drama.
Great novels make poor films. Films make use of the skeleton of the plot, but they lose the vocal
life and glory. But since they burst with banal details, we have to speak as if they were freighted
with symbolism.

35 Time, taste and tradition
Good taste preserves a tradition, imagination renews and extends it.

God spent a mere week on the creation of the world, and so he had no one but himself to blame
that he so soon regretted it. Would he not have come to a far less encouraging appraisal of
what he had done, had he not been in such haste to judge if it was all very good? As a creator
he was precipitate, as a critic he was fickle. How often he must have said to his angels, What a
lovely planet earth might have been, if I had spent a few more days on its making, or else had
stopped on the fifth.

God was the first to find out that the bliss of creating is the sole thing that makes up for the
bitterness of existing, but that this joy too soon sours. If he is happy with his work, then he must
have as little taste as ability.

Time is the best critic. The ideas that we hold to may be merely the ones about which we have
not thought long enough to reject.

36 The wisdom of tradition

Time is wiser than taste. And tradition knows more than the individual. We need the stolidity of
tradition to counterbalance the gross obstinacy of our own judgment, and to preserve the works
of deep originality from each epoch’s thirst for crude novelty.

The soul is too shallow to harbour the huge bulk of a work of art. It must moor out in the broad
sea of tradition.

As art tells the truest lies, so tradition is the most sagacious foolishness.

Why commend what time tells you to? Yet time will tell you where to find all the best things.

The dead make up the most vital community, because they are not a community at all. And
posterity frames the best consensus, since it is made without the need for agreement.

For art and thought to thrive, there must be a vertical discontinuity of class and a temporal
continuity of tradition. But money has dissolved class distinctions, and severed the ties that join
one age to its past and to the next.
The past, which reigns as the sovereign of the long age, saves us from fashion, which rules as
the usurper of the hour, more boorish and more peremptory. But we have mutinied against the
majesty of the old ways, to kneel down to the despotic imbecility of the clanging now.

Some writers, such as Emerson, who have lived at ease on a rich legacy of tradition, urge their
juniors to throw up their patrimony and earn a toilsome livelihood of their own.

Tradition works like love. How do your deeds come to mean anything at all but by their
communion with the ones whom time has made dear to you?

A healthy tradition must have the strength to excrete as well as to assimilate, to forget as well as
to keep in mind.

37 Tradition and the individual

Tradition is all, the individual nothing. ‘The richness of a work, of a generation,’ Pavese wrote, ‘is
in all cases determined by how much of the past it contains.’ But to save the past alive, artists
must act as if they were all and the past nothing. ‘Drive your cart and your plow over the bones
of the dead,’ as Blake urged. All good comes by the tyranny of tradition and by the wilful
audacity of the few who fight to depose it. Creators cherish it only if they hope to join its lists.
But how can they enrich it but by being unequivocally of their own time?

Artists make a god of beauty. But they want to smash its old images and set up their own on the
unfilled pedestals. They are at once idolaters and iconoclasts, lawmakers and lawbreakers.
‘Each act of creation,’ Picasso said, ‘is first of all an act of destruction.’

Artists act as channels for the energies of their culture. And whatever the quality of the pipes,
from now on they will be pumping nothing but sludge.

Tradition used to be the care of a whole class. Now it is the endangered possession of a
scattering of rare individuals swamped by the heedless greed of the giddy crowd.

All are born heirs to the past’s inexhaustible bequest, but you must labour for long years to
make it your own. ‘What you have inherited from your antecedents,’ Goethe said, ‘you must first
win for your own use.’

38 Periods and forms
The muses don’t dance in unison, as Degas points out, or grow at the same rate, or age in the
same way. They may form one family, but they each retain their own characteristics. Each
obeys its own laws, and takes its own course of development. ‘That urge to find counterparts
and analogues in the various arts gives rise to queer blunders,’ as Baudelaire points out. Music
had its rebirth long after the renaissance of poetry and the visual arts.

The muses all may be of one sisterhood, but they don’t have much in common.

The english and russians can write great books but not make great paintings. The french can
paint and write but not make music. Germans can write and make music but can’t paint. Italians
can paint and make music but not literature. The irish can write but can’t paint. The english put
all of their music into their poetry. And the french put all their music into their prose.

All great art is degenerate. And all healthy art is kitsch. ‘How sickly seem all things that grow,’ as
Trakl wrote. Each advance is a step on the road to decadence. ‘All mortal greatness is but
disease,’ as Melville said. Human kind owes all its creative force to its sickly, abortive, afflicted,
accursed specimens. So don’t look for a cure for your malaise, but for a form to make it fecund.

A sick society makes its artists weak. But a strong artist cannot make society healthy.

The eighteenth century was still flushed with the health that it was squandering. Its elegance
and sprightliness was the lively glow in the cheek of the dying consumptive.

39 The greeks
Ancient Egypt shaped an authentically modern visual style, stark, impassive and big with
menace. Greece was not classical. It was Egypt’s sinuous and theatrical baroque.

The greeks were teenagers, beautiful, sad, lost, dangerous, but not very deep. They were
shallow enough to see a lot of things clearly. They might have rescued us from our false
complexities by escorting us back to a bright simplicity and surface, ‘the whole Olympus of
appearance,’ as Nietzsche termed it. But now that we know them better, we can’t glean a thing
from them. They were sculptors, not psychologists. They carved the embodied abstractions of
architecture, geometry and myth. Their vision was fixed on the plastic and formal. Their eyes
looked outwards to the serene shape, not inwards to the chaos of the mind. ‘For us greeks,’ as
Valéry wrote of them, ‘all things are forms.’

Homer and Plato are the only two first-rate greek writers, Homer because he embodies the
greek spirit, and Plato because he negates it.

40 Classic and romantic

Classicism is at its best an architectural and sculptural style, baroque a musical one,
romanticism a literary one, and modernism a painterly one. A period has a paradigm form rather
than a common style.
Classicism is obedience. Romanticism is rebellion.

Classicism is a shallow pond. Imagination is a shoreless ocean. Classicism cramps the mind by
trussing it in organic form and subjecting its exuberant parts to a dulling coherence.

When classical writers thought that they were portraying universal human nature, they were just
repeating the conventional views of their age. And when romantic writers thought that they were
portraying green nature, they were just projecting on it their own personality.

Classicism was a stiffening of the joints. Romanticism was a softening of the brain.

Unrivalled artists, such as Velasquez or Shakespeare, Bach or Dostoyevsky, are no more

classic or romantic then the tallest peaks are tropical or temperate. Their weather is made not
by the latitude which they share with the surrounding countryside but by their own lone altitude.

The hallmark of the greek and latin classics is how overwritten they are. They found the most
complex forms to phrase quite simple things. They had too much ingenuity and too little

Paganism was a boon for painting and sculpture, because it was so picturesque. And
christianity was a boon for literature and psychology, because it was so perverse.

Raphael’s pictures, Mozart’s music and Austen’s prose are three miracles of transcendent
worldliness. Like Palladio, Rossini or Emerson, they fashion a sane classic art for those who are
born for joy.

The old classicism was olympian, the new classicism is industrial.

41 The rupture of the modern

Discontinuity is the essence of modernity and the mainspring of all modern art, as quantized
energy is the basis of the new physics. It works by the fraction not the whole, by dissonance not
harmony, by multifariousness not oneness, by fragmentation not by integrity, by disconnection
and not by continuity, through the elementary particles of unpredictable imagination. The
modern artist must use the fragment as the sole weapon with which to combat kitsch and the
whole. ‘Unity,’ as Blake wrote, ‘is the cloak of folly.’

In a traditional culture the first duty is filial piety. To be modern is to kill the father, the source
and symbol of all brainless authority.

42 The styles of modernism

There were two strains of modernism. The first, the modernism of order, that of Hemingway,
Cocteau, Mondrian, Brancusi, Mies van der Rohe or Schoenberg, was a clean white apartment.
It pared back reality to uncluttered, austere and angular shapes, sleek and metallic. The
second, the experimental modernism of Joyce, Faulkner, Le Corbusier, Kandinsky, Miró,
Pollock or Stravinsky, enriched and complicated it with bold, eclectic, liquid and lyrical forms.

The arts grew modern by battling their own history. So painting, in its struggle to break loose
from its past, became more and more abstract, and so more like what it essentially is. But
music, which was already abstract, came to sound less and less like music.

The impressionists had dematerialized the subject-matter of painting. The modernists

rematerialized the medium of paint.

Modern novelists refurbished the great house of form, but for clerks and salesmen to lodge in.

Realism has starved art till it has grown as stunted and pale as life itself. It is the style of a world
emptied of meaning but crammed with stuff.

Most recent verse is cryptic yet prosaic, mystification illuminated by flashes of cliché. Poetry
used to be the verbal audacity that you couldn’t risk in prose. Now it’s the autobiographical
inanities that you couldn’t get away with in prose. It’s a trite reel of riddling personal anecdotes
that lacks a sustained narrative.

43 Beauty
Beauty lives solely in its proper element. A swan out of water is a clumsy duck.

The least disturbance of a face’s configuration may make it unsightly, but one lovely touch is
enough to make it adorable. It doesn’t take much. A quite ordinary miracle will do it.

What is the difference between beauty and ugliness? An inch more or less of flesh, and ten
years more or less of time.

Beauty is the most seductive lure to life, and the most haunting memento mori.

Nudity may be beautiful, dress is at best merely decorative. Clothes are a needless adornment
of beauty, and a vain disguise of ugliness.

When a girl speaks, her voice smiles. When she sings, it desires.

Beauty is not a line that speeds straight to a goal. It snakes like a sinuous curve. A tune is the
most roundabout way to get from c to c.
There are a hundred ways to look beautiful, but a thousand to look unattractive. There are a
hundred ways to write well, but a thousand to write lamely, a hundred of reasoning right, but a
thousand that miss the mark.

44 The mystery
What could be more tangible or more mysterious than beauty? You may enfold it in your arms,
but you can’t grasp it with your mind. Nothing is more firm to the touch or more elusive to
thought. It is perfectly rational and yet quite incomprehensible. It sparks an epiphany which
discloses nothing but its own sweet self. You glimpse in a flash what you still fail to compass
after years of exploration.

Beauty is a complex equation which the senses solve in the blink of an eye.

A sun shower, by commingling a pair of things that you are used to see separately, reminds you
what a marvel each one is. Only love beauty, and the world turns to an endlessly varying

45 The shock of beauty

‘Every angel is terrible,’ as Rilke wrote. Beauty is what still shocks us, no matter how habituated
to it we may have grown.

Beauty is a temporary tyrant. It has a gravitational force which seems to bend time and space
round it. Each lovely thing that you see banishes for a trice all rival kinds of loveliness, as a
strong writer’s style blanks out for a short spell all the rest, and gives you the key that can tune
all the discords of the world.

We pass our youth in a delicious sickness of tremulous desire. We burn with beauty’s
voluptuous fever. Artists are prone to this infection their life long. It will not let them rest, till they
have made some offering worthy of the god that plagues them. It is the sweetest addiction.

The constant miracle of beauty is the one thing that can wake you from the daze which the
profusion of everyday beauty has lulled you into. ‘The mist of familiarity,’ as Shelley wrote,
‘obscures from us the wonder of our being.’ The world spoils you with its never-ending, ever-
changing shows of loveliness.

The lightning strike of beauty first stupefies, then illuminates.

The length of Cleopatra’s nose may not have changed the face of the earth, as Pascal claimed.
But the curve of a lip may change your life, or at least make you live to rue that you didn’t let it
do so.
46 Spoilt beauty
We should be gladdened by the indifferent sky with its azure bounty and its shifting theatre of
clouds. But we won’t lift our eyes from the crawling miseries and cravings of this blighted earth.
The crystal heaven has nothing that I want, besides a lofty peace. So I fuss and bustle through
the world, blinded to all its glory by all my greed to grab my slice of it. The only beauty that we
care for is the beauty that we own or hope to make our own.

People scarcely glance at the sky, but what would they not do to buy an exclusive view of it if
they knew that others set a value on it.

Beauty should shock us out of our habitual ways of perceiving. But often it hardens us in our
habitual ways of desiring.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and what all beholders find beautiful is their own image
radiating from the objects they have got.

Beauty is a rare visitor from the realm of being to our world of time and becoming. No sooner
has it entered our corrupting air but it starts to sicken and decay. It is a spark of eternity, which
soon sputters and goes out in our thick and filthy air.

We have a disgusting bent for manufacturing ugliness where there was once beauty, and a
charming gift for reclaiming small pockets of beauty from the encroaching filth.

The world craves beauty, and wants to get hold of as much of it as it can, so that it can drag it
through the mire.

47 Generic beauty
Beauty is exemplary not original. It is neither particular nor abstract but generic. It is not a
universal platonic form, nor can it be judged in isolation from the class of beings to which it
belongs. So you have to learn it by experience. You can’t deduce it from reason. And it comes
to seem unique by perfecting the traits of the class of which it is a member. You can’t grade the
loveliness of an individual, till you have seen more samples of its type. We get to know the
features of its class by induction from its examples, and then we recognize its features in its
particular embodiments. The proportions of a flamingo would look out of place in an eagle, and
the plumage of a peacock would spoil a swan.

Ours is an ugly species which is full of breathtakingly lovely individuals. And a human being is
beautiful because for a few short years she possesses in an abnormal degree those features
that typify the human form but which most humans are deficient in.
Human kind is at once the ugliest and the most beautiful species. The rest of the animals are
beautiful in the type, and ugly in the botched exceptions. Humans are ugly as a rule, and
beautiful only as rarities, and that for such a short season.

If beauty were proportionality of parts, then each of the animals, which are all so beautiful,
would be built on the same ratio. How could a horse and a giraffe both be handsome?

48 Beauty recalled
‘All our tastes,’ as Lamartine said, ‘are but reminiscences.’ This present angel shape subjugates
you now because it brings back its lost twin from the past. And it prefigures one which will
someday enthrall you by recalling this one here in front of you. Beauty is old wine in new skins.

The resemblance may catch your eye, but it’s the contrast that rends your heart. Everyone
reminds me of her. No one is like her. Soon she too won’t be, but will live on as a pale
remembrancer of what she once so radiantly was. ‘Like, but oh, how different,’ as Wordsworth

Beauty ravishes our memory just as it’s on the verge of evanescing. Formed by the past and
promising the future, it stands apart from both and lives eternally in its own ever-vanishing
present. It is the one carnal god that can resurrect our buried hearts. Each lovely thing enjoys a
timeless bloom which is prey to all the sad injuries of time.

In order to take in the full radiance of beauty, you have to feel the ecstasy of its presence and
foresee the desolation of its fading.

49 The aging butterfly

So much beauty is botched by the very process that should perfect it. Adolescence is a potter’s
kiln. It mars most of the shapely figures that time puts in it to be finished. They go in so fine,
they come out so pocked and sallow and flabby. Beauty is the light that youth gives off as it
burns itself out.

The human butterfly, as Chekhov said, turns back into a repulsive grub. Beauty’s lease is up
almost as soon as it’s moved in. Why does our species age more hideously than all the rest? Is
it gravitation paying us back for presuming to walk erect and renounce the reticence of fur? Or is
gluttony distending our flesh to force us to share its own overfed and florid likeness?

If the story of our life is written on our face as we age, then it must have been a very unedifying

Beauty is an aristocrat, but the body is a leveller.

50 Time’s war on beauty
The young have all had a taste of what it is to possess beauty and what it means to lose it. They
have all known the delight of the body and the sadness of the flesh. As they age, their face parts
with its pure and clean contours, and folds back to an unreadable map of experience. The
young have classic profiles but romantic souls, like Canova’s statues or Baudelaire’s verse. And
their lineaments must subside to romantic ruins before they can grow classic and harmonious

To be born beautiful is like being born rich in a country with ruinously high taxation. The vainest
girl doesn’t know how beautiful she is, or how much she will soon be losing.

Beauty’s season is as brief and brilliant as a nordic summer.

The young and lovely troop into the future like the unending waves of an inexhaustible russian
brigade, to be mown down and replaced by those in the rear.

Time wages a war on beauty which leaves no survivors. It will soon be treating the young with
the same careless brutality that they treat their seniors.

Poetry and prose

Style and self

The best style is plain, terse, various, intense and strange.

Short plain words, short plain clauses and sentences, plenty of verbs with plain personal
subjects, firm connectives to rivet it together, all galvanized against the rust of cliché. These
build a prose which is sturdy and aerodynamic. But it needs imaginative fire to make it fly.

An artist frames a style to give calm sensuous form to an imagined pattern of delirious beauty. It
is a way of speaking to the soul through the conduit of the senses.

Thought gives form to the chaos of reality. Language gives form to the chaos of thought. Style
gives form to the chaos of language.

An artist makes works of perfect taste by weaving patterns that border on vulgarity.

Style is to language what beauty is to biology, superfluous but redemptive.


1 Poetry
A poem is a small formal house that opens on to infinity.

Poets concentrate thought and feeling in a prolix form. And the style of their prolixity lends their
verse its particular complexion. Pope’s is brittle and sententious, Wordsworth’s prosaically
sublime, Tennyson’s melodious and plangent, Pound’s hectoring and sentimental.

In poetry it’s the purity of the gold that counts, not the amount of the alloy.
Few poets have it in them to write more than fifty first-rate pages. And some, like Dryden or
Shelley, have in them not much more than fifty lines.

Poets must be sober to execute their elaborate dance, though they may look drunk as they are
not just walking.

Shakespeare trips up our blame and outruns our praise. He contains almost all that is worth
saying and all the many ways to say it. He is as noble as Antony, as various as Cleopatra, and
as shrewd as Enobarbus. Bacon is a plodding Polonius to his quicksilver Hamlet.

Most poets are dead by forty, though they may continue to live and write for thirty years more.
They keep on pumping, though the well has long gone dry. A prose writer’s prime lasts for a
mere twenty years, customarily from when they’re thirty to fifty. And their golden age lasts for as
short as seven. After that the mind starts to grind on its own gears. So brief an instant between
two eternities in which to catch a timeless world.

2 Poetry and prose

A poem dances to the rhythm of song. Prose strides to the thrust of thought. Prose, like an
equation, must press on to its conclusion. Verse, like a tune, returns in each line to where it took
off from.

Prose transports you to a destination, poetry is the journey.

The errant moon holds sway as the goddess of poetry, the stern sun as the cruel god of prose.
The vocation of the poet is to enrapture, that of the prose-writer is to undeceive. ‘The words of
Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo.’

A poem, like Antaeus, springs from the soil. But prose should seem machine-tooled rather than
hand-tooled, flawlessly engineered not flawlessly expressive, taut, exact and inhuman. It sounds
more like gunfire than music. Each sentence is a storm of steel.

A poem makes a regular music, rhetoric regular structures. A grand piece of oratory is the
poetry of syntax. It makes similar in form what is dissimilar in sense by repeating patterns of
sounds, words and constructions.

Money is not a kind of poetry, as Stevens claimed. It is rather, as Emerson said, the archetype
of prose, cool, colourless and unforgiving, which peels all its statements back to a stark and
abstract grammar. Money dissolves illusions, as prose dissolves poetry.

The body is a sturdy prose. The face is an enchanting poetry.

3 The poetry of language
Poetry is the grand sacrament of language, which acts out a rite that each poem makes new. It
is poised between revelation and ritual, astonishment and repetition.

A poem is speech most essential and most gratuitous. It shows us words showing us the world.
It points inwards to the small perfections of form, and outwards to the immense world of thought.

Electric poetry restores to dulled words their buzzing magnetic pulse.

A poem is a measured ecstasy of language. It is a brief surge of life’s unbound erotic current
transmitted through words.

Poetry is language operating at full pressure and highest pitch, overstraining all its sinews till
they crack.

Poetry is distilled imagination decanted into words.

A poem is a choice lexicon classified according to the mad alphabet of uncanny imagination.

A poem sounds like a strange translation from a perfect tongue which the poet had not quite got
the trick of, or like a fragment from some lost play.

Poets get nearly as far as the truth. Then they fill the gap in between with blazing words, to
disguise that they didn’t quite reach it.

4 The language of poetry

A poem is the manifestation of an intense vision of the world in words that match its intensity. It
is speech imagined most passionately and composed most musically. A poem is above all else
a piece of verbal music. It builds its frail house of sound to give a lodging to thoughts that will
live throughout the ages. It orchestrates words as melody, and conceives the world as
metaphor. The poet turns the riot of day to day life to an ordered magic, and the cacophony of
day to day speech to an eloquent music.

A poem is words that mean more than their meaning.

A poem must both mark out its unlikeness from the everyday speech around it and braid
patterns of similarity of the sounds and structures within it.

Poets make an art of strange conjunctions, which they brace with plaited bands of assonance.

Clumsy writers use clattering alliterations, artful ones arrange delicate traceries of assonance.
Assonance is the more subtle sister of stiff and strutting alliteration. It is the difference between
Swinburne’s jingles and Shakespeare, who is the master of assonance.
The poet paints with lines of consonants and colours of vowels.

Poets compose their music using vowels as their woodwinds and consonants as their strings.

5 Prose
Great prose, like the Bible’s, is as impassioned as poetry and as stern as truth.

Prose must be meticulously patterned, as it has no predetermined form, and it must be packed
with insights, as it lacks imagination.

Prose may be chiselled in stone, as in the Bible, or curiously carved in wood, as in the
elizabethans, or etched on glass with a diamond pencil, as in Chesterfield or La Rochefoucauld,
or wrought in steel, like a hard modern style, cold, tensile, polished and unnatural.

The best prose has been written by ecstatics or by cynics. Thus Isaiah and La Rochefoucauld.
Language can be purified by prophetic fire or by moral fury, by the dry light of insight or the
drenching flame of revelation.

The best modern prose was written in the glazed textures and simple shapes of Mies’s
buildings, Mondrian’s pictures and Brancusi’s carvings. Like modern building, it is a modular,
horizontal art of clean transparent lines.

Most writing is not prose, as most building is not architecture.

No one wrote a purer white style or a more rank purple one than Wilde.

6 Aphorisms
The world is radically discontinuous and heterogeneous. How then could we set out the truth but
in unconnected bits? ‘Aphorisms,’ as Schlegel points out, ‘are the true form of the universal
philosophy.’ Only jagged fragments are sharp enough to slice their way through the rough skin
of the real, and it’s their fracturing that gives them their serrated edge.

An aphorism must assume much that the writer could not explain, and imply much that it could
not explain. Like a proud lord, it would prefer to be misunderstood than to give an account of
itself. And even those of the same author can hardly stand one another’s company without

Hard bright sentences attack like blitzkrieg. They strike with swiftness and focused force, and
leave broad swathes of terrain encircled but unsubdued.

The aphorist works like a lone and patient sniper, stealthy, precise and lethal. ‘Artillery is still too
cumbersome, too complicated,’ Napoleon said. ‘There is yet more to simplify and retrench.’
An aphorism, though uniformed in its crisp impersonality, still reeks of the blood and pain which
it is too proud to show.

A maxim blows up like a little stick of dynamite when ignited by the reader’s insight.

An aphorism, Kraus says, ‘is either a half-truth or one-and-a-half-truths.’ It packs plausible fibs
so tight that when it detonates its stunned students think they see the truth in a flash.

7 Poisoned pen
A maxim with no malice would taste as bland as a dish with no herbs. Kind sentences caress
you, but it’s the cruel ones that stick. A poem, Goethe says, is ‘a kiss bestowed on the world.’
But an aphorism is a bite. And if you don’t feel its teeth then it most likely won’t leave any mark
on you at all. A pungent saying secretes an acid which tries to dissolve the things of time before
time can erase it. And it’s this acid that will grave it in your mind.

Aphorisms condense wisdom in pill form, though most of the pills prove to be poisoned.

A shrewd maxim depicts its victims so accurately, that they fail to make out their own likeness in
it. It’s written for those who think that it doesn’t apply to them, so that they can apply it to those
who don’t think at all, as satire is, as Swift said, a mirror, ‘wherein beholders do generally
discover everybody’s face but their own.’

8 Style and matter
The realm of form stands aloof from the realm of truth. Good style is not an echo to the sense
but its counterpoint. It’s only in kitsch that form tries to mimic its content. In a great work it
masters it. It does not pretend to enact what it portrays. Its task is not to display the object more
legibly, but to manifest its medium more shiningly.

A work of art gains its force not from the harmony of its form and matter but from their tension.

Form and sense are not one, though imagination makes them seem so. It renders beauty as
stark and strange as truth, and makes truth glow with a dark allure.

The modern sentimentalism that form and matter are one is a scholastic superstition.

Imagination is the most arbitrary thing in the world. But the task of the artist is to find a form that
makes it seem inevitable. Strong writers make their own strange phrasing of a thought seem the
one shape that it could take.
Architecture builds the music of space. Music shapes the architecture of time. Writing designs
the music and architecture of thought. Ideas are the melodies of writing, words are the
instruments that play them.

Style is a cold moon. It has its own shape, but must draw its light from the sun of its sense.

Thought is the food, style is the flavour. Ideas nourish you, but words give them zest.

9 The violence of life, the serenity of form

Art is an unbearable world of truth made bearable by an unblemished world of form. The
bleakest vision projects the brightest style, which is the jubilee of art. The sole benediction that
artists have to bestow on the hellish world which they call up is the transfiguration of their style.

Nature blazes like a heraclitean fire of dynamic violence. Art is a parmenidean sphere of
faultless equilibrium and repose. Art is as fierce as a warrior, and as stately as a priest acting
out a decorous ceremony for its savage god.

In a lustrous poem, such as Homer’s, the form fights the content, and moves as sedately as the
action seethes with broiling violence. The style rests as crystalline and white as the tale steams
with a scarlet grandeur of blood and fire.

Thought is the gunpowder, style is the match.

10 Natural style
Artifice is art’s nature. To write plainly calls for great artfulness. And to write unaffectedly, you
have to forsake nature. You reach spareness by an extravagance of effort.

Simplicity is so foreign to our nature, that we can come at it only by way of an elaborate self-

Not one thing about writing is natural. And if there were, it would be the lazy conventionality
which phrases every thought in the first cliché that comes to mind. Set out to write artlessly or
extempore, and what you make will be a hotchpotch of habit and fashion. But most readers
think a style looks natural if it conforms to the unnatural catchphrases that they are used to

Only a seeming artist aims at seeming artless, though to look too artificial is a naive failure of

The works of primaeval epochs, far from being direct channelings of nature, are the most
artificial, stylized and conventional.
Art works by a studied mastery of deliberate form, not by the momentary indulgence of
unrehearsed feeling. The spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion breaks out not in poetry but
in pop tunes and kitsch.

It takes a great deal of practice to appear spontaneous. And you earn vivacity by dint of
systematic drudgery. Thus Matisse by joyless toil made designs of incandescent vitality and

11 Style and place

Craft your style out of the place that you imagine and the language that is given. A style is a
time and place that has found its own shape in words. Those who aim to make a work that will
last must trace the timeless contours of their age by eschewing its incidental idioms.

A flawless sentence flows like water and stands as stiff as stone.

Torrid zones such as the Mediterranean have fashioned a limpid formalism. Frosty cities like
Paris or St Petersburg, which live on the interior, have sniffed out a clammy fevered psychology.
The shivering north disclosed the sweating secrets of the heart. The warm nude south carved
the cool essential forms.

Some writers have shaped a desert style, stark, remorseless and sparse, which lays bare the
unadorned lines and planes of the form beneath. The Bible is a flinty wilderness of burning
sublimities, Shakespeare a teeming woodland of boundless imagination.

Dialect in fiction should make a strange tribal poetry, not a documentary transcription.

The true originators shun historicism for anachronism. What do they care for archaeology or
antiquarianism? ‘If a work of art cannot live always in the present,’ Picasso judged, ‘it must not
be considered at all.’ Rapturous vision makes all things new. The historical sense benumbs the
imagination. ‘All beautiful things,’ as Wilde says, ‘belong to the same age.’

Art takes no thought for the details of time and place. But kitsch is at once topical and eclectic,
localized and globalized.

All spots on earth are fit settings for art, since all are suburbs of hell.

12 The style of pride

Pride gives life to form, conceit kills it. Sincerity makes the style of conceit, artifice the style of
pride. Presumption and habit pervert taste, pride and premeditation purge it. All that is great we
owe to pride, all growth comes from its monsters.
Conceited people presume that all that they say is worth saying. The proud know that they must
make good each word that they dare to use. Braggarts are as loquacious as the high-minded
are laconic, who are too proud or too modest to explain.

Artists draw their energy from their pride, and their taste from their shame. Pride directs, shame
corrects. Pride bestows imagination, force and exuberance. Shame stamps its order on it, and
lends it awareness and restraint. Audacity spurs you to write, and shame schools you to write
well. Pride hates to seem conventional, and shame hates to seem eccentric. But when they
couple they can breed fresh thoughts in foursquare bodies.

Good taste is a kind of pride, which instils in us a kind of modesty and restraint.

Guilt imagines all things, and fright observes all things. Guilt and fear dig up the truth, and pride
shapes for it a form, which craft refines in complaisance to the inherited canons of taste.

Shy people write as a way to show off without needing to quit their room.

13 Simplicity
Life complicates but impoverishes. The task of the artist or thinker is to enrich the world by
simplifying it. But how few of them find the clarity that lies concealed at the core of most

Simplify your means, elevate your aims.

‘To be simple,’ Emerson says, ‘is to be great.’ Simplicity is the test of great thoughts. ‘When a
thought is too feeble to be stated simply,’ Vauvenargues says, ‘it ought to be repudiated.’ When
people don’t have enough matter to write short sentences, they have to write long ones.

In art simplest is strongest, as the Bible shows. If you aim to do justice to large thoughts, you
have to keep to the smallest words. Surpassing writers have a power to simplify which finds the
most spartan terms for the most sumptuous ideas. ‘Style,’ as Cocteau said, ‘is a simple way to
say complicated things.’

The glory of english and the key to its poetry is the wealth of its one syllable words.

What is simple will last longest, since it will coast through time with least drag from the diurnal
tides of fact or fashion.

The best writing is too simple to be natural. Is there any style more mannered than Whitman’s
barbaric yawp?

What is truly simple looks unfathomably strange or unbearably dull to our eyes, dazzled as they
are by all our intricate novelties.
A perfectly plain style must be perfectly executed, since it has no extrinsic adornments to fall
back on.

14 Rich style
Even the most frugal style draws from a rich mine of linguistic resources. And even the most
opulent style is a deliberate impoverishment of means. As Goethe points out, ‘Mastery is shown
in limitation.’ In life luxury is bought with tremendous diligence, in art bareness is. There is, as
Yeats wrote, ‘more enterprise in walking naked.’

Rich style is unnatural redundance and unnatural compression. It is at once rigorously sparing
and impetuously abundant. Not one word more than is needed, but a whole book more than is
wanted. And poetry is at once the most extravagant and the most concentrated form of speech.

The energy of art both compacts and expands what it goes to work on. It is finely focused yet
luminously suggestive.

Writers know that beauty looks like lucidity. So they polish their style so smooth that it seems
transparent, but it’s in fact reflecting back its own opaque effulgence. Keep clarity to the surface,
and let all below breed darkness and ambiguity, heaving monsters of the deep.

The best sentences are clear enough to be grasped at one reading, yet are rich enough to be
read over and over before they will yield up all the juice of their meaning.

15 Exactness
An exact style has the abstract rigour of a geometrical figure, not the representational accuracy
of a photograph. It crafts precise forms by disdaining slight details. It doesn’t deign to discuss
the pennies that it owes to low fact. So it seems neat, since it has trimmed off the roughness of
specifics. And it glides, because it meets such faint friction from turbulent actuality. It subjects
the chaos of real life to the dispassionate canons of abstract form.

Art distils truth, which too strong an infusion of vapid fact would dilute. ‘Our life is frittered away
by detail,’ Thoreau warns. ‘Simplify, simplify.’ Like all grand authors, the Lord, when he wrote his
holy books, cared more for style than for the literal truth. ‘It is the nature of all greatness,’ Burke
says, ‘not to be exact.’ What we gain in exactness we lose in elegance.

Don’t search for the narrowly correct word. Search for the strange and uncontainable one. The
right word points out what all the world knows. The wrong word may give you the key to a
startling truth that no one would have had an inkling of. But you have to hunt diligently to find
just the right wrong word. The exact word crimps your vision, the inappropriate one sets it free
to wander. ‘The cistern contains, the fountain overflows,’ as Blake wrote.
16 Brevity
You have to keep to a few terse words, if you aim to reveal the vast essential. But we now go
too fast and want too much to submit to the strenuous concentration of brevity. And writers have
had to grow more and more voluminous, to catch up with our distracted hurry.

The great writers, as Renard points out, had few things to say and said them in few words. But
most authors lack the patience to find out how little they have to say, since they have such
ready means to say as much as they like. ‘Every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give
account thereof in the day of judgment.’ And the judgment takes place at every act of reading.

Most works, like most lives, would be the better for being shorter. We scribble too much, and
live too long. ‘A big book,’ as Callimachus wrote, ‘is a big evil.’ How small a part of a great book
is a great book. How small a part of a great man or woman is a great man or woman. And how
short a part of a great life is a great life. ‘One could say of almost all literature that it is too long,’
as Renard remarked. But what author would not exempt from this stricture their own lapidary

Language is a tree that needs much pruning to bear fruit.

One must be a spendthrift of thought and a miser of syllables.

17 Bad style
‘Plain living and high thinking are no more,’ as Wordsworth said. How could we write well, when
we don’t wish to live well? We want to live luxuriously and hectically, so how could we write
thoughtfully and unpretentiously?

A prose that has been scoured of stale phrases may well seem dull to readers who have grown
used to their gloss and smoothness. We find it flat, if it doesn’t pop and fizz with newly bottled
clichés. But writing that tries to match vernacular verve and liveliness dies soonest and smells

People don’t just fail to avoid clichés, they go out of their way to find them, considering them the
smartest form in which they could frame their thoughts.

Adjectives tint the plain face of beauty with cosmetics, adverbs scent it with a false fragrance. A
healthy sentence should smell of nothing but its own clean form. Those who have little to say
work up its effects with colourful qualifiers. They use sheaves of words as vain italics to lend
emphasis to their hefty ones which they don’t trust to speak loud enough on their own.

Only authors who pay no heed at all to their style, and those, like Pater, who seem to pay no
heed to anything else, have found how to write execrably.
Climaxes have their place in fireworks, not in art. Strong works of art, such as Shakespeare’s
plays or Paradise Lost, fade out on a quiet note.

18 Cannibal style
Some writers, such as Babel, Céline or Houellebecq, have fashioned a cannibal style, brutal,
lean and agile, at once savage and tender, like Pollock’s paintings or the Rite of Spring. As
Dickinson wrote, they ‘deal their pretty words like blades.’

The artist needs all the traits of a cunning hunter, a fatal grace, a fierce elegance, a cold
playfulness, cleanliness, stealth, poise and equanimity, patience to wait for the right moment,
nimbleness when it comes.

With regard to timing, an artist, like a soldier, has to master five skills, frugality of time, which
abridges, modulation of time, to shift speed, exactitude and fitness, to time each thing right,
deceit of time, to wrong-foot opposition, and an eventual submission to time, which knows how
and when to end it.

Good prose, like champagne, should be both astringent and mildly intoxicating. Too little acid,
and a style lacks tang, too much, and it will curdle. ‘Take it, and eat it up, and it shall make thy
belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.’

Some words, as Emerson wrote of Montaigne, are so full of life that they bleed. And some draw

The power of subtlety is overrated. A tuning-fork is no match for a sledge-hammer. As Swift

noted, ‘Eleven men well armed will certainly subdue one single man in his shirt.’


19 Styles of the self
Style apprentices artists to wisdom and tranquility. And yet they prove wise or serene in their
style alone, which is the better self that they don’t care to become in life. Like Poe or Baudelaire,
they are content to camp out in a grimy sty, while they build their gorgeous palace of art next
door. An artist is glad to swap the thin fictions of life for the imaginative superabundance of art.
A clean bright work must rise up on the filth and squalor of a life.

Style transmits thought without trying to look like it, and gives voice to the vitality of a being who
is not of flesh and blood.

False style is an involuntary confession of our flaws. True style is a deliberate atonement for our
mean virtues.
Style is the best of all that we cannot be.

20 The inferior stuff of self

Only those who have no more promising stuff to work on would make it their aim to fashion a
self. A saint aspires to self-denying subjectivity, an artist to an impersonal selfishness. Saints
effect their miracles by faith, artists create theirs by form. Men and women are subjective but not
singular, art is individual but abstract.

Style is what an artist has in place of a soul.

If living is our great work, as Montaigne claims, then we must be clumsy and incompetent
artists. And yet we’re as pleased with the hash we’ve made as God was on the sixth day of
creation. Since we are the makers of our own lives, what masterpieces they must be.

We form our style out of what we most admire. But what we most admire is the whitewashed
image of our own heart mimicking the tired idols of our time. And so all that we forge is kitsch.

21 Style is not expression

Style is pose not personality. Only a maladroit style is ‘the man himself,’ a grab-bag of
accidents, counterfeitings, lapses of taste, thefts, conformity and caprices, bad lessons badly

We don’t write well, because we write as we speak or as others write. We try to express our
own personality or to mimic their manner. But true artists shape their style by not being
themselves and yet not belonging to anyone else.

The greatest artists, like the most cunning criminals, leave the fewest fingerprints. It’s the
bunglers whose smudge can be found all over the scene.

To succeed in expressing one’s personality through one’s art would be to fail one’s art.

Good style does not come from within us. The writer must build it up slowly from without by
painstaking daily observation and practice.

Literature is an ardent expression of estrangement, a mocking expression of wonder, a sane

expression of delirium, a scrupulous expression of depravity, and a lucent expression of
bewilderment. ‘The finest things,’ Gide notes, ‘are those that madness prompts and reason
writes.’ The tale of every frenzied Ahab is told by sober Ishmael.
22 To reveal art and conceal the artist
Artists don’t aim to articulate who they are through their art. They aim to replace themselves
with it. They bear no more resemblance to their work than the machine bears to its output.
What’s the point of working, if what you make is no better than what you are? ‘To reveal art and
conceal the artist is art’s aim,’ as Wilde showed. But to conceal art and display the artist is the
aim of kitsch. True artists flaunt their art in each line and tone. Vain performers strive to hide
their art and make it look accessible, as a trick to glue their watchers’ gaze to their own shabby

Only clumsy daubers spill their soul on the canvas.

An artist is a philistine who happens to have a knack for fabricating works of art. Their art grows
less where they try to be more than that, as Delacroix and the romantics show, whose pictures
and music were debauched by literature.

Art is a long vanishing, and artists put up a style to charm our eyes while they disappear. Style
is the personality of art, which they build up by dismantling their own.

23 The style of happiness

‘Only in work,’ wrote Delacroix, ‘have I felt altogether happy.’ Out of their pain artists make their
work, and out of their work they make their happiness, and this sets them free to go on working.
In its mellow autumn they harvest the fruits sown in less settled weather. ‘They that sow in tears
shall reap in joy,’ as the psalmist sings. Perhaps they learn by suffering, but they can make no
use of what they’ve learnt till they’ve found their peace once more. The stings of life may school
them, but what they glean from them is a lesson of delight.

Affliction leaves wounds, glad days leave works. Delight purges artists’ style, and perfects their
disenchantment. Misery dins their ears like a pelting tempest, but in joy’s halcyon calm they can
hear the soft voice of reason and inspiration. When they gain their happiness and slough off
their illusions, they grow free to turn their back on the world’s work and do their own.

Some writers, like Beckett, have had their style scoured by desolation, and some, like Emerson,
have had theirs burnished by happiness. Sorrow grinds your style smooth, and joy polishes it to
a high sheen.
24 Irony
The world wants so much and so little from you, that you answer it most appropriately with
cheap irony.

Irony ought to act as a defence of true seriousness in the face of the self-serving solemnity of
the frivolous world. It is a revenge of the free play of the mind on our regnant morality.

Irony doubles and disguises the self, imagination fashions new ones. It is imagination’s
adolescence. Its task is to wean you from the literal, the didactic, the earnest and the personal.
Sterne is the foremost ironic imaginer, as Shakespeare is the foremost poetic imaginer.

Irony is the bee’s sting, imagination is the honey.

Self-knowledge strips you of all your decent self-deceits. So what can you use to clothe your
naked soul but a few rags of irony?

The most adroit ironists, like Flaubert, don’t tone down idiocies but pump them up, till they
balloon and burst.

25 Against sincerity
Life deserves no more than your artifice, and art deserves no less. An artist who held to
frankness would be like a sailor who hugged the shore. They must put out on the deep sea of
dissembling. Insincerity, which others use as a permit to cheat, for an artist is a passport to

The poet affirms everything, but believes nothing. Sincerity makes art small. ‘The truest poetry
is the most feigning,’ as Shakespeare wrote. Candour would make a plausible actor, but an
inept artist. Dickens, Emerson commented, was ‘too consummate an artist to have a thread of
nature left.’ A writer such as Hemingway who gives pride of place to authenticity ends up acting
like a smug poseur. The task of the artist is to ward off authenticity with artifice, sincerity with
irony, and spontaneity with care and labour.

Scrupulous style is a calculated hypocrisy. ‘All profound things love masks,’ as Nietzsche said.
The mind that discovers loves to hide. A creator must put up a curtain of form to elude
earnestness and tell the truth.

Poets need not be sincere in their feelings, as painters need not be sincere about pigments and
brushstrokes, but they must know how to use them.
There is a bad poet in each of us, and it comes out when a true poet would be lost for words.

26 The ironist exposed

If you use irony to put others off the scent of knowing you, you must, like Hamlet, earn the right
to your irony by knowing yourself. Some people know how to mask their self, and yet don’t know
the self which it’s their aim to mask.

My irony, like my sincerity, conceals me from myself. And, like my self-concealment, it reveals
me to others. I use it on the assumption that I know my real self and that I’ll be able to obscure it
from others. But instead I bare it to them and obscure it from my own sight. We erect a screen
of irony to veil us, and don’t see that all our deformities are projected on it.

We try so hard to hide from others, that we lose ourselves. And though proud of our ability to
see through all pretences, we end up hoodwinked by our own evasive postures. ‘We are so
used to disguising ourselves from others,’ La Rochefoucauld says, ‘that in the end we disguise
ourselves from ourselves.’

What literary private now isn’t kitted out in the regulation camouflage of world-weary irony?
Trust in its cover, and you’ll wind up lost in a wilderness of appearances.

Some people spoil their talk by larding it with too much irony, as some cooks spoil a dish by
adding too much salt.

An ironist is like those teasers who refuse to tell you a secret but love to keep reminding you
that they have one.

27 Satanic style
God is in earnest. Bright Lucifer is an ironist. That’s why he was hurled out of heaven, and how
he survived.

Great characters have three traits, awareness, menace and vulnerability. They know their
hearts so well, that they are a danger to themselves and others. Milton’s Satan is their
prototype, a fiend redeemed by verbal fire and impassioned intellect.

The devil’s name in literature is legion. Most of its great characters are his avatars.

Irony is an aggressive game of cold power which is played by those who feel aggrieved that
they have none. It is a feint to draw in its enemies and lay them open to attack.

Irony is the revenge of the witty and impotent on the dim and self-important, who are therefore
too dull to feel it.
Self-mockery is the sly magnanimity of the powerless. And mercy is the disdainful irony of the

Some people use deference as Socrates used self-derision. They lure their dupes into a trap
that will lay bare their fatuity more starkly. And fools may seem self-abasing, since they lack the
sense to be anything but foolish.

28 Character is not personality
Art has characters, the world must make do with personalities. And character is to personality
what art is to life. Character is imagination, personality is cliché. Character makes music.
Personality makes noise, striking and vivacious, but random, meaningless and repetitious. A
figure on a narrow stage may display more depth and breadth in three hours than most of us do
in all our years. How little we cram into our long and hectic lives, yet how much they bring to
light in a brief existence in words. We have nothing to say, and it takes us seventy years to say

Great characters don’t have great motives. But they are greater than their motives. Real people
interest us by their knotty and recondite intents, grand characters by the eloquent sense that
they make of their intolerable plight.

Those who have no life but on a flat page or stage lead the fullest life of all. And those who
tenant the dream of fiction are able to wake to the truth, since they alone can bear its harsh

29 The great characters are poets

The great imagined characters are not personalities but poets. Each is a fragment of the poetic
mind, of which the poet is a yet lesser fragment. Writers don’t feel what a real lover, prince or
madman feels. They take on these roles as masks to voice the thoughts that no lover, prince or
madman would conceive in words that no lover, prince or madman would use. They fashion
characters who have earned our ears.

A god or a great literary character must be more or less insane and yet possess an irresistible
discursive authority.

Character makes itself by what it makes. The best ones, like the authors who give them life, are
makers and not moral beings. They captivate us not by dint of what shaped them but by the
words which they shape.
30 Shakespeare, master of character
Shakespeare made hundreds of poets, but not one lifelike personality, just as he wrote
thousands of lines of great verse, but not one that would sound natural in day to day talk. He
doesn’t make his home in the souls of real types. He multiplies himself to make unlikely
imaginers. With ungrudging egoism he makes all his figures prodigal imaginers like himself,
endowing them with a matchless articulate force. Unlike the demiurge who made this maimed
world, he shaped nothing that fell short of his best gifts. He is beyond compare, not because he
knew how to portray a convincing cobbler or knight, but because he didn’t deign to bring on
stage a persona who was unable to frame unsurpassed verse.

Shakespeare’s art grew to ripeness, not as his characters grew more like real people, but as
they grew more like true poets, though the live poet of the Sonnets may be one of the least of
them. Lear outshines Richard, not because he acts like a more authentic king, but because he
speaks a more comprehensive poem.

Shakespeare doesn’t make us feel that his characters are real people. That’s the job of cheap

Falstaff is ebullient comic humanity made flesh and words. So how could he be anything but a
monster of inhuman and selfish malignity?

31 Great characters are not their stories

Authors are free to ascribe to their characters whatever traits or acts they please. But they must
prove their thoughts and words by producing them. They tell us what their characters do, but
they must show us what they say.

The characters in pulp fiction are memorable for what they do. The characters in a great fiction
are memorable for what they say. Thus Conrad summed up the genius of Kurtz, ‘He had
something to say. He said it.’ Hamlet is not a man too paralyzed to act. He is of all characters
the one most energetic in the sole kind of action that is germane to a literary persona, the
forming of memorable phrases.

32 Great characters are the words they speak

Personality becomes character where thought catches articulate fire. Like Cleopatra, all their
other elements they give to baser life. Character is the verbal play that is surplus to their role in
the plot. The most solid and indelible characters are words, mere words. So they can no more
be paraphrased than a poem. Both they and their framers have just as much power as the airy
speech that they use. They are more than anything else a voice, an emanation of language.
Their one accomplishment that can’t be shammed is their capacity to speak great words.
In life chance and temperament mould style. In art style gives shape to character.

Shakespeare’s dark masters, such as Edmund or Aaron, are adepts not of crime but of
language. Like him, they are not ingenious but imaginative, great poets not great plotters. Their
best achievement is their bright words, not their black devilry, as the real witchcraft of his
tricksters, such as Prospero or Puck, is not their cheap sorcery but their rich poetry. They think
and speak compellingly about it, but the mischief or magic that they do is showy and

33 Character and narrator

Each supreme work of fiction must have room for at least one genius. But in most the sole one
is the narrator, since the only kind of mastery that a writer knows or esteems is the one that can
write. Balzac the commentator overbears his creatures. Austen has more wit than Elizabeth
Bennett, and more spirit than Fanny Price. Ishmael’s diabolic eloquence overmatches Ahab’s
diabolic questing. Dickens constructs not characters but colourfully tinted wind-up toys, which
he jerks into spasms of mechanical vivacity. Proust’s personages are dwarfed in the vast
apartment of his sensibility. Dostoyevsky may be the one author who made his characters more
capacious and articulate than his narrators. This may also be the reason why there have been
no more than three great dramatists, Shakespeare, Molière and Ibsen.

34 Character is not in the details

A great character is unencumbered with the minutiae that comprise live men and women, their
daily round, partialities and loathings, frowsy opinions, kin and credentials, or the patched-up
identity that they hug. Writers don’t assiduously individualize their characters with the shallow
tics, quirks and habits that distinguish a person of flesh and blood. They vest them with the
vocal fire that gives them a brighter lustre. Yet we still seek to know them as we would a real
man or woman. So we add these cheap traits back in, as if we were infusing them with more
depth, since this is the sole kind of depth that we see in life.

Great writers give us few clues as to the physical appearance of their characters, not because
they want to leave us free to visualize it, but because it is of no account.

Costs of self-knowledge

If you have gained real self-knowledge, you suspect that others have not.

You could redeem most of your faults or misfortunes if you used them to learn what you are. But
most rob you of the will to do so.

We learn by doubting. And our self is the one thing that we can’t doubt.

The self is its own language. Self is its noun, bustling self-interest is the verbs, vanity the
epithets, personality the adverbs, and convenience the conjunctions. And, as with languages,
you don’t really understand your own self till you’ve studied others.

The classic mode of avoiding self-knowledge is to identify the self with the norms of its society.
And the romantic mode of avoiding self-knowledge is to inflate, dramatize and idealize the
solitary self.

1 Self-knowledge by knowing others
Self-knowledge comes from knowing others.

Nothing is so unlike you that it can’t help you to learn what you are. You are able to get to know
your true self because you are like others. But you are spurred to get to know it because you
differ from them.

The human race has grown in self-awareness, because there have been a few rare men and
women, such as Nietzsche, who have dared to anatomize their own souls, and who are
therefore in no way like the rest of our self-oblivious kind.

The sole thing that some people have to teach you is what they don’t know about themselves.

You get to know what you are by observing those who don’t know what they are.
2 The proud alone can afford self-knowledge
If your aim is to know yourself, you must call on your dignity to overrule your vanity. You have to
sacrifice some of the moral pride which assures you of your innocence to your intellectual pride
which is intent on mastering such an unpleasant theme. It costs a great deal, and you must be
rich in self to afford it. The defeated are too poor, and the conceited don’t wish to pay.

Pride and self-disgust plait the ropes by which you have to haul yourself up to self-knowledge.
Only the proud feel enough shame to learn who they are and have enough dignity to bear it.

How could we endure the awareness that makes us think unfavourably of ourselves, if we didn’t
dare to think still worse of others? And by a happy chance nature here stands us in good stead.

3 Shame teaches self-knowledge

The good have too much guileless innocence to want to know who they are, and the powerful
have too much brazen cunning.

Melancholiacs and cynics best know themselves, the first because they’re so shut up in their
own hearts, and the second because they burrow into the hearts of others. Shame flays you so
that you can scan your own inward parts. And malice gives you the passion and detachment to
dissect your fellow patients.

If you set out to learn what you are, you have to dare to think as shamelessly as you see others
act. But most of us fool ourselves shamefully, so that we won’t have to feel ashamed.

A shameless age such as our own is an Eldorado for an explorer of silliness and vanity.

Shame goads us to know ourselves, and self-knowledge makes us more ashamed.

Self-knowledge is embarrassment recollected in anxiety.

You don’t reach self-awareness till you have crossed the valley of abjection. Disgrace shows us
the best but most unwelcome truths. When he plucked the pernicious apple of self-reflection,
Adam learnt to feel ashamed and to hide from the Lord who knew him.

Most of us are too self-intoxicated to sober up to the dry truth of our condition.

Shame is the golden inspirer. ‘Art is born of humiliation,’ as Auden said and Van Gogh proved.
Shame is the charcoal, which the pressure of imagination condenses to the hard diamond of
4 Guilt inculcates self-knowledge
How could the human race have grown so perceptive, if it had not been plagued by its penchant
for making moral judgements? But how could it have plumbed its depths, if it had not freed itself
from their shallowness? You can dive far enough to locate the heart’s murky treasure only if
shame weighs you down. But you can’t rise to the air with what you have found if you have not
shrugged off its load. You can afford to learn who you are, if you possess a rich fund of guilt but
feel no duty to keep up a dear-bought faith in your own probity.

Beware of those who know themselves. Once they have seen that the moral law would damn
them, what recourse do they have but to repudiate it?

Guilt is morally infertile but creatively fruitful, quickening our invention of sins and our hypocrisy
in excusing them.

Hypocrites dwell so far from the wellsprings of their own acts, that they can scan them with a
clear eye. By disowning them they win the freedom to dissect them.

5 Self-knowledge through sin

Christianity scourged the instincts till they quivered with an excoriated sentience. It was the one
tool sufficiently warped and unwholesome to probe the morbid soul. Faith was the serpent which
tempted us to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It uncovered the hell that we
keep hidden within us. It brought sin into the world. And sin taught us what we are, and made us
more perverse and more profound.

Pagan virtue was far more stupefying than christian depravity. Since we have been saved, at
least sin stings, attracts and instructs us more than it used. Faith forced the strong to turn
hypocrite, and so gave them the poisoned fruit of self-dissection. It urged them to vivisect their
sick souls. And this taught them that they are made not for charity or faith but for concupiscence
and self-conviction. It flayed some, such as Augustine, Pascal, Baudelaire, Dostoyevsky or
Flannery O’Connor, and pricked them to catalogue each graze in a throbbing knowledge of the
infernal heart.

Only a misshapen mind can focus the rays of truth in one penetrating beam.

The greeks did not know solitude. So how could they have learnt to know themselves?
6 The cost of self-knowledge
If I were more acquainted with my own heart, I might not inflict on it such grave wounds, though
I might not be able to bear them so lightly. Self-knowledge seems to cause you no hurt, till it
demolishes your life. Like an unexploded bomb, it does no damage till it’s been detonated by
calamity. It is as much use as an umbrella in a lightning storm.

Consciousness complicates our pain, and keys up our natural fears to a nameless dread. It tells
us that we each have a measureless worth, while reminding us that we are zeroes. It roots in
our remembrance all that we have lost. From one moment to the next it whispers to us that we
are soon to die.

Self-knowledge is like a bad smell which you can’t get rid of. It makes you offensive both to
yourself and others.

Life is fraught with disasters, but none more dire than self-discovery.

Self-knowledge, as Socrates said, may make life worth living, but it also makes it unlivable.

The only people who find happiness are the ones who never find themselves. Happiness
forecloses on self-knowledge, and self-knowledge drives out happiness.

If we knew ourselves as God knows us, we would be in hell. So where is God, who knows us

7 Self-knowledge is the enemy of the self

Self- knowledge disintegrates the self. It is self-deception that holds it together.

We are at once the maze, the monster and the seeker. And our self-recognition proves to be a
self-consuming. The heart is a cramped labyrinth. Find its inmost chamber, and a pygmy
minotaur will devour you.

Self-knowledge betrays you like a fifth columnist, who knows all that you want to keep dark and
collaborates with the world to bring you down. It opens a crack in your happiness for your
anguish to seep through. It skins you, and leaves you tingling at each stroke of woe.

8 We fear others’ self-knowledge

We relish fictional characters who know their depths as much as we are repelled by real men
and women who do so. It is only figures in books who can bear to know the hell that burns in
their hearts, or whose knowledge we can bear. And it is only in books that dissemblers, like Iago
or Satan, fool their gulls but acknowledge the truth to themselves.

Those who win self-knowledge look with envious contempt on the rest who never meet with the
same misfortune.

Your self-knowledge tempts you to doubt your own self and to mistrust others. And both these
lead them to mistrust you. What reveals you to yourself will estrange you from those near you.
And what estranges you from them will reveal you to yourself.

We curse those who tell lies about themselves, but we shrink still more from those who blab the
truth about themselves, for fear that they might do the same to us. It’s their self-understanding
that we dread and not our own. If they are so indecent as to pry into their own hearts, how much
less would they scruple to pry into ours? They are like bees that can sting but not have their
bowels torn out, since they have torn out their own.

The world won’t want to know you, if you have the temerity to know yourself.

It’s those who don’t know themselves that assume they would be gainers if others understood

People don’t fear what they don’t know. But they may avoid knowing what they fear, so that they
won’t fear it more.

9 We do not know ourselves
Most of us know our hearts so partially that we don’t doubt that we know them in full. ‘I know my
heart,’ crowed the incorrigible self-deceiver Rousseau. It’s hard to tell which we have more need
of, to misapprehend who we are, or to assume that we comprehend who we are.

When you set out to know yourself, the first lesson that you have to learn is that you never will.

Most fools have more sense than to want to know themselves any better than they do.

I don’t learn who I am, since there is no one that could teach me. It is the one subject that I
would have to get to know by my own introspection. ‘You are the problem,’ Kafka warns. ‘No
scholar to be found far and wide.’

We are saved from the ravages of self-knowledge by the buffer of our smugness and by the
simple expedient of not thinking.
I predict my own moods and responses no more presciently than anyone else would, and I
interpret them no more perceptively. And it’s from these slippery surmises that I form my
sensations and feelings. And what course they take will be due in part to the misjudgments I
make about what caused them.

The motives of our own acts are no less mysterious to us than are their consequences.

10 Self-deception
The mind is a finely-tuned instrument for playing itself false.

‘We are never deceived,’ says Goethe, ‘we deceive ourselves.’ How is it that we are such
shallow beings, yet such deep enigmas to our own selves?

When the heart knows itself, it is perforce double. When it does not, it is a far more duplicitous

I’m glad to hear anything of myself, so long as it’s not the truth. And I’m glad to hear the truth
about everything else.

I’m too lazy to get to know my real self. But how doggedly I toil to burnish the brazen figurine of
my sham one.

11 Self-deception and self-interest

There’s no lie that some people won’t tell themselves to justify doing whatever they think they
have to do to get whatever they think they want.

‘The heart is deceitful above all things. Who can know it?’ I have so many ways of not knowing
it, and such strong incentives not to want to. I want too many other things too much.

Latch on to the right illusions, and you are well on the way to fulfilling your dreams.

You get what you want more quickly if you’re not saddled with self-knowledge. But if you don’t
know who you are, you will want what won’t satisfy you, and you will get what you don’t want.
But you will be spared this knowledge too, and you will be left free to go on wanting.

I can’t know myself in full, since some outcrop of ambition or vanity always blocks my sight. I try
to dupe my rivals to gain a start on them, and I have to dupe myself so as to enjoy the fruits of it.

We flee self-awareness, for fear that it might cost us success. And yet at times we would
choose to go under rather than grasp who we are.
12 Self-deception and self-regard
Some people mistake their self for the half-truths that they hold about themselves, and some for
the half-truths that their admirers hold about them.

I love myself too well to wish to know myself better.

Our illusions play a wide repertoire of tunes, but all in the swelling key of our conceit. Whatever
tincture dyes them, we weave them from the unbreakable threads of our self-belief.

Most people are so full of rot because they are so full of themselves.

Self-love makes a life of self-deception absolutely essential. If we knew what we were, we might
not find it quite so easy to love ourselves as we do.

We shroud our motives in mystery, since most of them are so mean.

13 We love our false self-image

We surround ourselves with mirrors, so as not to see what we are. They reflect back to us
precisely what we have made up our minds we look like. We want to gape at our gorgeous
image, but not come face to face with our true self. If they showed us the truth, we would have
smashed them all long ago.

There are two ways to hate a thing, by hating it for what it is or by hallowing its fake effigy. And
isn’t this what people do with the image of their own self? They love it more than all the world.
But since they know it so distantly, isn’t it a mere shifty similitude that they adore?

We so dote on this self of ours of which we know so small a part. Our self-love burns with a
queer kind of ardour. We can’t bear to spend a moment alone with its object divested of our
jangling distractions.

We set up our own self as the god of our idolatry, and like any deity we worship it from afar in
fog and mystery. The less we know of it, the more devoutly we adore it.

14 Self-deception and the world

The world throbs with deception and self-deception, like the systole and diastole of the heart.
Few things are dearer to us than the cheap self-deceits which we hope to pass off on the world
for a high price.

The world, which knows nothing but the outermost shows, may sound us more inwardly than we
do ourselves.
Most people are ready to know what they are at their fringe, so that they won’t have to find out
what they are at their core. They see the margin where their self meets the world which they
plan to stamp their will on.

I know myself through the mediation of the world. And so I don’t know my true self at all.

People want to learn how the world works because they want to control it. But they don’t want to
know what they are since they might feel that they had to control themselves.

Most of us know no more of ourselves than our own self-deceptions. And that’s all we need to
know to make our way in this world of fraud. To know more would do us no good, and might do
us great harm.

Some people who know their own depths are still deceived by the pasteboard masks which the
world obliges them to wear.

How could we see how small we are, when we seem to cut such a large figure in our own small

15 Too near and too far for self-knowledge

We may know the hearts of others, but we don’t care for them. And we don’t wish to know our
own, because we care for ourselves so fiercely.

We can’t see others clearly, because they are too far from us, and we don’t see ourselves,
because we are too close. We don’t make out what others are like, because we care too little for
them. And we don’t want to make out what we are like, since we care too much. We can’t get
outside our own minds, but we have no will to go within them. The motives of others seem so
tangled and inscrutable because we can’t gain access to them, and our own do so since we
would gain nothing from their scrutiny.

The few who know their soul up close are still not conversant with large tracts of it which those
who are scarcely acquainted with them see straight off, as you may figure out a husband or wife
more unerringly when you’ve met them once than their mate does who has lived with them for
years. ‘Most people,’ Lichtenberg says, ‘are known to others better than they are known to

Most people know their souls too remotely to blench at what they might unearth if they knew
them up close. But there are a few who know themselves well enough to dread what they might
find if they knew themselves better.
16 The cowardice of self-deception
Some of the most indomitable people, who would never flinch from a foe, hide from themselves
their whole lives. They have to go out to face the world, since they lack the nerve to stay in and
face the blank of their own self. They can stare down any threat except the truth.

We refuse to look in our own hearts in the hope that no one else will look in them, as babies
shut their eyes and trust that they can’t be seen. And the world plays along with our game as we
do with toddlers.

17 We pretend to deceive ourselves

To fool others, you must first fool yourself, though at times you need merely seem to.

Hypocrites try to dupe others, sincere people have to dupe themselves. If you can’t hide your
motivations from the world, it may be enough to act as if you were not aware of them yourself.
‘Some men,’ Bradley wrote, ‘are not liars because they always speak the truth, and others
because they never do.’ No one seems more honest than those who keep up a steady pose of
being taken in by their own lies.

Most of us lie to ourselves even when we seem to gain nothing by it. And the few who don’t still
have to put on the guise of a decorous self-deception. If you have glimpsed the truth, it is all the
more necessary that you act as if you had not. Self-discernment may be your glory, but
ignorance is an excuse. And often you need an excuse more pressingly than glory.

People fool themselves most of the time. But they also makebelieve that they need to fool
themselves still more than they do. Not even their self-deception is quite genuine. They are not
so dainty that they can’t admit the dirty truth to themselves once in a while. They understand
who they are a speck more than they seem to, though much less than they suppose.

18 Secrets and self-knowledge

People spy into you more than you guess, but less than they guess. They spot that part of you
that you were so keen to hide. But that is all they spot. And they are keen to ferret out all but
what matters. They love to pry out a few shadowy secrets, but have no use for what is best in
you. Most of what we strive to conceal lies on our outside, and onlookers catch sight of it more
readily than we do, since we see ourselves from within. Our secrets form our outlying precincts,
which all comers get a glimpse of as they near us.

How quickly others see through me. And yet how little of the truth they bring to light. Those who
boast that they’re an open book would be dismayed by what there is to read in them.
Some people put on a front of secrecy to hide that they have no secrets, and some put on a
front of unreserve to hide that they do. They hoist a bright curtain of ostentatious directness in
order to screen their real selves.

Keep your secrets sealed away, and they will keep you more imprisoned. Yet they may yield up
to you the key to unlock the chambers of your heart. Secrets ferment your self-knowledge in the
dark. And repression brings to light far more than openness.

19 Self-concealment
Few people are alert to all the secrets that they are attempting to hide. And if they were, they
might not be able to hide them so well. Those who don’t know what mischief they do still have
the craft to conceal it. How deftly they parry truths which they don’t even perceive.

Those who are most opaque to themselves are most transparent to others.

I want others to watch me and feel for me, but not to see through me. So I waste my days
forging an effigy of myself for them to gaze at, and then curse them when they do so from an
angle that I don’t like. I long to be seen and heard but not read, to be exhibited but not exposed,
displayed but not disclosed, and famous but not fathomed. I like to be illuminated by a bright
stage light, but not revealed by a harsh search light.

How do the blind fend off the importunate eyes of others?

Clothes are the emblems of all our disguises. We spend so much time and care collecting them,
but they don’t fool anyone.

Methods of psychology
Matter of psychology
Hope and despair
Love and hate
Youth and age

After a few hundred years we may be close to the uttermost frontiers of scientific learning,
though its propositions are hard to grasp and lie far from day to day use. But in thousands of
years of discussion, observation and experience, we have explored so little of the heart and its
emotions. And yet it is not a complicated organ. We know how to astonish it, thrill it, please it
and stab it, but we are still at a loss to understand it. Like the weather, its delicately poised
agitation is formed by simple but erratic variables. It’s a jumble of ill-assorted details. So it
seems complex, but is it any more than miscellaneous and overloaded? It’s not more intricate
than the world of matter, but more elusive and enigmatic. We don’t live below the surface, but
we do live on a medley of them.

An animal’s nature is far more simple than its organs, just as the soul is far simpler than the
body. And the brain is far more complex than any thoughts it may think.

Whether or not we look on the animals as automata, it’s probable that this is how they look on

Mind and body may well be one substance, but it is through their felt duality that we take hold of
the world.
1 Pitfalls of understanding the emotions
When we try to guess what has led people to act as they have, we first restrict the field of
determinants to motives, and then search for one that appertains to us and that casts us in a
bright light. We bring to bear first our general human self-obsession and then our own private
self-obsession. We take it that they do things because they desire us or envy us, when they are
not thinking of us at all.

Freud was not a bad scientist, but just a bad literary critic. He conceded that ‘wherever I go I
find that a poet has been there before me.’ He thought that he could stitch together a rigorous
science of the mind by reducing a few foundational tales to crude formulas. As a theory
psychoanalysis arrays in a mythological frame not psychological facts but our trite notions of
them. As a therapy it is psychic blood-letting, and the analyst clings like a tenacious leech.
Freud was a scientific quack, but at rare moments a genuine old-fashioned sage.

2 Emotions
Emotions narrow us, and so we conclude that they make us whole.

Our emotions are the body heat of our egoism.

We get most of our emotions third-hand from the way others evaluate the appearance of things.

Some people use distressing emotions, such as anger or self-reproach, to syphon off their
thoughts from the real source of their distress. They work up a sham mood to switch their own
or others’ gaze from the real one that they do feel. They weep for a deep loss, to steer their
thoughts clear of the shallower ones which touch them so much more deeply.

The deepest feelings can be turned on to a quite new track by some small impediment laid on
the rails.

3 The fragmentary self

Our souls writhe with perversities and incongruities. So how could an incisive analysis of
motives, such as Dostoyevsky’s, be anything but a thicket of paradoxes? ‘All contradictions can
be found in me,’ wrote Montaigne, ‘depending on some twist or attribute.’

Our being is sewn up from offcuts and oddments, ‘fragments from books and newspapers,
scraps of humanity, rags and tatters of fine clothes, pieced together as is the human soul,’ as
Strindberg put it. Yet we still dream of a wholeness which we will never reach.
Our disposition is all things but uniform and indivisible. ‘We are entirely made up of bits and
pieces,’ the amorphous Montaigne says, ‘so diversely and so shapelessly, that each one of
them pulls its own way at each moment.’ Live in consonance with human nature, the stoics urge
us. That is, be unalterable and variable, unbalanced and moderate, prying and listless, soppy
and hardhearted, cocksure and diffident, spendthrift and mean, circumspect and foolhardy,
spirited and cold, pliant and unappeasable, all colours by turns but not one of them consistently.

To be consistent is inconsistent with being human. And yet most inconsistent people are mere
farragoes of incoherent platitudes and habits. ‘We don’t show greatness by being at one
extreme,’ as Pascal says, ‘but by touching both simultaneously and straddling the gap in

Each accident makes me more what I am, since most of what I am is a concatenation of

Each of us is made up of a whole army of selves. But our general self-interest keeps us under
tight regulation so that we can act like a single unit.

4 Psychology and abasement

The human sciences are bound to overvalue their object of study, since it is the same as their
audience. As Twain says, ‘etiquette requires us to admire the human race.’

The most profound explorer can’t fathom the turbid shallowness of the heart.

Only the unhappy few who sound their souls to their marrow have heard how hollow they are.

Scan the will and motive, and you won’t think much of life or of your fellow beings. ‘Tout
comprendre, c’est tout mépriser.’ To psychologize is to despise. To become expert in it, you
must wield the knives of empathy, apathy and revenge. Some dispositions are penned in an
invisible ink, and you have to hold them up to the flame of your ill-will to read them. And some
are so well secured by their self-regard, that suspicion is the one tool precise enough to pick
their lock.

No one is a hero to their psychologist. Psychology is the science that proves to us that we are
far more facile, predictable, venal, dishonest and unself-knowing than we assumed.

5 The unsurprising self
Some people strike you as more vivid than you thought they would be before you met them. But
you soon find that they are more vapid than they seem when you have just met them. They
harbour odd and astounding longings, but for flat and dull reasons. Their fingerprints are more
distinct and inimitable than their minds. They are like journals, worth skimming through, but not
worth rereading, diverting and informative, but mass-produced and disposable. Most of us are
more thin and spectral than our solid presence makes us seem at first glance.

I fail to foresee so much of what happens to me, because it’s so banal that it falls below my
theatrical expectations. And yet I’m so used to events upending my most confident predictions,
that it shocks me when they fall out just as I envisaged. ‘We are,’ as Hoffer wrote, ‘more
surprised when something we expected comes to pass than when we stumble on the
unexpected.’ You may be caught off guard by the very crises that you foresaw.

The most surprising thing about us is how predictably we behave.

6 The complexity and banality of the self

We are such shallow beings, that the shallowest explanations of our acts are the ones most
likely to hit the mark. ‘In analyzing history,’ Emerson advised, ‘do not be too profound, for often
the causes are quite superficial.’

Our compulsions are convoluted but not complex. And our schemes are ingenious but not wise.

People feel from one minute to the next more wayward moods, memories, intimations, wounds
and wants than they could find words for or than you could conjecture. Their transitory
emotions, recollections, intuitions, pinings and impressions pierce deeper than their conscious
thoughts. Their interior lives may be as rich as a novel, but their views are as thin and meagre
as a dusty exegete’s exposition of it. ‘People,’ as Valéry says, ‘are unutterably more complex
than their ideas.’ Thinkers are those rare people whose ideas are more complex and interesting
than they are themselves.

The personal soul is a social figment forged by our symbolic codes.

If they didn’t wear clothes, would people be so sure that they have souls? It is in part their
exterior coverings and complications that make them feel that they have such rich interior lives.

Like all prisons, most of our self is empty space.

It is only our bodies and all their mindless running round that give a shadow of variety to the
monotony of our souls.

7 The shallow unconscious

Our unconscious is the shallowest part of us. And we live most of our life unconsciously.
We are thrust on by a ruck of conscious aims of which we are nevertheless unaware, and by a
crew that lurk beneath the surface but which are still quite superficial. The unconscious is
submerged and murky but not deep. Our compulsions seem profound because they surge up
from an unsearchable though shallow font. And our latent drives master us because their shoals
measure the same as our squalid heart’s compass.

We are so shallow, that we feel sure that the unconscious alone goes deep, and that we think
searchingly when we don’t think deliberately. Most of us, who live by facile promptings of which
we are not aware, scorn thoughts and words for being merely conscious.

We are most fully human only on the surface. Deep down we are animals. Deeper still we are

8 Diagnosis is not cure

‘Once we know our infirmities,’ Lichtenberg maintained, ‘they cease to do us harm.’ But you no
more rout your preconscious drives by becoming conscious of them than you heal a disorder by
diagnosing it. ‘Recognizing idols for what they are,’ as Auden points out, ‘does not break their
enchantment.’ Your irrational and undisclosed cravings may grip you all the more forcibly when
you wake to what they are, since then you feel constrained to reinforce them with reasons. Our
very consciousness of them may confirm us in our worst habits. And by the time that we spot
our errors, they are so much part of our self, that we are loath to give them up.

You may slip into a fault just because you eye it so warily and take such pains to shun it.

9 Sleep and dreams

My sleeping dreams conjure up scenes as egocentric as my waking ones. I play the lead in all
of them. Even in the sea of sleep I don’t cast off from the blighted island of self.

Those who hatch no rich thoughts while they’re awake are sure that they do so when they are
asleep. Dreams come to us through the low gateway of ivory, imagination’s true visions through
the lofty portals of horn. Sleep is the mind’s idiot amusement park. We may seem most like
artists when we dream, but that is when they are least like artists. ‘A dreamer,’ Cocteau says, ‘is
always a bad poet,’ as a madman is a bad actor who has lost all sense of self-mockery.

Dreams are proof that the unconscious is yet more banal, trivial and shallow than the conscious

Art and thought have gained far more from the vacancy of sloth and tedium than from the gaudy
hyperactivity of dreams. Dreams and wish-fulfilments are the type not of art but of kitsch.

People who have such shallow ideas are proud of the deep source from which they spring.
We confuse art, the most formed and considered thing, with dreams, the most unformed and
random one.

Dreams are like cheap novels, with too much story-content and too little form. Literature is more
form than story-content.

Dreams are phantasmal but not imaginative. Art is imaginative but not fantastic.

Your dreams won’t teach you a thing. But you may learn a great deal from sleeplessness. You
can get a day’s work done in one insomniac hour.

10 Character eaten by anecdote

Who would not rather reel off tales of what they’re up to than search out the truth of what they

May your years have the tang of racy tales.

We live by anecdotes, which pulse with incident and variety, but lack form and resonance.
Some of us add up to no more than the sum of the stories that we tell of our doings. And some
are what is left when all our tales have been told. ‘Who could conceive a biography of the sun?’
Baudelaire asked. ‘It is a tale replete with monotony, light and grandeur.’ But most of us turn out
to be like cheap potboilers, with more plot than character, thought or style.

We judge people by their fluctuating fortunes, and from these we attribute to them permanent

Don’t we decide what those near us are like partly for dramatic effect? We want to people our
life’s stage with a large troupe of striking types.

Life must be lived forwards, but it must be misunderstood backwards.

11 Madness
Some of us seem sane because we have learnt how to rein in one breed of lunacy that
threatens to buck us by riding some other which looks less wild and out of control.

We are all mad, and so we have to humour one another as if we were sane. We have to learn to
speak to each other as if we were grown up and could bear to be told the truth.

You don’t spot how cracked some people are because they are so conventional. And you don’t
spot how conventional others are because they are so crazy.

Insanity is a set of maladaptive illusions, sanity is a set of adaptive ones. ‘Sanity,’ Santayana
wrote, ‘is a madness put to good uses.’ Madness is an inflation of self in ways that harm the self
and others. And sanity is an inflation of self in ways that help them. Sickness of any kind, as
Lamb wrote, ‘enlarges the dimensions of a man’s self to himself.’ And yet it does not so much
enlarge our self to our self, it shrinks our self to it and to all its petty symptoms and hopes for a

Mad people unnerve us, because they are so patently the puppets of their compulsions. And
that is what we all fear we might be.

It is the rational animal, human kind, that brings a germ of chaotic irrationality into the cosmos.

12 Grief
The deaths of those I don’t care for seem to accord with nature. The deaths of those I love
outrage it.

When those whom you love die, they glow all the more luminously for you. It’s you who live on
that fade to a wraith, to loiter behind in this limbo of low goings-on, which looks grey and
bleached of meaning now that they have ceased to light it up. It is the living who, as Shelley
wrote, ‘lost in stormy visions, keep with phantoms an unprofitable strife.’

Are those who mourn harrowed more by what they can’t remember or by what they can’t forget?

13 The shallowness of grief

In grief, diversion is better than cure. We are so shallow, that we alleviate a grief more
efficaciously by deflecting our mind from it than by inquiring into it. The best way to stanch its
bleeding is to give it no thought.

We entomb our sorrows deep in our hearts, since that’s the district we least frequent. ‘The only
thing grief has taught me,’ Emerson wrote, ‘is to know how shallow it is.’ Our grief flows deeper
than we say, but shallower than we think.

It takes most people no time to recover from deep shocks to their soul. If you want to harrow
them, you have to strike at their material interest or their social standing. The dark night of the
soul is bright sunshine compared to the eclipse of our social regard.

I grieve because others change. And I cease to grieve because I change.

The soul-stirring gestures of our grief help to put the dead out of mind.
Any grief that can be assuaged by the rites of mourning can’t have pierced too deep. We have
worked them up to pretend to allay the griefs that we pretend to feel. Mourning is meant more to
display our grief than to assuage it.

14 The selfishness of grief

How deftly self finds its way into the most self-forgetful grief. When I mourn for my dead, I sigh
for what I have lost, not for what they have lost. Pity me, I miss my friend. I feel sorry for myself
for the brief pang that their eternal loss costs me. True grief gives them a peaceful home till we
die, where they can live out their loss, unmolested by our showy tears.

Our mourning is selfish because our love is selfish. When I grieve, I am crushed by the desolate
selfishness of loss, from which I am delivered by the fierce selfishness of returning desire. Our
greed for life eats up our grief for the dead. The passing of the one you loved may eclipse the
sun of your egoism for a brief hour, but it won’t blot it out for long.

Grief, like love, can be jealous, possessive and self-deceiving.

I feel that I have a right to find comfort when I lose the priceless things that I took for granted
and the worthless ones that I craved too much. We can think of nothing worse than to be reft of
the cheap garbage that we have toiled so sedulously to shovel up.

People are consoled for what they lose by the outlet it gives them to flaunt their wounded

15 Love and grief

Grief is love’s dark similar. It has its fervid romance and its long fractious marriage. All love will
end in mourning, and that will cast you back to the first ardour of your love.

Grief, like sex, floods our flesh with an irresistible inundation. They both work by a kind of
imagination, mingling dream and memory, guilt and desire.

Loss, like love or poetry, imbues the most exiguous details with meaning, and inspires a
rhapsody of superabundant suggestion.

We have three sovereign balms, truth, love and death. And when knowledge hurts and love
goes, death is all we have to do the work.

One comfort for the sadness of death is that at least you will not be reunited with the people you
knew on earth. ‘Better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all,’ as Butler joked.
16 Cheap comforts of the emotions
At times I grope for some gaudy consolation to hide how soon I was consoled by a mere toy.
And at times I need it to make sense of a great sorrow that I don’t quite feel.

The most exalted things might lift our heavy hearts, but most times it’s the lowest ones that do
so. Commonplaces are our most effective consolations, since they best tally with the smallness
of our minds. ‘A trifle consoles us,’ says Pascal, ‘because a trifle upsets us,’ though a trifle will
rub us raw where a blow will barely bruise us. When we claim that art has saved us, we mean
that it has amused us and kept our minds from brooding on the real torments from which we
need saving and which are so much more trivial.

When we lose what is most dear to us, we seek a haven in false condolences, ceremonials,
emollient nostrums, sugary tunes and bad verse. These tactfully disguise from us the more
ignoble schemes that are even now thronging in to take its place. I use my anodynes to prove
how sorely life has gored me, while I press on to the next shallow enterprise which will soon fill
my whole heart. But I spurn the facile succour held out by my comforters, which I soon won’t
need since I’ll be so swept up in my facile schemes and pleasures. The scars have long since
healed of the lacerations that I was sure would send me to the grave.

17 The consolations of untruth and conceit

We are solaced by the lie that we are solaced by the truth.

You have to find a way to lose yourself, as a ruse to keep your thoughts off your crushing

How smartly I find ease for troubles of which I’m not even aware. I’m cheered less by the
consolation than I am by my erroneous views about what I required to be consoled for.

We can bear the lack of love, riches, success or liberty, so long as we lack self-reflectiveness as

Our delicate deceits show how hard our plight is.

Necessity will eventually force on you the remedies which your good sense was too hesitant or
too steadfast to provide.

You may allay a light loss by lessening it, but you allay a large one by magnifying it. ‘What
sorrow is like unto my sorrow?’ is the cry that marks the egoist.

Even in my most gruelling trials I want to be flattered as much as I want to be relieved. In our
ordeals and degradations we still hope to be the cynosure of all eyes. Conceit plays the
fraudulent comforter, and so it is the sole thing that you can count on to console you. Any lie will
dim your pain in time of tribulation, and the lie of your significance will do so best of all. I lull to
sleep my griefs by thinking less of them and more of my own importance.

18 Failed consolations
I treasure my consolations, but they crumble like porcelain ornaments as soon as I start to
handle them. I keep them for show and not for use. They invariably fail me, but it may be I need
them just so that I can say that they fail me. When I’ve forsaken all the more creditable things, I
like to feel that there is one thing at least that has forsaken me.

Art and philosophy help you to bear only those woes that you need no help in bearing.

The consolations that you take up to ease your pain will end by crippling you unless you could
get on just as well without them. Like subtle parasites, they keep alive the gloominess that they
batten on. They act on us like sweet poisons and toxic medicines, palliating the symptoms of
our bereavement, while prolonging the disease. Look for solace, and you will meet it at every
turn. But if you need it, you will find how insidiously it will sap your strength.

You blunt your pain not just by the particular illusions you hold but by the way in which you hold
them. Treat a consolation as more than a holiday, and you’ve lumbered on your back one more
office and obligation, which will bow you as low as the sorrow that you want to crawl out from

19 Our shallow habits usurp our deep self
We mistake our shallow habits for our deep self. And then we allow our adopted habits to usurp
who we are. What I do is more definite and stable and colourful than what I am. And when I
detail myself by my routines I cadge some of this stability and definition and colouring for my

Personality is an indolent friction. It’s a clutter of habits which retards your march but is not so
hard as having to choose the right way at each stride.

Custom is an impotent autocrat whose sway would topple on the spot if I once refused to bow to
its directives.

20 The vanity of habit

We take up our habits to push our self-interest, and we hold on to them to keep up our self-
regard. Rigid people are less intent on succeeding than they are to cling to the customs that
hamper them from doing so. They would rather give up a chance for gain than a fixed idea.
They force their ampler designs to bend to their crabbed routines. And then they stick to these
for years after they’ve ceased to subserve the objective for which they took them up.

‘Even the most adept egotist,’ Nietzsche says, ‘regards his set ways as more salient than his
advantage.’ My egoism costumes itself in the everyday wear of my habits. I could change them
in a trice, if I were not so vain of them.

You might not find it so hard to change your habits if you were less aware of them.


21 The oxygen of hope
How could you work in the absence of hope? Hope makes you work, or work will make you
hope. Thus action is, as Conrad words it, ‘the friend of flattering illusions.’ So long as we act, we
can’t but feel that we are the centre of the world. Action and fiction fill up our lives.
Contemplation and truth would scoop out their pith and leave them dry and desolate.

Hope is the lungs of our delight. And if it gives out we drown in a hideous deep black water.

Hope divided by anxiety totals happiness. A tally short of one, and your life goes dark.

Hope toys with you like a kitten with a mouse, mercilessly deferring your reprieve.

22 The happy dupes of hope

You need a few void and buoyant hopes to ferry you across the boiling sea of life.

Hope is our worst flatterer and our best friend.

Our hopes make such fools of us, that we have to fool ourselves with yet more hopes. We are
the happy dupes of hope. It is the source of half our ills and the sole comfort we can count on to
quiet them. The most tenuous hope is a more secure possession than the most solid success.
Hope, which hourly misguides us, is yet the one real joy that we can call our own, ‘the chief
happiness which this world affords,’ as Johnson puts it.

Hope is such a jovial companion, that I don’t mind if it leads me down the wrong path. And
despair is such a hangdog, that I don’t want to go along with it, even if it leads me to the right

If we had any real grounds for hope, we would have no need to take refuge in it.
The more hope cheats us, the more we are lured to trust in its promises. And the more misery
our superstitious fears bring on us, the more we submit to their intimidation.

23 Hope defers our life

Our hearts are haunted by shadows of lost sunshine and forebodings of looming darkness. And
our hope is our current and real self-satisfaction promising us illusory satisfactions to come.
Hope steals your present joy by teasing you with a prospective bliss. And fear robs you of your
present peace of mind by apprehending knocks to come.

After a while all you hear in hope’s blandishments is the ominous overture to some new
discouragement. And you dread joyfulness as if it were an intruder come to break in on your
settled gloom.

To hope is to put off life and put on illusion. And since our optimism will make the world so much
better than it is now, why would anyone want to live in the present?

24 The house of desolation

When the tide of hope goes out, you’re left plastered with a slime of despair, which no future
fulfilment can rinse off. ‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick.’

Not even a dread despair will harden you to the million pinpricks of frustration that come your
way. Desperation won’t save you from disappointment, and disappointment won’t save you from
being duped by hope, as polar regions, abandoned by the sun, are lit up by gaudy northern

Despair is the last fatal stage of a cancer which grows out of many metastasized

The Lord of hosts fed the chosen seed with the thin sustenance of despair, while he led them
hopelessly astray in the wilderness.

Our affirmations flag our hopelessness. Try to proclaim your faith, and you will let show how
deeply you despond.

Overactive expectations breed tumours of despair.

Despair is not a placid resignation. It is the rage of a wild beast which has been balked of its
prey, but which is still gnawed by its appetites, and so eats its own heart. And it is the drop of
hope that gives despair its venom.
25 Too noisy to despair
Life schools us to despair, but we are too smug and greedy to learn to do anything but hope.
We have no lack of reasons to despair. So it’s just as well that we don’t live by reason. I learn so
tardily to despond, and I forget so soon. The spinning years unravel all my dreams. But
following all my failures, I fail at last to despair.

Most of us don’t lead lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau claimed. And he might have lost all
heart if he knew how few of us do. On the contrary we lead lives of noisy and hectic self-
satisfaction. Who these days has the leisure to despond? We are all in too much of a hurry to
get and spend. Hope stinks eternal on the human breath.

No one feels that life has passed them by. We are all hurtling so fast that life can barely keep up
with the pace we set. And certainly other people’s lives cannot.

26 We fail to despair
My hopes betray me, and I betray my despair. I am rarely worthy of my desperation, and in the
end I prove unfaithful to it. And the despair that I feel is unworthy of the despair that I think I feel.
And yet at times I have to put on a fake despondence to navigate my thoughts away from my
real one.

We don’t have enough faith to be capable of much despair. And in this life, which thwarts us at
every turn, don’t we need to seek refuge in hope’s sweet perfidy? Only a fallen angel would
have the fortitude to bear real hopelessness. To hope is human, to despair divine.

When all your prospects have gone black, your anxiety lives on to tell you how strongly you are
still bound to the world.

27 Those who have no hope cannot afford to despair

‘Hope,’ Dickinson wrote, ‘is a subtle glutton.’ Faith is bloated by the hunger of despondency,
which is, as George Eliot said, ‘often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.’ Are any so
eaten up by hope as those who have lost all grounds for it? The ghouls of hope haunt them, and
plunge them in a gloom still more menacing and sinister. Its toadstools sprout in the damp
shade of desolation.

When you have nothing to hope for, you also have nothing but hope. ‘The miserable,’ as
Shakespeare wrote, ‘have no other medicine.’ However threadbare our coats may be, we keep
their pockets stuffed with hopes.

Life makes liars of those who boast that they have abandoned hope. And then hope makes
fools of them by abandoning them.
Who hopes so incorrigibly as an invalid who trusts that this latest cure will work, for no better
reason than that all the foregoing ones have failed?

Hope is a blossom which smells no worse to us for being dunged with a thousand

Let go of all your ampler hopes, and a hundred sucking tentacles of desire will still keep you
stuck to life. Having staked all on a single venture, how gaily you go on struggling when that has
miscarried. You find that what you live for you can easily live without. You will, as Austen said,
‘live to exert, and frequently to enjoy’ yourself.

28 The lucid pit of despair

To despair is to be both burningly awake to life and worse than dead. It is to know that in order
to go on, we must have hope, and yet that there is no hope.

Despair is an experiment to test if we have the strength to live without the staff of lies and
illusions. In the lucid pit of despair you at last come to believe what you have long known to be
true. World-weariness is the nausea which comes over us when we have evacuated all the lies
that help us to digest the truth. Lose the hang of deceiving yourself, and you are no longer fit to
live in this world. To lay bare the false trappings of life would be to shred life without making a
rent in the false trappings. ‘Don’t part with your illusions,’ Twain cautioned. ‘When they are
gone, you may still exist, but you have ceased to live.’ When they give way beneath you, death
is the one thing left to cushion your fall.

To despair is to find the one deep gulf of truth in this world of shallows, and fall into it, and never
climb out.

You know you’re getting near the heart of life, the closer you come to the black hole of despair.
But to get near the heart of life is to arrive at the farthest remove from the lives of most people.

Those who have been dying their life long don’t go out in peace but in terror and despair, their
minds nettled by their paralysis, like poisoned rats in a hole.


29 Hate
A tactless mouth may cause more hurt than a malicious one.

Few of us are important enough to have enemies, though most of us make it a point of pride
that we do. It’s lucky for us that so few people care enough about us to wish to do us harm. And
it may even be lucky that so few care to try to do us good.
Those who appear to hate themselves in fact want to mark themselves off from the people
whom they look down on but fear they might be lumped with. What better way to prove that you
are not bourgeois than by running down the rest of the bourgeoisie? ‘The middle class,’ as
Renard notes, ‘is other people.’

Misanthropes think they don’t need anything so much that they have to accommodate the
world’s benign hypocrisy to get it.

You can hate a person steadily and without ever seeing them. But love is a less spiritual
passion. It needs to have a body in front of it.

People’s hatred is stronger than their love. And it is their hate that makes them strong in the

30 Love
You have to go on adoring those you love, for fear of how you might feel about them if you

Love knows no drudgery. A labour of love is no labour at all. ‘And Jacob served seven years for
Rachel, and they seemed unto him but a few days, for the love he had to her.’

Malice sees the parts, love sees the whole.

I demean myself in front of those who love me, in order to feel secure that I need not prove that
I’ve earned the right to their love.

Romance, like jealousy, is a wild curiosity. But love sports in a tranquil knowledge. It works its
daily miracle when it consummates your curiosity without diminishing your astonishment or
destroying your illusions.

Love is of all things the one most subject to chance, and so we have to speak as if it were the
work of destiny. It settles in the nearest place that our vagabond attention comes to rest.

Perfection compels you to admire, but blemishes kindle dry admiration to a blaze of love. The
flaws of the one you’re fond of form gullies which you level by flooding them with more
fondness. So they come to be some of the traits that most endear them to you.

To be adored is a common enough fate. How intoxicating to win a person’s love, but how
sobering to keep it. And how it chills the heart to recognize what you are cherished for.

Love is a commonplace passion which makes the whole world seem miraculous.
31 The selfishness of love
Love and friendship prune your selfishness into more acceptable shapes, but they don’t weed it
out. ‘Our true passions,’ as Stendhal said, ‘are selfish.’ I cherish what I own or what I hope to
make my own. Egoism is the pull of gravity that keeps us in orbit round one another.

The world is such a cold place, that we each have to find some frail heart to warm us, while we
add our own chill to make it colder.

Love is the most picturesque form that our selfishness can take, and the most generous form
that our self-delusion can take.

Those who love for their own ends love no more than themselves. But those who love without
an end of their own in view most likely don’t love at all.

Our egoism is such a burden to us, that we try to force others to bear it with us by making them
the object of our love or hate.

Our complacent self-love makes our love too blind to spot the flaws of the one whom it has
chosen for its own.

Two selfish people may form a most affectionate partnership, provided they can join to work for
some shared selfish goal. And the shared goal may be the welfare and success of just one of

We have it fixed in our skulls that love moves the stars, since we are sure that all things must
love us.

If love were selfless, it would be a far feebler passion than it is.

32 Jealousy
Love is mere selfishness, if it’s heated by jealousy. And yet if it were not capable of flaming into
jealousy, it would be a very feeble fire.

It is not love that is the prime social bond, but jealousy and possessiveness.

We would be glad to lay down our lives for the ones we love, whom we would be glad to see
dead if they ceased to love us. Selfless love asks for no more than undying and exclusive
ownership of its beloved. Our sacrifices are self-forgetful and yet calculating.

33 Love and cruelty

Those who are sure that they are adored grow casually cruel, but so do those who adore them.
Idols and their worshippers are both made of stone.
What greater wrong could you do some people than to fall in love with them?

How much harm people do by loving those who are not worth their love, in the hope that they
will love them in return.

Love or comradeship can turn to hate in the blink of an eye. It’s only in books that hate can turn
to tenderness. And yet our quarrels and animosities are so shallow, that they may well turn back
to camaraderie.

People are so affectionate, that they need to find something to love. But they don’t hesitate to
throw this over, if they come across something more to their taste. The object of love is
accidental. The need to love is essential.

A heart that needs to love something won’t scruple to give its love to the worst thing. And by
loving what is unworthy of its love, it makes itself unworthy of being loved.

34 Emotions and expression

Some of us talk least and maybe think least of those whom we love most. ‘If I loved you less,’
says Austen’s Mr Knightley, ‘I might be able to talk about it more.’ Passion loosens some
tongues and stops others. And yet it’s only those couples who cheerfully tell each other all they
think and do who can cheerfully stay still and silent together.

People warp their feelings when they vent them. But don’t they do the same when they try to
hold them in, since they never cease to talk to their own hearts, which are so thirsty to lap up
sugared lies?

35 Marriage
Some of the sturdiest marriages are founded on mutual fallibility. ‘And that support is
wonderfully sure,’ as Pascal says, ‘since there is nothing more certain than that people shall be
weak.’ Many dote on their spouse for years for faults that they couldn’t stomach in anyone else
for five minutes. How few couples could stand each other if they weren’t bound to live under the
one roof.

A loyal husband or wife won’t forgive anyone else who dares to speak of their mate as they
think of them.

Marriage is a machine for converting a passing mutual flattery to a durable joint self-interest. It is
an offensive and defensive treaty made by two egos for the better promoting of their joint
selfishness. They start by gazing dreamily into each other’s eyes, but are soon ogling all the
things that have caught their eye.
A spouse is not an object of desire, but a partner in desiring other things.

Marriage is such a necessary institution, because monogamy is so unnatural.

Most people are bitten by love when they’re young, and can be cured only by marrying.

The trials that a couple must brave together may tear them asunder. The death of a child may
sound the knell of a marriage.

An impulsive adultery may harm a partnership less than a chilled fidelity.

36 The family curse

Your family, like the army, is a brutal school. It throws you in with people that you wouldn’t wish
to know in civilian life.

You are doomed to take on the same propensities that you found most repellant in your parents.
‘After a certain age,’ Proust wrote, ‘the more one becomes oneself, the more obvious one’s
family traits become.’

Our character may just be the form that the family curse takes in our own case.

Parents must feel that there isn’t enough misery in the world, but they have a duty to spawn
their own horrid little strain of it.

It takes an institution as stupid and brutal as the family for anyone to be awed by a thing as
stupid, smug and brutal as a father.

God loves the family, because it is the scourge by which he visits the sins of the fathers on the

A healthy family spawns far more lies and diseases than it does offspring. And even in the most
loveless family there is still less truth than love.

Many a child’s attitude to its parents starts out as reverence and ends in resentment.

Once the sugar of childhood has been boiled off, all that’s left to hold a family together is a hard,
sticky mass of recriminations.

Being brought up in a family messes you about so badly, that you can’t wait to get out of it and
mess up your own.

A family is a rat-king. The harder you try to pull free of it, the more entangled you get in the
mess of its spittle and faeces and bile.

Even in most large families each of the children is an only child.

In some families feelings run so deep that they are not even superficial.

37 Love, truth and flattery

Cruel people want to understand others as they actually are. When you love, you seek to
misunderstand them as they misunderstand themselves. And when you do, they feel that you
must understand them as no one else does. And misunderstanding them helps you to keep on
misunderstanding yourself.

The truth does not want our love. No more does our love want the truth.

How could you speak with bluff straightforwardness to one whom you lust for or one whom you
love? You can tell the truth only to those that you don’t care for or to those that you don’t need.
‘Nobody speaks the truth,’ wrote Bowen, ‘when there is something they must have.’ So how
could we be frank with ourselves or with God, from both of which we hope to gain such a deal of

Our affection makes our fawning sincere. It luxuriates in an uninterrupted mutual truckling which
it rarely needs to put in words. ‘Lovers never tire of each other’s proximity,’ La Rochefoucauld
says, ‘because they are talking of themselves all the time.’ And would we not be bad friends to
ourselves, if we weren’t continually commending our acts to our own judgement?

Only those who see themselves as they are deserve to be loved. But they will not be very

38 The sexes
Each sex both dotes on and in some degree disdains the other like a favourite child. And each
half of a loving couple acts as both parent and child to the other, in their different ways and

We rarely admire those whom we love. Still less do we love those whom we admire.

Women hope that their husbands will grow up, but they never do. And men hope that their wives
won’t change, but they always do.

Men see things in isolation, women see how they are related to people.

Males and females differ in the sorts of things that they are willing to be slaves to, females to
what is human, males to what is inhuman. Men maintain their fidelity to their loved ones by
lavishing their real passion on some other object.

To hold that sex is a mystical or transcendent rite is not the instinct of a healthy animal, but the
figment of a brainsick fantasist.
39 Unrequited love
No love is unrequited. It will be paid in full, though it may be in a coin that you have no use for.
‘The pay is always certain,’ as Whitman says.

An unconsummated passion may impregnate the soul, and so beget a breathing work. Poets
waste nothing, not even the men and women that they hold dear. Dante got from Beatrice all
that he had need of, but what did she get from him but unwanted adoration?

Some lovers share a mutual unreturned passion, which furnishes them with all that they want
from one another.

To love with no hope of reciprocation is to dream of bliss and writhe in hell.

40 We can neither resist nor satisfy our desires

Passion may lose each round in its bout with reason, and yet still win the tournament. We fight a
doomed contest with desire. Frustration enrages us, and satiety cloys. But both beguile us to
play the game once more. Dumb lust swindles us, and always disappoints us. Yet it still
continues to charm and cheat us. We are slaves to passion, just because it pays us such a

You can’t kill lust by inanition. It grows fat if fed, and bloated and malformed if starved.

You let slip your bliss in your hungry rush to seize it. You chase it with such breathless celerity
that you plough on past it. Brief as your pleasures are, they go on for a little longer than you feel
them. By the time they reach you, you have left them behind, and are gone after some new toy.

We inflate our desires with our fantasies, till they burst in frustration.

Since you can’t curb your urges, you have to pretend that they meet your needs. You are
suspended between desires which you can’t quench, and death which you can’t escape from.
Even if you could succeed in satisfying your passions, they would still fail to satisfy you.

Since we all crave our bliss in this world, we are manifestly not made for a better. But since
none of us finds it, how could we be made for this one?

We are puppets, and our cravings are the wires that yank us from one zany contortion to the

41 Love and lust

Lust is greed, love is gratitude.
Lust soon palls, but love makes its contented bed in custom. ‘Familiar acts,’ says Shelley, ‘are
beautiful through love.’ Sweating lust prowls for ceaselessly changing objects on which to renew
its unchanging desires. It craves variety, but finds stale monotony. Love grows strong by its
routines, which cast their spell by their uncanny predictability.

Lust reminds us of our past passions, but makes us forget the parched chagrin they left us with.

We are liable to mistake our lusts for our affections. And we may end up mistaking others’ lusts
for our own affections. We are imitators even in our passions.

Our affections are so light and unfixed, that they would blow away if they weren’t anchored by
habit and familiarity. And our desires are so boisterous, that they would drive us off course if we
weren’t ballasted by our hulking self-interest.

Our lusts make us at once crafty and incautious. They are keen-scented enough to smell out the
least chance of bliss. And yet they crash through all the barriers that would block their path.

A dash of repressive puritanism helps to season our licentious pleasures.

42 False dreams of pleasure

Our twitching desires stimulate but stun our imagination, and electrify but don’t illuminate it.

If swallowing and swilling were as pleasurable as people claim, why is it that they always do
something else at the same time, as if they couldn’t have sex without leafing through a
newspaper while they were at it? They pay so little attention to their food that they don’t realize
how little enjoyment it gives them.

Those who seek transcendence through transgression and ecstasy in degradation find that
satanic pleasures are just as vapid and unreal as all the rest.

Your false dreams doom you to chase fictitious gratifications, but won’t take your mind off your
real pains.

43 Pleasure and fantasy

The coarsest sensualists are more in thrall to their brainish fantasies than to their carnal
cravings. And since they take most of their notions from others, it’s not even their own fantasies
that they are in thrall to. We are actors even in our pleasures. We try to play up to roles that we
have heard about from others.

Our imagination is so thin, that we have to flesh it out with real pleasures. And our pleasures
taste so bland, that we have to flavour them with hot fantasies. Our pleasures are more than
half in our mind, which shows how unsatisfying they are and how low our mind must be. ‘To
strip our pleasures of imagination,’ as Proust wrote, ‘is to dock them to their own size, that is to
say to nothing.’ Real joys are too insipid to overpower us. But we are dazed by our gaudy
dreams of them. They keep us spellbound just because they are phantoms.

Half the pleasure that we get from a pastime comes from the herd comfort we take in how many
people share it or from the snobbish pride at how few do.

44 Friendship
Poverty makes solitude dreadful and society dreary.

You mend a rift with more grace by suing for a favour than by doing one.

Why do we have to be slightly inebriated to bear the slight inebriation of company?

We have a gaggle of discrepant categories of friends. Some are duties, our patrons and clients.
Some are a reuters service, which you maintain like cables to relay the bulletins. Others glow
like candles, bright erotic sparkles that soon sputter. And some are recreations, which refresh
you by diverging from you in cast of mind, occupation, bent and bias. A few may act as your
accomplices, though how many do you find that are worthy or able? Most who might be choose
to work on their own. You’re in luck if you meet with one good collaborator in life.

Why do we pine for intimacies and confidences, and then cravenly deflect them when they

We are small, frail and imperfect creatures. And we are joined to those we love by small, frail
and imperfect bonds. But when these crack, it feels like the breaking of worlds.

The strongest bonds are knitted from the most tenuous fibres.

Your friends are the people whom you have to forgive, even when you have done them wrong.

You must either love someone dearly or not care for them in the least, if you can forgive them
for the wrongs that you do them or for forgiving you.

45 We descend to meet
Isn’t most friendship less a form of love than a mere means of joint amusement? It’s not so
much our friends that we like as the enjoyable things that we do with them. We cluster in groups
to share our mutual delusions and featherbrained recreations. We want to snatch the most fun
for the least sweat. ‘Almost all people,’ as Emerson says, ‘descend to meet.’ And we cease to
be friends because we have stopped doing enjoyable things together.
‘Man,’ as Delacroix wrote, ‘is a social animal who dislikes his fellow men.’ They need to feel that
they have their own slot in a pack, though they don’t care in the least for most of its members.
‘Although the ox has little affection for his fellows,’ says William James, ‘he cannot endure even
a momentary separation from his herd.’

Friends don’t grow close because they like each other, they learn to like each other once they
have grown close. Many people wouldn’t much like their friends if they were not friends with
them. And some fall out over a trifle, since it shows them what faint fondness they have for one
another. Some people owe the sway that they hold over us to the brittleness of the bonds that
splice us to them. They are so frail, that we dare not tug at them, since they would snap at once.

Most friendships last so long because friends don’t think it worth the trouble of changing them.

46 Friendship and flattery

A friend differs from a flatterer, not in telling more of the truth, but by telling lies that are more
unfeigned and that we feel bound to reciprocate. We rely on our friends to abet us in our lifelong
career of self-deception. In this at least they are like our second selves.

A friend is willing to misunderstand you as you misunderstand yourself. Sycophants just pretend
to do so for their own ends.

A flatterer knows you too well to be a true friend. And a friend who dared to tell us the
unflattering truth would not stay our friend for long.

Many friends fall out not because they fail to understand one another, but because they no
longer feel it worth their while to misunderstand one another.

Don’t spare me the truth, I say to those who I know I can trust to tell only those truths that suit

Our friends are too complaisant to save us from ruining ourselves.

47 Friendship and enmity

Some people endure the presence of their friends just so that they can abuse them in their
absence. They love to hear others slander those whom they dare not treat as outright foes.
Anyone who has a knack for friendship intuits just how far a friend wants to run down the rest of
their friends. ‘The discussing the characters and foibles of common friends is a great sweetener
and cement of friendship,’ as Hazlitt wrote.

What a history of unspoken enmity lies between some of the best of friends.

Who is not appalled by the sentiments of their enemies and by the antics of their allies?
Few of us can tolerate a fool whose foolishness differs a shade from our own. And we curse as
a fool anyone who serves our own interests with less than optimum efficiency.

You can’t help disliking some of your friends when you’re in their company, and others when
they’re out of sight. Their tics rasp you when you’re with them, and their faults offend you when
you’re not. You have to stay close to certain people, so you won’t find out how little you like
them. ‘We think well of them while we are with them,’ Hazlitt says, ‘and in their absence
recollect the ill we durst not hint at or acknowledge to ourselves in their presence.’

48 Conversation
The sole kind of conversation that most of us find decent consists in swapping anecdotes about
how well we’re getting on and how much fun we’re having.

In polite conversation people defer to some person who is old or august or staid, and they vie to
sound as respectable and prim. But in nimble-witted repartee they strive to outdo one another in
ridicule and wit, and strain to show that they have mastered the catchphrases of the hour.

We are too dull and imperceptive to find new things to say. But we are too desperate to say
something witty to keep to the plain truth.

We have agreed on the codes of conversing so that we can speak amiably to one another
without saying a thing. Most small-talk, like dentistry, just fills inconvenient gaps.

Most people have to talk to others all the time, since they don’t have much of interest to say to

I feel sure that I talk much less than I do, but say much more than others do, and that they store
up my few clipped and polished words like pearls.

49 Fools talk
When the wise talk to a fool, they feel like fools. And when a fool talks to the wise, he has no
doubt that they must be fools.

Fools are told nothing but foolishness. And even when told something wiser, that is all that they

Who would not rather talk to a dunce than listen to a sage?

Why do some people, who scintillate in their urbane talk and pastimes, shrink and turn niggling
in the vocations that they give their lives to? How can they be so sparkling at the periphery, and
so dull at the core?
What a mercy, that no one cares to recall all the crass and stupid things that I’ve said.

People are like birds. The worst songsters scream the loudest.

50 Solitude
You must be exceptional, if you can win and keep your joy in retirement or your truth in the
crowd. Your solitude should be as replete and well-tempered as society, apt to tease and
shame you into good humour.

Some people are too dense to shine in society, and some are too empty to fill up their solitude.

Most people can’t bear to be alone, because when they are, there’s no one there. They find that
time spent in their own company is wasted.

Sometimes you have to flee into company so as to stop thinking about other people.

Loneliness is boredom imprisoned by embarrassment and protracted into hopelessness. But

true solitude is a buoyant pride consecrated to some worthy endeavour. Loneliness is a fast,
solitude is a rich feast. Insularity is a parching desert, but seclusion freshens you like an oasis in
life’s populous wilderness. You feel lonesome when you fall in with the wrong company, though
the wrong company may be your own soul. And you are most friendless when you have no
more to say to yourself.

The grand house of solitude soon sinks to a slum of lonesomeness, if not maintained in good
trim. Like friendship, it must be kept in constant repair.

51 The hollowness of memory
We recall events with our eyes, nose and pores. But we don’t remember with our ears, which
may be just as well, since they don’t give us much that is worth remembering. Memory allures
us so long as it stays mute. If it could speak, would we not find what poor stuff it had to tell us?

How few hours in such a long life are worth recalling.

Aren’t our memories all as egoistic as our dreams? What I recall is not the scenes which I saw,
felt, underwent, but myself seeing, feeling, undergoing them.

Change exists because of time, yet time exists because of change.

Why do ten years in the long roll of history seem so much lengthier than ten years in our own
brief life?
You are not what you remember, as Augustine argued, nor are you what you forget or what you
have repressed. Are you not much more than each of these, but all of the things that you think,
dream, hope, love, desire, own or aspire to?

Year by year our recollections are clarified by our illusions. The eyewitnesses of the resurrection
incised it on their hearts in sharp but incredible and conflicting details.

52 The haunting
We each die a second death, first the death of the flesh, and then of the world’s remembrance
of us.

Grief foreshortens the perspective of our pain, but distances us from our lost joys. The death of
those you loved may seem like yesterday, but their life an age ago. Their going stays with you,
their life is what you’ve lost. Do we injure them more by our forgetting or by commemorating
them so pretentiously?

The dead come to form the north of all our memories, which they attract as they failed to do
when they were with us. Too shadowy now to dominate our waking hours, they colonize our
sleep and become the usurpers of our dreams.

The children write the stories that their parents lived. A book is dunged by the flesh and bone of
a file of generations, and watered with the blood of a host of lives. The towering dead come
back as the native characters of fiction. They haunt what we read and what we write.

53 Bitter memories
Our memories may pester us like fleas, but we do enjoy a good scratch.

For some people, their past is a jungle, which they have to napalm, in order to clear it of the
sinister recollections which they fear lurk in ambush for them.

Life loads you with a freight of leaden memories, from which you have to hope death will
disencumber you.

An obedient memory is one of the most reliable helps to happiness.

Forgetting is a blessing. Memory is a curse.

When you are happy, all your memories, both sweet and bitter, sweeten your happiness. But
when you are sad, they all make your sadness more bitter. And the happiest memories are the
most lacerating. They remind you how far you have fallen.
Relays of reverie keep arriving as envoys from the past, to tell you that you are outcast from it
for all time. Don’t we all have enough blissful memories to bruise our hearts? Paradise would
still be hell, if we had to leave our memories on earth, or if we had to cart them with us. Memory
is our heaven or our hell.

54 Fragmentary memory
Even the events that I recall vibrantly I do so in mere fragments and scatterings. ‘We do not
remember days,’ says Pavese, ‘we remember moments.’ My memories, so fugitive yet so
persistent, are as stranded and patched as I am myself. They lack the continuity of a film, the
articulacy of a book, or the distinctness of a photograph. And yet they overpower me as none of
these can. Memories are not stories, and stories are not like memories. And we distort and
degrade both when we speak as if they were.

Your memories seem as clear-cut as crystal, till you look at them more closely, and they melt
and lose their shape.

People assume that they can call back a scene inerrantly because they call it back vividly, and
that they call it back vividly because they call back what they felt when it took place. But you can
be sure that the events you recollect intensely did not happen as you think. You think that you
remember experiences distinctly because you experience the recall of them so distinctly.

55 Nostalgia
Memories fall from the sky like rain, and all kinds of weather precipitate squalls of reverie. I can
call to mind momentous days, but what I can’t forget are a few stray inconsequential ones, still
winter hours when filaments of the past hang like dust in sunlight. It’s not what you can recall,
but what you cannot help recalling, that rends your heart.

You rediscover in your yesterdays the flat banalities of today, in exotic provinces the greyness
of your own, in dreams the cheap confabulations of waking life. Nostalgia breaks the magical
spell of the past. It shows you that its charm is little more than a trick of the light.

Nostalgia is a malaise of time which time will soon mend. It fastens on those who have too few
memories. The young are susceptible to it, as they have such short storms of sorrow to call
back to mind so lovingly.

Those who are prone to nostalgia waste their lives trying to recapture the thrill of a moment that
they scarcely felt the first time.

Life is all the time rewriting the radiant poem of the past as the dull prose of the present.
The one alienation more bitter than being a stranger in a strange land is to feel like a stranger in
your own land.

56 The manufactured meaning of nostalgia

Memory, like art, manufactures meaning rather than representing it. But the meaning that
memory makes is purely personal. Reverie wraps dross in gilding. Why else would it rouse our
tears so dependably? It acts like a crazy miser and a crazy wastrel. It makes treasures of trifles,
while fecklessly frittering away a million. As Twain says, ‘It is always throwing away gold and
hoarding rubbish.’ It salvages splinters of cheap glass, which its alchemy makes glister like
diamonds. Like the rest of what we own, our memories wouldn’t seem to be worth much if they
weren’t ours.

No one can wrest from me my memories, and so I toss them away.

57 Nostalgia for nostalgia

Nostalgia is a yearning for a home which you never had.

Nostalgists go abroad so that they can come back and pine for regions where they don’t belong.
They yearn not for home but for their homesickness. And when they come home they grow still
more wistful. They are stirred to the core by emotions that they have ceased to feel. Like
Pessoa, they learn to miss their memories of the past more than the past itself. And at last, like
Basho, they long for home most touchingly when they have not even left it.

There’s no need to have lost a thing to feel nostalgic for it. And there’s no need to have had a
thing to yearn to get it back.

58 The sadness of time

The brightest and gladdest day of your life bleached from your mind long ago. Your most joyful
recollections are not recollections of joy. Reverie makes an art of chiaroscuro. It needs broad
swathes of blackness to paint its shimmering pictures. Wistful people don’t pine for the past
because they feel sad now, they pine for it because they felt sad then.

If you repine that your past didn’t go more slowly, you probably wish that your present would go
more swiftly.

Yesterday, today and tomorrow, each has its own special pathos. Yesterday’s tears of pining
and regret, today’s for the dear things that dart so fast from our embrace, and tomorrow’s for all
our vain longings. These are the three tenses of our sadness.
59 Youth and age
Whatever age we happen to be, we count those younger than us callow, and those much older
than us dull. ‘Each generation,’ as Orwell said, ‘imagines itself to be more intelligent than the
one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it.’

No matter how old we are, life seems to be just beginning. And most of us learn so little from it,
that it always is, till it comes to an end. ‘We arrive,’ La Rochefoucauld says, ‘as thoroughgoing
tyros at the sundry phases of life.’

Why do the young spend the best part of their lives searching for authorities to guide them how
to rebel against authority?

Many who waste their bright youth waiting for their life to start waste the remainder of their years
in a vain bid to get back their youth.

Why squander your golden youth drudging to buy a luxurious pillow for your grizzled age, which
will be too sleepy to feel how soft it is?

You have not lived long enough, if you would choose to be one day younger.

The self-satisfaction of the young brims over as a bubbling delight in life. And the self-
protectiveness of the old stiffens into a stodge that they hope to devour to the last mouthful.

The young strut and prance like vain players, and the elderly sit and judge like smug critics.

In childhood every familiar object is a fetish. The mystery is at first material.

60 Senile heads on young shoulders

Only a soppy and doddering age such as ours could believe that children are geniuses. Genius
is not the recovery of childhood at will, as Baudelaire claimed. It is the abandonment of all the
habits of childhood.

We all now say that children are miraculous prodigies. But where are the master works that they
have made?

An artist may seem like a child, but a child is not in the least like an artist.

The famed imagination of childhood is one of the figments of the sentimental lack of imagination
of adults.
The young live as freshly and lustily as they think stiffly, stalely and drily. And it takes a lifetime
for their flesh to grow as heavy and wrinkled as their minds. ‘The soul,’ as Wilde says, ‘is born
old but grows young.’ Flesh decays by changing, the mind by remaining the same.

‘If lads and lasses grew up consonant with early indications,’ Goethe wrote, ‘we should have
nothing but geniuses,’ but we have so few, because they cling to their unripe habits rather than
make them grow. Yet some people are sure that they must have been precocious children,
since they’ve still not outgrown their first fledgling opinions.

We all start out as prodigies. A fresh mind alone matures into something deeper and more
capacious. It’s dullards that hang on to the traits of youth, its mindless legalism, pettiness,
flippancy, cribbed hair-splitting, iterations and impatience. Only a pioneer busts their hold, and
stays green and keeps mutating and evolving. ‘It takes a long time,’ as Picasso said, ‘to grow

61 Juvenile heads on old shoulders

Most people’s mental development ends with the onset of puberty. As Proust wrote, ‘It is from
adolescents who last long enough that life makes its old people.’

Our flesh shows at sixty what our mind has been since sixteen.

Some old people’s brains are so active and unimpaired, that they still have the same claptrap
rattling round in them as they did when they were young.

Gravity and sloth age the mind as they do the flesh.

As I age, I don’t see that my gifts are decaying, since my judgment is decaying at the same
pace. No matter how old we may be, we don’t doubt that we are just entering our prime and that
our latest work must be our best.

We have at last found the elixir of eternal immaturity. In the past the young had to give way to
the old. Now the old rave to keep pace with the young. They fear that they are vegetating, if
they’re not roaring round like teenagers. So long as they can move, they can’t bear to keep still.

‘Age is a high price to pay for maturity,’ as William James wrote, all the more so when most
people don’t get what they’ve paid for.

Our youth and seedtime oozed and stormed like bad verse which the drab prose of our maturity
had to temper and emend. And yet maturity in most of us is no better than the torpid and self-
congratulatory prose that a scribbling versifier would write.
It wouldn’t matter that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, if you could break it of its ingrained

62 The golden age

How unhappy a happy childhood may have been. How could you believe in an age of gold,
when you have lived through one in your youth, and know how tarnished it was?

Children incarnate all the cruel partiality and cold glee of life. They are the evergreen world
being reborn the same, merciless, inquisitive, ardent. ‘Every child,’ Thoreau says, ‘begins the
world again.’ How sad to look into their eyes and think of all that they will see to dry up their
hearts, and how soon they’ll be drawn in to desiring it all. Their unthinking innocence will soon
have grown up to be an unthinking viciousness.

How short is the interval from beholding the world with wonder to eying it with lust.

Children these days don’t see through the emperor’s new clothes. They are prodigies of
amenable duplicity, who know that they have more to gain from admiring how finely he is

The young feel the burning, the old taste the ashes, and neither can get their fill of them. When
you’re young, each sting hurts you more than it should. And when you grow up, what should
gash you won’t so much as graze your skin. Was childhood frightful, because such small slurs
rubbed you so raw, or because you were rubbed so raw by what was so flat and nugatory? No
doubt it’s all changed now that we are older.

What murky shapes loom out of the dark of childhood to harry us through life.

How small we were when we were children. And how much smaller life has got since then.

63 Children of a larger growth

I want to gain my big adult triumphs just to sate a few infantile yearnings. The world is so topsy-
turvy because we are all still schoolgirls or boys squabbling to come off best in a game which is
not worth the winning.

Even as children our desires are oversized and ravenous. And even as adults they remain trivial
and juvenile.

As we go on in life, we collect a large wardrobe of grownup costumes to overlay our childish

desires, till age strips us back once more to stark childishness. ‘Men,’ as Dryden wrote, ‘are but
children of a larger growth.’
Children don’t play aimlessly, but spend all their time copying, competing and elaborating
convoluted rules. There is no such thing as pure play. There is always some goal, desire,
cruelty, rivalry and vainglory. ‘Games are not games for children,’ Montaigne wrote, ‘but are the
most serious thing they do.’ Play initiates us into the solemn ways of the world.

Children charm us, not because they are so natural, but because they are so mannered, ‘as if
their whole vocation,’ in Wordsworth’s phrase, ‘were endless imitation.’ They’re still conning
their parts, and they play them more awkwardly than us, since we have been rehearsing ours all
our lives.

Children are the most captious conformists, always on the watch to jump on the least deviation
from the accepted rules.

64 Time to leave
We are all sure that we will be ready to die some tomorrow, so long as it is not this tomorrow.
However late it gets, we don’t see that it’s time to go. As Nietzsche said, our last duty is to learn
to die at the right time. But we can’t bring ourselves to leave before it’s too late.

The soul dies with the body. But by a miracle of medicine many bodies now live on through the
death of their souls.

We lack the decency to die in good time. So we need to have the stolid self-assurance to put up
with the day to day indignities that our greed for life heaps on us.

The sole kind of natural death these days is likely to be an early one. Or else it’s one that
technology has dragged out to such a point of debility that technology need not be called in to
end it.

Old people have nothing to teach the young, except not to grow as old as they are. And that’s
the lesson that no one wants to learn.

65 Refusing to go
We all look on long life as one of our chief goods, but most of us now live too long for our own

Life at its best tastes so foul, yet we all hope to live to an age where we will get down to its
sourest dregs of ill-health and imbecility. Old age is the most appropriate punishment for those
who have had the temerity to live too long. But we might soon bring an even worse fate on
ourselves when we find out the secret of immortality.
Most of us claim that we would rather die than live to be too old. Yet none of us think that we are
too old. Those who lead such unlovely lives can think of nothing more beautiful than that they
should draw breath for one more day.

Old people fight to keep their shrivelled grip on what they made no use of in their green time.
Like children asked to give up a toy that they had never played with, they find that they feel a
sudden commitment to a skill or subject that for fifty years has held no interest for them.

Old people spend half their time bemoaning the natural aches and pains of age, and the rest
trying unnaturally to prolong them.

Care and cruelty
Creed and church
Holy books
All pagans

1 Types of gods
The oldest religion and the newest science are best. ‘The best wine is the oldest, the best water
the newest,’ as Blake wrote.

In an expanding universe God is receding farther and farther from us.

We call God transcendent as a polite way of ushering him out of existence. It’s a halfway house
on the road from being all in all to being nothing at all.

Like the rest of our productions, the gods are hopelessly mortal. We launch them on the broad
sea of eternity. But they sink shipwrecked and forgotten a short way through their everlasting

The gods are local and mortal emanations of our ubiquitous and perennial need of illusion.
Cursed by his omniscience and omnipotence, God lacks the two enviable powers which we are
blessed with, the power to forget and the power to die. Will he have his redress by rendering us
sharers in his detestable gifts?

A personal God would be too paltry to be worth our adoration. And an impersonal God would be
too detached to have any use for it.

The godly call heretics those who can love a bigger God than their own.

You can’t escape from God, because he is everywhere. But you can’t find him, because he is

2 Types of religion
Revealed religion is empirical religion. Hence the knowledge that it gives is at best probable and
not conclusive. And the god that it reveals is contingent and not necessary.

Theology is the science of imaginary causes. And so till recently it has had more real effects in
this world of illusions than the rest of the fields of thought.

Natural religion gives fanciful causes for real effects, such as the existence of an ordered
universe. In the revealed religion of miracles and messiahs not even the effects are real.

Mysticism is a rhetorical genre. And like all rhetoric it begins with the pretence of rejecting
rhetoric and all mere words. Yet even for the most god-intoxicated mystics the point of their
intercourse with the divine seems to be to blather about it at great length to their fellow mortals.

Why does the Lord delegate rich minds like Pascal to act as his apologists, and then fit them out
with such fatuous arguments?

The one great God of monotheism is narrower than each one of the gods in a vast polytheistic

A monotheist has a single idea, and it is a bad one.

3 The hierarchy of religions

The most wholesome creeds, like hinduism, biblical judaism or paganism, are strong and
mentally fresh. Islam is an abstract, otherworldly and sand-blasted judaism, universalized and
purged of its local history and ethnic roots. It is vital, energetic and healthful, but arid and
straitened. Buddhism is languid but clean and rigorous. But christianity stinks of decay and the
soiled fever bed, dank, fetid, leprous and subterranean. It was the noisome and degenerate
netherworld of rabbinism, apocalyptic, spiteful, sectarian, perfervid, poisoned by maleficent
spirits, shoddily theatrical, overwrought, and corrupted by its idolatrous cult of personality.
From its birth the christian religion was prey to a rancid excess, too many gods, too many
testaments, too many gospels, canons, covenants, mountain tops, priestly peoples, apostles,
demons, councils, schisms, sects, sacraments, relics, and too much history. It was an anti-
semitic monotheism which set up a jewish man as one of its three gods, and claimed that it was
fulfilling the law when it was founded on a flagrant transgression of its first commandment. It
sprouted as a rotten offshoot of judaism, to be grafted on a worm-eaten imperial roman stem,
and then transplanted to celtic and germanic soils.

The God of the israelites is the paramount deity of singleness, order and uniformity. The hindu
gods are unequalled emanations of creative fire and multiplicity. They are the perfect
reconciliation of the local and the pagan with the universal and transcendental.

4 Idols
Mortals can’t touch a god without reducing it to an idol. Our greedy creeds taint its transcendent
purity. Belief turns truth itself to a lie. A god enters the brain, and comes out an idol. A truth goes
in, and comes out a lie. The heart is a furnace that casts an unwaning file of fetishes. And the
mind is a lush equatorial wild, in which fabulous superstitions bloom and fester. Many venerate
the Lord with their lips, but all enshrine shibboleths in their soul.

It doesn’t matter much what god you kneel down to, since this is not the real god you adore.
That is the idol you shape for your own use.

The kind of gods that we create is determined by the form in which they are conceived. An idol
is an image which lives in stone or wood. A god is a character who lives in words. God made
the heavens and the earth by an act of speech, and we made him in the same way. Idols are
carved with hands. Gods are conceived in hearts.

Idols are the works of peoples whose gift is for the plastic arts. Gods are the works of literate
ones. There are gods because mortals learnt to write. Idols don’t last long in the poetic ether of
a lettered age. And gods don’t last long in the dry air of a scientific one.

God is what I worship, idols are what everyone else bows down to.

5 The social circuit

The gods are part of culture not of nature. And like all cultural products the idea of God needs to
be drilled into us. No child is born with it.

Religion is a blend of customs which we use to commune with our fellow mortals, not with God.
So its flock don’t much care whether there is a god or not. But they won’t put up with people
denying it.
A private religion is no more possible than a private language.

God is a social illusion, not a metaphysical one. He is a product of social interactions, not of
abstract speculations.

Faith is more a social practice than a personal conviction.

Each time we pronounce the formulas of our creed, it enters further into reality and becomes a
social fact. And social facts are the only kind that have any sway with us.

God helps us to feel at home, not in the immeasurable world of space, but in our own small
social world.

6 The horror of creation
The Book of Genesis tells the story of God’s aghast evacuation from the horror that he had
made. He left it like a man in flight from an inferno. ‘Allah has created nothing more repugnant to
himself than the world,’ according to the muslim holy man. ‘And from the day he made it, he has
not glanced at it again, so much does he loathe it.’ What gruesome memories of it must turn his
paradise almost to a hell. Is he more indignant with us for the mess that we have made of his
earth? Or is he more ashamed of himself for having made it?

We have not killed the deathless gods. They have turned their backs on this doomed and
degraded globe.

God was the first utopian, who hoped to set the world to rights by killing off nine-tenths of its

7 The original sin of creation

Who will absolve God from the sin of having besmirched the timeless silence by engendering
this blaring world? He trespassed when he made it. So he had to raise up Satan as a patsy to
blame for his own bungling. And then as an atonement he had to send his son to be put to
death by the victims on whom he had unleashed it.

Was the Lord corrupted, first by his elation at his own omnipotence and success, and then by
his despair at how we wrecked what he had made? Whatever he feels for us and this sad world,
it can’t be love, or his heart would break a million times a minute. Was he dumbfounded more
by the resilience of human kind or by its depravity? Having failed to drown it in the flood, he then
failed to redeem it on the cross. He found that it cost less bother to make a world than to save it,
at least when he had made it so hastily.
When Adam ate of the tree of knowledge, he learnt that it was the Lord who lied and the snake
that told the truth.

8 Fatuous creation
Did the Lord set this world spinning to amuse himself, and then lose interest in the show? It’s as
if he formed us to be his clowns and zanies, and then found that he had no sense of humour. Or
did our murderous high jinks strike him as too disgusting to be funny?

How perverse or incompetent of God, to have made a world all the features of which are so out
of joint with his own.

God made the world by withholding from his creatures his own supernal attributes. The creation
was his act of self-negation.

If we are to read God’s disposition in the book of the world, he must be like a schoolboy with a
chemistry set. He loves spectacular effects, flares and explosions, but has not figured out what
to do with most of it. The universe is a sign of what mischief a bored deity will get up to when left
on his own for an eternity.

We are the futile fools of time, and God is the futile fool of eternity. And God, who is tormented
by everlastingness, took his petty revenge by making creatures who are tormented by time.

9 The needy and all-sufficient deity

What pathetic need drove God, a perfect and self-sufficing being, to make a world so much
inferior to himself?

God is a necessary being all of whose acts have been quite unnecessary.

Whether or not God’s existence gives a meaning to our life, our existence proves that God does
not suffice to give a meaning to his own.

When the most high made mortals in his likeness, how horrorstruck he must have been by what
he saw. It was a fit reward for his narcissism. If we are made in the image of God, is that not the
strongest of all reasons not to worship him? Would it not be beneath our dignity to bow down to
such a sorry being?

God is a flawless being. To exist is a glaring flaw. Hence God does not exist. He is a necessary
entity who in consequence has no place in this contingent world.

For a perfect being, to act at all is a sign of some lack which needs to be filled.
10 The imperfections of a perfect being
God must have more power than knowledge, and more knowledge than wisdom.

For an all-powerful being, God seems baffled at every turn by his own impotence. For an all-
observing one, he seems to be ignorant of most of what goes on in the world. And for an all-
wise one, his designs seem close to madness. It’s clear that the world is his handiwork, since it
is so imperfect, contingent and unnecessary.

How was such a botched and aborted world brought forth by a perfect begetter? And how did a
loving father sire such a detestable lump?

You needs must forgive God, since he so conspicuously knows not what he does. If he had a
skerrick of foreknowledge of the consequences of creating this world, how could he have dared
to do it? And if he were all-powerful, he would have contrived some means to unmake it.

A perfect being would have to be boundlessly evil as well as boundlessly good, or else it would
be deficient in some respect.

11 God the celebrity

‘Man,’ according to Ignatius of Loyola, ‘was created to praise.’ How human of the creator, to
make a world so that he might wallow in its worship. He must be like a celebrity whose aim is to
recruit as many fans as possible to adore him. Is he so insecure that he needs us to prop up his
sense of himself?

How could a deity that craves our reverence be worthy of it? What man or woman would be
gratified by the veneration of a slug or a fly? How could you have faith in a god who cares
whether or not you have faith in him? And yet this is the sole kind of god that you can care for.

12 Hungry for love

What pitiful hunger drove the Lord to create beings so unworthy of his love in the vain hope that
they would love him? And if he knows our hearts, how could he want or expect to win our
adoration? Is his faith in himself so fragile, that he needs such motes of dust as we are to have
faith in him? He too testifies that to act is not worth a pin on its own, if you lack the notice of
worthless witnesses. Like everyone else, he cares about none of your opinions save the one
that you hold of him.

God puts up with the fellowship of the dreariest souls, so they at least claim, on condition that
they sing him loud hosannas. Does he too get the adorers that he deserves?

The Lord must be down and out indeed, if he needs to seek out the cramped habitation of a
human soul to squat in.
13 The religion of love
As with all those they love but even more so, in order to love God, people need to
misunderstand him. And yet they still don’t love him.

There can be no love of an infinite being for a finite one, nor of a finite being for an infinite one.
The broadest gulf that we can bridge with our love is the tiny one that sets us apart from a dog.
Is it more presumptuous to believe that God loves us or that we could love God? We are too
selfish and limited to love him, and he is too transcendent to care for us.

Do pious people show more effrontery in presuming that God loves them or that they have the
heart to love him?

A god of love is one of the more patent projections of our own voracious self-love. And we had
to call up a being as vast as the cosmos to love us as we deserve.

God gives us unconditional love on condition that we love him to the exclusion of all else. And
yet no one really loves him at all. What they love is at best an idea that affirms them.

14 The vocation of hate

A faith is cherished not for the light that it gives but for its heat. And hatred and acrimony give
more heat than love. ‘Men hate more steadily than they love,’ as Johnson points out. A religion
of love won’t last long, if it fails to provide its flock with some foe to loathe. It wins them by
preaching charity while inflaming them to practise hate. But the lambs no longer have sufficient
faith to excommunicate each other, or burn schismatics, or put infidels to the sword, or plan
ingenious torments for their enemies in the world to come.

They can’t love the world which God has made. So they profess to love a God which they have

The gods used to do what the state does now, that is, unite us with those of the same tribe as
us and divide us from foreign ones.

God may be a god of love, but we love him on account of his frightening power and to bribe him
to use it on our behalf.
15 The divine despot
The god of the cosmologists is too vast to be of use to us. And so we can have dealings only
with the petty tyrant who might help or harm us. As Muhammad asked, ‘How can you worship
what can neither benefit nor harm you?’

God’s blessedness, like that of a tyrant, would not be complete if he lacked the simpering of the
saints and the sight of the writhings of the damned. Heaven is the perfect totalitarian state.
There the saved have no will to resist, and no one cares for the recalcitrants who are racked in
the concentration camp below.

We truckle to God by ascribing to him the qualities of the type that we find most enviable, that is
to say, the despot. Where a governor is flattered for his mercy, you know that he must be a
tyrant. Mercy is the virtue of an arbitrary autocrat, not of a lawful sovereign.

Mercy is in the realm of the moral life what miracles are in the realm of nature. God lays down
rigid laws, and then demonstrates his goodness or power by disobeying them.

God is an all-controlling but distant autocrat, and we are like those peasants who at each new
enormity would cry out, ‘If only Stalin knew of this.’

The difference between God and the devil was in origin one of relative power. God is a king,
and so his privilege is to rule. Satan was a subject, and so his duty was to obey.

16 Divine malevolence
God must be as innocent as a child, who still takes pleasure in torturing kittens and demolishing
ants’ nests.

The best we can hope is that the gods will care no more about our sins than they do for our
sorrows. What deity would deign to take thought for our dirty little souls? If they stoop to that,
what petty spitefulness might we not have to fear from them? God can’t forgive us. So we had
better pray that he will forget us. ‘O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, until thy wrath be

It seems that gods and mortals, though harmless on their own, rile one another like a
mismatched couple, and bring out each others’ genocidal tendencies.

The Lord had no choice but to wipe us from the face of the earth, once he found that we share
his own incurable bent for violence and righteous deceit.
God is a fiend’s notion of a supremely felicitous being, who has the unchecked power to do his
will with impunity. And it may be that God is a name we give to the devil to flatter him. God is the
devil with more power, worse taste, less honesty, and a clear conscience.

God couldn’t find it in his heart to forgive us for eating his apples till we had splayed his son on a
cross. Such is the ineffable logic of divine charity, which looks much like a crazed mortal cruelty.

17 The unhappiness of God

God’s state is indeed kingly. No one loves him, his entourage of lackeys curry favour with him to
get what they want, and no one tells him the truth.

We taunt a defunct god like a cashiered dictator, who has lost the power to hurt us.

If God is all-knowing, then he must be all-pitiful too. But he is clearly not all-pitying. Like any
powerful person, he has no doubt used up all his pity on his own case.

18 Jehovah and son

The God of the Old Testament slaughters his foes, and we derogate him as a vindictive tyrant.
The God of the New Testament tortures them till the end of time, and we dote on him as a
merciful father. They form a cruel dynasty. ‘My father hath chastised you with whips, but I will
chastise you with scorpions.’ Who could love such a God? ‘Fear him, which after he hath killed
hath power to cast into hell.’ People look on Jesus as a god of love because they believe that he
didn’t mean the anathemas that he vomited forth or that he intended them only for their

God seems to have been an absent-minded father, unsuspecting for most of time that he had a
son. Could it be that he was so disappointed in the milksop, that he gave him no thought till he
had the chance to dispatch him to this world to have him lynched? Having seen how he dealt
with his own firstborn, we might pause before claiming to be his children.

The gravest sin against God is to bow down to a man. And yet many people know no other way
to worship him.

19 Imperial creeds
How the devil must smirk, to see how the sects have spread their smudge over the clean earth.
The gods were shipped round the globe like germs, decimating whole populations that had not
yet been inoculated against them. Jesus came as a scourge to the first americans to chastise
them for their incorrigible innocence. He let loose his fiends on them, to show them how much
need they had of his saving grace.
God loves the cruel and self-righteous, and helps them to torment the weak.

How the Lord must hate the sinlessness of indigenes and animals, and prefer us and our
rapacity, duplicity and machinery. So he has called us up as his death squads to hunt them from
his earth. What contempt he must have for his creation, to put its fate in our hands.

20 The incompetence of providence

The cosmos is testimony to God’s surpassing power and deficient wisdom.

The world is such a mess, one could well believe that there’s a god presiding over it. And his
existence is such an appalling possibility, that one could well fear it might be real. We must
hope that he will show his mercy for us by not existing.

God helps those who don’t need his help.

Most people are no more responsible for their creed than they are for the colour of their skin.

If the cosmos is a contraption designed to rescue castaway souls, why is it so ill-fitted to its
purpose? What a world of blood, waste and wonders God has made for us to ply the starved
christian virtues in. ‘Did he who made the lamb make thee?’ Why so broad a stage for so paltry
a play? Why fourteen billion years of starburst and carnage for a few dingy centuries of

21 Grace and favour

God manifests his compassionate grace when he plucks his favourites from a cataclysm in
which he dooms multitudes to die. ‘A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy
right hand, but it shall not come nigh thee.’ When predestination sets its mind to put the world to
rights, you know there will be slaughter.

The job of providence is not to make everyone happy, but to make me and mine happier than
everyone else. I would know only half of God’s love for me, if I didn’t see him persecuting those
whom I hate. It’s as clear that it is at work when it rains blows on others as when it heaps
blessings on me. A god that fails to take our part would be no god at all.

The more mayhem we witness in the world, the more we trust in the providence that shields us
from it.

We love God because we know he hates our enemies. His job is to deal out an indulgent mercy
to us and a harsh justice to our foes.

Providence is the power that preserves my life. God knows what preserves the lives of others.
If the guilty never prosper, then all those who are prosperous must be innocent.

22 The brutality of providence

God is a maudlin soul, who weeps for the fall of a sparrow but winks at mass extinctions.

If all is in God’s hands, he must have a lot of blood on them.

We know that the geological record is the history of God’s intervention in the world, because it is
littered with carnage and mass death.

The god who keeps this world turning must be numb to our sufferings and an accessory in our
sins. He acts as the stern warden of our prison-house, superintending all the energy and
violence that keeps this pandemonium in a roar.

It is a proof of God’s wisdom, that the tools that he makes use of to achieve his ends are the
foolish, the wicked and the false.

A vengeful sky daddy would be as stupid and self-righteous as any earth daddy.

God alone, the theologians say, has the true freedom not to do wrong. But he has kept it back
from us, in order to prove how right he is to damn us.

God visits the sins of the rich and powerful on the poor and helpless. And he punishes the
strong for their sins, but not till the world has stripped them of their strength. And he puts down
the guilty, but not till he has made the innocent pay the price for their guilt.

God loves the rich so much, that he sent his creeds to tell the poor that it is they that he loves,
so that they won’t rise up and kill the rich.

23 False messiah
Anyone who sets out to save the souls of others is lost. A saviour must try to save the world,
since he is too attached to it to let it go. Jesus, unlike Buddha, never laughs.

A messiah is a heretic and blasphemer come to unshackle the elect from the old sire’s tough
edicts. He brings the glad tidings that by his merciful intercession his father has damned no
more than nine tenths of us to burn in ever-living flames.

In two thousand years there has not been a single born christian, not even the one who died on
the cross. He was too drunk on his messianic errand to be a sober pilgrim. He was both the
most powerful and the most impotent man who has ever lived. So perhaps he was God after all.
Jesus seldom communed with seraphim, but he was fretted by legions of devils. Like all who
claim to show us the way to heaven, he seems to have spent far more time fantasizing about
the lurid punishments of hell.

24 The imitation Christ

Perhaps the true Jesus of self-forgetting wisdom was left in the tomb, when the false
megalomaniac was raised up by Paul and the evangelists.

We ought to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt, and not blame him for instituting the cult of his

We know Jesus was a fraud from how eagerly he touted for disciples and how fiercely he
insisted that we must have faith in him. His personality type was not that of a self-effacing sage
but of a manipulative and self-aggrandizing cult-leader. As Kierkegaard wrote, ‘A man who
could not seduce men cannot save them either.’

Jesus has all the marks of a parochial charlatan, the narrow horizons of thought, the fierce
invectives against his competitors, the tight band of mesmerized dupes, the claim to miraculous
gifts, the contempt for forms and customs that don’t suit his own needs, the inevitable stab in
the back, the dividing of the world into those who are for me and those who are against me.

25 The narcissist Jesus

Jesus is each one of us, a frustrated solipsist, God’s loveless and forlorn child, sure that he
could heal the multitude if they would have faith in him, and that the cosmos could be saved if it
would love him to the exclusion of all else, a self-believer who needs us all to believe in him,
one who would curse a fig tree if it failed to yield him fruit out of season, a bad actor, fanatical
yet evasive, all the time playing to the gallery and permitting the momentary effect to trump the
truths of eternity. He is touched by people only when he can cast them as pathetic extras in the
melodrama of salvation in which he stars. If you aimed to follow his lead, you would take up
faith-healing, exorcism and millenarian ranting.

26 The despairing redeemer

A redeemer must have sounded the soul to a lower depth than a mephistophelean tempter. So
how could he grant that it has any right to find grace? ‘O faithless and perverse generation, how
long shall I be with you? How long shall I suffer you?’ Hell hath no fury like a saviour scorned.

What small fry Jesus must have deemed the human soul, to have dubbed his apostles fishers of
‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Jesus died in lucid despair, and was raised by
his disciples’ hopeful delusion. And when in this world does greedy mortal gullibility fail to win
out over divine despondency? From then he was doomed to live on as the false idol of all that
his soul abhorred and that the world loves, a triumphant usurper who stole God’s place in the
hearts of his flock. The cost of his success was to have the gold of his message melted down to
forge one of the most brazen of the world’s idols. He had to lose his soul to gain the world.

When God took on man’s flesh, the sum of all he learnt was that his divine father had
abandoned him.

27 The spiritual demagogue

A messiah is a spiritual demagogue. A true sage is a spiritual aristocrat. But there may not be
much to tell them apart once their followers have finished with them.

Sermon-mongers trust that they heal others by the homilies that they preach. But it is their own
sick souls that they cure by their play-acting. They gorge their own egoism by admonishing you
to starve yours. The sole salvation that they crave is an adoring crowd. They hope to be
redeemed by the ears of their hearers and to be rescued from despair by the faith that others
show in them. ‘No siren did ever so charm the ear of the listener,’ Henry Taylor wrote, ‘as the
listening ear has charmed the soul of the siren.’

A messiah lives in the eyes of others, and can’t bear to be alone. The question that means most
to him is ‘Whom do men say that I am?’ He demands that you submerge your egoism in his

Beware of those who set up as shepherds of a flock. The sheep are sure to end up fleeced or

If we are to believe many of his prophets, God is as stupid, narrow-minded, self-righteous and
vengeful as they are.

28 Faith
A creed will soon die out once its believers start to care whether or not it is true.

Any prejudice that needs to be fortified by reason will in the end be felled by it. ‘To give a reason
for anything,’ Hazlitt says, ‘is to breed a doubt of it.’ A faith that could be brought down by
countervailing evidence would scarcely be faith at all. All healthy faith is immune to reason.
The two sources of faith are scripture and tradition, but if you made a study of these you would
lose all grounds for faith.

Faith alone can be certain, since it knows nothing. Without faith you cannot be sure. And with
faith you cannot be honest or intelligent.

Knowledge can no more dissolve faith than light can counteract gravity.

Religion does not train people to think in a certain way. It makes the most of the fact that they
don’t think at all.

We have a deep propensity for superstition, but next to no gift for real faith. Religion is the crust,
superstition is the core. Our hopes and fears are so sharp, that they cleave even to unreal
things if they promise to help or harm them.

Superstition is an abject fear of things that are out of our control, which prompts us to a mad
presumption that we are able to control them.

29 Faith hates faith

Even more than reason, faith hates rival faiths, and the faith next to it most of all. A religion is a
thing baseless, pernicious, primitive and oppressive, unless it is one’s own. In that case it is
common sense, consoling, useful and liberating.

All believers are of the same view, that the sole rational choice is between their own faith and no
faith at all. They could see themselves being frank atheists, but not swallowing the impious
nonsense of a rival creed.

Converts assent with such fire and zeal not so much from love of their new creed as out of hate
for their old one. The persecutor’s cold fury mutates into the convert’s crusading fanaticism. No
views strike us as so baneful or absurd as those that we once held as our own. In order to prove
that we are now in the right, we have to excoriate them for causing us to go so wrong.

Credulous believers mock the credulity of those whose superstitions differ from their own.

30 The proof of numbers

A sect proves that it is the true one by how many minds it convinces or conquers and by how
long it lasts. Its success in this world is the test of its divine favour. We don’t have faith in the
Lord. We have faith in certain mortals who declare that they have faith in the Lord. It’s not ideas
that we believe or disbelieve but people that we trust or distrust. But who now could muster
enough trust in the human race to credit its puerile forgeries of the godhead? Belief in God calls
for too much faith in man.
Many people believe things whose absurdity would be clear to all, were it not that so many
people believe them. A faith is a sacred Ponzi scheme, which rests on the mutual credulity of its

31 The proof of zeal

The chief appeal of a creed is the zeal of its flock. But when you know what coarse and silly
chaff feeds their fervency, you’re apt to be made sick by it.

Zeal is not one of the gifts of the spirit. It is an aggressive assertion of self which proves the
absence of them.

Wilde notes that ‘truth, in matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived.’ The gods,
like all living things, are subject to the laws of natural selection. An extinct religion must be a
false religion. We take it that a living god must have a living flock, since it is not God but his
believers that we believe in. Who these days could do homage to the deities of Egypt or the
aztecs? It’s impossible to bring a dead god back to life, as Julian the apostate found when he
tried to resuscitate the divinities of Rome.

A creed proves its truth by surviving. But the ideas that are fittest to survive amongst our
incorrigibly deceived and deceiving species are bound to be lies.

It is your faith and zeal that win people over, not your reasons. And you get your faith and zeal
from others. It is more common to have the courage of other people’s convictions. Life is
imitation, not conviction. “Every man is a borrower and a mimic,’ as Emerson wrote, ‘life is
theatrical and literature a quotation.’

32 The proof of blood

Martyrs die for their creed, which they love more than life, as they lived for their creed, which
they loved more than truth. Laodiceans love the world more than their faith. Zealots love their
own zealotry more than their faith. And god-fearing love their faith more than they love their god.

A sect that begins by revering martyrs will soon be revelling in carnage. If truth is proved by
blood, it can be proved as well by the slaughter of its opponents as by the sacrifice of its

Why do those who claim to put their trust in the spirit hold that the best confirmation of truth is
the shedding of blood?

The most spiritual faith grows fat, not on the belief of its adherents, but on the blood of its
In epochs of strong faith people were keen to fight and kill for their beliefs which they were
willing to change a year later at the behest of their prince.

33 The man-god
The incarnation is a more ridiculous miracle than the resurrection. Is it not more ludicrous that
the great God should be born and die as a mere man, than that he should be able to come back
to life? But we find it more marvellous that he should do what no mortal could do than that he
should have done what no deity would deign to do.

The idea that a god would take on man’s shape is so flattering to our human vanity, that it never
occurs to us how degrading it is to his divine dignity. But we hold that this was the most
important thing he ever did.

34 The worldly causes of belief

Mortals have faith in the godhead on such weak grounds, that when they cease to have faith,
it’s on grounds just as weak. And those who cling to their creed do so because they don’t care
enough to doubt. They trust in supernatural things from mundane causes, and they trust in
rational things from irrational ones. And the mundane and irrational causes are the same,
usage, inheritance, expedience, conformity, slothfulness and self-interest. As Swift said, ‘It is
useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.’

Believers know that the world is a den of lies. So why do they take it that their faith proves its
truth when it wins over the world?

Where their mere ever-living soul is at stake, people will put their trust in the laziest absurdities,
which they would spurn out of hand if it concerned their welfare in this world. And it seems worth
a flutter, since the stakes are so low.

Our mouths gape to praise God, but then gulp down the world. Our hearts are so empty, that
they can swallow this world at one swig and have room for the next one as well.

It is the things of this world that we have faith in, though we may call them God.

The quest for the life everlasting has been one of the desultory pastimes of desperate mortals.

35 The sterility of faith

Faith is a stock of self-serving fantasies which mocks the world. And the world is a stock of self-
serving fantasies which mocks faith.

The soul soaks up faith as a dry rock soaks up rain, but won’t soften or breed a thing from it.
Faith is sterile, till it has been fertilized by hypocrisy.
‘Act as if you had faith,’ said Augustine, ‘and faith will be given unto you.’ That is to say, act as
you see those acting who have been at it for so long that they’ve come to assume that they
believe for real. What devious unbeliever could have set out so glaringly the all too fleshly
origins of faith? Faith is one of those roles that we play with more feeling the longer we have
been playing it.

36 Faith in this world

It’s not the incredulous but the elect who show by their frigidity and negligence where their real
treasure lies.

Our worldly hearts take refuge in faith because our mundane tribulations weigh a great deal
more with us than the religious remedies which we unthinkingly take up to lighten their pain. We
bandage a sham spiritual sore with belief, so that by curing this we might bear our real
workaday ones with more ease. God served as one of our worldliest fabrications. And the most
unworldly faith is for use in this world and not in the next. Pious people fix their gaze on
paradise to help them get through the trials of this life, not to score a place in the next one.

Those who feel that they are at work in the vineyard of the Lord have got their pay in advance
here on earth.

The faithful may claim that God is infinite, yet the god that they have business with seems a
sadly circumscribed being. He needs constant reminders of how he ought to act. And even then
he plays his part with scant competence.

We employ the Lord as an otherworldly Jeeves, astute and dependable but subservient, whose
job is to do our bidding and get us out of our mortal scrapes. He serves as a handy adjunct to
our faith in our own self-worth.

37 The futility of faith

Salvation is by faith, that is, an imaginary reward for an imaginary virtue.

Faith is the fake satisfaction of a shallow need.

Faith is the flag of God’s withdrawal. We have had to call on its aid, since the hidden God has
turned in disgust from the earth and ceased to speak to us face to face.

If we treat faith as a wager, and God as a gamble, then how could the soul be worth playing for?

We don’t really believe the dogmas that form our creed or practise the precepts that form our
morality. By a strange reversal we act out our creed through its rituals of assent, and assent to
its morality as a theory good only for some other world.
If people’s depravity didn’t prevent them from practising the ideals of their religion, the
institutions of their religion itself would have done it.

‘Religion,’ as Pavese wrote, ‘consists in believing that all that happens is extraordinarily
important.’ But religion is at a loss to make us take the great truths of life seriously. The best it
can do is to make us take its own frivolous fables seriously.

Worshippers don’t see that most of their rituals are hocus-pocus, since they don’t believe that
anything supernatural is going on at all. Each Sunday millions of catholics witness the most
stupendous miracle, and it seems to them as routine as eating a sausage.

38 The unredeemed
Believers pin their hopes on a saviour, so that they need pay no mind to their salvation. If they
could be saved, they would have no need of a saviour. And if they could win deliverance, they
would have no need of creeds or sects. They need to keep on finding deliverers, so that they
can continue to do the things from which they need to be delivered.

If we are so far gone from the right path that only a god could save us, how could we be worth
saving, or what god would want to?

The preachers of the good news proclaim the kingdom, and then put a hundred obstacles in our
path to prevent us from finding it.

Why do we keep on seeking our salvation from the cackling messiahs who fool us so
outrageously and the ingenious mechanization which will ruin us so lucratively? We are as
crafty as gods, and stupider than parasites, which have more sense than to wear out their host.

39 The cares of this life

The most trivial worldly desire or distraction is enough to drive from our hearts the love of God
or the fear of eternal damnation. ‘Each day,’ wrote Maistre, ‘even the most submissive religionist
risks the torments of the afterworld for the sake of the paltriest pleasures.’ The fiend’s best bluff
was not, as Baudelaire claimed, to make you believe that he does not exist, but to assure you
that you sincerely believe that God exists.

If anyone believed that they were headed for heaven, would they not curse each day that they
had to stay in suspense here on this low earth? ‘Were the happiness of the next world as
closely apprehended as the felicities of this,’ Browne wrote, ‘it were a martyrdom to live.’ But
they are by no means keen to loose their grasp on the cheap toys of this life in order to claim
their fabulous birthright of bliss in the next.

People hope for a second life, since they can’t break loose from our attachment to this one.
We need a gospel according to Lazarus, to bring to the daylight what he found out in his shroud.
But no one seems to have cared to ask him its mysteries, and they may have slipped from his
mind too by the time he came to sleep his second sleep.

Most people spend far more care on their clothes than on their soul.

40 An inward and spiritual vacancy

Religions keep our bodies busy with prayers and litanies and pilgrimages and fasts and vigils
and penances, so that they won’t have to deal with our unredeemed hearts. They prove that our
souls are too dull to rise above earthly things.

If God were here with you, why would you need to set out on pilgrimage? And each step on your
path lands you farther from God.

Believers think that they take part in the rites of their creed because they believe it. But in fact
they believe it because they take part in the rites, and they take part in them because others
take part in them too.

A sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual void.

We recite our creeds, to keep from noticing that we don’t believe a word of them.

We need to take part in rituals, because we have no faith. And we need to cling to our faith,
because our rituals are vain and inefficacious.

Religious feast days give rise to a lot more masticating than meditating.

People love God as they do the rest of their friends, not so much for what he is, but for the
things they do in the company of their fellow-believers.

The priest transubstantiates wafers of bread into the body of Christ, so that we don’t have to do
a thing to change our souls.

41 Hallucination and hearsay

A faith begins in hallucination, but soon fades into hearsay.

After the first divine visitation a revelation is mere hearsay. Faith without words would be dead.

‘Faith cometh by hearing.’ People don’t believe because they see but because they hear the
professions of those who do believe. And then they begin to see once they believe. ‘Ghosts,’
says Scott, ‘are only seen where they are believed.’ Faith is a derangement of the senses.
Believing is seeing. The saved don’t have faith because they have seen miracles. They see
miracles once they have got faith. And if they don’t see miracles, then they have no real faith.
‘And he did not many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.’

Thomas is the patron saint not of toughminded sceptics but of the hysterically credulous, who
have leant how to work themselves up into hallucinating the chimeras which their creed has told
them are real.

42 Miraculous stupidity
Miracles used to confirm faith, now they confound it. Believers have to explain them away, in
order to prove that their beliefs are plausible.

Why have the omniscient gods stultified mortals with miracles, instead of enlightening us with
their insight? Do they know us so well, that they have gauged what shoddy dodges we deserve
to be deceived by? Marvels are an index of how gullible we are, not of how powerful God is.
They don’t show his supernatural power, but our all too natural stupidity. They stun our reason
but don’t stir our wonder. If they were real, they would prove God’s lack of wisdom. But since
they are not, they prove our lack of brains.

A miracle is not a promise of our salvation, but a parable of its impossibility. There’s more
chance that the order of nature will be turned on its head than that our soul will be saved.

God made the world through his immutable laws, and mortals believe in him for his trivial
transgressions of them.

A true genius is at least half charlatan, and judging by the accounts of his miracles, so is God.

Would the true messiah stoop to fool us with the sort of shabby stunts that would lure the
gullible to greet him as the messiah?

God providently sends each age and place the type of miracles that it is prepared to be taken in
by. We have eyes only for those signs and wonders that our faith has told us we will see.
Pagans used to see capering fauns or the god Apollo, catholics see the virgin Mary.

Each sect is sure that it alone holds the key to life and truth, since it alone is able to elucidate
the inane mysteries that it has trumped up.

43 The end of an illusion

The sole proof of the Gospels is the miracles, and the sole proof of the miracles is the Gospels.

Jesus held in his palm the power to cast out devils, but lacked the plain sense to grasp that they
are not real. Anyone now who set up to cure the insane by exorcising evil spirits would seem
insane or else a cunning quack. If Jesus was not God, then he must have been mad, or he may
have been both, or not quite one or the other. If he and his disciples were not insincere, then
they must have been insane.

Christianity was a hysterical apocalyptic cult. Its first and last miracle was to live on through the
world not ending in the way that its founder had foretold. ‘This generation shall not pass, till all
these things be fulfilled.’

Jesus could afford to preach such an impractical ethic, because he was sure the world would
end so soon that no one would be practising it for long.


44 Creeds
A religion is a set of precepts for morally and intellectually straining at gnats and swallowing
camels. It makes its adherents harmless as serpents and wise as doves.

We can only hope that God will forgive us all our blasphemous creeds. We will have to give an
account at the judgment of all the palaver that we have yammered in his name.

A nation that won’t periodically change its gods will find that it has to change the grounds on
which it believes in them. God is a measurelessly elastic illusion, a single name for a succession
of fantasies. Words and names last longer than things or people or even gods. ‘You can change
your faith without changing gods, and vice versa,’ Lec wrote. Jews and christians pray to a
divinity whom father Abraham and the patriarchs would not recognize.

A god, like a nation, retains the same name for centuries, though its whole nature and
constituents have changed.

Jehovah unrolled his law to polygamists and slave-holders, and seemed to see nothing amiss in
polygamy and slavery. And though we take his laws to be the highest ethic, we now count these
as the most abominable sins.

45 The banality of belief

The godhead is a vast poetry which we shrink to the meagre parlance of a creed.

A religious tradition smothers the fire of its founding revelation in the foul rags and blankets of
dogmatic pedantry, as vain interpreters do the text of Shakespeare.

The world takes its revenge on God by setting up religions. A sect is the desolation of the
sacred. A faith needs a church to pervert it into longevity.
God can do miracles, but not even he can inspire a pastor with a ten minute sermon that is
more than banal. ‘The most tedious of all discourses,’ Emerson wrote, ‘are on the subject of the
supreme being.’

46 The church
The church is God’s cage, where his keepers feed him milk and clover and see to all his needs.
A timid flock needs a tame god.

The pious keep God pinned like a butterfly in the inlaid cabinet of the church.

A culture is bound by hoops of illusion, and would be blown apart if it got hold of the truth. An
individual may thrive with no help from a real faith. But a state can’t last if it lacks an established
clergy and communion, with its seasonal feasts and yearly calendar of ceremonies, its network
of shrines and holy places and its canonical rites and liturgies.

The christian state was the leopard that lay down with the kid and devoured it. The prince of
peace has ruled over a realm of mayhem and death.

To punish us for presuming to build the tower of Babel, the Lord sent a confusion of tongues.
And to punish us for expecting the kingdom, he sent us the church.

The church spent the first half of the twentieth century vainly traducing the modern world, and
the second half vainly truckling to it.

47 Saints and laodiceans

Divine grace falls on the soul like a bolt of lightning. It chars it but won’t change it. Believers
would go mad, if they held for real what their creed tells them is true. Real saints are martyred
by their faith. Plaster saints are canonized by the credulity of pious sheep. Faith comforts a tepid
disciple, but would crucify a true one. False disciples use it to crucify their foes. It is the good
news only for smug half-believers.

The Lord is not a lamb. He is a prowling tiger. And anyone who loved him would be torn limb
from limb.

A saint is a lunatic inflamed by fanaticism and stupefied by orthodoxy.

A church lives not by the zeal of its flock but by their cold compliance. It is founded by fanatics,
administered by careerists, and populated by laodiceans.

We never come to the end of our worldly credulousness. But we quickly wear out our capacity
for true conviction.
Did God lend us faith as a blindfold, so that his shining would not sear our weak eyes?

Most of us don’t lose our faith. We just find how little of it we had in the first place.

48 The needful disciples

A creed is betrayed by its most devoted evangels. Would a true prophet be more appalled to be
crucified by his foes or to be deified by his flock? It is a fearful thing for a living god to fall into
the hands of his or her most loyal adherents.

Jesus could have made shift without the rest of his disciples, but he did need one to betray him
and one to betray his message by publicizing a false version of it.

Even a messiah needs a promoter to popularize and distort his glad tidings. Jesus mediates
between us and his father, but we still need a mediator between us and him. We take things at
second-hand if we must, but we prefer to take them at third-hand.

The Lord left a lot to chance when he sent his son into the world to be crucified. If Judas was
free to act or not to act, then the salvation of the world was a contingent fortuity that might just
as well not have come to pass. But if his course was foreordained, then God was complicit in
the one transcendentally evil deed in history. Judas was pivotal to God’s plan, and yet it was the
prompting of the fiend that set him on.

To save mankind, Jesus had only to lay down his life. Judas had to lose his soul and be
damned for all time.

49 Second-hand belief
Humans are a credulous but faithless breed. They boast that they have won through to their
faith by a bold lunge into the unexplored. But they have just relapsed into the pusillanimous
assumptions of their flock. Even most converts reach for the faith that lies closest to hand.

We hold that faith should be a free personal relationship with God. But a faith can be transmitted
only by precluding a free personal relationship with God. What preserves a communal religion
paralyses a personal faith.

If people had real faith, they would have no need of religion. And if there were a god, they would
have no need of faith.

Religion is a heritable disease. It spreads by contagion, and then is passed on by inheritance.

‘When a religion has become an orthodoxy,’ says William James, ‘its day of inwardness is over.
The faithful live at second hand exclusively.’
We think that there are religions because individuals have faith. But individuals have faith only
because there are religions.

Creeds last so long, because most people can’t be budged from their conventional allegiances
by an inward movement of the spirit.

True faith would be the one great scandal and stumbling-block to our worldly hearts. But the one
scandal that pious people have never put in our way is that of true faith.

A true faith would be all astonishment, but religion is numbed routine and repetition. Our
religions are an affront to faith, and our faith is an affront to God.

Religion is authority, and faith is obedience, not in God but in his deputies on earth.

50 God is ordained by the powers that be

God’s providence may rule your life, but dumb luck must choose which god’s providence it will
be your lot to be ruled by. Cross the river, and you must worship a strange god. ‘We are
christians by the same title that we are périgordians or germans,’ as Montaigne wrote.

In the old principalities religion was a tool of statecraft. Now it is an outdated name for the
caprices of demography. Faith cometh by breeding. In matters of religion God proposes but
man disposes. Divine grace is no match for the feeblest chance of birth.

A religion proves its truth not by advancing rational arguments but by its adherents breeding like

The first holy books were manuals of hygiene and eugenics which entrenched the power of the
caste or nation that made them.

The existence and nature of God is not discovered by thinkers, but decreed by rulers. The gods
are ordained by the powers that be.

Subjects have faith because rulers have found how useful religion can be.

51 Religion and the cult of power

The one proof that persuades us is the proof of power, because we know that power is the one
thing that might help or harm us. And we are so in love with power that we worship it even when
it takes unreal forms.

The gods are at their root might, not truth or goodness. They are the creations of our impotence
and of our craving for dominion. We bowed down to them, not because we believed that they
were good, but because we hoped that they would prove good for something, to give us wealth
or victory. We propitiated them because we feared them or hoped to gain some benefit from
them, not because we loved them. No matter what gods we may pray to, it is brute power that
we covet and our own selves that we adore.

A god is any being strong enough to make hell for those beneath it.

The pious trust in the authority of their god only because they see it on show in mortal
institutions, edifices and customs. They are led to have faith in him by the pomp and prestige of
his worldly assets, his lands and monasteries, his processions and regalia, domes and cupolas
and robes and mitres.

The gods are one of our obsolete technologies. Having made them to get what we desired, we
have now unmade them, and have become as gods. They are worn-out tools which we have
sold to fund our shiny new ones.

Why do we always look to powers outside of ourselves to save us? First it was the gods, then
kings and great men, and now our technologies.

52 Religion is a misuse of literature
Religion is a misuse and distortion of literature.

A religion begins as law and ends as literature.

Scripture is fiction mistaken for fact, and theology is the structures of language mistaken for

One precondition of faith is the inability to draw the line between literature and life which is so
common among those who don’t know how fiction works.

When they die, the gods go back to being what they were in the beginning, that is, to mere

Is the Lord, like a prickly author, vexed that his far superior first book garners so much less
praise than his far worse second one? Or is he like all writers past their prime, who are sure that
their best work must be their latest?

A rich sacred text, such as the book of Isaiah, is a revelation not of the power of God but of the
power of language.
53 Faith and misreading
Where a religion is inscribed in a book, how could faith be more than a misreading?

The Lord has ceased to hand down new scriptures, since he has seen how the faithful keep
garbling them, and how they twist what they read to mean what they want. Like all fastidious
authors, he found that his books were wasted on those who read them.

Theologians act like callow critics, who treat a character in a book as if he were a real person,
and a real man as if he were a god, that is, a character in a book. Since Jesus did in fact exist,
how could he be God?

A lutheran must first of all be a literary critic. Grace comes from an act of interpretation. And
since all such acts are partial and provisional, our salvation must be singularly precarious. ‘Thou
read’st black where I read white,’ as Blake warned.

Fundamentalists insist that every word in holy writ must be read literally, and so they have to
ignore two thirds of it.

54 Old and new tables

The New Testament is true only if the Old Testament is true. But if the Old Testament is true,
then the New Testament must be a lie. The new covenant boasts that it fulfils the old one, but
the old one gives the lie to the new. If Jesus is referred to in the hebrew bible, it is as one of the
strange gods or false prophets which the one Lord warns the children of Israel not to trust. His
cult was one chapter in the long history of misreading. The evangelists had to twist what the Old
Testament meant so as to make it seem a christian book. And then christians had to twist what
the New Testament meant so that they might keep on their false path which they had mistaken
for christianity.

The hebrew bible is a grand and savage myth of a great people. The christian testament is the
parochial fraud of a small sect. It is a transcript of the pathology of a few fanatics and their
febrile time. Like all sequels, it lost a lot in force and freshness. And the best things in the New
Testament are the quotes from the Old.

55 Sacred fictions
Myths are sacred fictions which tell deep human truths. And we drain them of their wisdom,
when we read them as if they were reports of dry fact. Myth is a form fit for the gods. Parables
and harangues are for smallminded moralists.
The gods are essential fictions, which quicken our imaginations and curtail our boisterous
appetites. They are poetically fruitful and politically useful. The best were the work of freedom
and vision, the worst of a narrow fanaticism.

A faith is precious not for the pedantic and delusional catechism which it promulgates, but for
the terrific and stark myths which it gives birth to.

All the faiths are true as fictions, and all are false as fact.

The creeds may not have saved anyone, but they have inspired a wealth of infernal art.

Like poetry, the gods spring from the soil, and then ascend to the pale firmament.

Gods were begotten by imagination, but are kept alive by the shortage of it.

The gods are the hammers that have forged the souls of their peoples on the anvil of affliction
and imagination. Their job is not the trivial and vain one of saving souls, but the great one of
helping to make and hand on culture and institutions.

The gods were the first masters of style.

God, like all the great anonymous artists, is the name for a tradition, which is a far more
precious thing than a mere living being.

The gods are lesser works of art. But like many such lesser works, they have inspired a lot of far
greater ones.

56 End of my days
Most mortals trust that they will live for all time, since they must outlast the world, or else that
the world will soon be consumed by fire from heaven, since it must not outlast them. And they
don’t believe in the wrath to come if they don’t expect to be exempt from it.

An apocalypse that’s timed to swallow the earth a second after I’m gone is of no concern to me.
And if the world does end shortly after I leave it, it will be one last proof that it was made for me.
When we have to depart the world, we will find succour in the thought that it will be losing more
than we are.

Those who think that the world will finish in their lifetime don’t seem at all shocked when they
come to an end and it has not.
57 The worldly world to come
Our hearts are so full of the world, that they can take in what does not belong to it only by
converting it to their own worldliness. They forge their rarefied paradise out of their gross earthy
desires. And they remake their great inventor, so that their faith won’t remake them. How could
a kingdom which is not of this world find a place in it, if it weren’t usurped by one that is?

We would desist from hankering for heaven, if we could get our fill of our worldly desires, or if
we could let go our grip on them. Craving is craving, whether it’s for earthly trash or for heavenly
tinsel. And even the search for nirvana serves as one more excuse for clinging to life.

This world so fills our hearts, that it brims over as a belief that there must be another.

The next world must be still worse than this one, since it is made to answer our sordid desires.
Heaven must be furnished in the worst taste.

If the kingdom of God is within us, it must be a dark and seedy neighbourhood, never at peace
but enviously eying the spoils of foreign domains. The dirty human soul is of all things the least
deserving of everlasting life.

We would have no use for the true heaven. So it may be that God will reward us with the false
one of our desires, which is the same as hell. ‘So I gave them up to their own hearts’ lusts, and
let them follow their own imaginations.’

The kingdom of God is within us, like all that is cheap, grasping, false and base.

58 The stratagems of salvation

Jesus taught that the self is vile, but that you must efface your own self for your neighbour’s
equally vile one so as to gain your reward in the hereafter. ‘For if ye love them which love you,
what reward have ye?’ God, who sees the secrets of your heart, commands you to try to dupe
him. He wants you to act as if you were selflessly labouring for the sake of your fellows and not
coveting an eternal prize. ‘When thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand
doeth, that thine alms may be in secret, and thy father which seeth in secret himself shall
reward thee openly.’

In order to find grace, both you and God need to pretend to bluff each other. You feign to hold
that you have not earned your place in paradise, and the celestial paymaster feigns not to note
that you are feigning. We act out our salvation in this life and the next as a farce of mutual
The entrance to heaven will be an unbecoming crush, with the saints shoving aside their
brethren in their lust to come first in the kingdom, by pretending to have been the last here on

Godly people don’t much care how many souls the devil may snatch, so long as their own is not
one of them. In the struggle for salvation it’s every soul for itself.

59 Out-foxing God
The faithful trust that they will win the Lord over by the mean tricks that they have used to thrive
in this world. When they strive to draw near the loftiest, they still have to call on the same
shabby manoeuvres by which they’ve snapped up the lowest. They use on him the same bribes,
legal tricks, self-deceiving righteousness, formulas and excuses that have worked in their
dealings with the world. They treat the most high as an affable stooge, easier to outfox than the
wary world and readier to grant them all that they want. They hope to cheat him with the same
toothy self-belief by which they hook their customers.

We auction our souls to the highest bidder. Most of us hock them to gain the world. But the god-
fearing get paradise as a bonus. ‘All this, and heaven too.’

60 The meek have inherited heaven

The meek don’t doubt that they are due an eternity of bliss with God and his seraphic choir,
enjoying the pageantry as each foe who has triumphed over them fries in inextinguishable fire.

The most demure theists don’t doubt that the almighty exists to justify them, assist them, uplift
them. Faith is a belief in an entity greater than our own small self which is there to aid and affirm
our own small self.

Does the Lord feel more disgust at the obsequious truckling of his attendants or at their
impudent familiarity? Those who abase themselves in his sight are sure that they know what his
wishes are or what they ought to be.

Atheists feel sure that they can get on without God. And the faithful feel sure that God can’t get
on without them. ‘My business is to think of God,’ Weil said, ‘it is for God to think of me.’

61 Cosmic egoism
How enormous we seem in our own eyes, when we prevision our souls in the presence of an
infinite deity. Faith is a flattering perspective. Our religiosity was a vast cosmic presumption.
Now we make do with our vast earth-bound presumption.
Our faith in our own feeble self is as boundless as our reliance on an all-powerful divinity is
weak and halfhearted. And our adherence to our fickle and flighty selves stands as firm as our
faith in a changeless deity wavers.

Religion takes such hold of our minds, because it is as trivial and as pretentious as we are.

We frame our faith out of what we don’t know but believe. For how could we bear to frame it out
of what we know but don’t dare hold to, our utter inconsequence and the certainty of our
extinction and the vastness of the cosmos with its billions of cold galaxies which care nothing for

62 Commanding God
Pray in hope, and your prayers are as good as answered, since the continuation of your
illusions is then assured.

Why when the faithful talk to God do they use the imperative mood? ‘The Lord knows the
thoughts of the wise.’ And every fool knows the thoughts of the Lord. We speak to God as if we
were cheeky but irresistibly charming children and he had no choice but to wink at our
endearing monkey tricks and naughtiness. Our prayers are abject yet presumptuous. We flatter
God in the most servile fashion, yet we don’t doubt that he is at our beck.

The meek love to talk to their infinite designer, as they can be sure that he is the one person
who won’t interrupt them. A prelate would cry out in fury, if you claimed that God spoke back to
you when you prayed.

How could God answer our prayers, when it is not him that we are praying to?

The congregation chants hymns more to glorify and fortify its own faith than to praise the
goodness of God.

63 The divine accountant

What a job for a supreme being, to keep a bill of all our snivelling sins and grudging good works.

God’s failure to ensure that justice is done in this world is held to be an indisputable proof that
he must exist so as to see that it will be done in the next. We take it that he must have made a
heaven above, since he has let loose such a mad anarchy down here. But wouldn’t it be rash to
trust him to get things right in the world to come, when he has made such a bad job of this one?

We know that we should hate the sin but love the sinner, yet God seems to do the reverse. He
whips the sinner through the vast tracts of the next world and leaves the sin to flower in the foul
marsh of this one.
64 We live as if we were immortal
No one believes that they are going to live for evermore, if they don’t behave as if they were
ready to die and be weighed in the scale today. But if they don’t expect to die this very day, then
they take it that they will go on indefinitely here on earth. We don’t honestly believe that our
souls will live for an eternity after death, because we don’t feel in our hearts that we are going to
die. The foremost wonder, as Yudishtira says, is that each day death comes, and yet we live as
if it could not touch us.

How many days till now have I not died. And so how likely is it that I will die today?

Each of us is a little town besieged by death. But inside life goes on as if it had never heard of
the threat.

People doze through time, and dream that they will wake for eternity. They die like beasts, and
hope to live on like gods.

The belief in the immortality of the soul has no grounds other than human presumption. It is
therefore the most widely held belief in the world.

65 Faith, hope and charity do not abide in heaven

God has arranged heaven so neatly, that the elect have no need to do good works there. These
bought them the ticket of admittance, which they paid so dear for on earth, but which they can
throw away once they’ve gone to glory. The watchword of the saints, according to Emerson,
taunts the reprobate ‘You sin now, we shall sin by and by.’

Most of the godly, as Spinoza showed, look on devoutness as an irksome burden, which they
hope to shuck off when they’re dead and be rewarded for shunting through life. They deem that
they ought to be refunded for painfully upholding faith, hope and charity in this world by not
needing to in the next. The banner above heaven’s gate will tell them to abandon not only hope,
since they will have all that they want, but faith and charity as well, since they will see their God
face to face, and there will be no call for their world-redeeming kindness.

66 Paradise and pandemonium

We strut and suffer like players in this world, so that we can sit at our ease as an audience of
angels in the next.

The celestial city will need to have many mansions. How else could the just put up with the
insufferable virtues of their fellow saints?

How could we presume to sully eternity with our shabby paradise? God is the great
exterminator, who won’t want any mortal vermin infesting his immaculate abode. Having seen
what a mess we have made of the spotless earth, why would he let us in to his resplendent
dwelling? He would do well to take out insurance, lock up his supernal silver, and nail down his
movables. An hour after we get there, we will have turned paradise to pandemonium.

If God lets a few of us in to heaven, he will have to strip us of our free will and share with us his
own will not to do evil, which he could have blessed us with in the first place, so that all of us
would have won the right to go to heaven.

If death fails to change us, then we surely won’t have earned a home in God’s high heaven. And
yet if it does change us, how could it be we who have earned it? Our souls could not be saved
without an influx of grace. But if there’s one thing that this life shows us, it’s that there is no

The damned in hell are accorded the privilege of remaining their cursed selves. The saints must
give up their souls in order to gain the kingdom.

67 Immortal blasphemy
To believe that we are immortal is the great blasphemy, since we thereby lay claim to the same
status as the divine. When we dared to assert that we would live for all time, we arrogated the
prerogative of God. We stretched forth our impudent hand, and took also of the fruit of the tree
of life, and ventured to eat up eternity.

In the beginning the iron gods laid it down that we must die and return to dust. ‘When the gods
made man,’ Gilgamesh was told, ‘they allotted to him death, but life they held fast in their own
keeping.’ But now we maintain them as rickety automata to ensure that we live for ever. God
used to be the withholder of eternal life. But now, as William James wrote, he is its producer.

We have dreamt up an inhuman and immoral hell, and an irreverent and sacrilegious heaven.
We don’t doubt that each of our paltry doings on this ball of mud will reverberate through the
whole of time.

If heaven is the terminus, earth is a queer place to start from.

68 The disease of the soul

Having brought forth this corrupt world of matter, the demiurge compounded his sin by breathing
into it a yet more corrupt soul.

Our body is our Eden. But then the body fell from grace, and became a living soul. The soul has
learnt to know good and evil, and so has corrupted it.

The soul is one of the imaginary diseases of the body.

The body lives by its delusive greeds, and the soul lives by its greedy delusions. An ascetic
stints the sinless hankerings of the loins, to glut the sinister lusts of the soul.

The body is a car prone to break down, and the soul is a crazy driver.

There won’t be much soul left worth saving, once life has done with it.

Few things come cheaper than human souls. They are made in an instant, killed with ease, sold
for a low price, and bought in a job lot by those who only want the use of their bodies.

69 The nothingness of the soul

If the next world is proportioned to the breadth and depth of our souls, it won’t be a heavenly
manor but a shabby suburban bungalow.

God wished to hide the kingdom in the one place where we would never find it. And so he put it
within our own hearts.

What deity would be so rash as to leave the jewel of a deathless soul in the trust of a being as
careless as a mortal? What a leaky tub to stow an ambrosial cargo in.

The nothingness of death seems a reward exactly matched to our own nothingness. How could
our stooped and waxen souls be worth rehabilitation or hellfire?

70 Our less than mortal souls

Far from enduring through the whole of time, our souls linger barely till we draw our last breath.
Living will use up our souls as it does our flesh. And at the expiration of seventy years the best
they’ll be ripe for will be dissolution. ‘What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to
stop?’ asked Browning.

Senility is a bad augury for immortal life. If we enter the kingdom in the same state as we leave
this world, eternity must be full of dribbling half-wits. Life which has a beginning is bound to
come to an end. And a life that ends in such foul decay is not likely to start up again in the pure

The soul dies and is good for nothing. The flesh dies and is at least food for turf and trees.

We come from nothing. So how likely is it that we are bound for eternity?

71 Insipid bliss
Won’t the sweets of paradise be too fine for our coarse stomachs and too narrow for our roving
minds? It has no room for sex or for science. None but an imbecile angel could bear its insipid
How could we merit or endure a state of grace or damnation? We won’t win redemption for the
same reason that we are not worth relegating to hell. And what should such creatures of an
hour do in eternity? Would our littleness not be lost in its immensity?

Salvation ought to be for all, yet who could believe in a salvation that claims to be for all, when
most of us are so mundanely irredeemable and so unmindful of our soul’s fate? We have to be
herded like geese to a deliverance which we don’t much care for or desire. ‘The fewness of the
elect,’ as Baudelaire wrote, ‘is what makes paradise.’

The angels have to sing the whole time, since how could their heavenly sire stand their inanity if
they paused to speak?

72 Profane redemption
Why did Nietzsche, who denounced the nazarene faith for its baseness and rottenness, not
applaud the dark history which its oversensitive defenders now wince at, its unholy annals of a
proud feudal coterie exercising its unpitying sovereignty in the name of a God of mercy and
love? Might he not have seen a profane providence in the barren cross blossoming into
ferocious violence and unmatched fecundity?

Christianity gave us a few eunuchs, eremites, masochists, fantasists and fanatics. The church
gave us Giotto and Dante, Michelangelo and Piero della Francesca. The sole fruitful thing in
christianity has been its crookedness, perversity and idolatry. It peevishly damned the world, but
the world indulgently forgave and redeemed it. The church has served as the most trustworthy
prophylactic to counter the contagion of faith. It preserved the west from the pale galilean. The
Lord showed his care for his fold by sending his church to neuter the christian faith. Then Luther
uprooted the prodigal hypocrisy of Rome, and tried to resow the parochial and arid deceits of

One of the worst sins of christianity was to found the church. And one of the best deeds of the
church was to put down christianity.

When the one Lord decamped into petulant transcendence, what was left to entrance the world
but sin?

73 The paganism of every religion

Even the most ethereal and austere religion is perpetuated by its paganism, which pays due
homage to the multitude of divinities by its multitude of rites. It lives by its dark or gaudy
carnality and by its profane superstitions, which are fleshly, local, tribal and enchanted. Men and
women are such born pagans, that in order to become good pagans, all they need do is follow
nature, obey authority, revere the old ways, and take part in the rites. But the christian faith is so
at war with our unspoiled instincts, that the most it could do was bind its believers to capitulate
to an attenuated paganism and follow nature, obey authority, revere the old ways, and take part
in the rites. But it has now grown so virtuously modern, that it has ceased to be vigorously
heathen. We are, as Baudelaire said, ‘too worthless even to be idolaters.’

Our fallen nature could never rise to the angelic ethic of any of the creeds. And so all the creeds
have had to sink to suit our nature.

74 The end of enchantment

Art and paganism enchant the world but don’t claim to transcend it. The christian faith sought to
transcend it, and so profaned its sacred awe and magic. It hewed down the groves, banished
the nymphs and the great god Pan, threw down the altars and upturned the hearths, sealed the
temples, and dispersed the household spirits. With its maudlin man-god it was destined from the
first to sink into a decrepit and self-applauding humanism.

First the one God killed the rest of the gods, and then the son of man usurped the place of his
father. When God took on human form, it was inevitable that humanity would one day
appropriate the role of God. And when Jesus told us that the sabbath was made for man and
not man for the sabbath, it was goodbye to all true piety.

The bright gods were all the things that we don’t dare to be, mercurial, uncaring, caustic,
exigent, partial, irresponsible, playful, mischievous. The primordial divinities, more fortunate
than Tithonus or the sibyl, were blessed with unfading youth, but spared everlasting life. They
were too strong to be of help to our feebleness, and so we let them expire. Good gods die
young, before they have time to grow old and bitter and putrid.

The gods helped to demystify the green world by emptying it of the old spirits. They were
indispensable aides in our enlightenment and disenchantment.

75 Sacred kitsch
We have done our best to drive the savage and the sacred from the earth, and to cram it with
the tame and profane. The terrifying angels have been domesticated as chubby dimpled
cherubs to sell chocolate.

Spectator sports, pop music and religion are made for teenagers. And so each of us is
entranced by at least one of them.
The cult of Jesus was the kitsch of judaism. And the church was a plaster paganism. And now it
has become a plastic one. Each embalmed a crude version of creeds and forms whose
meaning and majesty they had long lost. And now they have dwindled to the kitsch of
themselves. Religion used to provide the poetry of ordinary people’s lives. Now it makes their
doggerel. If Bach’s music was a strong proof that there is a God, then contemporary liturgy is a
strong clue that he must be dead.

‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ What vitality could we hope for from a sect whose sole
sacred tree was a dead plank on which a man bled out his life?

Living rites freeze sentimentality, but moribund ones reheat it and dish it up as a spongy
nostalgia. The superannuated gods are doomed to spend their twilight years not in a glorious
Valhalla, but as pantomime extras in a tasteless Disneyland. Paradise is the attic in which we
stash our christmas trinkets and the rest of the kitsch of brotherly love and all the rewards that
we hope to get for it.

Happiness and self-importance
Triviality of happiness
Optimism and pessimism

1 Spoilt happiness
How much untold woe we bring on our heads by our schemes to make ourselves happy one
day. We paddle madly to reach happiness. But all we do is churn the river of our misery to a
more turbid froth and surge. We live in a frenzy, and die unconsoled.

What a long conglomeration of small sorrows our short lives have space for.

Happiness tastes so bland, that I keep ladling into it the spice of expectant desire, till I at last
spoil it. Though I stock all the ingredients to make a rich happiness, I brew up a foul stew of

We are thrust on by an unquenchable thirst for joy and by an ineradicable propensity for
reducing plain gladness to seething grimness. And our desire to find happiness rides us almost
as hard as our drive to make life insupportable.

Even fools are clever enough to make their lives simply wretched.

We are fools for improvement. I feel that life is no good if it’s not getting better day by day. I
have to race so frantically to make life better, how could I find the time simply to live well?

Earth’s air must contain some impalpable element, so favourable to life, so hostile to happiness.
‘Who would have thought that life could be so sad?’ asked Van Gogh out of the depths.
2 The habit of unhappiness
If there are things that people could easily do to benefit themselves but they aren’t doing now,
you can be sure that they never will do them, since they have no wish to.

Some people need the courage to combat unrelenting sorrow, since they lack the resolve to
retreat from the routines that have caused them such woe. We are addicted to misery, but we
soon lose the frail habit of happiness.

For the denizens of hell each day is the same, and yet every morning they wake to a fresh

Each day life finds some new way to torment us, and it’s not even trying. Perhaps hell is the
place where it starts trying.

Novices of despair fear that there is nothing new that will ever come for them. Its veterans dread
that there still might be.

3 The plurality of hells

There must be a countless number of cells in the underworld to house the countless states of
torment that we have laid up for ourselves.

When others suffer from the same cause as me, I take heart that there was no way I could have
dodged such blows. And when they suffer from a divergent one, I brag how dexterously I have
kept clear of their blunders.

You never know in what hell people might be burning, but often neither do they.

Life makes us hate all the things that we started out by loving. It dries up the springs that should
keep our hearts fresh and open, yet it fails to quench our thirst.

4 On the brink of happiness

Just when you trust that you have tamed life, it bares its fangs, and snarls, and shows you once
more that it is a wolf and not a fawning cur.

We are just poised to reach the pinnacle of joy, and we are trembling on the verge of a
precipitous crash. It’s all about to come together at last, and it’s all on the point of falling apart.

Your misery may lurk for years in remission, but it will never be cured. It may break out long
afterward in a violent attack, and kill you in a few weeks. This life ends so soon, and yet, as Van
Gogh wrote, ‘there is no end to anguish.’ But most of us have the luck to succumb to some
timely malady, before our real sadness gets the chance to do us in.
Life is either just bearable, or not. And it makes all the difference whether you know that you can
bear it for one day more, or that you can’t bear it for so long as that.

5 The tense of happiness

Pleasure seems so bright in anticipation, but so pale in possession. Joy ravishes you in
prospect, dejection molests you in the present. Your expectancy has already sucked the juice
from your pleasures before you reach them. And all it leaves for your senses is their dry bones
to pick over. You are far more present for your pains than you are for your pleasures.

Anguish arrests you in the jangling now. Lust beckons you on to meet the shining future. The
only people who live wholly for the moment are those in the grip of agonizing pangs. If you have
to live in the moment, all you want to do is get out of it. Absorption in the here and now is a
luxury praised by those who have something more enjoyable to do. Most of us have good
reason not to live for the present hour.

Happiness is racing to a future which it will never reach. And misery is fleeing from a past which
it can’t get clear of.

A moment might make you wretched for the whole of your life, but happiness is the work of each

6 Deferring life
I waste my days deferring happiness and galloping past pleasure. Happiness is no more than
the promise of happiness. It never gives itself to us as a present possession. ‘Man never is, but
always to be, blessed,’ as Pope wrote.

Our world of instant gratification is by the same token a world of indefinite deferral. We can’t
wait for anything, not even the bliss that we are in the midst of. We’re always charging off after
some new pleasure which we hope will give us all we want. Our desires are self-defeating. They
no sooner transport us to some joy than they drag us out of it to chase some new quarry.

We want it all right now, but what we want is the means to enrich or enjoy ourselves tomorrow.

Greed rides people at such a furious clip, that they postpone life from one hungry instant to the
next, till they have raked up more than they could ever need. One day when they have got hold
of more than anyone could use, they will no doubt find the time to start to live.

It’s because we know that everything lasts only for a moment that we see no point in living for
the moment.
7 Time and place
When you feel heartsick, your dear familiar haunts seem smeared with a mildew of stale misery.

How the changeless returning seasons carelessly lacerate our sad and changing hearts.

You scent the sadness behind the gladdest and shiniest things, you feel it on the most brilliant
and tranquil days, you taste it in the pastness of the past and in the otherness of other people’s

Happiness looks so enticing because it is always so far away from us.

The future shines with all the tinsel trinkets that I hope to win. It’s there out in front of me
glittering vast and vacant and waiting to be glutted with my tingling lusts.

8 Irresistible life
Life is a book that you can’t bear to put down, no matter how bad it gets. Who would choose to
take it up? Yet who can dare to lay it aside, once they have received the loathsome gift? Life is
a poor thing to gain, but a great thing to lose.

Life lures us on like a person whom we have ceased to love but still can’t help lusting after. The
world breaks your heart, but won’t snap the straps of hope and desire that keep you pinioned to

Our love of life is a case of Stockholm syndrome.

Life pays some people such starvation wages, why don’t they just quit? Though churlishly
dissatisfied with the most opulent life, we still cling to the most beggarly one. The worse it gets,
the tighter I hold on to it. On good days one feels almost strong enough to shuck off the burden
of life. On bad days one is too discouraged to dare so much as that. ‘Man alone,’ wrote
Tocqueville, ‘displays an inborn contempt of existence yet a boundless rage to exist. He scorns
life, but he dreads annihilation.’

9 To find life so sweet

To have eaten all that dirt, and still find life so sweet. We need to have the heart to go on, since
we lack the nerve to give up. We can’t let go of the cheapest things, but we get rid of the most
precious ones in a twinkling. ‘The dearer a thing is,’ Butler wrote, ‘the cheaper as a general rule
we sell it.’ Our fingers have to be prised from the gimcrack bauble which we clasp as if it were a
priceless heirloom. The most starved of us find life so fresh and delectable, and hug so lovingly
the thorns that tear our flesh.
We promenade like great proprietors in a city in which we are paupers. ‘All of us are beggars
here,’ as William James points out.

How sad we find it to leave the world in which all that we loved has long since left us. And how
hard it is to let go of this life which our ills have made so hard to bear.

How I curse the smugness of those who are as happy as I was till yesterday. And how I wish
that I could still afford to be as smug as they. We collaborate with the world to trample our way
to what we want, till the world tramples on us, and we cry out at its unfairness.

10 The great swindle

Life is the great swindle. It gives you nothing that you want, but keeps you hanging on for its
least prize.

Those who have lost all that they had still dread to lose the life that took it from them. And those
who have got nothing are sure that a year or a day more will bring them all they yearn for. We
have no choice but to stay in the game, the losers in the hope of recouping what they have lost,
the victors to win yet more and to reap the fruits of what they have won. Even the dying are still
in love with the world which is killing them. Those who seem stoical in enduring the pangs that
are sure to end in death may just be too attached to life to let it go.

Life gave us nothing that was worth having. And death will take from us nothing that is worth

To live is to play chess blindfold against a grandmaster who has not lost a game, and can
change or break the rules at will, and makes three moves for your one.

11 Merciful death
Life shows us so little pity, that we have to hope that death will show us some mercy. But would
life treat us so untenderly, if it didn’t know how callous we are?

‘No man should be afraid to die,’ says Fuller, ‘who hath understood what it is to live.’ Life is such
an atrocious scene, that the exit from it had to be festooned with terrors, to dissuade us from
departing it. God had to make dying so hard, because being dead is so easy.

The part of death that is part of life is, like the rest of life, rugged and bitter. But the part that
belongs all to death is kind and full of comfort.

Death is more tender with us than we are with ourselves. It draws us gently into its welcome
ocean, when we would hold back shivering and frightened on the edge. We shun it, as a rabid
dog shuns water.
When did we ever know what was good for us? Death, which knows nothing, knows our own
good better than we do. Why do we look for a saviour to deliver us from death? Death comes as
our one sweet redeemer, to ransom us from the hell that we have made of this life. As Browne
wrote, ‘We all labour against our own cure, for death is the cure of all diseases.’

We fight to put off what will free us, and fly to meet what will make us its slave. We love life and
hate death, yet death gives us all that we need, while life fails to give us a thing that we want.

12 Condemned to everlasting life

Immortality would be as harrowing as an unabated insomnia. One sleepless night should cure
you of the yearning for eternal life.

Life has played us such filthy tricks, you may well fear that death won’t be the last of them.
Since this life is hell, it might stretch out till the crack of doom. You may wake to find that the
nightmare will have no cease. The thought that it won’t go on for ever is all that could keep a
sane person going.

Death, like most good things, comes too late for many of us, but at least it does come.

Try to run from your troubles, and you will need to strain all your muscle to lug them with you.

13 The tyrant life

Life bludgeons you like a demented tyrant. It levies an onerous impost on happiness without
disbursing a cent of it to those who lack it. It’s a bully, which loves to bash those who can least
bear it. Why does it load the most crushing bundles on the most enfeebled shoulders?

As soon as the world starts to maltreat you, you might as well lie down and die. You can bet that
it won’t leave off till it has beaten you to a jelly.

There is no justice in this world. And yet you still have to pay for all that you get and all that you
fail to.

This niggardly world treats some people with malicious charity. It grants them all but the one
thing that they most long for.

You can’t see what’s in store for you, but you can be sure that it won’t be good. Even while you
sleep, some indifferent doom is preparing the catastrophe that will flatten you. ‘I was not in
safety, neither had I rest, neither was I quiet, yet trouble came.’
14 Too important to be happy
I’m sure that I am too important to be unhappy, and that others are not important enough. What
right have they to be happy, since they lack my high purpose? And yet what reason have they to
be wretched, when they don’t have to bear the weight of my grave responsibilities? My quest is
of such consequence, that I can’t afford to be hamstrung by such blows. But their troubles count
for so little, that they should be able to bear them with ease. And we are so sure of our own
worth that we feel we have no right to make such a dire rent in the world by bereaving it of our
bright attendance.

How could conceited people foresee the misery that they’re in for? They are so full of
themselves that they don’t see how foolishly they are starving their real good to feed fat their
empty self-approbation.

We burn in the hell of the insignificant. But all we feel is the warmth of our self-importance.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. And don’t we all wear the crown of our own self-
consequence as if it were a crown of thorns?

I feel half jealous of others, seeing that, unlike me, none of their loves or schemes matter
enough to be worth breaking their hearts for when they fail. I both envy and disdain them for
their trifling bliss, as I do children or birds, the immortals or the dead.

15 The chosen and the cursed

We lapse into habits of unhappiness by inflating our own significance. Those who feel that they
are chosen know what it is to be cursed. Self-importance is a yeast which leavens our
happiness. But add too much, and you make it too acid to digest. And yet we can’t stay
buoyantly joyful, if we are not ballasted by such a freight of it that we might well capsize.

There are those who know that they are chosen, because things that are forbidden to others are
permitted to them. And there are those who know it, because things that are permitted to others
are forbidden to them. To be cursed is one way of being chosen, but only to be cast off.

We are not important enough to be unhappy. And yet our unimportance might add the last straw
to the load of our unhappiness, if any of us were sensitive enough to feel it. They are the
accursed, who don’t matter enough to be cursed, but must still suffer as if they did.
16 Not happy if not envied
Happiness, which seems so self-contained, is in fact a comparative and competitive good.

Happiness seems so fleeting and unsubstantial. So we give up the search for it, and spend all
our time amassing the more solid and lasting acquirements of our greed, so as to prove to our
rivals that we are happier than they are, though they don’t care a rap how happy we may be.
We would rather have less, so long as they have less too, than have more, on the condition that
they should have more than us.

We don’t want to be happy, we want to be happier than others, as Montesquieu points out. But
not even that is enough for us. We want them to know it. And how wretched we are willing to
make ourselves, to prove that we are happier than they. ‘Happiness is nothing if it is not known,’
Johnson says, ‘and very little if it is not envied.’ How pitiful we are, that one of the keenest joys
we know is the pain that we think we cause our rivals by our success.

How much of their life people waste to get the wealth they need to keep up a lifestyle.

A lifestyle is not meant to be enjoyed but envied.

You may sense that you can’t make people envy you. But you can still heap up the solid goods
which you hope will make you enviable.

17 The causes of happiness
There are four keys to happiness, live on the surface, think as everyone else does, care for
nothing but what is your own, and keep in such a hurry that you can’t tell how happy you are. So
why, when each one of us holds these keys in our pocket, are we still so weary-hearted?

Happiness is as shallow as beauty and as wise as truth.

Disciplined insensitivity is one of the skills that we would need in order to be happy. But we are
not even disciplined.

Lack of taste gives you a head start in the race for happiness.

You don’t need good reasons to go on living if you’re happy. It’s only the hapless who need that.

Happiness, like health, streamlines life for you, so that you can breeze through it with least

It is such a simple thing to be happy. But we are far too ingenious for that.
How little it might take to make us happy. But most of us want a lot more than that.

Happiness is not an emotion but the quiescence of emotion.

18 How to please
Find your peace, and you grow independent from the world but more fit to please and be
pleased by it. A sense of wellbeing may not improve you or set you on to help, but it will make
you more useful and able to help.

In order to please, all you need do is smile and show that you are inclined to be pleased.

Most people are so pleased with themselves, that they are not hard to please. And that’s
enough to make everyone else pleased with them.

We would be much less pleasing to others, if we were not so pleased with ourselves.

19 Our happiness is in the minds of others

In order to find joy, I try to fool myself that all’s well with me, but I may feel even more need to
fool others. Unwilling as I am to give up the lies that I live by, I’m yet more unwilling to let others
know that I’ve seen through how much they have duped me. We don’t only want to seem good
more than be good. We want to seem happy more than we want to be happy.

Our happiness is in large part a creation of how happy we deem others perceive us to be. We
seek the goods that others hoped would make them happy. And then we judge how happy we
are by how happy they judge us to be on the strength of how many of these we have got hold

Self-deluding people know how to make the best of their servitude by pretending that they are

20 The illusion of happiness

The condition of life is injustice, and the condition of happiness is untruth.

We forge our brief joys out of our vacillating fantasies, and our lasting happiness out of our
lifelong illusions.

We are so wretched because we cling to such fallacious ideas. And yet if we shook them off we
would lose all chance of happiness, which is, as Swift points out, ‘a perpetual possession of
being well deceived.’ It has manifold recipes, but they all share the one staple constituent of
self-delusion. ‘Take away their saving lie from ordinary people,’ Ibsen says, ‘and you take away
their joy as well.’
If happiness is our goal, we seem to have hit on the craziest route to reach it.

Illusion frees us to act and be happy. Truth would freeze the will to act.

If you hope to succeed, you have to lie to others. And if you fail, you have to lie to yourself.

21 The conceit of happiness

If you hope to find peace, you have to forswear the knowledge of your own sad heart, which
would steal all the joy that your sottishness and self-infatuation have lavished on you. We catch
happiness as a lucky symptom of the endemic malady of conceit. We might feel content with the
world and our own lot, if we had a grain less presumption or a grain more, if we thought a shred
better of our merits or didn’t think so well of them.

Happiness is a mild and serene self-intoxication. We are so fuddled with our own self-flattery,
that we don’t feel a lot of the nettles that life would jab us with.

22 Unthinking happiness
You might be more content, if you thought a jot more or a jot less. Those who never think of
anything but their own selves feel sorry for themselves that they think too much.

Some people know themselves so well that they find the key to happiness, and some that they
lose it. The lighthearted could afford to know who they are but have no need to, the downcast
need but can’t bear to.

The prosperous are sure that their wisdom has earned them their prosperity. And the miserable
are sure that their misery has won them their grim wisdom.

If you are resigned to be unhappy, the surest way is to be clever. And if your aim is to be happy,
learn to be wise. But if you can’t be either of these, it’s enough to be stupid.

We flaunt how happy we are by all the racket that we make.

23 Happiness and distraction

Be sure to reserve a basket of nagging aggravations as decoys against which to explode your
noxious heartsickness. Use your day to day irritants to trap and dispose of your more venomous
discontents. You can’t be happy, if you don’t continue to do a few burdensome things that you
trust you’d be supremely happy if you ceased to do.

Happiness showers sparks of annoyance as it steams on to some ever-receding goal. Dejection

is a foul vapour that issues from the brackish fen of wretchedness.
Distraction is the blight of happiness. Concentration is the curse of misery. You can’t be happy if
you’re not diverted by all the busy impositions which deter you from savouring your happiness.

Most people would rather be busy than happy. They love to be doing, even when they don’t
much like what it is that they are doing. Their bustling is proof of how much the world needs

It is not so much the desire that breeds the habit, but the habit that breeds the desire. People
don’t so much do things because they like doing them. Rather they like to do them because they
have got into the habit of doing them. And anyway, they always have to be doing something.

The wise scorn the vacuous bustle and commotion which the common run of people mistake for
happiness. But they are mistaken to think that there is anything more to happiness than this.

Our dissatisfaction makes us restless, and our restless activity yields us as much happiness as
we will ever get.

24 The speed of happiness

I chase joys, but they fly me. And creeping sorrows catch me, though I fly them.

People feel light and joyous, when their gadding desires jockey them so fast that they don’t
sense the weight of their despair pressing down on them. How miserable they must be, that
they can find their way to happiness only by beetling so giddily that they don’t have leisure to
feel how happy they are. They bolt life so ravenously, that they scarcely taste it as it goes down.
Yet they’re soon hungering for more. It’s only the careworn who have as much time as they
want. And they wish that they had less.

We rush so madly here and there in the search for pleasure, that we are never at home when it

Our bliss melts in the heat of our embrace.

Happiness needs to maintain a high velocity so as to stay airborne.

It’s not your past but the years you have left that your sadness makes seem long.

We have to chase happiness at such a breakneck pace because unhappiness is so bent on

chasing us.
25 Happiness and desire
In order to be happy, it’s necessary but not sufficient to be healthy, and it’s sufficient but not
necessary to be loved. And it’s more needful to love than it is to be loved, though it’s more
dreadful not to be loved than not to love.

You won’t be at peace so long as you cling to your desires. But if you once ceased to desire you
might as well be dead. More won’t make you happy. And yet wheresoever joy goes, it goes
hand in hand with the lust for gain. Happiness, like money, won’t meet your needs, but the lack
of it will wring your heart. And though wealth won’t content you, possessing more of it than
others may almost do so. Life’s a whore that smiles on none but those who can pay.

Money won’t make us happy, but neither will any of the more exalted goods that we count on to
do it.

Money may not be able to buy love or happiness, but the brutal drive that can heap up money
may be the force best able to seize love and happiness as well, or at least to make others
believe that it can, which is the next best thing.

The poor can now afford the jaunty and hectic greed that the rich have in place of happiness.
They used to be fobbed off with the counsels of patience. Now they are urged on to the same
avarice as the rich.

Progress has provided all of us with more and more deluxe substitutes for joy.

26 The gospel of work

Most people love happiness because they are in love with life, but a few because they have
found that this is the best way to keep it at bay. They scorn life too much to think it worth all the
trouble it costs. So they use cheerfulness to hold life at arm’s length so it won’t sink its teeth in
them and savage them. And they seek a placid joy to immunize themselves against life’s
unquiet fever.

Most of us strive for some other goal in the hope that it might lead us to happiness. But the few
seek to reach happiness because they want to be free to strive for some worthier goal. They
treat living like punctuation, an unavoidable but blank pause which divides the words and
sentences. It’s these that are their true work which goes on elsewhere. ‘The only happiness a
brave man ever troubled himself with asking much about,’ Carlyle said, ‘was happiness enough
to get his work done,’ though it’s the work itself that must supply this. Happiness is like a line of
credit that they draw down, so that they can make the best use of their gifts.
27 The trivial reasons for happiness or unhappiness
Our plight is profound and tragic. But its causes are shallow and absurd.

The shallowest people have a sea of deep reasons to make them happy or unhappy. And yet
even the deepest of us is happy or unhappy for reasons that are quite shallow. Our greatest
sadness is for the smallest things.

The sole contentment that you can count on to last is the result of a propitious accident of
parentage and upbringing which is quite out of your control. The least chance of birth or rearing
gives you a better chance at happiness than the most sublime and assiduous wisdom could
have done. How happy you are depends more on your chemistry than on your philosophy.

In the next world, between heaven and hell there is a great gulf fixed. But in this one, a paper
wall is all that keeps them apart.

28 Life the blunt instrument

How is life so vacuous, and yet so rife with terrors? And how do its tight confines house such
vast bitterness? How is it that we stay so hollow, yet burst with such swollen griefs? And how
does something as blunt as life hack our souls so frightfully? Why does what counts for so little
hurt us so much? How is it that such a light thing lies on us like lead? And how does what will
end so soon have space for such endless sorrow?

It’s as dreadful to drown in a ditch as in the ocean. ‘The worst trials are visited on us by trivial
things,’ said Multatuli. ‘Moses and the Lord knew what they were doing. They plagued Egypt not
with tigers but with grasshoppers.’

A deep soul stifles for lack of oxygen in the shoals of this world. ‘Nothing,’ as Johnson says, ‘is
too little for such a little being as man.’

29 The triviality of unhappiness

The mind does not have cliffs of fall, but mole hills from which you plummet as if from the most
dizzying peaks. And you can go on falling for the whole of your life.

Misery makes clear to us what matters, which is nothing at all. Life is a shallow abyss. It is as
low and as sheer as the plunge from the gallows.

Live through an earthquake, and a dripping tap may still wear down all your hope. We ache in
proportion to our own paltriness, and not in proportion to the source of our woes.
We need so little in order to be happy, but we need that little so much. To win your happiness,
you don’t need much, but you always need more. And you could scarcely guess how slight a
lack will rob you of all your peace. ‘I have wanted only one thing to make me happy,’ Hazlitt
said, ‘but wanting that have wanted everything.’ How much the ravenous heart craves, and what
coarse gruel it makes its meal on.

The lightest load can crush us, if it is concentrated on a small enough spot. And the smallest
spot in the world is our ego.

The light drizzle of small irritations will in time drench you as thoroughly as a sudden downpour
of woe, yet it still feels quite different.

30 Narrowing unhappiness
The heavyhearted have to trudge round in the same ever-decreasing rings of routine, since they
fear the shocks that might knock them down if they stepped out of them. And yet they dread to
be dragged back down memory’s sad avenues of desolation. They have no home on this earth,
but they feel impelled to return day by day to the same stinking haunt which they lack the will to

We don’t want to be happy. We want to be left free to keep on doing all the things that have
failed to make us happy in the past.

Misery, which is all too wide for this narrow world, hems us in to a more and more constricted
scene. Gaiety thrusts us on and out to chase toys and titillations. Contentment, like a tolerant
commonwealth, gives scope to the whole garden of your gifts to flower. But heartache, like a
vain autocrat, constrains them to turn their face to it.

Life is such a monotonous fiasco, yet it takes so long to snake through all its coiling turns of

We aim so low, yet we still miss our mark. Like Madame Bovary, we dream such tawdry
dreams, yet even these life brings to nought. How aridly we answer life’s lushness, and how
insufficient it is to supply us with what is worth possessing. You must want something small
indeed, if you trust that the world could give it to you.

31 The triviality of happiness

Life is such small beer. But our self-delight lends it the fizz and flavour of the finest champagne.

Let go of your happiness, and you learn that unhappiness is too much for you. Win through to it,
and you learn that happiness is too little. Yet it is still worth attaining, so that you won’t have to
waste your years in the hunt for it. But once you have built your house of joy, however flimsy it
may be, it will crush you when it collapses.

If you can’t tell from your sufferings how little life matters, you can at least tell from your

Does happiness count for nothing, since the lowest worm lusts for it? Or does the least creature
have an illimitable value, because it too yearns to win joy? Even a squashed bug squirms for

Happiness is perfectly proportioned. It is as low as it is short.

The world is too small for our cravings, but too large for our capabilities.

Happiness is the pale bourgeois surrogate for the rapture or damnation for which the princely
old states squandered all their strength.

Happiness is a low valley with closed horizons. Those who seek the truth must turn their backs
on it.

32 The fear of happiness

Some trials harrow you by requiring you to act while rendering you too weak to act, and some
do so because they make all action vain.

It is the fall and not the being down that hurts you worst. So some fear most of all to ascend
once more from shade to sunshine. ‘Drowning is not so pitiful,’ Dickinson wrote, ‘as the attempt
to rise.’

Some shallow people would rather feel dejected for seeming deep reasons than be cheerful for
superficial ones. They cling to their heartachings, rather than grant that they could heal them.
They prefer to put up with a lifelong ailment than go through a quick and painless cure.

We suffer too much, and we can’t suffer enough. When our ills yield to such quack tonics, aren’t
we tempted to disparage even our health? The incurable has so much more dignity. We have to
speak as if life gushed with horrors, so as to gain the strength we need to bear its emptiness.

33 Prosaic happiness
When you’re young, unhappiness alone may seem deep enough for life. But as you get older,
you learn that life is too light to be worth such unhappiness. Aren’t most of our trials as trivial as
the goals that we aim at? However piercingly we suffer, we still stay buoyantly superficial.
The glum years write our life in a turgid and formulaic verse, the glad ones in a reserved and
self-forgetting prose. But the quiet prose of happiness here and there breaks out in joy’s brief
and causeless poetry. You breathe a sense of wellbeing as ordinary as air, but you inhale a rare
glee as volatile as oxygen.

Our glad times don’t blaze like a wildfire, but gleam like a few flickering embers. Our pleasures
dance like the brief spangles on the afternoon freshet as it heads out to oblivion.

We are neither as simply content nor as grievously stricken as we ought to be. Having created
the world to wound us, the Lord in his lenity made us superficial enough to bear it. ‘Nature,’ as
Voltaire wrote, ‘has made us frivolous to console us for our woes.’ And yet who is so shallow,
that they can’t be deeply pierced?

Those who have suffered from false profundity like an infection are glad to douse their sores
with the antiseptic of shallowness. The sole way to stay clean in this filthy world is to make
yourself all smooth surface, so that its slime will slip straight off you. ‘How much good sense lies
in superficiality,’ as Nietzsche said.

34 The ridiculous tragedy

There ought to be a word for disasters that don’t matter. Would such a word not sum up so
much of life? We act out in this world, as Swift said, ‘a ridiculous tragedy, which is the worst kind
of composition.’

We are used up by all life’s sad commotion and bewildering ecstasies.

Life flows like a river, perturbed by the least cause, but loath to change its course for the

Life’s torpid stream now jets in rapture, now swirls in a vortex of sweltering misery.

Joy, like love, is a generous but jealous god, which inflicts a fearful beating on any who dare to
scorn its gifts.

Our wings melt before we have left the ground. Yet we still break our necks when we fall. As
Connolly wrote, ‘Life is a maze in which we take the wrong turning before we have learned to

God adds a pinch of the macabre and degrading to all our troubles, to rob them of the dignity
that might have redeemed them and to show us what we are, as if to kick us head first into the
mud as we stagger out the door, drunk with despair and disrepute. The last indignity that petty
suffering pelts us with is to make us as petty as itself.
35 Expensive pessimism
We use pessimism as a kind of insurance, but its premiums cost so much that they go halfway
to sending us broke. Lugubrious people pay so dear to insure against catastrophe, how could
they afford plain happiness? They hope to forestall the worst by foreseeing it. But their fretting
levies such costly instalments of expected anguish, that it beggars them of the serenity which it
was their aim to preserve.

Expect the worst, and nothing will prepare you for how bad it will get.

A pessimist expects so little, and yet is still disappointed. An optimist expects so much, and
never is. Their hopes are so blind that they won’t see when they have failed.

Life belies our hopes, but is it worth our apprehensions?

An optimist lives by the expansive egoism of hope, a croaking pessimist by the pinched egoism
of fear.

36 The huckster’s creed

Optimism is the gullible and cunning creed of crooks and hucksters, spruikers and boosters.
They trumpet it, because they have so much faith in themselves, or else to inveigle their
satellites to have faith in them. They know that hope sells and that what is sold is hope. If you
want to get rich, you need to have hope. And if you aim to inspire hope, you need to believe.

Our optimism yokes the force of our naive self-belief to the cunning of our worldly self-seeking.

The success of optimism confirms the pessimist’s worst fears. How does such a meretricious
creed win so much trust?

Few of us waste our expensive pessimism or our arduous hopes on anyone’s plight but our

We love to appear to hope against hope when we know that the failure of what we hope for will
not touch us.

Optimists charm us, because they signal to us that our greediest dreams will meet with success.

This is the age of the broad grin, which beams its own self-delight and snares the hearts of
those on whom its success depends.
37 The bad news
Pessimism may be cowardly, but who in these hopeless times is brave enough to face the bad
news that we are making the world worse each day? Let go of the craven lie of optimism, and
what else could spur you to act with courage?

We are now so delicate, that we can’t even swallow hopes for the future if they’re not sugared
with dreams of the past.

People used to cling to the illusions of faith to console them for the truth that they can’t be happy
on this earth. Now they are too weak to acknowledge so much as that.

You may be driven to optimism out of despair that your pessimism held too high an expectation
of your fellow men and women.

An optimist is one who trusts that things can’t get much worse. And a pessimist is one who fears
that this may indeed be the best of all possible worlds, and that it’s now so bad that it can only
grow more dire.

We have all been coached to read our life as a plot. And we know that every plot is preordained
to come to a fulfilling close. Since all stories are about ourselves, we can’t stand any that don’t
have a happy ending.

Self and interests

Illusory self-interest
Swindling self-interest
Little interests


1 The good old cause
Our sole end is our own self-interest. Everything else we use as an implement to serve this. And
our self-interest turns everything into a machine to cater to our wants. But at the same time it
renders us grateful, courteous, forgiving and prompt to team with those who might help us to
gain our ends. It has faith in nothing, but will bow down to anything that might raise it. Though
resenting all rivals, it will serve any scheme that seems to serve it. It is love of self, more than
love of others, that ‘beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.’
It sits enthroned in our hearts and in the world as the great anarch and the great autocrat. No
cause is too hallowed or too profane for it to conscript for its own use.

It is the world that lives by faith, hope and charity, faith in its own unctuous lies, hope that its
greed will one day land the prize it craves, and charity for the respectable rogues who keep it

2 The god of our idolatry

Our self-seeking is the thing closest to the core of our being. And so when we are busy with this,
we feel that we must be following our heart.

Those who vaunt that they are paid to do what they love are willing to love whatever they are
paid to do. And those who boast of their incorruptibility rush to lease out their souls for a low
rent. And yet some who have made their fortune from an occupation grumble how dear it has
cost them.
3 All for self
I won’t do a thing if I can’t squeeze out of it some private good. Yet there’s next to nothing that I
won’t do, since I soon find a private good in doing it. ‘We can all begin freely,’ as Austen points
out. Though you may choose a scheme or occupation with no thought of your own gain, how
could you stick at it for long, if it yields you no advantage?

We are perverse alchemists who melt down all the more precious things to the base metal of
self. There’s nothing so great but we will find means to milk it for our own low gain.

How could I hear the claims of others’ egoism, when I’m deafened by the dull drone and rumble
of my own? Yet I still feel that they speak too loud. ‘Their own din,’ as Céline wrote, ‘prevents
them from hearing anything else.’

We have the raw hunger of beasts but not their spotlessness. We have the presumptuousness
of gods but not their bright capacities.

How little others want from you, and how hot they are to get it. They will tear you to shreds for
the least scrap of advantage.

4 The slaves of self-interest

It’s clear how tyrannically self-interest rules us all, not when it pays its workers profusely, but
when it is slavishly obeyed by those who don’t gain a cent from it. We are so bent on prevailing,
however high the price, and however mean the prize. Vainglory covets triumphs, but will make
do with the most meagre ones.

Some people let their own ambitions bully them as much as they use them to try to bully others.
They are strong enough to hack their way to what they want. But they are so weak that they
need to. And they stop at nothing to feed fat their overweening desires, because they are loath
to do the least thing to bridle them. They owe their sterile initiative to their lack of self-restraint.
And so they have to slave to pay off the arrears by decades of strict self-discipline.

5 The hell of self

Only a cannibal god, red-fanged and ghastly, could have laid it down that life would flourish by
feeding on life. It exacts from its creation the homage of blood.

Our vitality feasts on all the death that we make. We dance on the roof of the shambles. The
deaths of others make us feel more alive. We count our own lot richer for their loss. And we love
life as it has not yet seen fit to butcher us. We build the grubby hut of our happiness on pilings
sunk deep in others’ pain, and we feel no guilt since they’re so far out of sight.

We judge no day wasted on which the rest of creation has had to suffer more than us.
We have no wish to cause suffering in order to make our own lot comfortable, but we are quite
happy for such suffering to continue.

It would be easier to believe that this world of cramming and copulating is the work of a crazy
satyr than of a serene spirit.

Hell needs no devils. There the damned are hard at work extracting gain from tormenting one

What but our selfishness could bear the strain of having to fill sixty minutes of every hour with

To get out of hell, we would have to get out of self. But all we want to do is stoke its fires.

So long as we are the ones doing the tormenting, we don’t much care if we are living in hell.

The door out of hell stands wide open, but we don’t notice, because we are having too much fun
tormenting our fellow beings.

6 Choosing interests
Chance will choose the ends that you aim at, and these ends will choose everything else for
you. My thoughts and moods are the shadows of my schemes and of what I need to believe in
so as to further them. I’m prompt to feel any emotions that might advance my prospects.

Our interests are our deepest self, and yet we borrow them from the most obvious sources. We
hold fast to our own schemes and desires, no matter what others may think or say. Yet we form
our schemes and desires on templates that we take from others.

Our egoism is so urgent, and yet our ego is so empty, that we have to fill it up with a range of
external projects.

7 Busy calculation
Our reason is quick to find expedients to serve our own ends and pretexts to justify our vanity.

Most of us see only what we are looking for. And most of us are looking only for our own profit.

Nothing is too little to engross our thoughts, if it might serve to profit or amuse us. And yet no
satisfaction is large enough to fill our minds, though no desire is too small to absorb our whole

Ambitious schemers make up a grotesque menagerie. Some puff up like toads to several times
their real size. Some slither rat-like through crannies too strait for the rest of us. Others, like
caterpillars, chew up a fat harvest. And some, like a troop of ants, branch into a number of
sections, and seem to swarm far and near.

8 The fickle persistence of self-interest

I don’t hesitate to give up on those ventures that fail to yield me an instant reimbursement. So
why do I stay so obdurately loyal to some of my most unproductive ambitions? We persist in our
fancies, but waver in our faith. Our desires are biddable yet unrelenting, and our passions are
tenacious but perverse. Self-interest makes us both obstinate and mutable in all things,
including our interests. If they weren’t so changeable, how could they adapt to each untried
confluence of conditions and gain from all their projects?

The will never alters. It merely swaps its objects and hones its tools. We desire one good less
by desiring some other more, or else by desiring less of the one but desiring that less just as

Where our self-interest is not in play, our talents are miraculous but soon discouraged, but
where it is, they are unwearying yet mediocre.

9 Renunciation
I leave off my lofty aims, because I can’t let go of my low cravings.

When I give up my grand aims for mean ones, I claim that I have renounced them. But in my
defeat and desperation I set my heart on a still paltrier stand-in for what I hoped to gain from
success. When a tall enterprise burns down, a hundred squat weeds soon shoot up in its place.
And I tend one of these, and put my erstwhile pet out of mind, and marvel that I gave so much
time to a thing so slight and unrewarding. I don’t remit my zeal when I retrench my ambitions.

I readily leave off aspiring to the loftiest things. But I resent any objections that might chill my
lust for the lowest.

You may cease to hanker for any one thing, but you can’t rest from hankering for something. I
crave so much, yet I care for so little. And I care for so little, because I crave so much.

It’s not hard to lack. But it’s killing to lose. It is, as Pascal says, ‘horrible to see all that one owns
slipping away.’ It may be easy to renounce success, but it’s hard to live without it. How it wrings
our hearts to lose what wasn’t worth having.

Some people give up their claim to all life’s silvered baubles, and then solemnly spend all their
force on some cause which is as arduous as it is absurd. They resist the world’s blandishments,
but are seduced by its asperities.
10 Illusory interests
We are hustled on by our mad compulsions, and held back by our irrational inhibitions. There
are two kinds of people, the crazy and the dead. ‘Madness is in their hearts while they live, and
after that they go to the dead.’

Our lives are lit up by our bright illusions, and warmed by our boiling desires.

To make a success of some schemes, all you need do is hold fast to the glittering lies which
hide how little they will satisfy you.

I know the world through my projects and ambitions. I let my self-interest choose my ends, and
these choose what I will or won’t know of the world and of my own heart. ‘Self-interest,’ wrote
Amiel, ‘is an endless fount of commodious illusions.’

The ego yields to the reality principle as a ruse to reap its unreal gratifications. Most of our
illusions are interested, and most of our interests are illusory. We use our godlike knowledge to
guide us to our low and delusive goals. Our delusions serve us so well that we would be mad to
give them up.

Few things are more self-serving than our fantasies, or more self-defeating than our selfishness.

A worldly climber is a combination of cunning realism and childish self-absorption.

11 Illusion and advantage

We are so used to taking false for true when it profits us, that we continue to do so even when it
has ceased to. Our dull wants constitute our inmost reality, yet they frame for us a world of
gaudy flummery. How brightly objects seem to shine, as soon as they come in range of the halo
of my own wants and schemes.

We prefer our own advantage to most truths. And yet we prefer our own errors to many
advantages. We stay chained to rusted lies, because we are slaving to reach our goals. But we
can’t reach our goals, because we are chained so tight to our lies. We will stop at nothing to
expedite our schemes. But if they miscarry, we’re glad just to keep our grip on our false
opinions. We hold fast to our bright dreams, to help us sate our sullen lusts, or to salve our
chagrin when we fail to do so.

My illusions land me in real troubles, which hurt me so bad, that I have to seek sanctuary in
additional illusions.
Most of us think and act judiciously only in the schemes that serve our own ends, a few in all but

Our illusions form the constitution of our lives. Our wants and schemes are the policies that give
them effect. Information is the bureaucrat which advises them how best to act. And our will is
the minister who carries them out.

12 Self-interest forecloses self-knowledge

We are more foreign to ourselves than we are to our ambitions. And we dwell farther from our
hearts than we do from our schemes. Our concupiscence keeps us close to others and far from
ourselves. We are whirled on blindly by our greed, and we are gulled by our own self-belief.

We hone our self like a tool to implement our aims. And we want to learn who we are in so far
as we want to learn the tool’s trade, so as to squeeze the most use from it.

The eye reposes most agreeably in the middle distance. And that’s where we live, with our
compulsions and career. I don’t dare to grasp who I am. And I don’t care to know what I aim at.
These would just hold me back from getting what I want.

We have to hollow out our hearts in order to lay hold of the junk that we are sure will fill them up.

13 We don’t know what we want

People are not quite aware of what they want, but how unwaveringly they fight to get their hands
on it. I don’t know what I want, and yet there’s nothing I won’t do to grab more of it.

We squander all our selfish initiative on schemes that yield us no gain. What won’t we suffer or
sacrifice to reach a goal which will bring us no good?

We are never sure of what it is that we want. So it’s lucky for us that we have our self-
satisfaction to tell us that we’ve got it.

People can’t stop wanting not just what they do want, as Schopenhauer showed, but even what
they don’t want. As Hoffer points out, ‘We not only keep wanting what we cannot have, but go
on wanting what we no longer really want.’

14 We don’t know what is good for us

We sacrifice our principles for the sake of our profit. And then we sacrifice our profit to give rein
to our giddy freaks and whims. We are willing to ruin ourselves for a caprice, but we won’t so
much as discompose ourselves for a conviction.
Our most potent motives lurk in the hiatus between long obsession and brief whim. ‘So little are
we governed by self-interest,’ as Hazlitt wrote, ‘and so much by imagination.’

If we weren’t so intent on our own interest, our folly would be sure to undo us. And if we weren’t
diverted by our folly, our self-interest would devour the wide world. The harm that we cause by
our flailing avarice is abated less by our fine charity than by our gross ineptitude.

We rarely pursue our real interests, much less our best ones. So how could they bring us true
contentment? Many people are too grasping to see where their profit lies. And they care for just
a small segment of their own self. Their egoism sunders them not just from others but from their
own being as well. What they serve is a baseless semblance of their present self, and they
sacrifice to this the part of them that is most real and lasting.

We are too much the tools of our compulsions to be truly self-serving.

15 Self-destructive self-interest
Our own interests treat our self with the same brutish indifference that the national interest
treats our land. We exploit and rifle it for gain. What we feel for it is both more and less than
love. We love our self as the fire loves the coal. And yet, like the fire, we love nothing else.

I do my neighbours no more good by my altruism than I do myself by my selfishness.

We are both more self-seeking and more self-destructive than we know. We care as icily for the
good of others as we toil clumsily for our own. Though we are disinclined to do a charitable act if
it has no prospect of furthering our own ends, we are lured to do a mess of discreditable ones
that hinder them.

A human being is a selfish and self-lacerating animal.

How lucky that few people care enough for us to do us as much harm as we do ourselves.

I oppose those who try to injure me with the same ferocity that I do those who try to save me
from injuring myself.

16 Swindled by our own self-seeking

If we weren’t in such a sweat to snatch what we want, would we be so easily defrauded of it?
We are as ruthless in the pursuit of our good as we are ready to be swindled out of it. People try
to bluff us for their ends, and we allow them to for our own. Our egoism, so versed in cheating
others, at last cheats itself. We gain so little from the intrigues for which we make them pay so
dear. We submit to be robbed by the arch deceiver, our own self-flattery. Our guileful self-
interest is fooled by our gullible self-regard. ‘A person’s vanity,’ Balzac says, ‘is a pretender that
never lacks for a butt.’

Is our deceitfulness more credulous or is our credulity more deceitful? We allow ourselves to be
cozened in our haste to snatch a brief advantage. ‘The eagerness of a knave,’ Halifax wrote,
‘maketh him often as catchable as ignorance maketh a fool.’

Our heart is the dupe of our wants more than the head is the dupe of the heart. We are so prone
to being hoaxed, not because our uncorrupted heart is too trusting to heed our judicious
misgivings, but because our clamorous voracity drowns them out. And we are so easy to cheat,
not because we are so guileless, but because we are so greedy. ‘How willing the vulgar are,’
Scott says, ‘to gull themselves when they can find no one else to take the trouble.’ As
Machiavelli knew, a mark always meets a quack half way.

17 Our cunning credulity

We fool ourselves ingenuously but not innocently. The self-seeking that makes us cunning
makes us credulous.

We are too cunning to be innocent, and too naive to be wise.

I’m glad to be gulled by my own mad fancies, so long as I can brag that I’m an astute exception.
But most of the time I choose to be swindled with everyone else, rather than profit on my own.
We need others to share our delusions as much as we need to be deluded. It’s only the naive,
who don’t see how the world works, that decline to be defrauded like the rest of us.

We make headway in this crooked world by becoming clever fools and conniving dupes.

The world distrusts all solid realities, and yet is determined to be deceived by the hollowest
appearances. Venal people are fleeced with ease but reluctant to trust. The cunning can be
entangled by their own subtlety. A chump may be still more disillusioning than a cheat.

Some people are credulous because they are innocent, and some because they are corrupt.
The guileless can be bought for a pittance, since they naively trust that the world will keep its
promises. And the corrupt are not hard to bluff, because they are so keen to hear what might
bring them the least gain.

Most of us are not hard to fool, because we are so eager to believe, or at least too lazy to doubt.
18 We put our faith in the faithless
We don’t trust those who tell the truth, yet we let the most patent deceivers take us in. It is the
faithless that compel our cunning faith. We see straight through the few who have seen through
themselves. But we are hypnotized by the bright opacity of a self-swindler, especially when the
swindler is us. ‘All other swindlers upon earth,’ Dickens writes, ‘are nothing to the self-

I feel a great need to believe in the wisdom of those who fool me, so that I won’t need to see
what a fool I am.

19 Charm
The charmer thrives by the adage, Self-love conquers all. All the world loves a self-lover, like
Alcibiades or Rupert Brooke, who seems to be in love with all the world. Their charm is their
velvet selfishness turned outward, and their brashness supercharges them with a high voltage

Charm, as Amiel wrote, is ‘the trait in others that renders us more pleased with ourselves.’ The
vanity of others delights or disgusts me, depending on how much it seems to play up to or snub
my own.

Charisma is one of the fake forces whose effects in this world of fakery are all too real.

We love a swaggerer as much as we hate a sneerer. We are beguiled by the self-belief of those
who puff their own importance as much as we are repelled by the scornful detachment of the
few who mock the impostures of the world from which we hope to gain.

A smile may betray more deep disdain than a sneer, since it doesn’t care even to show how
little it thinks of those it beams on.

Most of us are willing to take others at the high valuation that they place on their own merits,
since we do the same with ourselves and we expect them to do so too.

The charmer has learnt that if you tickle people’s conceit, they won’t mind when you filch their
real gain.

20 The ruses of self-interest

Our self-seeking stoops so low to pocket the least gain that it may seem meek. It consents so
readily to be foxed that it seems ingenuous. And it schemes so wholeheartedly with anyone to
get what it wants that it seems trustworthy.

Like a menaced nation, you have three options to deal with the world, appease, ally or attack.
By promoting their schemes, people grow both brutal and accommodating. They forward them
with implacable economy and implacable excess. They will drop any principle that might hold
them back, and they stop at nothing to push them on.

I am scarcely aware of all the guile that my machinations prompt me to, and I don’t foresee the
troubles that they’ll cause me.

Our self-interest serves us well by appearing not to serve us better. It is advantageous to

miscalculate once in a while, to make clear that you are not calculating. We gain so little from
our compromises with the world, that they seem guiltless. And we reap so much from our
misconduct, that we feel no need to prove it just.

21 Little interests
The puniest particle of life is worth more to itself than the rest of life as a whole. ‘What is the
entire world,’ asked Sade, ‘compared to a single one of my desires?’ And what is the long chain
of life and its delicate gestation weighed in the scale with my own brief term here?

We are more presumptuous than ambitious. Our hopes are modest yet insatiable. Our views are
microscopic, but our pretensions are megalomaniac. We are so swollen with vanity, that we can
let our true pride starve. Egotism surveys life through a magnifying glass, not through a
telescope. Our selfishness, which knows no bounds, sets very tight bounds to our world.

However wide or narrow our horizons, it is our own glory that lights them up. And the narrower
they are, the more glowingly it does so.

Since we are too weak to dominate the big world, we decide that our own narrow tract of it must
be all that matters. But the foreshortened arc of our job, household or cluster of friends looks
real from the inside alone, since no one else has any interest in behaving as if it were real. The
smaller the world in which we view ourselves, the larger the place that we seem to fill up in it.

22 The monotony and variety of self-interest

We are stitched together from such multicoloured odds and ends, so how do they make up such
a monochrome whole?

Self-interest is as monotonous as the self, and as multifarious as the ten thousand things that it
covets. What could be meaner and more predictable? Yet what could be more irresistible and
engrossing? How did unvarying interest frame so floridly variegated a world?
Some people’s self-love must be promiscuous, to embrace all the incompatible selves that they
are quilted from.

23 Zealots and opportunists

Those who have no principles may be willing to spill their blood for a cause that gains them
nothing. And yet it may take a few short years to turn a dreamy fanatic into a crafty careerist. A
deranged militant like Hitler may act with wily duplicity.

Opportunists presume that they owe it to their high merits to squeeze the most out of all the low
opportunities that they have not earned.

Some people are better than their ambitions, but by prosecuting them they grow worse. Like
Macbeth, they act by the rule that ‘For mine own good all causes must give way.’ They don’t
have the high integrity to follow their best projects, but they lack the self-command to give up
their mean ones.

We pursue goals that are unworthy of us, and by pursuing them we grow unworthy of anything

24 Insatiable and easily satisfied self-satisfaction

Our self-seeking is insatiable but easily appeased. I covet so much, yet I’m content with such
scanty takings. I rate my place so high, so why do I take such pride in the lowest prize? How
readily we are disaffected, yet how cheaply we are delighted. Our hearts would not be surfeited
with paradise. Yet how hungrily they fall to feast on the broken meats of this corrupted world.
We are impossible to satisfy, but easy to please.

How blessed I would be, if I were as charmed with everything else as I am with my own self. I’m
never less than thrilled with my own merits, though that won’t quite suffice me. And I’m so well
pleased with myself, that anything else can please or displease me. Most of us are too delighted
with ourselves to be discontented. Yet we are all too self-seeking to sit still.

Some people are always pleased with their milieu, since it is a proof of how good they are. And
some are always displeased with it, since it can never be good enough for them.

Our defeats are more bitter than we feared. And our victories prove more insipid than we hoped.
But our self-satisfaction helps us to digest the one, and lends seasoning and savour to the

How modest or how conceited we must be, to have achieved so little and still to be so self-
All satisfaction springs from self-satisfaction. Most people are so pleased with themselves, that
they are pleased with all the rest of the world as well.

25 We are proud of our demeaning self-interest
Since they are so in thrall to our greed, people have to pretend that all that they do to feed it
must redound to their glory. Yet they may still blush to seek the prizes that even their pride
wants them to get. They have to make their profligacy their pride, since they are too much the
slaves of their greed to break its shackles. ‘The jingling of the guinea,’ Tennyson wrote, ‘helps
the hurt that honour feels.’ Pride may be ashamed to calculate, but it’s yet more ashamed to

We would be ashamed to lose the fight, but we are not ashamed to fight it in such a way that we
would not deserve to win.

Proud of all that helps us to lay hold of what we desire, we yet deny that it is doing any such
thing. Though vain of our plans, we shy from acknowledging the mean ploys that we stoop to in
carrying them out. If we didn’t set our price so high, how could we bear to crouch so low from
day to disgraceful day to snaffle up such trim gains?

What we crave are the slight but solid prizes which we hope will consolidate or magnify the
slight and doubtful distinctions which lift us a notch above our peers.

26 Self-interest is self-repairing
Self-interest is unashamed, yet is prompt to mend when it fails. And self-regard is quick to feel
shame, but refuses to reform when it has been disgraced. Ambition learns from its stumbles, but
vanity denies that it made them. Some of us would sooner face ruin than recognize that we
were wrong. We would rather weather our acts’ calamitous outcomes than mitigate them by
admitting that we had brought them on our own heads.

Some people recover from reverses because they are so limber, and some because they are so
unbending. My self-seeking makes me pliable but persevering. And my self-regard makes me
obstinate and unwavering.

27 Self-regard and self-interest

My greed and my pride, like president and congress, form part of the same administration, but
they may come from adverse parties and are incessantly bickering.
We are sustained by the solid diet of our self-seeking. But we breathe each instant the
impalpable air of our delusion and self-conceit.

Our self-belief keeps us afloat, and our self-interest sweeps us on down the cascade of life.

Some people sell their real self-interest to gild the sheath of their self-regard. And some
abdicate their dignity to promote their mean designs.

Even the most unhinged people don’t lack shrewd reasons to confirm their mad immodesty or to
find excuses for their mad resolutions.

We act in order to push our self-interest. And we think in order to puff up our self-regard. We act
in order to do well for ourselves. And we reflect in order to think well of ourselves. Our thoughts
frame a continuous appreciative gloss on the text of our conduct. Our conceit is our faith, and
our self-seeking is our works, and we trust that we are justified by both. We think an idea
nourishing, if it swells our vanity.

28 Self-regard trumps self-interest

We need the luxury of our self-regard still more than our obligatory self-seeking. Our mad
arrogance outwits our scheming avarice. We keep up a fervent faith in the fetish of our self. But
pride is a jealous god, which may demand the immolation of its firstborn, our advantage.

Our self-seeking tells us how to act, and our self-conceit tells us what to believe. Domineering
self-regard truckles to low self-interest. And yet our deft self-interest is the dupe of our
simpleminded self-regard.

A selfish person, as the proverb says, will burn down your house to roast his eggs. But
blusterers will burn down their own house, to show that they know how to roast eggs more
skilfully than you.

Some people are so conceited, that they don’t deign to walk on two legs. So they hack off the
limb of their self-interest, to show how nimbly their self-regard can hop to and fro on one.

People are too selfish to repent the wrongs that they do to others. And they are too smug to
regret the harms that they do to themselves. The shock of the damage that they do themselves
saves them from recognizing that they were the cause of it.

Causes of success
Illusory success
Effects of success

1 Causes of success and failure
Disdain to cash in a small share of your pride to buy an unpretentious success, and you may
find that you have to spend all of it just to hold on to life. Refuse to accommodate the world, and
you’ll end up homeless.

Some ambitious schemers, like Mussolini, have marched to office by appearing irresistible. And
some creep to it by appearing innocuous.

The prosperous smoke out the needy, and coax them to give up their time and independence to
purchase a slender share in their own ruthless scams. And then they make them feel grateful for
the service that they do them. And they are adept at promising in such a way as to oblige you to

Shrewd people know how to parlay their endorsement by a few so as to win the plaudits of
many. They convert the respect which no one quite feels for them to a firm position of
advantage. And then they use this position to extort the regard of yet more.

I sweat to earn the good opinion of those whom I don’t respect, so that I can then trade it to buy
the good opinion of those whom I do respect.

2 Success through illusion

If you hope to get on in the world, you must learn to lie. And if you want to find the truth, you first
have to fail.

Our delusions serve our real interests, and our interests work to keep up our delusions.
We make our way in the world by telling ourselves agreeable lies and then cajoling others to
share them. You gain a fortune, not by generating the most value, but by inflating the price of
what you sell and then persuading a throng of buyers to pay it.

We couldn’t achieve half our real success, if we dropped our self-deceptions.

Since we are all impostors, we all need to pretend to be taken in.

The sole truth that we put any trust in is success. So why should we care how false we have to
be to get hold of it?

In order to function soberly in the world, we need to stay drunk on the cheap liquor of hopeful

If you are not clever enough to deceive yourself, you are not cut out to find real success in this

3 Small winners
I feel sure that I am more than the big triumphs that I have gained, and that my rivals are less
than the small ones that they have gained.

Those who have got small things done by dint of their small talents are in no doubt that great
things get done by the application of the same talents on a slightly larger scale. An efficient
manager assumes that a great statesman is just an efficient manager who has won promotion
to a higher office.

However low our success, most of the time it tops our abilities.

We strain to swipe those prizes that are high enough to seem worth attaining but low enough to
be within reach.

We all now use up our lives auditioning for a cheap success, so that we can boast of it to people
who are so deafened by their own self-applause that they can’t hear ours.

A low success now comes so ready to our hands, that we don’t aspire to anything more glorious
than a well-paid ordinariness.

4 Paradise of fools
This world is a paradise for fools. They know how to make the most of its fatuous amusements
and how best to cope with its idiotic vicissitudes.
A fool is far more sharp-witted than a sage, and is more fit to profit from the world’s foolishness.

A sage knows nothing that a fool wants to hear.

Those who never think have an answer for everything, and are never perplexed by anything. A
middling mind knows just the right words to say in order to win over other middling minds.

The mediocre and conniving have the best of it in this world of conniving mediocrity. We rise by
becoming ruthlessly second-rate. Our mediocrity wins us success, and success proves to us
that we are not mediocre. The world, like a magnifying glass, makes small talents look large, but
turns big ones to a blur. In this world it’s dogged plodding that does it.

If people’s vanity fails to save them from seeing how mediocre they are, their mediocrity will do

They thrive most splendidly, whose superficiality squares with the world’s. Their shallow gifts
are best proportioned to serve the world’s shallow needs. And their efficient brutality is best able
to master its brute indifference.

The only kind of fool that the world has no use for is one who is foolish enough to know their
own soul.

5 A little knowledge
Most of us trot on so well with the world, because we have no untoward thoughts about it. The
fewer ideas you have, the better you get on in life. And the more stolid our intellect, the more
secure our seat in the world. Lack of imagination is the key to success in any profession. Think
beyond it, and you won’t make much headway within it.

In order to make your way in this everyday world, you have to keep to everyday ideas.

It doesn’t take much intelligence to make a big success. Seeing this is so, intelligent people
scorn success, and successful people scorn intelligence. Is it more of a surprise that empty-
headed people can be so competent, or that competent people are so empty-headed?

It is the nescient and narrow-minded who know how to get things done in this world. So is it any
wonder that most of what gets done is so bone-headed?

A little knowledge will suffice to speed you safely through the big world. Most people are quick
to learn just how little they need to know to get on, and they are determined to learn not one
whit more than that.

Is it a great wonder that those whose sole thought is for their own advancement should advance
so far in the world?
6 Confidence and competence
We gain confidence in our own powers when others show that they have confidence in us. And
they have confidence in us in so far as we have confidence in ourselves. They are convinced by
the faith that we show in ourselves, and we in turn are convinced by the faith that they show in
us. The world takes us for what we think we are, and we become what the world takes us to be.
‘Nobody,’ as Trollope wrote, ‘holds a good opinion of a man who has a low opinion of himself.’
The dodge goes round and round and has no stop. ‘Life,’ as Pascal said, ‘is a perpetual illusion.’

Incapacity is as much the effect of failure as its cause.

7 Confidence man
The medals go to those who don’t doubt that they deserve them. We don’t think much of those
who lack the presumption to press their own claims. In this world of solemn quackery
confidence does more than competence. The false self-belief that we derive from our small
victories gives us the real self-assurance that we need to win more considerable ones. ‘As is our
confidence,’ says Hazlitt, ‘so is our capacity.’ Conceit lends you confidence, and confidence will
render you capable and bold. ‘Consciousness of our powers,’ as Vauvenargues wrote,
‘augments them.’

In order to get on, you have to make too much of your own merits, till the rest of the world finds
it suits it to share your inflated self-opinion.

Fortune favours the self-infatuated. How else could the human race have conquered the globe?

A drop of self-doubt is fatal in this world of sincere self-promotion.

8 Overestimate yourself
In order to do great things, you need to make too much of your ability. And in order to stay
content with doing small ones, you need to make too much of their importance. ‘To measure up
to all that is demanded of him,’ Goethe wrote, ‘a man must rate his capacities too highly.’

I overrate my aims more than my ability to achieve them. My conceit keeps me small by
assuring me how large my goals are. It forgives all my faults, since they were serving such vast

Self-admiring people don’t overrate their attainments so much as their importance. So they are
sure to waste their gifts on arduous but arid ventures.

All the petty toils that I have to go through to do a thing leave me in no doubt that it must be
worth doing. I know that my object is worth attaining, since I have had to smash through such
stubborn barriers to reach it.
If people do a thing with ease, they impute it to their virtuosity. And if they find it hard, they
impute it to the greatness of their goals.

9 To gain is to deserve
Most of us are sure that we prove that we merit a thing by the mere fact that we have got it.
Some conceited people so overprice their success, that they may demur that they have no right
to it. Yet they are so conceited, that they will soon deem that they have earned much more, and
feel resentful that they have met with so little.

When I triumph, I deduce that I am not the impostor that defeat had tempted me to suspect I
might be. Success convinces us that we are genuine, and our ill-luck hisses that those who
have trounced us must be fakes.

People now know that they are such big winners, that they feel that winning must be the best
gauge of merit, and that failure is the one indubitable refutation.

Our greed craves more than we get. And our pride tells us that we deserve whatever we have
got. And our smugness assures us that all we have was worth the getting.

What I get is a measure of what I deserve. So how could I rate its value too high?

Winners can afford to judge their worth much higher than it is, and losers can’t afford not to.

Success may be a flatterer, but failure is no friend.

All the world declares that it is better to deserve success than to attain it. And all the world
behaves as if the opposite were the case. And yet those who win no garlands feel all the more
certain that they must merit them.

10 We learn the wrong lessons from success and failure

When I fare well, I conclude that I have too much flair to fail. And when I fail, I conclude that I
have too much decency to do what I would need to climb. If I prevail, I take it that the world
dares not gainsay my conspicuous merit. And if I’m vanquished, I take it that the world is too dull
to grasp it. I reckon that success is a post for which I am over-qualified.

I learn from my own adversity and from my neighbour’s prosperity, as both taste so bitter to me.

We learn from our stumblings, though in most cases the wrong lessons.
Winning hardens us, defeat corrodes us. Good fortune tempts us to dispense with our safe
virtues, and mischance makes us too poor to use them. You must choose either the victor’s self-
satisfaction or the loser’s self-pity. But a lot of us plump for the victor’s self-pity.

Which galls a failure more? The indignation that they don’t deserve to fail or the disabling
anxiety that they do? Some people are unsure if the world will now pay them the rewards that
they have earned. But they still have no doubt that they have earned them.

11 Prudence and wisdom

We are content to be served by reason, but not to be ruled by it. And we consent to be guided
by cunning, but not governed by wisdom. Calculating prudence grunts and sweats as the lackey
of our crazy compulsions.

Neglect makes some people so mad, that it goads them to stack up a spectacular bonfire of
their pinched subsistence in order to strike a brief flame of attention. They beggar themselves of
the penny prudence that might have rescued them from beggary.

Some people lose their heads because they are exasperated by their bad luck, and some
because they are flushed by their success.

Success makes some people seem sage, and some not need to. And failure makes some too
poor to be wise, and others too poor to seem much else. Our rebuffs bankrupt us of what is not
worth risking, and so may shrink us to a seeming sagacity. Those who have failed to get
anything else may thus appear to have got wisdom. The smug and prosperous love to praise
the luckless for their sage and unavailing dignity.

We may feel awe at those who have the sagacity and self-sufficiency not to care for the world.
But there is more than a drop of scorn mixed in with our awe. I too might pay it no mind, and
might cast it aside, if it didn’t need me so much. Don’t we all assume that we could get on quite
well without the world, if only it could get on without us?

12 The circles of success and failure

The very shocks that make it imperative for us to shift our mode of attack too often make it
impossible for us to do so.

We crave more than we have, but aspire to less than we ought. Victory leaves us complacent
but not contented.

You pay for each of your triumphs by your need to stay on the prowl for the next one. Success
spurs you to reprise it, and failure stings you to recoup it. Winning is one of the most narrowing
of our addictions. Victory, as Nietzsche said, is not worth achieving if it doesn’t quench your
thirst for it. Elsewise it will drag you down to an enthrallment from which you will never break

Victory is the worst teacher. It tempts us to repeat our winning trick till it turns into a losing

All that I love and hate, each of my cronies and foes, all my devotions and ventures, keep me
handcuffed to both hope and fear. Winning and losing both bind me more firmly to the world,
and blind me more blackly to myself.

13 The punishment of undeserved success

Some people are used up by failure, and some by success. Ruthless opportunists are punished
for obtaining what they don’t deserve by not deserving it. Their success supplants their self. But
this is one loss that they are happy to put up with. They are so pleased with themselves, that
they feel they have been singled out for a great reward.

Those who have scooped an undeserved prize have just made a start of their travails. Now they
must prove how scantly they deserve it, by parlaying it to scrounge more medals that they
deserve still less.

The brazen beg so much for themselves. And the proud demand so much of themselves. ‘The
gentleman,’ according to Confucius, ‘strives to deserve. The arrogant wish to get.’

We are our own scourge and our own salve. Self is both our curse and cure. The worst
punishments are those that we bring on our own heads, perhaps because no one else knows us
so badly. Our self-seeking racks us, but our self-satisfaction soothes us.

14 The success of failure

Grant that you’re a failure, and you have earned an unparalleled and lonely success. But who
would want the sad distinction of possessing the sensibility to be threshed by their own
mediocrity and to be scarred by how unremarkable they are? Few of us feel our futility like a

How brave you have to be to front your failure and mediocrity. And how much nerve you need in
order to go on living once you have done so.

If you know what real victory means, how could you deem that you are anything but a failure?
But who aims so high or sees so clear, to discern that they have been worsted in the one
venture that is worth excelling in?

Each of us is doing what we are doing because we have failed at some more worthwhile calling.
15 We never see that we have failed
Our drubbings don’t lend us the self-awareness which alone might have made them worth the
pain they cause us. We look on failure as a foreign land. A few of us may have strayed into it for
a short stint. But none of us are enrolled as its permanent residents.

It is a fearful thing to fall into the abyss of your own shallowness, and to be crushed by the
weight of your inanity, to have the will but not the talent to do great things, to stand in awe of the
best and to know that you will never be good enough, to hold that the work is all in all and to see
that your own work is nothing at all. ‘No fate is more dismal,’ Vauvenargues wrote, ‘than to have
grand aspirations but not the calibre to carry them out.’ I know that I have suffered enough to
make some rare work. But not the least of my sufferings has been that I lacked the talent to
make it.

Between what we dreamt we might have been and what we know we are lies the urgent
nightmare in which we live and strive to prove our worth. ‘There is not a fiercer hell,’ Keats
wrote, ‘than failure in a great object.’

The most bitter martyrdom is to give your all and find that no one wants it. And the truly cursed
are those who feel not only the pain of their afflictions but their futility.

Failure is a diminished country, in which everything goes on as it did before, momentous,

absorbing, and bright with hope.

16 Pride denies that we have failed

Conceit makes us wild to win and too blind to see that we have lost.

We are too small to be disillusioned by our success. Our aspirations outstrip our abilities, but
our smugness outweighs our disappointments.

Few of us have the pride either to see that we have failed or to be sickened by our sordid
victories. Our minds are not large enough to size how small our success is.

Most people hold their own value so dear, that they don’t have to win, and can’t grasp that they
have lost. They are too pleased with who they are to be much put out by the massacre of their
darling hopes.

I rate my own acumen and schemes too high to count myself a failure, and I rate others too low
to count them as failures. I have done as much as anyone could do. And they have got more
than their poor endowments deserve.
How could I learn from my ill-luck or from my success? My defeats seem so small, that I can’t
see them. And my success seems so gigantic, that I can’t see anything else. The least triumph
lures me to think better of my talents, but the direst overthrow won’t convince me that I’m a
failure. My success looks to me much larger than it is, though a little or perhaps a lot less than it
ought to be.

I can bear to be stripped of all that I have, since I am still sheltered by my self-assurance.

17 Self-satisfied mediocrity
Our bungles may yield us such lavish gains, that they feel like the most brilliant victories. How
many of the young will achieve what they set out to do? Yet how many of their elders bewail
what poor things they have done? They have no doubt clinched a nice consolation prize or two,
which they feign they were aspiring to the whole time. Or they forget what they were first
levelling at. Or their eyes are still brimming with the victory that flutters just in front of their face.

A youngster daydreams of being elected president, and winds up opening a shop, and feels
overjoyed to have been voted mayor of some backwoods market-town. Life tempts them so
unstintingly with such measly pay, that they lose sight of the high aims that they once strained

Satan wears a grey suit. He doesn’t take you to a mountain top. He just buys you a meal, slips a
few dollars in your wallet, and introduces you to some convivial companions.

Don’t ask a plodder what it feels like to be a failure. They don’t know a thing about it. Their eyes
swim with the glitter of all their victories, and can’t make out the glowering futility which
envelopes them. The tortoises feel thankful to the careless hares for reminding them what
sprinting successes they have made of their own race.

My self-congratulation fattens my lanky wins, and lightens my heaviest discouragements.

18 The speed of failure

Failure, like the hour of my death, seems so far in the distance that it is not real to me. I see it all
round me, but I trust that it won’t come near me, though most likely it already has. It waits close
in front of me, or else it’s been here for a long time. It comes down as implacable as night.
Defeat stalks me like my shadow wherever I go. But how could I descry it, when I am all day
staring at the glinting sun of success that beams just in front of me?

I fail so slowly, that I don’t see that it’s happening. And I rise so slowly, that I feel licensed to do
all I can to hurry it on. I don’t doubt that victory will atone for all the wrongs that I had to do to
slash my way to it.
Failure seems as far away from us as our first hopes.

I look back on my days, and try to trace where failure, like a cancer, made its way into my
bloodstream and began remorselessly invading each organ.

Persevere, and you will meet with unhoped for kinds of failure and frustration. What a
consummation, to have failed more dismally than you ever dreamed was possible.

Our life is a fit apprenticeship for abject failure. It lasts just long enough to show how vain it is.

19 Illusion is the staff of failure

The blindness that lures me to my ruin mercifully spares me from blaming my own faults for it. I
need flimflam and self-flattery if I am to rise in the world. And I need them all the more when I
fall. We don’t learn what we are, whether we fare too well or too wretchedly. Surrender might
teach us generous lessons. But it makes most of us too poor to pay for them, while our self-
possession tells us that we are too rich to need them. So we fail even at failure. We shrink to be
unsuccessful failures or failed successes. I’m sure that my very repulses are a proof that I am
exceptional and that I am bound to achieve at the last sortie some unexampled victory.

We make nothing of our fall, since we lack the courage to see the nothing that it has made of

No one dares tell the truth to the fortunate, since they are so formidable. And we hold off from
telling the truth to the vanquished, since they are so fragile.

However cruelly life racks us, it rarely extracts from us the truth.

20 Resilience
How could asses learn, when they have such stout backs? If they had been weaker, they may
have had to grow wiser. They are strong enough to bear the ill-effects of their own missteps,
and so they have no reason to stop committing them.

The illness may make you too weak to tolerate the remedy. But your dread of catching it may
render you too timid to do anything but try to shun it. What does not kill me makes me stronger,
protests the dying animal. What does not kill me proves that I lack the spirit to kill myself when
all that made life worth living has left me. It leaves me too fagged for more than a skulking self-
protection. Pull down the shutters and keep out the plague. Though prevention may seem
preferable to cure, it may do more harm than the disease. ‘The torment of precaution,’ as
Napoleon said, ‘is more excruciating than the pitfalls it seeks to avoid.’ How soon resilience
shrivels into irresolution. Why not just end it?
The failure of all that I have worked for would be far more terrible than death. So why am I still
so unprepared to die when all that I have worked for has come to nought?

What does not kill me may make me too grasping to let go. And that may be the worst way for
the soul to rot. It is the blind pertinacity of a cancer cell which has lost the capacity to die.

What does not kill me makes me willing to kill whatever I need to keep myself alive.

21 Judging by success
I preen myself on my own evaluation of people and things. So why does their status and
success sway me more than the intrinsic traits which prove their true worth? ‘Most judge
people,’ La Rochefoucauld says, ‘by the favour that they have gained or by their fortune.’

In this world it is the fools who fix the grade of the wise, chiefly by the repute in which they are
held by their fellow fools. ‘The touchstone of truth,’ Montaigne wrote, ‘has come to be the
multitude of believers, when the dolts in the crowd are so much more numerous than the wise.’

Human beings have never been convinced by reason. But they have always been ready to bow
to power and success. They won’t yield to evidence, but they will yield to what is worse.

Reason, like right, has no heft in a case, till force and authority make it superrogatory. And now
the sole authority that they know is numbers and the crowd. Quantity is the sole test of quality
for those who lack the taste to judge quality.

What most impresses us about an event is the impression that it makes on others.

22 The bitch goddess Success

‘Success,’ as Nietzsche wrote, ‘has always been the great liar.’ But it’s the one thing we all
believe. Those who have been clobbered by years of bad luck still look on success and
popularity as the sole hallmarks of truth and worth. These are, as Burke put it, ‘the only infallible
criterion of wisdom to vulgar judgements.’

Having seen how ready the world is to reward the cheap, the false, the pushy, the flaunting and
the ephemeral, why do we still regard success as the one incontestable proof of true merit?

Stupidity may pass for shrewdness, so long as it has luck on its side.

In the minds of others

Seeking respect
The pride of knowledge


1 We live in the minds of others
Our greed covets images that catch our eye. And our pride strives to sculpt our self as an image
to catch the eye of others. Our vanity makes us feel that we glow for them, and our avarice
makes all that we crave glow for us. Our self justifies our wants and what we do to sate them.
And our wants justify our self and all that we do to serve it.

What we long for most of all is that others should bear a bright likeness of us in their minds. ‘We
want to lead a fictive life in the minds of others,’ as Pascal says. Each of us is a mere thought
flitting briefly through the brains of others. Our existence is only hypothetical till proved by their
attention. ‘We only begin to live,’ writes Houellebecq, ‘through the eyes of others.’ And the
person who matters most to us is doubly unreal. It is the person that we fancy others fancy us to
be. It is our false notion of the false notion they hold of us.

Of all things reputation exists most in the mind, but it exists in the minds of others. So it seems
more real to me than everything else, which exists solely in my own mind.

2 The contemptible
How viciously I will vie with rivals that I don’t regard, to net prizes that I don’t want. And how in
thrall I am to opinions that I claim not to care for. I can’t resist my greed for the baubles that I
can’t quite respect. And I’m glad just to gain the notice of those whom I rate so low.

If I can’t get what I do value, I will still fight just as hard to get what I don’t. I have to learn to
esteem more than I in fact do, since I can’t refrain from craving more than I esteem.
There’s no soul so mean but I think more of myself for being thought better of by it, and would
think a lot more of it if it thought a shred more of me.

How low our souls must be, that such trifles can raise them so high.

People are willing to act contemptibly to buy a good name, and to do demeaning things in order
to win praise. If you aim to win high honour in this world, you have to be quite shameless.

We spend our lives slaving to get hold of things that we don’t need, so as to gain the good
opinion of others, which we don’t value.

3 Great and small egos

Those who are not embarked on a grand quest are still stung by the swarm of small disparities
that set off their own rewards from those of the people who chance to be near them.

‘It astounds us to come on other egoists,’ Renard said, ‘as though we alone had the right to be
selfish.’ Ordinary people grudge that the extraordinary should lay claim to so much. And
extraordinary people grudge that the ordinary should strive so unrelentingly for such mean ends.
A little talent is determined to go a long way.

The robustness of our attachments bears no correspondence to the size of the objects to which
we are attached. And the ferocity of the selfishness bears no proportion to the quality of the self
that it is championing. The smallness of our ego is no limit to the grossness of our egoism.
Many people chase a cheap prize as relentlessly as they would a grand quest. Those whose
egos make do with mean rewards are not the less egoistic for that. They strive to aggrandize
themselves in the most trifling ways.

How are they able to stay so self-absorbed, who have so small a self to absorb them? How do
they rear such a vast selfishness on the base of so slight a self, and lavish such a trove of self-
love on so botched an object? A few anecdotes, a fixed routine, some petty vanity seem quite
enough for them. The smaller the mind, the larger it takes its own little world to be.

4 Pride and disdain

I have no doubt that people esteem me much more than they do, and that I care for their
esteem much less than I do.

How could renown be what I thirst for, when all I taste is the sickening indignities that I have to
choke down to get it?
I want to show that I outshine others by showing that I don’t need to, and that I set too low a
price on them to try to prove it. ‘We particularly wish to be praised,’ says Ebner-Eschenbach, ‘for
giving the impression that praise means nothing to us.’

High-minded people don’t deign to try to please, yet they grow exasperated when they fail to.
They prefer to disappoint than to presume. At least that proves they have the power to move
people in some way, or at least that they didn’t care enough to impress them.

What tolerant disdain we feel for others, just because they are not us, and want differing things,
and think differing thoughts. But our sneaking self-interest mantles the sneering which our
intolerant self-regard would parade naked.

5 Pride is pretending not to care
Haughty people want to win the race, yet ridicule it a touch in case they don’t. And they display
a slight scorn for their own victories, to show that they are worth more than these too. If I can’t
win, I make sure that I lose ostentatiously, to prove that I’m not trying. ‘Since she was not
winning strikingly,’ George Eliot commented, ‘the next best thing was to lose strikingly.’

Those who spurn the world still care so much for it that they want the world to know it. And
those who hate the world still want it to love them. What brag could be more arrogant than
Landor’s line, ‘I strove with none, for none was worth my strife’?

Some people are so perversely proud, that they won’t rest till they’ve been nominated as
members of an exclusive club, so that they can thumb their nose at it without being accused of
sour grapes.

We want to look down scorningly on success from the high citadel of our impregnable triumphs.

Proud souls disdain to conceal anything, save the craft that they use to conceal their pride.

6 Trying to impress the indifferent

We don’t guess how highly people think of themselves, and how meanly they think of us. ‘If we
saw ourselves as others see us,’ Cioran remarked, ‘we’d vanish on the spot.’ And if we thought
as well of them as they think of their own merit, we’d burst with envy. Most of them give us no
consideration, unless to confirm that we are not worth considering. But we take so much offence
that is not meant, because we don’t see how little thought people give us.

Whatever people think of you, you can be sure that it’s less than you think.
‘We are so vain,’ said Ebner-Eschenbach, ‘that we care for the regard even of those we don’t
care for.’ I toil night and day to win the notice of those who never think of me. And they don’t
think of me because they’re in such a sweat to win the notice of those like me who never think
of them.

My own talents satisfy me, but my own approval fails to suffice for me. Whatever the world may
think of me, I still think that I am all in all. And yet it is only the world’s regard that makes me
think that I am anything at all. I persist in thinking well of myself irrespective of what others may
think of me, but I still can’t bear not to seek their good opinion. And yet there are a lot of people
whose respect I would not much care for, were it not that I have the opportunity to win it.

7 The exchange of counterfeits

You may spend no thought on others, but you still want them to spend all their thought on you.
And you may look down on the rest of their opinions, but not the one they form of you. ‘The
notice of others,’ Hazlitt said, ‘is as necessary to us as the air we breathe.’

My self-regard, which is the most real thing that I feel, craves the respect of others, which is the
least real thing that they feel. Of all their opinions, they give least thought to the one that they
hold of me. But that is the only one of theirs to which I give any thought at all. But having gone
to such great pains to win their approbation, it may be that in the end I care no more for it than
they do.

We all know that the world is a sham. Yet we all still hold that its good opinion of us is the one
truth that is worth striving to prove.

We scarcely think people’s good opinion worth winning if they don’t hold a very high opinion of

8 We want to be respected in our own way

I want to win the approval only of those whose good sense I respect. And yet I respect the good
sense of anyone who approves of me.

All of us want the same thing, to be well thought of. But each of us wants it in our own way. I
want to be valued for the one accomplishment that I see most value in. And I think nothing of
any kind of reputation except the one that I have set my heart on. But don’t we all cheerily make
do with whatever one we get? How pliantly I adjust the narrative of my self-satisfaction to follow
the ebb and flow of my fortune.
I don’t think much of a goal if I’m not in the chase for it. Yet I don’t think much of myself if I have
no hope of reaching the goal I choose. So I take care to choose only those goals that I know I
might reach.

Neither myself nor my ends amount to much on their own. But when paired they make up the
miniscule infinitude for which I would gladly burn up the plenteous world.

Futility is the lives of others. The goal that is worth aspiring to is the one that happens to lie
within my reach.

9 We want the respect of those we don’t respect

Why do you long for applause which you know is unworthy of you, yet feel unworthy if you fail to
obtain it? You may think nothing of a person’s praise, and yet think nothing of yourself if you
don’t win it. And though you may not think much of their good opinion, you can’t bear to lose it.
Like all the rest of the cheap stuff that I pine for, the less I prize their good opinion, the more I
crave it, and the more I crave it, the less I prize it. And no matter how slenderly I may value
reputation, I don’t value myself less for prostituting my best gifts to woo it.

If I didn’t think so slightingly of some people, I might not go to such lengths to impress them. It
galls me that those for whom I have such low regard should have such low regard for me. ‘Man
seeks to acquire a rank among his fellow men,’ Kant wrote, ‘whom he detests but without whom
he cannot live.’

It’s harder to bear the scorn of those that we don’t respect than of those that we admire.

Those who see that the world is false and empty still crave its false and empty regard.

A fool cares nothing for the wisdom of a sage. But a sage still craves the accolades of fools. So
who is the bigger fool?

10 The perspective of egoism

My ego frames the perspective by which I gauge all that I think good and estimable. ‘Egoism is
the law of optics in the realm of our feelings,’ as Nietzsche wrote. ‘What is closest appears large
and weighty.’ Anyone who dwells far from me and from the world that I project seems to dwell
far from reality. ‘Whoever lives at a different end of town to me,’ Swift said, ‘I look upon as
persons out of the world, and only myself and the little scene about me to be in it.’

I exist only in the minds of others, but they exist for me in my own mind. Anybody not lit by the
sun of my presence must live a gloomy spectral life in the shade.
The world is a smudged backdrop, from which I stand out as the one glowing figure who
deserves to last and be happy. The persians had no doubt that they were best and that the rest
of the nations were of less and less worth the farther they were removed from them. The navel
of the earth is always situated in our own backyard.

11 We care and don’t care for the approval of others

In our inmost hearts we scorn the world and esteem only ourselves. Yet in our inmost hearts we
scorn ourselves and esteem only the world. ‘Deep down in his heart no man much respects
himself,’ Twain said. But deep down in their hearts none respect anything but themselves. I may
think little of the world and of the view it holds of me, and yet I think of little else apart from the
world and the view it holds of me.

I use up my life vying to win the praise of people whom I barely know. But in the end I may not
much mind what people say of me, so long as they don’t say it to my face.

We don’t care how people think of us in towns that we pass through, as Pascal showed. Why
would you go to great trouble to impress either your friends, whom you see each day, or
strangers, since you will see them no more? Thus Gaskell’s Cranford ladies would ask, ‘What
does it signify how we dress here at Cranford, where everybody knows us?’ and if they were
absent from home, ‘What does it signify how we dress here, where nobody knows us?’ So the
tactic that we opt for is to try to dazzle our friends when we are in company with strangers whom
we hope to dazzle. Does the respect of each, of no worth on its own, make the other’s worth the

12 The self and society

The self is everything and nothing. We are all in all to ourselves. But we are nothing by
ourselves. Our aims and ends are egoistic through and through, but our egoism is social
through and through. The worth that we have in our own eyes comes from the regard that
others have for us. We believe in ourselves, but we depend on others. I barely exists, but me is
the nave of the world. I scarcely exist for myself, but I don’t doubt that everything else exists for
my sake.

Self and the narrow worlds that it nests in each weigh not an ounce on their own but an infinity
when twinned. And these low worlds raise the self to a priceless me rather than a lone and
worthless I. Society beams on us like a glad sun. All our inclinations are selfish yet social. Our
egoism finds its meaning only in a group. Even the most selfish person lives for others. And the
most selfless person loves others for his or her own ends.
13 Pride is not ashamed to seek praise
We have such a rich store of self-esteem, that we can afford to spend a large sum of it to buy a
crumb of others’ esteem. And yet some fling away all the world’s regard, in their hunger to
banquet their own yawning self-regard.

Some people market their golden gifts to purchase a moment of the dull world’s attention. To
snap up the refuse that they want, they trade all that they cherish. They are in such a rush to
reach a goal, that they lose their way. If they didn’t have so much self-regard, how could they
bear to trade it for the paltry awards that they crave? What low dodges we sink to, in order to
keep up our high opinion of our own deserts.

A whisper of others’ praise is enough to silence what slight shame I might feel at the mean shifts
I had to stoop to on the path to attaining it. And the fake acclaim that I gain is enough to cool the
slight bruise to my vanity that I incur by having stalked it so doggedly. How could I doubt the
value of any triumph that I’ve won?

14 We respect whatever wins us respect

Most of us think as well of the world as we think it thinks of us. And we think as well of a thing as
it allows us to think of ourselves, unless we might think even better of ourselves by disdaining it.
We are pleased with anything that makes us pleased with our own lot. And we extol any skill
that we excel in.

Nothing seems small to me that shows me a hair taller to the small men and women whom I
hope to impress.

We don’t think much of any kind of talent that we don’t have, unless we believe that it has been
conferred on others to aid or amuse us.

People know that the boss who fills the place one rung above them is a fool. And yet when they
are at length ensconced in it, they have no doubt that it proves how savvy they are. My success
is proof of my own merit. Their success is confirmation of the world’s conniving boorishness.

15 We love the world as much as we think the world loves us

We are willing to love the world as much as we judge that the world loves us. And so it’s just as
well that we judge that it loves us a lot more than it does. And no world is so small that we don’t
think it worth trying to cut a big figure in it.

‘No one,’ as Leopardi says, ‘is so wholly disenchanted with the world, that when it begins to
smile on him he does not become in part reconciled to it.’ I will kneel to kiss its foot, as soon as
it shows me the least favour. I judge its prizes unfulfilling and deceptive till I have won a small
clutch of them. And I don’t see what good sense some people have till they come to share my
own point of view.

The soul is a beaten dog, now growling, now whimpering, which at last learns to fawn on the
brute world.

‘A man must be a fool indeed,’ Greville wrote, ‘if I think him one at the time he is applauding
me.’ When we win the praise of those whose vision is bleary, we take it that our worth must
shine so resplendently that it gives sight to unseeing eyes. I make much of the perspicuity of
anyone who is perspicuous enough to make much of me. The highest compliment I can pay
anyone is to acknowledge that they are gifted enough to see how gifted I am.

The simplest way to persuade self-believing people to think more highly of your own merits is to
show how highly you think of theirs.

16 Pride and conceit
You need not be undeserving to be vain. Vanity dogs pride wherever it goes, as hyenas tag a
lion. No one has a monopoly on conceit. But some blowhards manage to squeeze more profit
out of it than the rest of us.

True pride is cool and nonchalant. Conceit is at once touchy and dependent.

Our smugness shields us from humiliations which would prove fatal to true pride.

Though you outdo a person’s gifts and feats, how could you get the better of their conceit?

Proud people pay too dear for good turns. But braggarts deem that all the favours people do
them are no more than their due, and so they pay them back too stintingly.

How could our self-regard be overthrown, when it’s based on nothing at all? If it weren’t so
groundless, it might not be so hard to shake. No success reared it, so what shock could topple
it, or even leave a dent in it?

17 Pride torments, conceit comforts

Pride is obnoxious to itself and all the world. The proud are dangerous, but the presumptuous
are disarmed by their own presumption. Pride is a querulous radical, conceit a complacent tory.
Pride is solitary, conceit is clubbable. Smug people are more straightforward, less venomous
and too vain to be vindictive. The conceit that makes them deaf to real derision makes them
receptive to feigned praise. Stroke their ego the right way, and they will purr like kittens. So long
as they are flattered as they like, they will be quite amicable. And since they’re always flattering
themselves, they are friendly and accommodating.

I’m stung by my pride, since I have to justify it. But I’m comforted by my conceit, because it
justifies me. ‘Pride, a noble passion,’ Lichtenberg says, ‘is not blind to its faults, but hauteur is.’
The independent weigh their own and others’ worth by their intrinsic merits, the smug by the
prestige that they have won in the eyes of the world.

18 Conceit and illusion

Pride pioneers new concepts. But conceit contents us with the rusty banged-up idols of our
tribe. Conceit makes do with humbug, but honour will make do with nothing short of the truth.
Most people have enough front to support all their trumpery. But few have the pride to make
them seek out the truth. Principled people give up their chance of happiness to serve the truth.
And the vain give it up to serve a lie.

Our pipedreams cost us nothing but our true pride. And we are always ready to shop that so as
to keep up our sham self-belief.

Who isn’t blinded by the limelight of their own conceit?

19 Conceit
We are gratified both by our enemies, since we know that we are not like them, and by our
friends, since we are sure that they are not like us. We feel that our friends are better than
everyone else, and that we are better than our friends. And so they give us a double reason to
think well of our own worth. Two will jog on well together, so long as each feels superior to the
other in some respect. And as Chesterfield wrote, ‘most people enjoy the inferiority of their best

We judge that those above us are arrogant when they assert their preeminence over us, and
that those below us are presumptuous when they assume an equality with us.

A group is maintained by a corporate vanity of its own which feeds but exceeds that of its
several members. Being part of a crowd adds to your egoism, but dilutes your individuality.

20 Conceit speaks
Some vainglorious people babble to you about all the wonderful things that they’re up to, and
some take it that they are so well known that they have no need to. They don’t want to insult you
by implying that you alone of all the world don’t know it.
‘One speaks little,’ La Rochefoucauld says, ‘when vanity does not make one speak.’ Some
people have nothing to say of a thing if they have no part in it. And some can find something of
their own to talk of in everything.

Those who are on the make tell themselves the self-serving lies that most of us know we have
to tell others. And they dare to tell others the mad self-glorifying lies that most of us keep locked
in our own breast.

The words that I quote with most relish are my own.

21 The self and its accoutrements

‘A man’s self,’ says William James, ‘is the sum total of all that he can call his.’ It takes in all that
pertains to us, from our body and clothes and belongings to our husband or wife, our sons and
daughters, clan, car, club and address, firm, homeland, faction or church. The self that my
vanity fancies I fill up juts out much further than the self that others can see. So without
purposing to they are all the time bumping and bruising my phantom being. We use words to fix
the outline of our shape, and they stretch it farther than we reach.

I reckon myself richer for each of my possessions. And I reckon my possessions so rich
because they are mine. Custody is nine tenths of how we rate a commodity. Our beaming self-
satisfaction gilds all the dross that we manage to scoop up.

22 Everything adds to our self-regard

It is so necessary for me to think highly of my own gifts, that it’s lucky that I find it so easy.

We so hunger to think well of ourselves, that we would starve if such stingy rations failed to fill
us. We thirst for praise, yet such quick sips of it slake us. There’s no need to make your
truckling too subtle, since most people’s appetite for it is so gross. And yet it still takes some tact
to serve it up in the form that they find most flavoursome. And you need a good deal of empathy
to flatter people in just the way they want.

Vanity is a most efficient organism. It can draw nutriment from the driest crumbs, and yet digest
the most noxious toxins.

Self-belief can induce us to do anything at all. And anything at all is apt to swell our self-belief.
Our mere performances lend us a false sense of proficiency. We gain more reason to rate our
deftness favourably just by doing a thing than we lose if we do it ineptly.

I think so well of myself, and others think so little about me, that nothing I do could make either
think any better of me.
Our smugness is an ever-flowing fountain. It can’t get any fuller, but nor can it run down.

23 First in all comparisons

It is our curse to be all the time comparing our own merits with those round us. But we are
blessed to come out first in all our encounters.

Those who don’t know what I didn’t know till yesterday I deem disgracefully benighted. And I
jeer at those who fear what I was frightened of till yesterday.

I weigh my own worth by what I aspire to, but others’ worth by what they have achieved. I
dignify my own purposes, but discount their accomplishments. So I trust that my aborted
undertakings will vouch for the value of those that I completed. If this is what I had to leave
aside, you can guess how great are the ones I did get done.

We size our own stature by those near to us. If we live with pygmies, we judge that we must be
giants. And if we live with giants, we judge that we must be giants too.

A snob is anyone whose pretensions reach higher than my own. I want to act like a snob up to
the threshold of my pretentiousness. But I lambast as a snob anyone who dares to overreach it.
Anyone more punctilious than me must be a pedant, anyone less is lax and neglectful.


24 Conceited knowledge
I don’t doubt that my ideas are unique. Yet it still shocks me that no one else seems to share
them. I flatter myself that I differ from others, and yet that they must be like me.

Numbers are always on our side. If all are of the same mind as me, then I must be right. And if
no one is, then I am not merely right but bold and far-seeing.

Most of us swallow the same slop and poppycock as everyone else, but we are sure that we do
so for deeper reasons. We like to feel both the security of belonging to our herd and the
complacence of presuming that we stand at the forefront of it. I glance to my flank at all of them
galloping in the same direction as I am, and I pity them for blindly stampeding the way that I
chose by reflection.

Messengers bulge with the weight of their news. They ought to be shot now and then, to lance
their tumid pomposity.
25 We are proud of what we don’t know
Some people glory not just in what they do know but even in what they don’t know. And they are
vain of what they don’t know, since it seems to certify the value of what they do know. They feel
like great landlords, who don’t deign to attend to all that occurs on their vast estates, and are too
grand to seek to grasp such trifling details. What they modestly pretend tops their competence
they in fact judge falls below their concern.

If you can’t take pride in your good sense, you can at least take pride in your folly. We pique
ourselves on our lazy preconceptions as much as we would if we had found out strenuous

I think little of what I don’t know, so that I won’t have to think less of myself for not knowing it.
‘We scorn a lot of things,’ Vauvenargues says, ‘so that we won’t have to scorn ourselves.’

People don’t fear what they don’t know. If they did, what would they not have to be afraid of?
And how could they fear it, when they don’t so much as know that they don’t know it? They
mock and scoff at what they have no grasp of, since they have too little respect for it to quaver
at it. ‘All that seems strange we condemn,’ Montaigne says, ‘as well as all that we do not

People plume themselves even on the mannerisms that they are not even conscious of.


1 Vanity triumphs over time
I have to fight anew each day to defend my image of my self. So it’s lucky for me that my vanity
has forearmed me for the fray in impenetrable armour. It’s a struggle that I can’t win and can’t
resile from.

Beauty jilts the loveliest and leaves them bereft. But vanity stays loyal to the homeliest. Beauty
is as frail and fleeting as vanity is resilient and enduring. Time despoils beauty. But vanity
triumphs over time.

Our vanity inventories each slight alteration in our aspect, while overlooking its long geological
collapse. Our very flaws help to take our eyes off the wrecks that we have become.

Beauty is a rapidly depreciating asset, which vanity preserves in its balance sheet at its initial

Some women who were once graced with a sumptuous beauty comport themselves like ruined
duchesses. They still presume on their title, though they lack the means to keep it up.

As you get closer to some bodies, the gravity of their vanity draws you to them more forcibly
than the refulgence of their beauty or the light of their mind.

2 The torment of perfection

What extraordinary toils the most ordinary of us cumber our lives with, in order to prove that we
are not ordinary. All that work and worry, just to become a nobody. Our fate, as Cioran wrote, is
‘to have accomplished nothing, and to die overworked.’ I give way to my lusts without tasting
fulfilment. And I harrow my heart without obtaining glory.

We can’t be content, unless we are embarked on some mad scheme of self-betterment which is
predestined to leave us no happier than we were before. Why not on the contrary do as the man
in Balzac does, who ‘was wise enough to estimate life at its true worth by contenting himself in
all things with the second best’? You ought to thank life each day for giving one more proof that
you were right to rate it so cheap. What pangs I cause myself and others by striving to perfect
my perfectly mediocre life.

Those who are irreparably flawed still go to great lengths to prove how marvellous they are.

3 Our botched perfection

Perfection is mediocrity polished to a high sheen.

Our restless pursuit of excellence condemns us to a facile mediocrity.

We judge that we are struggling to make the best of our gifts. But aren’t we just scrabbling to get
the most into our grip?

People don’t want to change, but they do want to grow perfect, and they trust that they will have
done so once they have grown more perfectly who they are.

Some people are sure that they have no faults because they have darned and patched them so
many times. And some are sure that they have no faults because they have never felt the need
to. I don’t doubt that I must be wise today, since I now see what a fool I was till yesterday.

4 So vain of our imperfect self

How hard I toil to improve, but how in love I am with the botched job that I make of it.

Our vanity projects for us an enhanced self, but tells us that we have already formed it. I tense
all my nerve to perfect myself, yet I’m smugly satisfied with the faulty self that I patch up. I go
through life, assuming that I am extraordinary, and evincing that I am not.

How could we make ourselves the best that we might be, when we are so intent on
demonstrating to our peers that we are better than they are? We spend all our strength striving
to prove to ourselves that we are better than we are and to others that we are better than they

Vain people are well aware of their flaws. But they take it that they will have reached perfection
once they have rectified these. My past botches promise me that I must be progressing, rather
than alerting me to how far I have gone adrift. And my own faults are mere chips which I’ll set
right with a few revisions. But others’ faults are undeniable proofs that their design was wrong
from the start.

5 Our deepest belief is our belief in ourselves
The belief that sustains us is our belief in our own importance. And the faith that justifies us is
our faith in our own integrity. This is the one catholic and ecumenical creed. Our day to day self-
trust beats the blazing certitude of the most fanatical ranter. So long as we trust in our own
unique gifts, we don’t need to trust in much else.

Vanity, like faith, is the evidence of things not seen by others. And yet the vain still need others
to have faith in them.

Though I am willing to trade most of my errors, I cling to my overvaluation of my self-worth. ‘We

can bear to be deprived of everything,’ Hazlitt says, ‘but our self-conceit.’

We use up our potential for belief by believing in ourselves. The only things that we have a
strong belief in are the good things that we believe about ourselves. I trust so fervently in my
own destiny, that I have a cold credit to spare for anything else. But I can cajole myself to give
my faith to all sorts of things, since my faith in all of them is transferred from my faith in myself.
Our creeds are dim halos emitted by the fiery core of our self-belief.

6 The metaphysic of our ego

Providence is the metaphysic of our ego. Our littleness stretches a vast way.

We have long known that the earth is not the pivot of the universe, and so I’m thankful that I am
still the axis round which all bright things revolve.

The most insignificant person in the world is still the centre of their own world. And that is the
one world there is for them.

How could this not be the best of all possible worlds, when it is the one that I am part of?

When you’re young, you may fancy now and then that you can hear the loom of the fates
weaving your destiny. But when you get old all you feel is the threads unwinding.

Many people reckon their success so massive, that they feel obligated to ascribe it modestly to
luck or to the gift of God. So they dress up their self-worship as gratitude to some superhuman
We swell our self-worth either by our insistence that we are self-made or by our praise of those
who have made us what we are.

7 God’s plan
We may not believe in God, but don’t we all trust in a power immeasurably bigger than
ourselves whose job is to smooth our pathway through the briars of this world? Our inflated
sense of our own entitlement translates the most inconsiderable coincidence into momentous
destiny. No event that turns out in my favour is too paltry to form part of God’s plan. How ready
the unassuming are to see fate operant in their own small lives.

Some mortals believe in divine intervention, not from faith in the most high, but from faith in their
own dim star. They trust in the Lord because they trust in their own lofty destiny. And they hire
him as an assistant to help them bring it to fulfilment. God plays a part in our story, not we in his.

8 Providence and justice

Providence justifies the fortunate, since their good fortune is blessed by God and will go on for
all time. And it comforts the unlucky that their bad luck will one day be paid back in full.

The poor know that God loves them because he loves the poor. And the rich know that God
loves them because he has made them rich. Providence is the complacence of the prosperous
and the consolation of the afflicted.

Some of us would rather believe that we are dogged by a malevolent demon, than that we have
been set adrift in a cold universe. ‘Our egoism,’ Renard says, ‘is so excessive, that in a deluge
we believe the thunder to be directed at us alone.’

Has anyone had a revelation that told them that they don’t matter enough to damn or to beatify?

Some people who don’t believe in God still act as if they were placed in the world to serve as his
chosen instruments, and that they are under his special protection so that no harm can come to

9 My merit, others’ luck

We know that the hand of God is at work when we prevail, and that blind chance must be in
charge when our rivals do. ‘No victor believes in chance,’ as Nietzsche points out. Providence
has patently awarded us most of the merit, but has unaccountably awarded others most of the
luck. ‘The power of fortune,’ as Swift wrote, ‘is confessed only by the miserable.’

I have as much as I have by dint of my own merit, but I have no more than that due to my poor
I have my moral sunshine, in which my good fortune assures me that God is in charge of
events, and my rainy days, when I know that none but the righteous must go through the
ordeals that I do.

Many people whine that luck has allotted them such scant pay, but few that it has allotted them
such scant talents. The poor in spirit presume that they would be blissfully happy, if only they
got what was due to them.

10 Conceit consoles us
Conceit finds the right words to soothe us for all our humiliations. We brazen out most of our
batterings by relying on our essential conceit and our casual distractions. And we live down any
truth by applying the sovereign antidote of our grandiosity. In the wilderness of our neglect
angels come and minister to our self-belief.

Why strive to get gaunt wisdom with toil, when you can have plump conceit with ease? A sage
would need to work for a lifetime to win the self-possession that smug people have by birth. We
set up our vanity in the seat where our sagacity ought to be, and how much more competently it
does the job.

11 Generous conceit
Our conceit is our staunchest guard, our kindliest nurse, and our most persuasive pleader.

Who is so poor that they can’t keep up an exorbitant estimate of their own value?

People’s conceit, which assures them that they deserve the best, tells them that they have got
it. It turns their life into one long victory lap. The clapping deafens them, even if they’ve pressed
just a few bored stragglers to sit and watch them in the grandstand. We stride from one
conquest to the next, to find at the last that each day we have been surrendering a portion more
to death. What triumphant nobodies we are.

Some people are ballasted by the freight of their self-importance, and they are buoyed up by
their expansive self-delight. Kept afloat by their swollen self-opinion, they don’t drown, but don’t
see that they need to be saved. They are so light and hollow that nothing can sink them.

Vanity gives its possessor an ease and confidence which mere good looks or talent could never

If we felt less need to think so well of ourselves, we might be more at peace. And yet if we
thought less well of ourselves, we would have no grounds to be content at all.
12 Vanity the tormenting comforter
Touchy conceit is the self’s skin, so easy to wound, yet insulating us from scores of wounds.
Our self-belief is the part of us that’s most prone to blister but speediest to heal. ‘I’ve never any
pity for conceited people,’ wrote George Eliot, ‘because I think they carry their comfort about
with them.’ My faith in my own worth solaces me for my inveterate mortifying failure to cajole
others to share it.

Vanity brings on us the hurts that our vanity salves us for. It advises us erroneously, but tends
us compassionately. It’s an erring counsellor, but an infallible consoler.

13 Bittersweet vanity
Our conceit sweetens or curdles all that we feel. It may assuage our pains, but it poisons our
joys. It both intoxicates and embitters us, rendering some of us serene and others savage.
While maddening some, it mollifies others. ‘The golden fleece of self-love,’ Nietzsche writes, ‘is
proof against cudgel blows but not against pinpricks.’ It makes some respected, and some
ridiculous. Pride binds up the wounds that our pride inflicts on us, and finds a balm for most of
the disorders to which it predisposes us.

Self-love fells some like a blow, but sustains most like an unfaltering faith. Though ravishing
some, it desolates others. Like the fabled divine charity, it strips these bare, and leaves them
with nothing to clothe them but their egoism. It contents some like an untroubled marriage, but
buffets others like a squally romance. In our self-adoration most of us love not wisely but too

Some people love with their hopes, and some with their fears. And in the same way some love
themselves with their hopes, and they strive and swagger, while those who do so with their
forebodings flinch and hang back.

14 Dependent conceit
Why do you sweat for the pay of the world’s regard, when you could live at ease on the
independent income of your own self-regard?

We are kings of conceit. Yet we all slave for the low world’s good report. Vanity gives us at no
ostensible charge a rich estimate of our own worth, but then binds us to slog like drudges to
keep it up.

Our vanity is as desperate as a beggar, and as complacent as a billionaire.

We are self-absorbed but not self-sufficient. ‘We seek for knowledge,’ Pascal wrote, ‘to show it
off. So we would never go on a trip if we had no hope to talk of it afterwards.’ For all our
selfishness, don’t we need one more soul at least to share our self-satisfaction and to
participate in our greed? ‘I relish no enjoyment,’ as Montaigne says, ‘if I can’t share it.’

Your conceit may content you, so long as you don’t need a large number of people to share it,
or else assume that they do. I am blest with such high merit, but I am cursed by my need to
prove it to the rest of the world.

15 Our shared self-love

We have not slaked our self-love, till we have found another to partake in it, another’s eyes into
which we can gaze and glimpse our own bright reflection. I spend my days in the search for
some cause to have faith in and some soul to have faith in me, who will tell me that people like
me deserve the world’s love and admiration. Pious people find both in the Lord.

Most people need no larger idol than their own success, especially when they make it out to be
so much larger than it is. But they still need a few fellow-worshippers at their shrine.

16 Conceit shows too little self-respect

The conceited may have too little pride, but the proud still have no end of conceit. ‘To be vain,’
as Swift points out, ‘is rather a mark of humility than pride.’

Many of us are less modest or less proud than we seem, but none are less conceited. No one
has too little self-esteem. But it may be that all of us have too little self-respect.

Narcissists suffer from a deficit of self. It is not their self but their mirrors that they are in love
with. And they need to circle themselves with as many of these as they can, to show them that
their self is real and rounded.

Some people set such a high value on themselves, not so much because they overrate what
they are, but because they underrate what they might be. They think too highly of what they are
to be modest. But they don’t think highly enough of what they might be to be proud. They shoot
at such a low mark, how could they fail to hit it?

Some people rate their worth so high because they can envisage a better self that they might
one day become, and some because they can’t. We are too vain of what we are, but we lack the
imaginativeness to see what we might be. ‘No one,’ as Multatuli says, ‘has a high enough
estimation of what he could be, or a low enough one of what he is.’
17 We can’t see our own vanity
None but the most high-minded people have the modesty to grasp how immodest they are. How
could we see our own vanity, when it’s the eyes that we use to scan ourselves and everything
else? It is the parent of our plans, habits, outlook and feelings, which they are too abashed or
too insolent to own. Conceit saves us from recognizing that conceit has spawned the bulk of our
deeds. Something in the style of our own egoism assures us that we are not egoists.

We agree with Pope, that pride is ‘the never-failing vice of fools.’ And since we know that we are
no fools, we conclude that neither are we proud.

I can’t break the grip of my egoism which stings me to act with such ruthlessness. But neither
can I conceive the rare feats that might prove my right to my ambitions.

Corrupted praise
Self-regarding praise

1 All for praise
If people weren’t so thirsty for praise, they would do far fewer stupid or desperate things. But
would they do any great ones? ‘Nine tenths of the work of the world is done by it,’ as William
James notes.

Why be Caesar, if not to be admired? And yet what’s the good of being admired by anyone less
than Caesar? Conceited people crave praise from those of whom they value nothing but the
praise that they give them. And the proud crave praise from those of whom they value not so
much as that. Yet each of us is keen to tell our name, as Dickinson put it, ‘to an admiring bog.’

2 Fame
Most people have no need to become famous, since they feel as if they already were.

I am content with my small and undistinguished place under the sun, not because I think so little
of myself, but because I think so much of it. It is not our modesty but our conceit that makes us
feel at peace with our lot.

We don’t know ourselves, so why do we long to be known in fame by those who know neither
themselves nor us?

No doubt it is absurd to seek our true good outside ourselves in the regard of people who don’t
know us and are full of error and insincerity. But is it any less absurd to seek it inside ourselves
in our own self-regard, when we don’t know ourselves and are full of error and insincerity?

None are more heedful of the transience and futility of fame than the few who have earned a full
measure of it. Their aim is to become a mere memory for men and women who forget.
Why does a celebrity who once enjoyed some faint notoriety seem such a sad nonentity to us
who have had no taste of fame at all?

3 Neglect
Neglect turns some to water, some to fire, and some to stone. It wears down the will of some,
enkindles others to flaming resentment, and some it reduces to a glazed numbness. Witness
Van Gogh, Nietzsche and Melville. ‘Too long a sacrifice,’ as Yeats wrote, ‘can make a stone of
the heart.’

Some people have to hope that they will live posthumously, since the unregarding world has
buried them prematurely.

I resent the world still more for its rightful neglect of me than I do when it neglects me
undeservedly, since I know that its rightful neglect won’t change. On good days it galls me that
my work has not received its due. On bad days I fear that it has.

I soothe the ulcer of my bruised obscurity by the thought of the sort of dunces whom the dizzy
world celebrates. It lifts the untalented to such heights of fame, how could its esteem be worth

4 We exaggerate praise
The ledger of my self-commendation always shows a profit, since I take much offence that is not
meant, but far more as a compliment.

We take it that we are esteemed more than we are, though less than we ought to be. Our vanity
amplifies both the praise and the calumny that we receive. And though we overprice the
compliments that come to us, they still seem to set our rate too low. ‘None of us,’ Colton says,
‘are so much praised or censured as we think.’

I’m surprised and elated by all applause. But it still comes short of what I looked for. When I’m
made much of, I feel like I’ve been brought to the ridge of some low knoll. It both dizzies and
disappoints me. I am not due this. Am I due no more than this? All toadying takes me in, though
it seldom satisfies me. I have heard it all so many times before done so much more fulsomely by
my own smug self. Twain quipped that compliments ‘embarrass me. I always feel that they have
not said enough.’

5 Praise for the wrong reason

You need to earn the praise that you give as well as the praise that you get. You have to strive
to make yourself worthy of the high works that you commend.
We learn by admiring. So be sure to admire the right things. ‘All understanding,’ Goethe says,
‘starts with admiration.’ Though admiration may fool you with appearances, it is the one road
that might lead you to the truth. You ought to praise either because you understand or in the
hope of understanding. But most of the time we praise because we don’t understand or so that
we won’t have to. Our praise is mere presumption. We are willing to imitate the lazy applause
that all give to acknowledged masterpieces, but not to strain our minds to find out what makes
them worth it.

Unthinking acclaim wins a name for generosity in this self-congratulatory world, while cool
comprehension plies its plain justice in vain. As Pope wrote, ‘Fools admire, but men of sense

You should admire as you should read, not much but ardently.

6 Fake praise
When you win praise for performing a worthless duty you soon learn that it is well worth

High-minded people may dine on the praise of a low toady, but they still hunger for an unaging
lustre. As Pascal said, we long to be famous through the whole world. So why is the mouth
honour of five flunkeys enough to turn our heads?

Fake praise is good enough for me, if I trust it will last. And if a flattering semblance stays fixed,
I’ll be glad to take it for fact.

7 We praise the mediocre

We can make out small and commonplace talents with our own eyes. But we need to be taught
to see great and noteworthy excellencies. We must be trained to discern which are the original
minds by those whose minds are in no way original.

We dote on cheap and second-rate things. But we coldly commend the best, since we love only
what is like us. We voice our awe for what is great because we have no choice. I prefer to
humour slothfully the many who don’t merit it than to do arduous justice to the few who do. We
hug to our hearts the beguiling frauds that have gained the world’s good report. ‘Great talents
and great virtues,’ Chesterfield says, ‘will procure the respect and admiration of mankind, but it
is the lesser talents which must procure you their love and affection.’

Superficial people and exploits stir us to the quick. The second-grade are a necessity, the best a
mere luxury. We judge these strictly, while we pet and indulge the tawdry and amusing.
People claim to feel awe for the great, though they have no idea why they deserve their awe.
And they may know full well why the poor and broken have a claim on their sympathy, but the
best they can do is sham it.

8 It is ourselves that we praise
Most of us venerate nothing but more successful versions of our own self. Bierce defined
admiration as ‘our polite recognition of another’s resemblance to ourselves.’ The ideal that I
adore is my own self, corrected and perfected in line with the norms of the age.

What more could you wish for those whom you love than that they should turn out to be like you,
though more fortunate? Parents hope that their offspring will grow up to be just like themselves
but luckier. And they trust that they will have more luck since they have them as parents. And
they groom them in their own habits of self-adoration and self-torment as the best legacy they
have to pass on. Procreation is an organism’s way of flattering itself, while rendering its own
existence obsolescent.

9 We praise what is like us

Few of us prize any talents but the ones we believe that we possess. But we all therefore prize
a swag of talents that don’t belong to us.

I admire some people because I guess that they are like me. But by admiring them I come to
see that they are not like me in the least. True admiration begins in a false identification of
likeness, but grows to be an astonished delight in difference. But few of us know any higher way
to honour great things than to remould them in our own flawed image. And we think that we do
them homage when we note their similarity to ourselves.

We may espy all the traits of those whom we look down on, save how like they are to us.

I choke on the acclamation that I am obliged to dole out to my rivals. But I lavish praise on those
who are like me, in order to boost the price paid for my own talents. ‘We but praise ourselves in
other men,’ as Pope points out. Whether complimenting or complaining, it is always our own self
that we are commending.

10 Self-regarding praise
Some people are sure that their own endorsement of a thing suffices to prove its worth, or that
their glib inattention to it is enough to show its unimportance. What value can a thing have, if it
has no value for them?
We think well of others on the strength of their accidental attributes, and of ourselves on the
strength of our intrinsic ones. I esteem them in parcels, but deprecate them in their entirety. And
though I may fault some of my own parts, I am never less than delighted with the whole.

I praise others no more candidly than I criticize myself. And I’m relieved when my sincere
veneration of someone is proved to have been unfounded.

We might be far less warm in our admirations, if we had no chance to hold forth on them. ‘If the
commending others well did not recommend ourselves,’ Halifax wrote, ‘there would be few

When I praise, I preen myself on my generosity. And when I censure, I preen myself on my

You can count on people’s admirers to pare them down to size, and in most cases it is their own

11 Enthusiasm
We daub the plain face of our selfishness with our gaudy idealism. And we have to lay it on
thickest where it is most unsightly.

Real enthusiasts are foredoomed to discouragement, despair and madness. And they are saved
only because their zeal is so promiscuous and their illusions so dogged. But two-faced
enthusiasts don’t put a cent of their own funds into their pet ventures, but manoeuvre their
dupes to sink their savings in them. They live on debt, which they don’t own up to or pay back.
And if the price of their object slumps, then it’s the fools who lodged their faith in it that lose.

Some of our most selfless enthusiasms gain us as much as our most self-seeking schemes
harm us.

Enthusiasm is the virtue of salesmen. It makes them seem big-hearted. They hike the price of
what they hawk, and then convince their chumps that they’ve got a bargain.

Disgruntled supporters may come by and by to be enthusiastic leaders. They learn to praise
their loyal subordinates’ merits, which they poked fun at when they were their peers and
12 Conceit can bear to flatter
My self-love makes me averse to flattering but desirous of being flattered. And my self-interest
makes me wary of being flattered but willing to flatter. My vanity can’t bear to praise those who
deserve it, but my ambition stoops to applaud those who do not. Those who make much of
themselves can bear to make much of others.

How could we bear to praise the talents of others, if we didn’t think so well of our own?

When you see how preposterously people overvalue their worth, you may play up to their gross
self-overestimation as a sly satire. You can bear to flatter them because they are not worth

A flatterer pretends to think better of you than you pretend to think of yourself, but knows you
better than you think you know yourself.

Some people gild the undeserving in order to show how dull is their clay and to flaunt how
handsomely they treat them. They don’t care enough for them to find fault with them. And they
are willing to applaud them just because they have such slight regard for them. How much
benign contempt lurks at the bottom of most compliments. We condescend when we commend.

We are more gratified by a chance to truckle to the great than they are by our truckling.
Vauvenargues notes that, though the prominent are easily flattered, ‘we are still more easily
flattered when in their presence.’

I am so expert in overpraising others, because I have practised so long on myself. But I never
praise them as much as they would like, since I give myself all the praise I like.

13 Disguise your flattery

If you aim to flatter with conviction, you have to stay so far from the object of your homage that it
is not subject to your reason, or so close that your self-interest is subject to it.

You must disguise your fawning, first from those you pay court to, so as not to rouse their
distrust, then from your rivals, who would grudge you getting the start of them, and lastly from
your own eyes, since it would make you blush to see what a spaniel you are. My flattery of
others fools me as much as it does them.

Flattery, like fornication, can be decently done only in private between no more than two people.
Those who praise generously look jealously on their rivals when they try to do the same. ‘There
is,’ Renard wrote, ‘jealousy in admiration as there is in love.’

14 Self-flattery
Self’s the vilest toady of all, the ‘arch flatterer,’ as Bacon designated it. Each of us keeps a little
court of fawners in constant session in our heads, who cry up all that we do. We praise our own
selves so inventively yet so effortlessly, so variously yet so repetitively. Our self-flattery is
fantastic but unimaginative.

How could we see through the flattery that others deal us, when we don’t see through our own?

We live inside a bubble blown by our own self-praise.

Even the most dim-witted people are never at a loss for clever pretexts on which to preen

Even in others we find self-flattery more attractive than self-knowledge.

Other people’s mirrors seem more impartial and unflattering. But our own have learnt to reflect
back the image of ourselves that we want to see. How did we teach them? And there are no
more gratifying mirrors than our friends or spouse.

Even the few who tastefully understate everything else grossly overstate their own success. And
the unctuous terms that are so gross and ridiculous when applied to others seem just and
modest in our own case.

The sole thing that no one makes too much of is the world’s indifference to themselves.

15 Vanity and being flattered

Angling for praise, I find that I’m caught in a snare of small achievements.

The fortunate, who have always had such a sufficiency of adulation, quaff it down like water. But
a mere thimbleful befuddles the inconspicuous like wine.

Those who give themselves the most unreserved praise still need to get the most praise from
us. Why do we assume that those who crave praise must be devoured by self-doubt, or that a
narcissist must be lacking in self-esteem, or that braggarts feel insecure, or that fanatics are
prey to incertitude, or that the self-righteous are racked by their own guilt, or that ingrates feel
overburdened by their debts, or that executioners are traumatized by the atrocities they commit?
If only they were.
I’m never more rapt with the human race than when I’m intoxicated. And I’m seldom so
intoxicated as when I’ve been plied with a draught of cheap praise.

The braying of an ass sounds as sweet as the chant of the sirens so long as it is commending
me, though none but the most unfaltering hero can listen to it and not come to rack.

16 I deserve the praise I get

I think less of others when I flatter them. Yet when they flatter me I think more of myself. I’m
sure that they are slow to commend me because their commendation is forced from them by my
real merit. But I’m slow to compliment them since my compliments are extorted by mere
courtesy. Their praise of me is as grudging as my praise of them is gratuitous. I am loath to give
them praise, since I suspect that they don’t deserve it. But they are loath to give me praise,
because they know that I do. Yet I’m pleased even by plaudits that I sense I have not earned
the right to.

I love to receive flattery, since I know that it tells the truth, even if the giver disbelieves it. And I
can bear to spoon out flattery, because I know it lies, though it never fails to hit its mark. ‘We
give others praise in which we do not believe,’ said Jean Rostand, ‘on condition that in
recompense they give us praise in which we do.’ People may not be sincere in the applause
that they give me, but at least they are right to give it. And how are they to know that I am due
far more than the applause that they give me? Though I may not trust the praiser, I never doubt
the praise. And though I may not quite swallow all the praise that I’m served, it tastes so good
that I thirst for more.

17 Flattery is met by self-flattery

Drop a small hint, and your mark will crouch to pick up a big compliment. By flattering them
tepidly, you learn how warmly they flatter themselves.

We love to learn from experience and flattery, since they don’t ask us to learn anything that we
don’t already know. Why does praise thrill us, when, as La Rochefoucauld points out, it reveals
to us nothing new? I still long to hear a voice other than my own telling me what I tell myself
each hour of the day. I’m cheaply pleased, since a mere murmur of praise echoes so
thunderously my own hollow self-applause.

People are never more candid than when they are flattering themselves, or less convinced than
when they are flattering others.

Take others as seriously as they take themselves, and you’ve made a good start. Do to them as
they do to themselves. That is to say, fawn, coddle, cosset and fool them. And in order to praise
them, track down what they think of themselves and replay it back to them. As Lawrence wrote,
‘the things that he tells himself are nearly always pleasant, and they are lies.’ Learn to talk to
them as they do to their own heart. Artists do this for us, and we dote on them for lending shape
and grace to our instinctive self-acclaim.

In order to flatter some people, all you need do is shut up and give them the chance to flatter

Flattery is the insincerest form of imitation.


Pride humiliates

1 Our pride humiliates us
Some people’s pride is good for nothing but to find the best way to make fools of them. I am
often put to shame, but I’m not much chastened. And though my pride humiliates me time and
again, it never learns humility.

The furthest point of pride comes close to self-contempt, where pride judges that its possessor
falls short of its own high standard.

Some people are so anxious to fill embarrassing silences, that they keep embarrassing
themselves by jabbering nonsense.

Pride, like a madcap billionaire, would be insolvent in a few days, if he didn’t appoint discretion
to be his steward. He is a potent monarch but a bumbling captain, who must hand on the
command of his feuds to temperance and astuteness.

Some people are so uncomfortably proud that they can’t feel at ease with you, till they have put
themselves to shame in front of you, and have no more to lose.

What embarrassing get-ups our vanity tempts us to put on.

2 Ridiculous dignity
How ludicrous I make myself by trying so hard not to seem so. If you don’t want to look
ridiculous, learn to be laughed at with a good grace.
How much of my dignity I forfeit by striving so clamorously to assert it. ‘Honour,’ Aristotle said,
‘does not consist in possessing a good name, but in deserving it.’ And when I press my claims
to it, I show that I don’t deserve it.

Dignity is just the solemn face of plodding self-importance. It is the swollen gravity of a
ponderous and inert body. ‘Gravity is of the very essence of imposture,’ as Shaftesbury wrote.

By endeavouring to redress an immaterial or fancied slight, some people heap a pile of real
ignominy on their heads. How egregiously they dishonour themselves, to avoid incurring the
dishonour which they scarcely seem to feel.

Some people are so proud that they have to act as if they were vexed by their own success in
order to veil their ebullience. And others try to scarf their embarrassment by pretending to be
elated. They need to work up their affectations, since they blush to seem so affected.

Some people smart at the most venial affront, yet fail to spot any but the grossest libel. They
fear all the time that they are being defamed, yet they fail to scent real disrespect. Having
painlessly digested humiliations that should poison them, their gorge rises at the most
unoffending jibe. They bleed at the least snub, but sturdily brazen out the most cutting discredit.

If I had more pride, I might not bristle at such small slurs.

3 Mad consistency
Life is so humdrum. Yet at times it turns shabbily operatic, and tempts me to improvise some
bogus role which my pride then forbids me to give up. I hope to prove that I’m not playing a part
by continuing to play it in the same vein. What laughable airs I have to put on, in order to appear
as if I were behaving naturally.

Some proud people would have you believe that they were all the time purposing to do the very
thing that exigencies have forced them to do, or else that they are behaving on impulse when
they have in fact computed minutely how the world will view their acts. They become the
captives of chance, in order to prove that they are free. And they make fools of themselves by
pretending that they don’t mind what others think of them.

Some people acknowledge their blunders in order to prove that they don’t mean a thing to them,
or else they persevere in them for the same reason. They put themselves to shame by
persisting in the pranks and japes that have shamed them, so as to show that they have not. So
they hope to hide that they have gone wrong by continuing to go wrong in the same way. Thus
they exacerbate small indiscretions into grand calamities. They fancy that if they behave with
unswerving absurdity, no one will notice how absurdly they are behaving.
4 Modesty
Modesty is not a virtue. It is good taste or good tactics.

Most people are as self-effacing as they have to be. But they are as pretentious as they can get
away with.

Shrewd climbers speak reticently of the success they have gained, to screen how insistently
they sought it.

By observing people who do modest jobs with an unselfconscious grace we can learn to bear
our own dull lot. But the largeness of a great mind might also go close to reconciling you to your
own littleness.

Most of us pretend to be meek from prudence and good policy. But some do so out of a
circuitous pride. I speak bashfully so as to savour my strength in overmastering or
underestimating myself. And I take pleasure in my icy strictness when I judge my efforts so

Some proud people put on an ostentatious modesty, to show that they are superior to what they
are prized for, and to make clear how cheap they count most praise. They decline some
plaudits, since they know how valueless they are. And they class their worth so far above most
people’s, that they feel no call to boast to them. They parry compliments which they feel fail to
do full justice to their vast talents.

5 The vanity of modesty

I am ashamed to expose my pride, but I am proud to flaunt my meekness. Watch out that you
don’t overplay your lowliness, lest others spot how haughtily you rate yourself.

Our modesty is fake, but we love to flaunt it. And our conceit is sincere, but we know we have to
hide it.

Those who are genuinely modest are chary of advertising their modesty, since they are loath to
draw attention to it. But the falsely demure turn down praise before it has even been proffered to
them. The winding trail of their humility leads straight to their pride. ‘All censure of a man’s self
is oblique praise,’ as Johnson wrote.

Few people use modesty as a hook to fish for compliments. Most just scoop them up in the
dragnet of their self-flattery.
If you can’t flatter yourself that the world appreciates you, you can at least flatter yourself that it
undervalues you.

Even unfeignedly modest people take themselves more seriously than you could guess. ‘The
most humble,’ Ebner-Eschenbach wrote, ‘think better of themselves than their best friends think
of them.’

6 Modesty overvalues itself

Some people have to overdo their humility, since they overrate their success. The vastness of
their exploits shocks them into modesty.

Some people may strike you as modest, since they seem so content with their small and
peripheral post. But they are awestruck that they have arrived at the centre and accomplished
so much.

I know my place so well, that I am the hub of the world, that I feel that others ought to know
theirs too, that they are not. So how is their sight so clouded, when I see so clearly?

All of us are modest, since none of us is quite so mad as to let slip how well we think of our own
merits, because we know that the world is too foolish to share our view. I take care not to boast
to those who might not agree with me, or to run down my merits to those who might. ‘We find it
easy to reprimand ourselves on one condition,’ says Ebner-Eschenbach, ‘so long as no one
else concurs with us.’

Many people feel that they have no need to boast, but they think that others still need to hear of
their phenomenal success.

Some people will go to a world of trouble to prove to others that they have nothing to prove.

7 Self-deprecation
Pride prods some people to flaunt themselves, and some, like T. E. Lawrence, to bury
themselves. Some who lust to be noticed still long to be anonymous, ‘the world forgetting, by
the world forgot,’ as Pope phrased it. Infected with a fever for renown, they find relief in dreams
of obscurity. And though they may be glad to stay in the shade, they still begrudge others when
they shine.

Hermits dream of adoring crowds who wait at the mouth of their cave to hear the world-
redeeming wisdom which they have gleaned in their retreat.
Some people are so proud that they refuse to laugh at their own foibles. And others are so sure
of themselves that they are always game to. Pity those who have no one to contest their
compulsory self-deprecation.

Season your boasts with a spoonful of self-deprecation, and most people will swallow them

How obscenely our natural self-belief shows through our skimpy and synthetic modesty.

8 Shyness or pride
Some people who seem inordinately proud are just excessively shy. But most of those who
seem uncommonly shy still nestle an overgrown pride in their breast. They curl up into shyness,
not because they doubt their own gifts, but because they don’t trust the world to grasp how
remarkable they are. They may seem to be uncertain of their own talents, but they in fact
suspect that the world is too unwise to do them justice. When they drop their guard, they don’t
let show their submerged diffidence, but lay bare their buoyant vainglory. Give them the
occasion, and their conceit will more than rise to it. And any occasion will do.

9 The insincerity of modesty

I think that others ought to be modest, but that they only fake it, whereas I really am modest, but
ought not be. We don’t believe what our modesty makes us say. And that is exactly why we do
believe that we are modest. If modesty were sincere, it would not be modesty.

I trust that people will discern that I am unreservedly but mistakenly meek. I want them to doubt
what my forced humility feigns to believe, and yet still see that I am humble at heart. I am
convinced by my own self-effacement, but I trust that others won’t be. I hope that this is the one
pose of mine that they will have the sense to see through. I count on them to read between the
lines of my lowliness, and I’m chagrined when they take it literally. ‘He who speaks humbly of
himself,’ wrote Multatuli, ‘grows angry if you believe him and furious if you pass on what he

I presume that my meekness will make people see how much they have underestimated me.
But unfortunately I overestimate how insightful they are.
10 Shame and humility
A creature that was genuinely self-effacing would straightway cease to exist. How could it dare
to claim for its own use a mere breath of air? Even if my pride failed to trounce my humility in a
frontal assault, my greed would still overrun it in its inexorable march.

We may not believe that we are the most important beings in the world, but each of our desires
drives us to act as if we were.

A person who was truly selfless would be an object of contempt to all. They would be so put
upon, that their character would soon deteriorate, and they would be eaten up by resentment,
misanthropy and suspicion. And they would be of as little use to us as they are to themselves.
We think that they ought to be unselfish towards us and selfish towards the rest of the world on
our behalf.

The one kind of humility that we think much of is the kind that makes much of us.

I trust that unimportant people will be meek, but I overrate their meekness, as they overrate their
importance. I think too well of them when I judge them to be modest, and they think so well of
themselves that they are not.

We deem that obscure people ought to be meek, seeing that they are so obscure. And we deem
that the great ought to be meek, seeing that they are so great. We think that the first have
nothing to boast of and that the second should have no need to boast. But when did that ever
stop anyone?

11 Pride’s grotesque perversion

Humility is one of pride’s most grotesque perversions. It is conceit flattering itself that it can
mortify itself. Would-be saints, like Tolstoy or Weil, who are racked by their inordinate
pridefulness, trust that they can harrow their hearts into self-abasement. Their itch to mortify
their pride is just a symptom of its gross inflammation.

If we were to dismantle the high tower of our pride, we would have to use the tools of pride to do
it. And when it was done, we would take a fiend’s pride in our work.

I don’t doubt that there must be a horde of humble people, since I know that I at least am one.

Nothing beats the presumption of the lowly soul which can conceive of nothing more exalted
and commendable than a lowly soul.
How do humble people dare to assert that humility is a duty, and expect all the rest of us to
emulate their own laudable lowliness? They presume that the great must be as meek as they
are. ‘One law for the lion and ox is oppression,’ as Blake wrote. But isn’t it better to do great
things and not be modest than to be modest and lose the power to do great things? ‘Humility to
genius,’ Shenstone wrote, ‘is as an extinguisher to a candle.’

12 Self-doubt
‘No cause,’ Johnson said, ‘more frequently produces bashfulness than too high an opinion of
our own importance.’ Some people’s very self-conceit leads them to put on an unneeded
diffidence. They make too much of the difficulties of doing a thing, since they make too much of
its size and significance. And they make too much of its size and significance, since they make
too much of their own.

Those who look dubiously at the rest of the world still trust steadfastly in their own integrity. And
those who suspect all appearances still have faith in their own feigning. My overall scepticism
steels my confidence in myself. But even those who never have a doubt of their worth still need
to give new proof of it each day.

Most of us mistrust completely anyone who would tempt us to mistrust ourselves a touch.

I shun those who seem stricken with self-doubt, for fear that it may be catching, though I have
not shown any symptoms of it myself.

13 Shame
Nothing but love or self-love is strong enough to win out against shame.

Any slander can be borne with, save one that all know to be true.

Your hearers will be willing to wink at most of your faux pas, so long as you don’t blurt out the
truth, since this would spatter them with as much mud as it does you.

My shame flatters me. I glory in the gash that it makes in my pride.

Who would not prefer to shoulder a world of shames than grant that they have called them down
on their own heads? Pride, having pricked me to act inexcusably, then robs me of all my

Shame is a competitive imaginist, which vies with its rivals to realize some socially sanctioned
pattern of perfection.
Shame tells you to conform, and it tempts you to rebel. It varies with all the various mores that it
hedges. And it shifts in what it prohibits or protects. It may make you mild or make you a
monster. It might tell you to slit your own wrists or to assassinate an enemy.

14 Shame, guilt and sympathy

Shame can inhibit you or incite you. It may make you brazenly own up to your faults or brazenly
deny them. It may stay you from doing wrong, but it will bind you to requite small insults by the
most disproportionate means.

Shame is shallower than guilt, and so sticks faster in us. ‘It is easier to cope with a bad
conscience than a bad reputation,’ as Nietzsche points out.

Even the most devout people dread the condemnation of an unknowing by-stander more than
that of an all-seeing God.

We don’t blush to do in God’s sight the indecorous acts that we would squirm to have witnessed
by the world. And he doesn’t blush to be privy to them.

Guilt torments, but shame prevents. Guilt may sting you, but it won’t stop you.

Shame may warn you not to do real harm, but embarrassment will hold you back from doing
positive good.

Shame achieves more than sympathy. I show solicitude for the distress of others, since I would
feel embarrassed not to. A tramp who is not shameless enough to shame us into charity will
soon starve. I don’t forgive beggars for what they take from me, be it my small change or my
overlarge self-respect. As Nietzsche wrote, ‘it annoys one to give to them, and it annoys one not
to give to them.’

15 Shame and embarrassment

Embarrassment may spread like a blush over a whole life.

Egoism makes some people impervious to shame, and others all too prone to it.

I’m mortified by the least frailties which should in no way embarrass me, and I’m far less
embarrassed by more grievous ones which should. The smallest misstep might abash us, yet so
few things shame us.

Bashfulness is shame’s tender infancy, in which you wince at each slight graze to your social
self, before you’ve had time to grow the tough hide of your self-assurance.
Embarrassment is to shame what vanity is to pride. They are shallow lakes, more readily stirred
up than the deep sea.

True pride
Admiration and imagination

1 Servitude and independence
People resent restraint, but they don’t want to be free. And though they chafe at duress, they all
need to find some person or some cause to depend on. They cast off the encumbrance of
choice, though they still hit back at those who would dare to take it from them. They are born
rebels, because they are born serfs. And they long for liberty only with a view to selecting their
preferred kind of subjection. They know neither what it is to be truly free nor what it would be to
serve loyally. They are content to sell their independence. But they scratch and claw at those
who would come between them and their borrowed wants. Those who drudge as uncomplaining
servants of their own compulsions scream if others lay the least curb on them.

We submit with alacrity to a slavishness which is real, present and enduring, in order to win a
release which is distant, ephemeral and fake. ‘All ran headlong to their chains,’ as Rousseau
wrote, ‘in the hope of securing their liberty.’

Why do subservient people make a footstool of themselves, and then squeal when their masters
plant their feet on them? Some who bite the hand that feeds them are glad to lick the fist that
beats them.

2 The willing slaves of avarice

Slavery has oftentimes been more galling, but when has it ever been more willing? Proud of our
servitude, we pity those who lack a place in the system of subordination. We seek relief from all
our ills in a more highly paid serfdom. What most of us yearn for is not liberty but a more
lucrative yoke. Our wages plate our chains with gold. ‘Most things free-born,’ as Charlotte
Bronte wrote, ‘will submit to anything for a salary.’ We love our gilded collar, and every morning
we put it on with pride. Our desires imprison us, and we hope to win our freedom by placating
them. ‘We must,’ Jefferson wrote, ‘make our election between economy and liberty, or profusion
and servitude.’ But who these days would choose a rugged freedom that could profit just as well
from an affluent vassalage?

A noble soul hates slavery more than death. But we love our sumptuous slavery more than life.

Those who have no work of their own are keen to serve as the tools of others. They strive to
make themselves indispensable because they are slaves to their own ambition, and they do so
by enslaving themselves to the ambitions of others.

In order to make everyone rich enough to enjoy cultivated leisure and be free of squalid material
needs, every aspect of life had to be turned into a machine for making money, in which no one
sets any value on cultivated leisure and everyone must keep slaving to satisfy their superfluous
material wants. A society that has all the money it needs in order to do what it likes will find
nothing better to do than to make more money.

In a culture that puts a high value on leisure, few have the means to share in it. And where all
have the means to share in it, no one will value it much.

3 Importance or independence
We are urged on by a servile self-regard and a busy futility. We are cringing but not humble.
Though we cling to our self-importance, we cede our self-reliance.

Why are the haughtiest people so proud to serve a world that is not worth mastering? They
need to have the courage to grapple with the world, because they lack the self-control to
withdraw from it. The brave must come to craven accommodations with the world, since they
are too weak to defeat their lust to dominate it.

4 Independence and the bondage of work

Freedom belongs to the dimension of time, greed belongs to the dimension of space. So we are
glad to waste our time in order to acquire or tour through more space.

The rich still own lots of room, but now brag that they have less time than the poor. They used
to be proud of possessing more leisure than the rest of us. Now they are proud to be so short of
it. Labour, the inveterate demeaning affliction of the many, has become just as much the vaunt
of the few. And all now honour it, since all now sense that they have no choice but to do it.
These days it’s only the most destitute who can afford not to work. And they alone are
condemned to bear the ennui and reproach of leisure.
Those who think that the only work worth doing is the work that is paid know of nothing better to
do with their leisure than to pay to be amused. In a world in which everything must have its use,
the only superfluous things we have time for are amusements.

5 Money, employment and independence

‘Money,’ as Emerson wrote, ‘often costs too much.’ Few wares are worth the days and hours
that we have to waste to earn the cash to buy them. But we can’t resist the lure of wealth since
there’s no more enviable way to use up the time that we take to get and spend it.

Paid work prostitutes your real vocation. True work ennobles, but employment degrades. But we
can now see no discrepancy between a calling and a career. ‘All paid posts,’ Aristotle said,
‘absorb and demean the mind.’ Paid work makes stupid people more clever but intelligent
people more stupid.

To hire out one’s body is the dishonourable deed of a prostitute. To hire out one’s mind is the
respectable work of a bourgeois.

Work for the joy of the work, not for its wages. If you have to be paid to do it, then it can’t be
worth the doing, but only worth the pay. Labouring for others does not alienate you. It integrates
you. And it’s your alienation that might have forced you to rely on your own resources, and fired
you to find your path to the truth.

When the world pays the plodding such high fees, as it does now, what sense is there in
aspiring to do a great work? And why strive to make a thing that might last for the ages, when
this world won’t last for one or two more centuries?

6 Independence and your true work

Do what the world wants, and you will become indispensable and make what is dull. Do what
your spirit demands of you, and you will grow superfluous and may create what is priceless.
Your false employment will fritter away your life, your true work will ravage it.

You know you may be doing something worthwhile if no one else can see the point of your
doing it. And you may be on the right track, if all are aghast at where it has led you.

The world is keen to get from you the dull services that anyone else could have done for it. But it
has no use for the precious things that no one else could give it. All it wants from you is some
cheap means to advantage it or some cheap toy to amuse it. It won’t know what to make of
what no one but you could make. It will pay you abundantly so long as you consent to waste
your life. In labouring uselessly you find your true calling.
7 Act without thought for the fruits of action
We are too undisciplined to keep to what we need, and too impatient for quick returns to reach
for the steep and arduous essential. We want to pluck the fruit before it’s ripe. The meaning of
our work is the prizes that it wins.

Even a professor who seems to have his head in the clouds knows to an inch the height of the
chair on which his backside is perched.

The rest of us work for our living, artists must work for their lives.

How ridiculous true devotion now seems, which lets all those rich rewards go begging, and
wastes all that time on what doesn’t pay.

Even the luminous moment wins its worth only by being transfigured into the hard lustre of a
lasting work.

Few regret the path that they have chosen. We only resent that we have been paid so poorly for
following it.

Your own work is always easy. And if it’s not easy, then it’s not yours. If you find it hard, you
have not yet hit on your true calling. ‘All that is good is effortless,’ Nietzsche said. ‘What is divine
runs with light feet.’ With no strain Ulysses strings the bow, Aeneas plucks the bough of gold,
and Arthur draws the sword from the stone.

Those who get nothing done are nonplussed by how little others get done.

8 Time and independence
The devil finds hands for idle work.

Work is the refuge of the intellectually unemployed.

The poor must sell their time, since they have nothing else to sell. And now the rich are just as
eager to sell theirs, since they have nothing better to do with it.

Why do we let our greed poach from us the hours which are the sole good that we can call our
own? We are now paid so well for our labour, how could any of us take the time to indulge in

We value money far dearer than time, since there’s no way that we can make a great deal more
time than our peers or show it off to them. Our time is our own, and so it’s scarcely real. Wealth
gains its worth and reality by being paraded before others. Time is an intrinsic good, and is
therefore of far less value than wealth, which is a status-marker.

The right use of money is to buy more time. But we have so little use for our time that the best
we can do with it is to try to make more money.

You need a great deal of leisure if you are to get your true work done. But most of us now live
life so fast, that we can’t shape what might outlast it. As Kraus notes, democracy ‘makes no
provision for those who have no time to work.’

9 Leisure and independence

We have made life rushed and bustling enough to match our sense of our own centrality. The
hardest burdens to lay down are the ones that break our backs. We are all now as busy and
indispensable as cabinet-ministers, overseeing our broad portfolio of vital interests. ‘Increased
means and increased leisure,’ according to Disraeli, ‘are the two civilizers of man.’ But we have
sold our leisure to add to our means.

Where all careers are open to talent, the old vocations that were pursued as ends will be
reduced to careers. And those that can’t be reduced to careers will die off.

We may be adult and efficient in our work, but we regress to childhood in our pleasures.

Drones and rentiers have been responsible for nine tenths of the great work of civilization.

10 Dependence and independence

Few of us have independent means, still fewer have independent ends. Some people are as
self-reliant in small things as they are subservient in big ones. They stick obstinately to their own
how, while wantonly misappropriating another’s why. ‘Many are stubborn in following the path
they have picked out,’ as Nietzsche tells us, ‘few in following the goal.’ They are parasites of
purpose. The noble have high aims, which they choose freely, and work at on their own.
Delegate anyone else to mark out your goals for you, and you have sold your soul as a willing

Is it crazier to live for the sake of winning the approval of others, or to dream that you can live
without it? When I try to rely on myself, I rely on the regard of others than those whose regard I
rely on most of the time. And when I try to think for myself, I let myself be fooled by those who
are not the usual ones to fool me.
11 Heroism
Aim high, shoot straight, claim little. The great-souled ask for nothing and yield nothing, confide
nothing and conceal nothing. They demand no more than is their due. And they seek only those
goods that they have a real regard for. Yet they retain all the ardent disproportion of youth.

The noble have the steadfastness to keep up the first bounteous impetus for their chosen
course all the way to its tedious end. ‘Blessed is he that waiteth.’ They wait but are not
corrupted by their own impatience. They give in to passion without letting go of restraint.

The corpse of archaic heroism stiffened into the rigor mortis of roman stoicism.

12 A hero needs a cause

A hero may fight in a bad cause but not in a small one. In order to be brave they have to
overrate some cause more than the rest of us overrate life.

A hero needs a cause, but any cause will do, and the more bloody it is the better. Caesar’s, in
the words of Montaigne, ‘had as its vile objective the ruin of his country and the debasement of
the whole world.’ The courageous feel that they have to prove themselves, but all that they
prove is their own courage. Each fateful creed has its heroes, the obnoxious no less than the
honourable, and the most illegitimate no less than the justified. The SS pullulated with them.
The grossest hokum armed them in a sterling resoluteness.

All the virtues can be used in a bad cause as well as in a good one. The force of courage may
trump the claims of justice.

Some people have all the flaws of a hero but none of a hero’s high merits. They are headstrong,
overreaching, defiant and unyielding, willing to waive their own good to keep up their exalted
self-conception. But where is the grand cause that would breed from these failings golden

Some of us fritter away our courage on a fight for a mean cause, since we lack the daring or
clarity to find a deserving one.

13 The demonic providence of pride

Kill pride and self-will, and you kill all that is fearsome and precious that we make. ‘Pride and
egoism,’ Keats said, ‘will enable me to write finer things than anything else could.’ They are the
forces that frame all style and find out all our truths. Where there is no pride, look for no truth, no
worth, no achievement. And where there is no greed, look for no hope, no pleasantness, no
progression, no life. So the world, by indulging these two worst sins, mindlessly accomplishes
what the most mindful divine planning could not, and out of evil brings forth good. ‘Take egotism
out,’ Emerson says, ‘and you would castrate the benefactors.’

Truth alone could shame us out of our pride. Yet none but proud souls can pluck up heart to
seek out the truth.

14 Pride must prove its worth

Only the proudest people feel called on each day to make good their claim to fill up a place on
earth. They must disagreeably prove that they are exceptional. The rest of us just assume it. We
take our self-estimation for granted as an axiom, but they have to put their pride to the test of
incessant experiment.

The proud feel called on to defend the steep price that they set on their own merits. But they
scorn the common ventures that could prove it to their peers, and so they spend their force on
the rare exploits which fail to.

15 The rewards of vocation

High aims simplify your life, but show you all mercy in the end. If you don’t reach them, then you
don’t matter. And if you do, then nothing else matters. Fame will ransom you from obscurity, or
obscurity will ransom you from scorn. In the grave, as Housman wrote, ‘silence sounds no
worse than cheers.’

Time is both the justest and most lenient judge. It pays the deserving their due, and dismisses
the rest with no penalty. It discounts your divided aims, and crowns the best that you have
made. Death will ask the carver just one question, Did your works warrant the expenditure of so
much fine marble?

The self-spending that makes some of us futile makes others fertile.

What worthier end can we aspire to than a grand futility? How glorious of the easter islanders to
squander it all and leave some marvel for the time to come, rather than live on soberly bereft of
a name. How fine, to take your life in your hands, and fling it at the stars. What matter that the
violin will soon be smashed, so long as it has played the one blest hour of immortal music it was
made for. Better to blaze for an instant than to sputter for an age.

You can make a full and happy life out of a studied futility. Dickinson toiled for twenty queenly
years to shape her impeccable poems, which she felt sure no one would hear.
16 The reward of despair
‘Egoism,’ as Nietzsche said, ‘is the lifeblood of a grand soul.’ Noble minds have the most
unflinching dedication and the coldest contempt of rewards. They are thrust on by a fiery pride,
and kept in order by a chill aloofness. They don’t care how dear an act might cost or how much
it will pay, but what its true worth is.

Heroes have found a devotion as deep as their despair. ‘Real nobility,’ as Camus wrote, ‘is
based on scorn, courage and profound indifference.’ If you hope to bring off some great feat,
you must love it with a reckless ardour. But it will turn all your love to derision, and look on it with
sightless shining eyes, and hear it with deaf ears, and grant you no return. The sole comfort that
I have for the failure of all my work is to go on hopelessly working. I prayed that nothing of me
should matter but my work. I got half my wish.

Is it worse to die with your work unfinished, or to live on to see how it has failed?

We work, at first in the hope of defeating our futility, but then just to deflect our thoughts from it.

Life may plunge you in such degradations, that you have to strive for dignity as a drowner
struggles for breath.

Heroes need both the courage to defy all illusions and the confidence to keep up the supreme
illusion of their own heroic devotion.

A hero, such as Joan of Arc, does with a fierce awareness the mad deeds that a crank does
with none. Yet a blockhead may be trivially right where a hero goes tragically wrong.

17 Selfishness redeemed
We are too weak to shrink our selfishness. So you should strive to make the most capacious
self that you can. Most of us do this arithmetically, by supplementing it with more selves, by our
love of kin, tribe or native land.

Heroism is the healthiest exertion of a soul mortally disordered by pride.

The brave are spurred on by a grand and self-forgetful egoism. They may forget themselves,
but not their heroism. And though they hold their own lives cheap, they hold others’ still cheaper.
‘They weighed so lightly what they gave,’ as Yeats wrote. They are ready to lay down their lives
for a cause, which they would cast off as readily for the sake of their own renown. The finest
things are achieved by selfish men and women who set aside their self-interest in the achieving.

You win your happiness when you light on some impersonal mission which gives an outlet to
your most personal desires. Large achievements are totally egoistic but rise above all self. Life
gains its victories by a ceaseless selfish self-sacrifice. Our devotion draws its force from the
selfish energy with which we fuel it.

Better to burn the self to a crisp in some arduous and fiery quest, than starve it by a juiceless
and lingering asceticism. It’s not worth effacing, but it is worth expending. Why strain nature to
abnegate a thing so paltry? The self is worth annulling, but not usually for one’s fellow selves.


18 Independence and admiration
Admiration is the intellect in love. ‘To love,’ Gautier says, ‘is to admire with the heart, to admire
is to love with the mind.’

True admiration is a stern justice and proportion. But when distilled as form it shapes the most
delightful style. Fake admiration is a crafty self-aggrandizement posing as generosity. ‘The
worship of God,’ Blake says, ‘is honouring his gifts in other men, each according to his genius.’

Be sure to commend and contend with the right people. How could you grow an inch larger than
these? Rivalry makes you as puny as your puniest opponent or as ample as your own best self.

Those who would excel can’t afford to admire what does not deserve their admiration. But those
who aim to climb can’t afford not to. You learn by genuinely esteeming what merits your respect.
But you please and thrive best by pretending to prize what does not. You rise in the world by
lowering your standards. ‘Among the smaller duties of life,’ said Sydney Smith, ‘I hardly know of
any one more important than that of not praising where praise is not due.’

Creators need both the veneration which prompts them to emulate and the daring which spurs
them to deviate. Their task, as Hopkins said, is to ‘admire and do otherwise.’

19 Independence and imagination

The best you can hope to attain is neither true humbleness nor true heroism but a mere
semblance of them. But by aspiring to nobility you may bring off rare feats, whereas when you
try to put on lowliness you stunt and deform your high faculties.

True nobility precludes all acting and dissembling. Noble souls remain just what they are, since
there is nothing in this world that they respect enough to change for it. Their pride won’t stoop to
pretend to be what it is not, and it forbids them to act contrary to their own nature. Yet they
reach their best by becoming greater than they are.

The truly proud take pride not in what they are but in what they might make of themselves. But
the vain preen themselves on what the world takes them for.
Imagination makes the coward as imagination makes a hero. The fainthearted see the threat in
all its horror. But the fearless see the fine figure that they might become by defying it.

Resolute people have both the boldness of mind to glimpse how much they might gain by losing
all and the fortitude to lose it.

Artists sculpt new forms that they imagine. Heroes remodel their clay as an ideal that they
imagine. They must be the sculptors of their own lives. Saints dream that they can turn
themselves into paragons that they take to be real.

Two devils

It may be true that most virtues are vices in disguise, as La Rochefoucauld showed. But aren’t
many vices merely more arduous virtues? ‘Many might go to heaven with half the labour they go
to hell,’ as Jonson wrote. My self-interest and vanity prick me with the stigmata of a saint just so
that I can earn a clerk’s scant pay.

We suspect that the virtues of others are vices in disguise, but that our own vices are virtues in

My vices are not pure, though it’s not virtue that contaminates them. When my motives are not
mixed, they are all bad.

There may be some people who have the vices of their own virtues, as Sand said. But don’t
most of us have only the vices of other people’s virtues?

Some virtues are closer kin to certain vices than they are to their fellow virtues. Courage has
more in common with vengeance than with pity. And prudence is nearer to avarice than to

When you shut one devil out, you don’t see that you shut another in. And when you bolt the
door to keep out one tempter, it is some other that helps you to hold it closed.
We are fond of parading our virtues where there is least call for them. Irresolute people love to
show off their staunchness where they are not in jeopardy. And mean people love to proffer
what would cost them nothing to give. And the cruel love to flaunt their gratuitous chivalry by
sparing a victim who is sure to be pilloried anyway. We like to give poignant voice to our
gratitude, when there is no one in especial that we have to be beholden to.

1 Virtue is a balance of opposing vices

Most of us are too callous to be cruel, too smug to envy, too jaded to betray, too pleased with
our lot to lose heart, too greedy to sit idle, too inconstant to nurse a long vendetta. Some of us
have such grave faults, that we need to grow strenuously good in order to get the better of
them. Virtue is a balance of conflicting vices. We don’t hold fast to a single vice because we
give our hearts to such a jostle of them.

The just relish deeds that meld right and wrong. The wrong wakes their compulsions, and the
right lulls to sleep their watchdog conscience. ‘What we all love,’ wrote Clough, ‘is good touched
up with evil.’

We have to be shamed into virtue, and corrupted into rectitude. ‘So unaccountable is our
predicament,’ Montaigne says, ‘that we are led by vice itself to do good.’

2 The two devils

Two dark angels hold us in thrall. There is our roguish Mephistopheles, who is mocking, impish
and malign. And there is the cool devil of profit, the prince of this world, who is grave, reputable,
discreet, grasping and well-liked. He keeps you to casual crimes and casual virtues, and bans
any kind that strays from the common path. And he cautions you not to do wrong, but abets you
in absconding when you do. He advocates none but necessary evil, since he knows that those
who have sold their souls need only be perfectly upstanding to gain the whole world. Like
Baudelaire’s merchant, he exhorts, ‘Let us be virtuous, since in this way we shall bag much
more cash than the sots who act dishonestly.’ And we think that we are on the side of the
angels, because we reject the devil that the world rejects.

3 The prince of this world

Even the devil’s disciples are sure that they are doing God’s work.

The Lord may have made our metal, but it’s the fiend that beats it to the shape he wills.

God made this globe for us to thrive in, and the prince of sin to teach us how. God’s existence
accounts for the creation, and the devil’s accounts for all that followed. The Lord made the
heaven and the earth, but Satan made the world, both the best and the worst of it. God may be
the chairman of the board, but he leaves its day to day running to Lucifer, his trusty lieutenant.
Who has not seen enough of sin and cruelty to believe in the fiend, or enough of our own
rapacious race not to need to?

In this world to have God on your side is the next best thing to having the devil. And the
sanctimonious are in the saddle since they have the both of them.

Sermonizers can’t quite make up their mind whether turpitude is proved more by the filthy bliss
that it wallows in or by the buffets that it brings on its own head.

4 Anger
I give way to anger, because I can’t control myself, or in an attempt to control others.

Anger is the screech which naked will emits when it grates on the unyielding steel of

Fury is the sudden explosion of a will that has been long compressed by its own ineffectiveness.

A person in a rage acts like a man who tries to cure a headache by hammering himself on the

When you sense that you’re annoying people, you may be tempted to keep on doing it, to prove
to them that you don’t mind or that they ought not.

As Franklin points out, lose your temper and you have lost the debate. Hold on to your good
humour, and you won’t need to find good reasons.

5 Greed
Our greed is a calculating insanity.

How profitless for philosophy to recommend what all deem to be good. But how vain for it to do
otherwise. No one dares to speak up for a vice such as greed, since no one needs to, as all of
us live to serve it. As Johnson said, ‘You never find people labouring to convince you that you
may live happily on a plentiful income.’

People feel an almost religious ardour and voluptuous pleasure in the squalid details of the
things that bring them profit.

The racket of our hectic greed has drowned out the sad canticle of our forlorn hopes. How could
we hear the voices of the luckless and the lost above the buzz of our devices and the fizz of our
churning desires? ‘Man was made to mourn,’ as Burns wrote. But now all that we care to do is
chortle and make money and forget.

Greed will do whatever it needs to do in its rage to get what it does not need.

The eye began as the organ of greed, the ear as the organ of fear. Our nose was the organ of
disgust, touch was the sense of love, and taste of delight.

6 Greed drains life of its meaning

We lose ourselves in our mad haste to gain so much costly trash. We have drained the globe of
significance by clogging it with objects. Greed fills up each of our lives, and hollows out life as a

Life leaks away, and we try to bung its holes with dollars and replenish it with our bottomless
wants. We boom along to sweep up more and more of what we crave, so that we won’t have to
see what a handful of sand it all adds up to.

Accumulating wealth is a waste of life. But so much of life counts for so little, that it could be
called a mere waste of money.

We have cheapened all that is truly precious to the sordid touchstone of wealth. And so what
choice do we have but to sell our souls to get as much of it as we can? When we can weigh and
count everything, the sole gauge of value comes to be quantity. And when we can measure
most goods, we denigrate the few that we can’t. So we will stop at nothing now to snatch as
much as we can of what is most readily measured.

7 The false perspective of possession

How vast an object looks when it’s out of your reach. But how soon it shrinks once you’ve got it
in your clutch. I call grapes sour when I fail to obtain them, but would they have tasted so sweet
if I had caught hold of them?

All the things you possess threaten to possess you. Yet you never really own what you have

How jovially I could abjure most of the things that I drool for, if only I were first accorded a great
glut of them. ‘Many disrespect wealth,’ as La Rochefoucauld notes, ‘but few know how to give it

We tally what we have gained and lost with minute irrationality. I prize a bargain or rue a loss
out of all proportion to the sum I make or lose by it. A skinny but tangible gain or loss weighs
heavier with me than a far bulkier intangible one. My winnings don’t please me half as much as
my deficits grieve me, so it’s lucky that I can eke them out with my boasting. I feel each loss like
an unmerited wound. But I take windfalls for granted as my right.

8 Greed and death

Life is greed, thirsting for one more day, for one more brief taste of sugar.

Consumerism has changed how people feel about death. Now they are not even afraid to die.
They are just too grasping to let go of this life which has given them so little. As shoppers they
seem to be reborn with each fresh desire. They feel that they will never die, since there is
always one more want to fulfil. So they no longer fear death as the king of terrors. They merely
resent it as the cessation of all their getting and spending. They loathe it because it cuts short
their career of guzzling and devouring. But they are too busy cramming their maw to give it
much thought. Life is what is next, and they hate death, because when it comes, nothing at all is

Our immortal soul has shrunk to a bustling consumer, bent on reliving its crass fantasies till the
world goes to hell.

9 The brutal solidity of money

We are ghosts striving to devour as much as we can in our rage to gain some substance in this
spectral world.

We hoard like gold nuggets the scum that we have scooped up, since it seems to have so much
more solid actuality than we do ourselves.

Money is dense yet abstract. Its density fills up our emptiness, and our fantasies fill out its
abstraction. Though it seems so tangible, it turns to wind all that has real worth. It makes
everything transitory, liquid and volatile. ‘All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is

We can now pile up such fabulous sums of money, that money itself looks as if it were
something fabulous and transcendental.

10 Satisfaction
We can’t get our fill of our cupidity. But since nothing suffices for us, almost anything will do.
Junk is good enough for us, so long as we hope to grab enough of it. We would rather want
anything at all than not want something. I forge my chains when I choose my iron desires, and
these eat into my soul and rust it.
We bring to the banquet a yawning maw, but neither good taste nor gusto. Why can’t we curb
our hunger for what we know we don’t even want?

Life is a child’s game in which you play for a prize that you can’t carry home.

Life yields you such meagre fulfilment, that the best you can do is scramble to get more of what
has failed to fulfil you.

11 Greed and nostalgia

Nostalgia, like the rest of our avocations, is now a garnish for our gaping hunger for the bliss
which we hope awaits us. It piques us to find new forms in which to reprise our old pleasures. It
tries to recapture the past by pandering to our lust for more of the crude stuff that we guzzled
then. And it drives us to duplicate in a more opulent form the synthetic sludge that filled our
childish dreams. We grind up all that is good in the world, to paste our lives with gaudy nostalgia
and anecdotes.

We are tethered to the world from the front by all that we can’t stop desiring and from the rear
by all that we can’t help remembering. Our cravings and our memories divide up time between
them, and leave nothing for the present. By living in the past, present and future, we multiply the
dimensions of our misery.

12 Greed the moral controller

In this age it is greed and not God that wards off moral misrule. Avid wants incite us, but also
keep us in order so that we can grab our cut of them. Avariciousness, Tocqueville said of the
americans, ‘disturbs their minds but disciplines their lives.’

Moral regeneration trudges like a halting gleaner at the heels of speedily advancing greed. Pity
hobbles in the rear, as avarice strides to its electric dawn. ‘The greatest meliorator of the world,’
Emerson says, ‘is selfish, huckstering trade.’

Philanthropy spiritualizes our lust for gain. Grasping individualism thrills to the spectacle of
random and unavailing charity. It throws a sop to our conscience, while leaving in place the
system of privilege from which we are profiting. We dole out charity so that we can withhold

The dream of do-gooders is to raise the poor to the same level of rapacious affluence as the
13 Greed the false moralist
Hopeful greed learns to enthuse, and thwarted greed loves to moralize. Those who have put a
thing up for sale must learn to gush effusively. And those who suspect that they have been
robbed of their due dredge up some moral law which has been infringed. ‘As soon as one is
unhappy,’ Proust says, ‘one grows moral.’ And by being moral we hope to blight others with our
unhappiness. I have money troubles, because others have moral flaws. I would have more in
the bank, if they had more integrity.

The rich have so much wealth, say the poor, that it’s all one whether they gain or lose. And the
poor have so little, think the rich, that it’s all one if they gain or lose. The poor are playing for
such small stakes, and the rich have no need to win. Yet both will stop at nothing to boost their
odds in the game.

The poor, who can’t afford it, must pay for all that they get. And the rich, who have the privilege
of possession, are too jaded to enjoy it.

The poor can’t see why the rich won’t flick them a few scraps from their vast treasury. And the
strong can’t see why the weak don’t just die and leave the world to them who are strong enough
to make use of it.

14 Love and money

Constant in our selfishness, we grow inconstant to one another. How wantonly we wound the
hearts of those we love, in our hunger to glut our own with the coarse stuffs which won’t content
us anyway. We are always gazing past them to some gaudy toy that we hope to grab. They
don’t ask much from us, and we are loath to give them even that. We could so easily make them
happy, but we are too busy doing all we can to make ourselves unhappy. And all the small
things that we withheld from them come back to haunt us when they are gone.

15 The addiction of avarice

Money addicts us but fails to intoxicate us. I dread to lose the things that I took no joy in
possessing. ‘Riches,’ as Epicurus says, ‘do not exhilarate us with their possession as much as
they macerate us with their loss.’

We chatter about our aspirations, but we mean our avarice. Our dreams garnish our greed. And
we keep spawning more and more exorbitant fancies, to justify our sharp-toothed voracity.

We have to keep multiplying our wants so as to give some purpose to our vast wealth. And we
need to keep adding to our desires, because we have to find some use for heaping up all that
wealth that we don’t need. What was all that frantic accumulation for, if we could have satisfied
our needs with so much less trouble?
We drudge like donkeys, whipped on through the joyless years by our wants, broken by the
weight of all that we have gained and lost. How little we have to show for a life devoted to
extortionate greed. The scant victories that life rations out to us are not worth all the venal
devotion that they cost us.

Our greed keeps us in too much of a spin to learn how best to placate it. I’m scuttling so
furiously to grab what I want, how could I find time to chart the most undeviating route to reach

Wealth frees you from every kind of captivity, save that of having to waste all your time
labouring to stash up more of it.

16 Competitive desire
You learn what you want for yourself by competing with others. And when you compete with
them you learn to want more and more.

Life is a mad scramble for things that you wouldn’t want if you didn’t have the chance to heap up
more of them than others.

We could easily get what we want, but we waste our lives jostling to get what everyone else

All that we gobble swells our faith in our importance and uniqueness by exhibiting our taste or
wealth. Half the pleasure that people take in a thing comes from the pride that they feel in their
own success, that they possess the means to procure it and the taste to enjoy it. And when they
think that they are savouring a scene or experience, they are in fact exulting in the trophies that
make them feel so important. Beauty is the polish that their self-satisfaction imparts to their
possessions. They look at them and see their own success reflected.

17 The consumer
A child is a natural consumer, and a consumer is an overgrown and unnatural child. Both of
them drool for the synthetic and the flashy, the cosy, instant and saccharine. And now that we
have all become as little children, the only kingdom that we are fit to enter is the voracious
kingdom of global cupidity.

The child in the bosom of the loving family learns that happiness comes from the heaping up of
material goods.

It is not the astonished philosopher who retains the heart of a child, but the acquisitive trader,
whose aim is to grab as many toys as possible to play with and show off.
Each plump devourer now feels like a little Napoleon or king Ubu, a triumphant gullet that has
wolfed its way through such fat years.

We love the world because we think we have such a large stake in it.

Our expensive pleasures assure us that we’ve made it.

Our pleasures are so hollow, that we have to fill them up with our self-satisfaction.

To live in this age is to have too much and to lack the self-control not to want to get more.

We take it that life is worth just as much as we can consume. And so we are frantic to consume
as much as we can get our hands on.

18 Insatiable
Our nature could be satisfied with so little. But it’s our nature not to be satisfied with a single
thing. You did not need to need this much. But you are lashed on by a fundamental need to
want more than you fundamentally need. How easily you could have all that you require, if you
could just stop clambering to snatch all that you don’t even want.

We crave so much. We make do with so little. But we are not satisfied with anything. Such dull
pleasures tickle us. But a world would not be enough for us.

We are often satiated, but we are never satisfied.

You rise from the table of life famished and yet nauseated, but still craving more.

We can set a limit to our physical proclivities for food or sex, but not to our societal drives of
venality, contention, maliciousness or revenge. Each smirk or sorrow, bane or blow acts as
material to swell our selfishness. I want more than I foresaw I would. But I need less than I think
I do. The importunity of my own greed dismays me as much as that of others appals me. People
are not uniformly better or worse than you surmise, but they all crave more than you suspect.
Those who don’t want much still want more. And even those who have moderate cravings still
crave them immoderately.

How little I need, until I realize how much I might have the chance to get.

19 No class is impervious to greed

No class is impervious to the blight of greed. The penniless may seem to be, since they have
not yet contrived the means to get as much as they want. We mistake incapacity for disinterest.
Wealth may impoverish, but indigence does not enrich. The poor are just as covetous and
crooked as the rich, but their privation gives them less scope to show it.
Greed is low and insinuating enough to worm its way into the heart of the generality, though we
claim that it blights none but a small clique of plutocrats.

The tame and weak might inherit the earth, but why would they want it? Are their dreams as vile
and venal as those of the proud who tread them down?

If the meek inherit the earth, they won’t stay meek for long. Or if they do, they won’t keep the
earth for long.

The poor are worn down by life’s abrasions, and the rich are overworn by all the accretions of
flotsam that they’ve skimmed up.

One half of the world is a slave to scarcity, and one half to surfeit. And now both join in a
confederacy to enslave the untainted earth to their shared greed for more and more.

20 Corruption
The independent are incorruptible. But it’s the corrupt that are indispensable. It is they who keep
the world spiralling so smoothly. The self-sufficing are too proud to submit and too disengaged
to rebel.

We betray routinely in order to get what we want, not purposely to spread our beliefs.

The world is not content just to see pure hearts defiled. It wants to see them of their own free
will defile themselves. And it pays a high stipend to those who have a gift for respectably
depraving the innocent.

How keen I am to be corrupted, if I get the chance. And how sullenly I hug my virtue, if I don’t.
Some people weren’t made for this world, and yet were not made for a better one. Are there any
more pitiful than the few whom the world has had no need to seduce? They are left beached on
their desert island of integrity, desperate to be called like the rest of us to a life of gainful

The world has no need to corrupt us, we corrupt our own hearts by wanting it too much. The
world is still a magic zone, so long as you are not bewitched by it.

Opportunity may make a petty thief. But a great rogue makes every occasion an opportunity for
pious swindling.

The world has always been as raddled with corruption as it is now, but at no time have the
inducements to it been so vast.
21 Ideals and compromise
We live our real life through our compromises with the world. The blurred prints of my ideals fail
to come in to sharp focus. Most of us mislay our ideals before we get the chance to barter them.

Few of us believe in any principle enough to be capable of betraying it.

We have no lack of ideals, but they are too polite to get in the way of our pushing self-interest.

Those who have no faith are not hard to suborn, since no convictions hold them back. And
those who do have faith are not hard to suborn, because they’ll stop at nothing to push their
cause, since their cause is worth just as much to them as the devotion that they have invested
in it.

Some people lie with no compunction because they have no principles, and some because they
are serving such lofty ones.

22 The small rewards of corruption

Our schemes and desires debauch us. But most of them yield us so little pleasure that we think
them quite innocent.

Our accommodations with the world diminish us. They tempt us not into crime but into littleness.
But they lend us an exaggerated stature in our own and others’ eyes.

Lawyers have figured out that the best scams are the legal ones.

‘Most people sell their souls,’ said Logan Smith, ‘and live with a good conscience on the
proceeds.’ But most of us don’t see that we have done so, since we have got such a small
return for it. The price of souls stays low, because there’s such a queue lining up to bargain day
by day.

23 The soul unmade

Does anyone feel so burningly irate as one who has sold their souls and not received the world?

We are willing to sell a lot more than our souls to gain a lot less than the world. But most of us
have no soul to traffic. So what we trade is the chance to mould one. This life is, as Keats said,
a vale of soul-making. But we pass through it most smoothly if we don’t have one to make.
Those who have gained the world are glad to find that they had no soul to lose. How could you
find time to make a fortune, if you had first to make a soul?

Society is a system of conveniences which gives us the means to thrive without a soul.
24 Treachery
In this double-dealing world even the perfidious may be betrayed by their own conniving

Can’t you count on an unfeeling corporation, such as a bank, more than on the most upstanding

People’s competence is of more use to us than their probity.

Tell the truth, and you will lose the trust of all. Hold fast to your integrity, and they will all desert
you. The world is sure to make a fool of you, if you are so foolish as to refuse to fool yourself.

Life is a treacherous game, in which the worst form of betrayal is to tell the stark truth.

25 We are all traitors

We are all traitors. We just don’t agree on what country we belong to. And we keep up our
faithfulness by our opportune defections.

Don’t we betray most eagerly those ideals that we know are too good for us? We are glad to
sling off their yoke and to prove that they could not have been worth our allegiance since they
were too weak to keep it.

The institution that people have served devotedly for years they would be glad to see implode
the day after they leave it. What stronger proof could there be of how indispensable they were?

26 The ruses of treachery

Most of us have too much guile to act like patent traitors. So I withhold my disloyalty as warily as
I withhold my assent.

When you hear someone extolling trust, look out for your independence.

We conceal our curiosity so that those whom we plan to entrap will entrust us with their secrets.
Who has not cast out a small confession of their own as bait to net more scandalous disclosures
from others?

We hitch our wagon to the treacherous. We sense that no one is more fit to get on in this
devious world and drag us up in their train.

Some of us can think of no more convincing way to prove our loyalty than by offering others as
an oblation to it.
Where you need merely collude to prove your loyalty, you may turn renegade to hold fast to
your truth.

27 The bond of perfidy

The most trustworthy partisans are those who refuse to see the truth regarding the people or the
cause that they serve. To stay loyal to persons, you must avert your eyes from the truth. And to
stay loyal to the truth, you would have to turn your back on persons. We trust others, not
because we have found them honest, but because we know that we can count on them not to
be. We trust that they will pretend to share our self-deceits and not blurt out what might hurt us.

The most worthless cause may command the most unwavering loyalty. And the worst and most
meretricious ones are apt to rouse the strongest and sincerest passions.

In order to bring down one person, ten must stand by their sacred pact of trust.

If you want people to trust you, there are a bevy of things that you have to stand ready to betray.

We cleave to our self-serving loyalties because we lack any principle which might sever us from

It’s the disloyal to whom we give unwonted devotion. We spot their duplicity but stay affixed to
them. So they have our bad faith and fear, which knit sturdier cords than normal fidelity. Only
the most wholehearted adherents will still stick to you once they have witnessed your lies. No
glue holds more firm than shared but unadmitted perfidy. Treason is the most reliable token of
trust. You know that you can lean on someone, when you have securely leagued with them to
double-cross a third party.

28 Cowardice
Some people lack the courage to be constant cowards. So they have to shrink life to a regimen
so strait and safe, that they seldom need to act timidly.

Some cowards sleepwalk into danger, because they can’t bring themselves to wake up and face
their real fears.

Fear bids us entrust our safety to people of dubious valour, whom we think brave since they
have a brand of cowardice that is not like our own.

Cowards, like tottering autocracies or our ebbing democracies, squander their strength battling
phantom enemies, because they lack the firmness to discern who their real foes are.
In order to keep up their courage, some cowards have to steel one another with the dangerous
lie that their enemies lack the grit to put up a fight.

Cowards tend to treat most amicably those whom they like least. They dread lest their dislike
will be detected. And being cowards they quail at what they hate.

The world’s not safe, now that there’s so much paranoia around.

29 Shocked into daring

Fear jolts some people to acts of mad fearlessness. And it imposes on others such a long and
exasperating circumspection, that they are at last stung to act rashly just where rashness will
bring them to ruin. ‘Timorousness,’ as Clausewitz wrote, ‘will do a thousand times more damage
than audaciousness.’

A sudden upset shocks some cowards into daring. The crisis strikes with such rapidity, that they
don’t have time to put on their wonted irresolution. They drop their habit of anxiety, and forget to
be craven. Their impulsiveness lands them in enemy territory, before their cowardice can catch
up and bundle them back to safety. Once they’ve sallied out on a foray, they need the
headstrong mettle to encounter any menace, since they lack the boldness to retreat. As Fuller
wrote, ‘Many would be cowards if they had courage enough.’

How many risks people are willing to take in order to feel safe.

Fools have no choice but to act fearlessly, since they don’t dare to be wise and sit still.

30 The cowardice to stay alive

You need as much cowardice as courage to go on living, as much foolhardiness as prudence,
as much insensitiveness as attentiveness, as much forgetfulness as remembering, and a lot
more self-deception than truth.

Suicide is a crazed and craven act, which few of us have the sense or courage to commit. The
ones who do need the deserter’s desperate recklessness. They must screw up their resolution
for a moment, since they can’t bear to have patience for a lifetime. Pride nerves you to stay
alive. And if it fails, then fear and shame have to do it.

We lack the decision simply to die. So we need to keep up the vitality to dance.

Suicide, like all consolations, comes too soon to be necessary or too late to be useful. But most
are too late. If they were not, there would have been no need for them. Suicides know that their
life will go on interminably, if they don’t put a stop to it this day.

Are suicides more desperate to evade their future or to annul their past?
We are rats in a maze scampering to locate the way out but forbidden to take the nearest one.

A sage like the Buddha must have an uncommonly strong will to live, to have seen through the
world and how worthless it is, and still to go on living.

31 Cowardice loves cruelty

Cowards prize the cold aggression of their protectors, too craven to fear that they might one day
use it to hurt them. They cheer on any kind of cruelty that makes them feel more secure. It’s
thus that the faithful adore their god.

Bullies are not cowards. But cowards love a bully, so long as they hope that his bullying might
help them.

If bullies were cowards, the world would be in a quite different state. Nor are tyrants sadists.

Paranoids are prone to put their trust in the most dangerous people.

32 Cruelty
Honour and its codes take their toll in a vast deal of cruelty. In them shame is more to be
shunned than torture, and pride is worth more than life.

We are proud of our hardness of heart as a duty that we owe to our unique mission.

Squeamish people can be the most cruel. They feel distress most acutely, and so may gain
some relish from the infliction of it. And though they quiver at the small unkindnesses of day to
day life, they may be numb to its real atrocities.

33 Too callous or too calculating to be cruel

It’s rare that we act cruelly, not because we feel others’ pangs too piquantly, but because we
scarcely feel them at all. Most of us are saved from being cruel not by our deep sympathy but by
our bland indifference. We are too heartless and insensible to take pleasure in maltreating
people. Only those who feel what others suffer could enjoy torturing them. We picture the pain
of others too dimly to savour occasioning it or to writhe in rapport with it. And we need
responsive victims to pique our sadism. Torturers don’t waste their torments on stones.

Cruelty calls for as much imagination as kindness, and far more than we are prepared to lend it
or than our everyday niceness asks of us.
Children love to play at cruelty. Like cats, they dabble in it with an offhand curiosity. It tickles us
when we are young and unstained by the world. But as we grow up our calculating interest
cautions us to drop it, since it fails to yield us the pleasure or profit that we hoped for. Like
innocence, cruelty is as natural in an infant as it is abhorrent in an adult. Our instinct for inflicting
pain forsakes us at the same age as our purity of heart.

34 Envy
It is not merit that we envy but fortune. We don’t doubt that we have more than enough merit,
and lack only the good luck to profit from it. ‘Most people,’ as Chesterfield wrote, ‘complain of
fortune, few of nature.’ I feel jealous not of what others are or of what they do but of what they
get. And I don’t want to get what they have got but what they have not got. I want to show that I
could get better than they have got.

When we envy, we set ourselves aflame so as to light up the fine things our rivals have done.

I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of those for whom I feel a genuine regard. They have plain
and costly virtues, and I prefer my cheap and crafty ones.

35 Too conceited to envy

The disease of envy is cured by the same conceit that caused it. ‘The pride that rouses in us so
much envy,’ says La Rochefoucauld, ‘often conduces to moderate it.’

We don’t think well enough of people to envy them, though we would be right to, if we saw how
well they think of themselves. Their talents may not be worth envying, but their self-assurance

I think so highly of my merits, that I assume others must envy me. But they think so highly of
their own, that they don’t. I suspect that those who dislike me must feel jealous of me. But they
feel less jealous than I fear or desire.

I pity or depreciate people for the lack of some small gift that I have, instead of envying them for
the possession of a great one that I lack. He may own a billion dollars, but can he play chequers
like me? ‘He is a poor creature,’ Butler says, ‘who does not believe himself to be better than the
whole world else.’

All their external advantages are wasted on most people, though at times I fear that my vast
talents might be wasted on my unpropitious circumstances.
‘Envy,’ as Gay said, ‘is a kind of praise.’ And we set too much store by our own gifts to pay our
rivals the tribute of jealousy. Envy stews, but admiration froths. Disdain cools our praise, and
checks it from simmering over into jealousy. Envy is the most reluctant and hence the frankest
form of praise. Why else would it be so rare?

36 All want to be envied

No one envies, but we all hope to be envied, and most of us assume that we are. Envy keeps
us in its grip, not because we envy our rivals, but because we burn to be envied by them.

We all think so much of others that we want to be envied by them. And yet no one thinks
enough of us to envy us.

My pity sets me above those whom I pity. But my envy would place me below those whom I
envy. Our pity is as gratifying as our envy would be mortifying.

We would all prefer to be envied than pitied, as the proverb says. So why make envy a sin and
pity a virtue? Your jealousy would gratify people more than your kind heart could aid them. If
you wished to do unto them as you would have them do to you, should you not show that you
think them enviable rather than pitiable?

We like to believe that we pity others nearly as much as we like to believe that they envy us.

37 Revenge
Some proud and revengeful people have to turn their hearts to stone, so that they won’t vibrate
unendingly to the sneers and stripes that they dream they meet with.

How slyly revenge slinks into the most effusive eulogy.

How I hate those who have hurt a hair of the one whom I love and have hurt much more.

Revenge is a kind of violent restorative. We are needled to take revenge because we are weak
enough to be wounded, but strong enough to wound in return.

The sole reprisals that I regret are my ill-judged or unnecessary ones. But most of my reprisals
are ill-judged or unnecessary.

Ordinary avengers put their victims to the knife. Outstanding ones, like Hawthorne’s Roger
Chillingworth, seduce, dismantle and instruct them, rendering them participants in their own
demolition and the spectators of their own perdition. And the gods scheme with the dumb world
to wreak just such a subtle retribution on the best and the worst of us.
All successful revenges are self-inflicted. And, as Pavese said, ‘there is no finer requital than
that which others visit on your enemy.’

38 The rewards of revenge

Revenge is a prime duty of honour, equity and defiance. It therefore gains less pay than the rest
of the wily virtues in this world of chill utility and rectitude.

Indifference is the one kind of requital that costs you less than the person it is meant for.

Vengeful people learn that vengeance always founders, and this rankles as one more wrong
that the world does them. What meal looks more appetizing or is less filling than retaliation?

The most arduous retributions are those that must rely on the justness of their claims. Injustice
would have had readier confederates and a smoother passage through this rough and thorny

Moral acting

Not only are all the virtues not one, as the stoics claimed, no single virtue is simple and
indivisible. Like all the rest of our qualities, they are discrete and disconnected, not integrated or
unified. ‘No specific virtue or vice in a man,’ wrote Shaw, ‘implies the existence of any other
specific virtue or vice in him.’ Each of them is made up of a congeries of skills, predispositions
and aptitudes, some of which you may be proficient in, while the one next door you may have
no acquaintance with.

For wickedness to thrive, it needs no more than opportunity. But goodness needs a diligently
policed system of restraints and penalties. In order to set in train great evils, a malevolent leader
need only unleash the evil inherent in a nation. But in order to do great good, a leader would
need to deceive, cajole and fight the nation.

The difference between a good person and a bad one is luck and circumstance.
1 The unnaturalness of natural law
Nothing is less innate than our innate sense of right and wrong. And few things are more
unnatural than our conception of natural law. ‘Man corrupts all that he touches,’ as Montaigne
wrote, yet he loves to hold forth on what is clean and natural as he does so.

Natural law is no more natural than divine law is divine. They are both convenient projections of
human prejudice.

The one realm in which natural law has no place is nature. The notion of natural law and natural
rights turns the order of nature on its head.

There are as many justices as there are tastes. But we speak as if there were but one, so that
we can live in peace. And there is only one taste as there is only one justice. But we posit that
there must be a gamut of them, so that we can live in peace. It is our so-called instinctive beliefs
that set us on to kill one another.

Few eternal laws last as long as written ones.

Our virtues are more at variance with nature than our vices. And if our artificial virtues have any
value, it is as a salt to flavour our natural depravity.

Pristine natural goodness becomes a fetish in old, sophisticated and corrupt epochs.

If we approve of a trait, we say that it lifts us above the animals or else that it is natural. But if we
disapprove of it, we say that not even the animals possess it or else that mere brutes do. ‘When
a man is treated like a beast,’ observed Kraus, ‘he says, “After all I’m human.” When he
behaves like a beast he says, “After all I’m only human.”’

2 The moralist and the virtues

A moralist blasts your innocence by opening your eyes to it. Once you’ve heard that it is more
blessed to give than to receive, the fine freshness of your generosity withers. And when you
have been commanded to do good in secret so that God will reward you openly, your
spontaneous acts lose all the charm of unselfconsciousness. And how could the meek retain
their meekness, when they have been promised that they will one day be overlords of the earth?

How could anyone who set up as a great moral preceptor, like Seneca, Rousseau or Tolstoy, be
more than a great moral hypocrite, a grotesque centaur of self-abasement and mad pride?

Solemn moralists, such as Marcus Aurelius, seem to set out to bore us into goodness. They
might succeed in turning us off vice, if they could make it as tedious as they make virtue.
3 Manners not morals win the praise
In this judgmental but superficial world, you are praised or blamed more for the way in which
you do a deed than because the deed on its own is kind or cruel. Do a small favour charmingly,
and you will win more applause than those who do more good with a bad grace. We like or
loathe people more for their habits and manners than for their morals.

What people want from you is the flannel forbearance that won’t thwart their own self-interest or
ulcerate their own self-love. What they ask of you is not your best but what will gain them most
and ask least of them. They wish you to be flexible and complaisant but not sternly just. And
they will love you more for your indulgent bad taste than for your severe good deeds. ‘In the
intercourse of life,’ La Rochefoucauld says, ‘we please more by our faults than by our fine

4 Moral thrift
The golden rule, to do to others as you would have them do to you, holds in the negative at
most, as Confucius framed it. We would no doubt like others to bow down to us and do all our
bidding. But none of us has the right to receive or the duty to render this. The most you can
expect or are obliged to do is to cause as little harm as practicable and to tender some minimal

We may be willing to love our neighbours in an abstract way, but we won’t let them get the start
of us in any real contest.

Righteous people resent their own good deeds almost as much as others’ bad ones. You’re
lucky if your good deeds don’t sour your temper.

‘Virtue,’ as Walpole wrote, ‘knows to a farthing how much it has lost by not being vice.’ It keeps
a thrifty store, and insists that all its services be paid for in full, be it in this world or the next. I do
good to my neighbours, in the prudent hope that they will do the same to me.

My faults scald me, but I refuse to part with them. And though my virtues don’t cost me a cent,
I’m glad to get rid of them. ‘Vice,’ as Colton wrote, ‘has more martyrs than virtue.’ Right is so
easy, but wrong is still so seductive.

5 Self-interest plays the role of all the virtues
We daub our self-interest in the livid tints of vices and virtues. And we curse those who scrape
these back to lay bare the dun stuff that underlies it. We gild our interests with a thin flake of
goodness, to distract the eye and to extract a dearer price for them. Careerism dons the
decorous outfit of integrity to walk up and down in the world.

Our greed disciplines us better than our self-knowledge. We are kept on the straight road more
by our self-seeking than by our self-awareness. What small desires won’t we set aside to make
way for our baser schemes?

Justice is composed of noisy interests, but in such sweet consort that they make an even music.

You may be as offended by self-interest as a platonist or gnostic is by the flesh, but what else
could you live by? When you are not acting for your own gain, it’s from some worse motive that
you act.

Egoism knows how to put everything to use for its own ends, even friendliness. ‘Self-interest,’ as
La Rochefoucauld says, ‘speaks all sorts of tongues, and plays all sorts of roles, even that of
disinterestedness.’ Far from slowing us down, our slippery ideals help to grease the wheels of
our implacable self-interest.

6 Adversity improves us
Setbacks don’t make us better. They train us to push our schemes with more guile or more
force. Some trials seem to improve us because they damp down the high spirits which would
flash out in random delinquency. And some trials cow us into good works and blanch us to a
whitened righteousness.

If we had been as untouchable as the gods, we would have been stupider and more vicious
than the worst of the fiends.

The victims of one genocide volunteer as the expert perpetrators of the next. The bullied don’t
dream of a paradise in which no one is bullied. They dream of the day when they will get the
chance to bully their persecutors in revenge. ‘Those to whom evil is done,’ wrote Auden, ‘do evil
in return.’

Pain does not purify us. It pollutes us. The blaze and hail of purgatory would make us fit for the
underworld, not for the upper one. And yet a few years of bliss would harden the saints to the
pleas of the damned.

You need more fortitude to deal with clear fortune and wealth than with cloudy fortune and want,
say the fortunate and wealthy. Sweet are the uses of other people’s adversity. It may take more
virtue to bear prosperity than tribulation, but only when the prosperity is another’s.
7 Beware of the drowning
Unfortunates long to have sharers in their gloom. And some, if they find none, will go out of their
way to make them. They are sterile in everything except the propagation of their misery.

Who are more brutal? The drowning who would pull you down into the murk for the bare chance
of one more breath? Or those speeding along on the surface who drive them off with clubs for
fear that they might reach their goal one hour late?

If there is anyone more ruthless than those who are determined to rise, it’s one who is
desperate to escape from drowning.

8 Moral posing
Most of our good intentions are mean thriftiness or gaudy theatrics. We practise a routine moral
economy. But we revel intermittently in a pantomime of moral extravagance, thick with splendid
attitudinizing, high words, eye-catching stage-effects, bottomless sympathy, tough dilemmas
and fine sentiments, in the lofty and vaporous vein of Sand or Rilke. The moral sense, finding
that indifference or self-interest has long occupied most of our acts and emotions, migrates to
our words and gestures.

Our life is not a charged melodrama of moral choice. And yet we still love to declaim like moral
posers. Our brains have been addled by good deeds and ideals, or by the fine shows of them,
or by the desire to seem to dote on them.

There will be no end to our moral mummery and posturing, at least not till it has made an end of
us. Our deeds are so morally bland, that we have to pepper them with benevolent self-flattery to
give them some smack of seductiveness. There was no need for Jesus to warn us not to hide
our lights under a bushel.

Anyone who seeks to appeal to the better angels of our nature finds that they are too deafened
by their own pious squawking to heed the call to do good.

9 The virtues of hypocrisy

Our decent impostures make up more than half of our integrity. Virtue is the tribute that vice
pays to hypocrisy. How could our misshapen natures straighten out but by dissembling? As
Goldsmith phrased it, ‘Till, seeming blessed, they grow to what they seem.’

The self-righteousness that tells us that we are better than we seem spurs us to become so for
real. And yet we end up as fake and hollow as the virtues we impersonate. We are dazzled by
the images of greed and grow genuinely greedy. We fall in love with the images of goodness
and behave like mere actors.

I mimic bad people’s motives and good people’s stratagems for disguising them. The fine deeds
that we do may be the sole thing that can make amends for the foul motives for which we did
them. It’s just as well that the improvement of the world doesn’t hinge on the intentions of its

Our vanity, like our hypocrisy, may be the best part of us. In all our low compromises with the
world, what else could call us back to the high aims that we once aspired to? ‘Virtue would not
go so far,’ as La Rochefoucauld tells us, ‘if vanity did not keep it company.’

In order to do good, we have to tell ourselves that we are good. But when we do so, we may
grow irretrievably evil.

Don’t we feel some of our most exalted moral moods when we strain to live up to the pose that
mere circumstance and propriety have forced us to put on? Wilde speaks of ‘that passion to act
a part that sometimes makes us do finer things than we are ourselves.’

10 Virtues and prejudices

Moralists do their best to pull down the rest of our prejudices and set up in their niche the one
good-natured prejudice that all prejudices err. But a virtuous prejudice is as much a prejudice as
a vicious one, though it may pass for a high precept. And good prejudice is the one force strong
enough to thrust out bad. And one virtue may drive out another. Our moral medicines work by

Our moral scruples are adjustable, but our moral prejudices don’t budge. The first shift with our
self-interest, but the second are held fast by our self-regard.

‘The whole morality of the world,’ Multatuli wrote, ‘could perhaps be summed up in the words,
Do as others do.’ The herd shields itself from the individual by its codes of right and wrong. And
the individual defies the omnivorous claims of the collective by insurrection or by indifference.

We prefer people to principles, not out of benignity but out of egoism, to which principles would
give no purchase.

Those who are striving to live up to their principles commonly have to give ground to those who
are jostling to feed their preferences.
11 The virtues of self-control
I lack the sage self-mastery which would warn me to duck the punches of misfortune. So I need
to strive for the grudging self-government which helps me to brave them. We can’t hold out
against the lure of our brute desires, and so we have to learn to bear up under the brute pains
they bring on us. I grow hard to everything save my own cravings, which I’m too soft to resist.

We can change the world more easily than our own will. Some people do all they can to control
events, since they are too weak to defeat their own urge to bend them to their will. And we seek
to control ourselves, the better to control what is outside us.

Many temperate people don’t learn to restrain themselves, but merely to dodge the provocations
which would rob them of their self-restraint.

Some people pretend to control their compulsions by concealing them. They manage to seem
mature by learning to hide how childish they are. They have rigged out their own immaturity with
the gear which is tailored to master the world’s immaturity.

There is nothing that we know less than our own self. And there is nothing that we can control
less than our own will.

12 How strong the weak must be

We have to be strong enough to hold on, since we are too weak just to let go.

Man of bronze. He was so weak and liable to wounds, that he had to encase his heart in brass,
and then dig from that carapace all that was soft and human. Why wonder that what he made of
himself should ring so hollow? He shuddered at the least touch. So he had to muffle himself so
that mere life wouldn’t deafen him. Some people have to hollow out their hearts to gain the
nerve to commit a titanic crime, and some just to keep up a lean subsistence.

Those who are weak to dare must be strong to endure. Some people have to use up all their
strength to extricate themselves from the effects of their own frailties. Cowardice foists on them
such rigours, that it leaves them no choice but to act bravely.

How could the strong, who can bear so much, guess how much the weak have to bear just to
keep up their own weakness? The poor frail people, who have souls of porcelain, but long to be
admired like marble. They must be tenacious of life, who find the flask dry but go on pouring
from it from day to dismal day.

Frailty may make you firm, and timidity may make you bold.
13 Courage, first of the virtues
Courage may be the basis of all the virtues. But it is the basis of all the vices too. And we might
be far more vicious, if our cowardice didn’t keep the rest of our knavery in check.

Courage may be the source of the rare acts of heroism that we do, but it is fear and cowardice
that keep us from straying from the well-trodden path of good conduct most of the time.

You need as much courage to fight for a bad cause as for a good one. And you would need far
more daring to become an outlaw than to remain a law-abiding citizen. Some people join the
police because they lack the courage or initiative to be criminals.

Courage is not so much a virtue as a core competence. You may be armed with all the rest of
the virtues, but if you lack courage, you can’t put them to use.

What extraordinary tenacity you need just to get through a single hour on this ordinary earth. As
Woolf says, it is ‘very, very dangerous to live even one day.’ All that you own is at stake each
instant, regardless of how little you have to play for.

Who needs more fortitude, the few who die glorious but alone in the van, or the mass who fall
unsung in the ranks?

14 The courage of despair

The wise know why they should give up hope. But the brave carry on as if they did not. It may
take as much staunchness not to scare yourself with phantom frights as it does not to flinch
from real ones.

When you meet with disaster, you may throw off the fetters of your fears, once you have learnt
that if you can bear this then you can bear anything. Or else you may see that anything might
scar you, and so you fall back to a trench of consternation, from which you may never climb out.
In middle age you come to see that there’s no infamy or calamity that you can’t ride out. And
then you know that you should despair for real.

The true test of courage comes when your luck runs out. Then nothing is left to fight for, but you
still have to see it through to the end. And you’re left alone in the night with your despair, like
Antony abandoned by his god.
15 False courage
Heartlessness makes up half of our courage, as squeamishness makes up half of our
compassion. Those who are merely insensitive boast that they are unsentimental. They scorn
the teary responsiveness of others, till they find that they have need of it in their own case. Their
resilience is a ruthless insensibility.

We have the worst kind of endurance, the hardihood to persist in our mean schemes for as long
as they cost others more than us. We ought to have had the constancy to say no to them from
the first.

All of us are sustained by the false faith that we are too important to come to rack. But this same
conviction prods the dauntless to sprint on, and the spineless to hang back. The latter think that
they are too precious to be put in harm’s way, the former that they are so invulnerable that
nothing could harm them.

Brave soldiers are ready if need be to die for their country, but their real business is to kill for it.

16 Generosity
Our impulses are generous, but our hands are stinting. Our second thoughts withhold what our
first would give. Twain prescribes that when fired by an urge to contribute to a charity, all we
need do is count to sixty-five. We find that it costs much less to promise than to pay. A lot of our
intentions start better and end worse than our acts. And a large brood of them are stillborn. We
are liberal on a whim, but miserly by habit. ‘Don’t trust first impulses,’ enjoined Talleyrand, ‘they
are all munificent.’

I am reluctant to give more of myself to others for fear that they will take too much or that they
will spurn what I offer.

I give gifts to show off my own taste and to mould the taste of others.

We are mean but wasteful. We are not thrifty or generous. I scatter thoughtlessly, but don’t give
liberally. We are scrimping, yet squandering.

Spendthrifts may seem generous, since they are willing to waste their spare cash on all sorts of
things, even other people.
17 Gratitude
I expect others’ thanks when I do them good as much as I resent them expecting mine when
they do me good. And I find gratitude to them as irksome as I find theirs to me natural.

I take offence at the churlishness of those who decline to accept from me the scant favours that
cost me nothing.

I am disappointed with everything that I am given, and it may be with gratitude most of all.

We grow attached to people when we give them gifts more than by receiving gifts from them.
‘Men are never attached to you by favours,’ as Napoleon said.

18 The pride of gratitude

Some people try to dispense with their debts by displaying their gratitude, and some by
pretending that they have no need to. The former pay them off, and the latter act as if they did
not exist. Those who resent the burden of a boon may make a show of being thankful, in order
to shuck off the weight of their dependence. They feign gratefulness so as to be spared from
feeling it. It is the virtue of those who can’t bear to be beholden.

The proud alone feel uncomfortably indebted. They are too haughty to submit to benefactions.
So they try to avenge the good that others do them by displaying how appreciative they are.
‘There are minds so impatient of inferiority,’ Johnson wrote, ‘that their gratitude is a species of
revenge.’ They are both ways of settling scores and reinstating our place in the estimation of

‘It is the nature of men,’ Machiavelli said, ‘to be bound by the patronage that they confer as
much as by that which they receive.’ Doing good obliges us to repeat it more than receiving
good obliges us to repay it. So it’s our pride more than our kind heart that piques our generosity.
People’s avid expectations touch us nearer than their gratitude. Their very unthankfulness
goads us to give more, if only to show them that we weren’t angling for their thanks.

19 Ingratitude
I unhesitatingly acknowledge small favours, as I do my small faults, so that I won’t have to
acknowledge big ones at all. And I show least gratitude for those benefits that I least deserve.

Gratitude is said to cost us dear, but is there anyone who has been sent broke by it? Scott notes
that it is not prone to ‘distress itself by frequent payments.’ And though praise doesn’t cost us a
cent, we still don’t like to give it away.

Those who feel that they owe no debt to their own parents are indignant at the ingratitude that
their children show to them.
20 The pride of ingratitude
People are so unappreciative, because they undervalue what others give them and overvalue
what they get for themselves. What they prize highly they come to believe they have earned by
their own unaided efforts. The self-regard of the receiver devalues what the self-regard of the
giver puts such a high price on.

Few of us feel very remorseful or beholden. We set our own worth too high to reckon that we
owe much to those whom we have harmed or to those who have helped us.

Our ingratitude is as sincere as our conceit. And our gratitude is as feigned and grudging as our
modesty. How could we feel grateful? We can’t see that we have a thing to thank our
benefactors for.

21 Gratitude and resentment

Be generous to a person, and from then on they will take it that you must owe them something.
The more you give to them, the more they feel you are in their debt. What generosity gives rise
to is not gratitude but greedy expectation.

Gratitude is as feeble as it is forgetful. Resentment is as fierce as it is retentive.

Need can drive people to revere their helpers or to resent them. And some try to hide their own
thanklessness by abusing them. They behave despicably, to show that they are not mean. So
it’s just as well that few of us feel so beholden to our benefactors that we need to disguise our
debts by detesting them. Dependent people don’t doubt that they are of more use to their patron
than their patron is to them. And it’s hard to tell which of them is the more smirched by their

The wine of gratitude soon sours to a vinegar spleen. Our sense of indebtedness soon curdles
once it’s been through a brief churning in our mind.

The animals take things for granted, and the result is contentment. We take things for granted,
and the result is ennui, ingratitude and resentment.

Giving and gratitude make such a soup of pride, spite, resentment, expected dividends and bad
faith, that cold monetary exchange smells pure and clean when set beside them.
22 Justice
Love and justice are both blind. But justice refuses to see persons, while love fails to see
everything else.

The unjust, if they don’t see their assailants justly castigated by the world, at least have the
satisfaction of knowing that the world is unjust. And this gives them the right to persist in their
own wrongdoing.

Criminals merely break the law. Judges corrupt it.

Lawbreakers ought to be punished with stern finality for their crimes, for the very reason that
their nature left them no choice but to commit them. ‘Lack of free will,’ as Proust wrote, ‘makes
faults and crimes more reprehensible.’

Like all who have empty bellies, those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are prone to
have bad tempers. And they find it thin and tasteless, if it’s not spiked with the blood of their

23 The ego, the root of all injustice

As Pushkin said, other people are mere zeroes and placeholders. They derive their value from
their affiliation with us, who are the countable units. In the deathly arithmetic of self one is
greater than infinity. So it is the task of justice to lop each of us to an equal integer, and tell us
that we count for no more than one of these.

The personal ego is the source of all injustice. And yet justice exists to serve our collective

We fail to spot the most flagrant injustices, so long as they are profiting us.

Most people’s sense of justice exhausts itself in their eagerness to press their own claims.

24 The sheep and the goats

Justice cuts the world in two. It segregates it into sheep and goats, clean and unclean. And the
sheep forthwith bleat that their wool is as white and downy as cherubs’ wings, and that they
have the right to browse in a fat paddock. They wait meekly for the coming of their good
shepherd to butcher the goats and shove them in the ever-burning oven.

God shows leniency to his lambs, but not so much as justice to the kids. And this is what the
lambkins call grace. They hate and fear the goats, not the slaughterer.
When the sheep make the laws, then look out, goats. As one of the goats, one of the impure,
the unclean, the spotted, the cursed, the filthy, I don’t much look forward to the reign of the
immaculate lamb.

25 Justice is injustice to what is unlike us

Justice draws categorical distinctions where there are none, and fabricates unqualified
similarities where there are none. And then it asserts that we have disparate duties to these
disparate tiers of beings that it sets up.

Justice entrenches our egoism by extending it. We have duties to those breeds of life that are of
the same grade as our own. But we have none to all the rest. What we term justice is a mere
bias in favour of what is kin to us at the expense of what is unrelated to us. The moral law is an
offence against nature. It commands us to behave impeccably to all living things that are like us
who are trampling on all living things that are not like us.

How would we stand condemned, if the animals were to demand of us a tenth of the justice that
we demand of a god.

26 Our due
People presume that right is what they are used to doing, and that justice is what they are used
to obtaining. They deem their innate rights to be whatever they are in the habit of receiving plus
the bit extra that they don’t doubt they deserve.

If they meet with good luck, people gather that what is rightfully due to them is what they are
accustomed to get. And if they don’t, they gather that it is what others get. If they fail repeatedly,
they feel that they have a right to fare well for a change. And if they fare well, they infer that they
should not have to fail when they have grown so used to victory. Yet they guess that others, if
they have met with ill-luck all the time, must be inured to it. But if they have fared well, they are
now due their quota of reverses.

We think that our great talents give us the right to keep what we have got, and that our bad luck
gives us the right to do what we need to even the odds.

None of us complains of injustice when we get more than we have earned the right to. And
which of us these days has not done that? Nothing is good enough for some people, though
they themselves are not good for much. We who make the worst use of everything have no
doubt that we deserve to have the best of all things.
27 The rewards of justice
I wish that justice governed the world, and at times I fear that it might. ‘Life is never fair,’ Wilde
said, ‘and perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.’

It is the just who get their comeuppance in this world. The corrupt stride on from one shining
triumph to the next.

How swiftly mischief turns the whole world upside down. Yet what long centuries we have taken
to rip up rooted injustices. ‘Haste is of the devil,’ says Muhammad, ‘slowness of God.’

28 Duty
I have to make too much of the urgency of some of my obligations in order to bestir myself to
carry them out. At times I can do my duty only by inflating its importance and my own.

A light imposition galls me more than a large one. A light one comes so close to being nothing
that I could envision being rid of it.

Johnson remarked how ‘all this notion about benevolence arises from a man’s imagining himself
of more importance to others than he really is.’ My self-importance tells me that I have duties to
others, since they can’t do without me.

I trust that few achievements would lie beyond my scope, if I could be spared from the far more
valuable work that it’s incumbent on me to do now. I could easily run the country. But who is
there that could run my stall? Each of us is like a mouse trapped on its treadmill. And we know
that it’s our own speed that keeps this vast world spinning.

The work-ethic is a moral screen to hide or justify our greed and self-importance.

Our own infirmities prey on us, whether these are our faults or our virtues. Which of us does not
bear the brand of Blake’s ‘marks of weakness, marks of woe’?

Most people are not slothful or undutiful. But they seem so to me, since they are too busy doing
what they want to do, to do what I would have them do.

Nature seduces us by making purpose correspond to pleasure. And society seduces us by

making duty correspond to interest.

29 Maudlin mercy
When clemency is more than an anomaly, it is an iniquity. And where it grows to be a system, it
puts an end to justice. ‘A God all mercy,’ as Young wrote, ‘is a God unjust.’ Pity twists our
principles, but won’t set straight our conduct.
Justice works by mathematics, mercy acts out a lachrymose play. So justice looks cold, and
mercy heartfelt. The cry of mawkish people is always for more charity and less justice. And so
they will connive in inverting all right.

Much of our affability is mere selfishness. We let pass the evil that people do because it has not
touched us.

30 The futility of altruism
Altruism is just a less expeditious way of satiating the aggregate of selfish human wants. Self-
seeking may look unlovely, but unselfishness works inefficiently. I don’t know where my own
good lies. So how could I judge what might be good for others or how to come at it? ‘Be sure
that you give the poor the alms that they most need,’ Thoreau warned.

We do ourselves so much harm by our passionate self-love, might it not be just as well for our
neighbours that we don’t love them in the same way?

The self is neither an end nor an enemy but a tool. Try to act philanthropically, and you blunt it.
Try to act disinterestedly, and you wear it out to aid other tools as if they were the true work.

Fiction is full of stories of the ills that flow from requiting evil with evil. There has been no need
to portray the mayhem that would result from requiting evil with good.

31 Calculating altruism
You ought to do some charity from time to time, to still your rankling remorse, burnish your good
name, and buy a superstitious indemnity against misadventure. But altruism can snap the bands
that are sewn by reciprocal self-interest. And egoism can knot the sturdiest bond of all, the bond
of common frailty which makes us feel how much we must lean on one another. ‘It is through
our mutual dependence,’ Voltaire reminds us, ‘that we are helpful to the species.’

Why do we put ourselves out in every sort of way save for the one that might do real good? We
fetch others aid in the small things that they could do for themselves, while abandoning them to
drown in the deeps. But don’t we do the same in our own case? ‘Our friends,’ Hazlitt notes, ‘are
generally ready to do everything for us, except the very thing we wish them to do.’ They are
keen to give you things for which you have no use but which will cast them in a good light.

32 Self-sacrifice
How nobly I would lay down my life, if the world were so ordered that I would lose nothing by it.
You affirm your self most powerfully and permanently by surrendering it for the sake of some
better end. You enlarge it by sacrificing it for the rest of the men and women in whom it will
continue to live and who will continue to live through it. So you live on in a more extensive
being, for which you have no more need of your self as it now is. Like the athenians overrun by
the persians, you quit your land to save your country.

There are people who have such unique gifts, that it would be as unjust for them to act selflessly
as it is for the rest of us to act selfishly.

Some people forget themselves in a cause that gains them nothing. But they are no less selfish
for that, since it has come to make up such a large part of their self.

‘The man who is readily disposed to lay down his life,’ Pavese wrote, ‘is one who does not know
how else to give meaning to it.’ Live for others, and you will be spared the hard work of finding
your own strong reason to live.

33 Self-sacrifice sacrifices others

To forward our schemes, we are ready to damage our own happiness. And how much readier
we are to damage the happiness of others. Those who give up a little of their own good for a
cause won’t balk at giving up a great deal more of others’ good. And those who have the charge
of the welfare of many feel that they must have the right to wreck scores of lives to safeguard it.
‘Self-sacrifice,’ says Shaw, ‘enables us to sacrifice other people without blushing.’

Those who impair their interest to keep up their conceit don’t doubt that they are set on by a
high principle. And when they rein in their conceit to push their own claims they judge that they
must be set on by self-surrendering duty.

Those who are not doing just what they wish would have us believe that they are
magnanimously discharging their duty. And those who deem that they are discharging their duty
don’t doubt that they have a mandate to use any means they need to gain their ends.

34 The self-pity of the powerful

Ruthless people pity themselves for the expedient wrongs that they have had to do in the
service of others. The most cold-blooded potentates are also the most maudlin and self-pitying.
And when they rise to a post far above their deserving, they resent the world for placing such
blocks in their way.

The great ones of the earth, when they are not exulting in their triumphs, are wallowing in self-
Those who pay a high price to push their overweening egoism are sure that they are martyrs to
benevolence. Since they seem to have reaped no gain from their selfishness, they conclude that
they must be behaving unselfishly.

35 Self is the idol of altruism

A code of selflessness will serve to make us more self-obsessed. It sets up the human self as
the sole good, which all our acts must serve. The cosmos contains no richer gem. So by trying
to act altruistically we will grow more clamorously selfish, and more shrunken and sterile.

By encouraging men and women to act for the sake of other selves, you won’t induce them to
act unselfishly. You will merely teach them that the human self is the sole end worth acting for.

I take it that I win high merit when I spend my own paltry self to help others just as paltry, and
that these paltry selves must be priceless because I have effaced my own self for their sake,
and that what is akin to me but not me must have an inestimable worth. An egoist tramples on
rival selves, and an altruist tramples on all that is not self. Pride alone might inspire you to raise
up something that will overpass all self.

We praise dogs for their selflessness, because their selfish subservience gratifies our own
domineering selfishness.

Even those who live for others live for those others who are their own, their family, friends, tribe
or nation.

Don’t the righteous feel that the rest of us are on earth to serve as the grateful recipients of their
own good deeds? How else could they ram their way to their beatific reward? ‘We are all here
on earth to help others,’ Auden wrote. ‘What the others are here for I don’t know.’ Such is the
benign circularity of self-surrender.

Selfish pity
Imaginary pity
Weapon of pity

1 Pity is politeness
Passion is brusque to all but its beloved. But pity is a mere embellishment of our tact and
decorum. It is born in politeness. But often it’s kept warm and breathing by our hostility to those
whom we blame for inflicting the hurt.

Courtesy is a door which may let people in or shut them out.

I shrink from alluding to painful subjects, not because I don’t wish to cause pain to others, but
because it would embarrass me to show how faintly I care for their pain. All the care that I am
willing to show most people is to conceal how little I care for them.

How much empathy you need to make your fellows think that you feel empathy for them.

I show courtesy by pretending to notice the frailties of others no more than I do my own. And I
prove my empathy by pretending to feel their anguish as much as I in fact feel my own.

2 Empathy
We make too much of the compassion that others feel for us. So we trust that we can cause
them a sharp twinge by bemoaning our own troubles. Empathize with those around you, and
what you learn is how indifferently they feel for you. Johnson points out that whosoever
‘considers how little he dwells upon the condition of others will learn how little the attention of
others is attracted by himself.’

We grow hardhearted to the ordeals of others, either because we have not had to go through
the same ourselves, or else because we have. We make light of them, because we have had no
occasion to feel how heavy they are, or because we have weighed them and found that we
could bear them with ease, and so we think that others should as well.

I don’t accept that any trouble that I am not prone to can be quite real. The maladies that I suffer
from are unmerited afflictions. But the maladies that others suffer from are defects which they
have been too weak to set right.

Pity is one luxury that the rich are happy to deny themselves.

3 Self-pity
When howling misery rains down on me, I rush to shelter in the squat cabin of people’s concern,
which I’m keen to quit as soon as the hurricane is past. Though I’m too smug to feel sorry for
myself, at times I act as if I did, as a feint to glean the aid or attention of others.

Our self-pity is a performance which we put on for others as much as our pity for others is a
performance which we put on for ourselves.

You have dipped low indeed, if you can find a narcotic in the pity of others, or need to in your

I don’t feel sorry for others, because I care too frigidly for their troubles. And I don’t feel sorry for
myself, because I think too warmly of my own success.

Our own imaginary woes torment us. But the real woes of others scarcely touch us.

4 We pity to savour our own good fortune

When I condole with someone, I add the balm of an unsullied conscience and the piquancy of a
dram of discomfort to my contemplation of their distress, which I would elsewise not feel at all.

The cold flint of our pity for others strikes few sparks for them. But it whets the pleasure that we
take in our own good fortune.

I give alms as a small toll to ride on the highway of my self-approval.

Some of us holiday in compassion as an emotional tourism through others’ anguish, which

takes us on a brief scenic bypass from the broad highway of our uncaring. Your pity brings you
no nearer to the heartbroken. It cheers you that you are so far above them.

Our pity for others helps us to savour our own prosperity, as a twinge of remorse now and then
helps us to savour our immunity from punishment.
5 The revenge of pity
Some poltroons take revenge on their enemies by pretending to commiserate with their mishaps
so that they can keep harping on them. They drip a rivulet of tenderness on them to try to drown
them in their own superiority. True consideration, like true agony, holds its tongue.

Pity is a sly way of triumphing over an enemy whom we were obliged to treat as a friend, or who
has fallen so low as to be no longer worth our hate.

Pity is condescension with a good conscience.

We don’t waste our pity on our enemies. We save that subtle poison to serve up to our friends.

6 The powerless are pitiless

The powerless are pitiless once they get their hands on power. Now it’s their turn to do to others
as they have been done to.

The heartsore have no compassion, since they are too caught up in their own woes. And the
victorious have no compassion, since they have to press on to one more victory. Prosperity
makes me indifferent to the troubles of others, and adversity enwraps me in my own.
‘Misfortune,’ Flaubert says, ‘renders us selfish and vicious and sottish.’

7 Imagined pity
‘The great instrument of moral good is the imagination,’ claimed Shelley, who had so much
empathetic imagination, and did so much unimagined harm. Imagination doesn’t move us to
pity, though it may tell us that it has. Or else it does, and pity is no more than a daydream. Pity
may begin in the imagination, but that’s where most of it ends too.

It’s easy to see how much others are suffering, but it’s hard to believe that it matters. People
can know about such a range of things, but there is just one thing they can care for, their own
selves and what is theirs. And if they care for anything larger, they can do so only by making it
part of their self.

Most people see more and care less than they let on.

My self-interest has a far busier imagination than my sluggish sympathy. Our brains never rest
from hatching plans to glut the cravings of our hearts. But they soon tire of the thought of others’
Moralists bleat that a bloodthirsty tormentor dismembers his victims because he lacks the
imagination to feel how sorely they smart. But is it not they who lack the imagination to grasp
how little he cares?

8 Pity and the senses

I feel no pity for those who sorrow if I don’t see them sorrowing. Out of sight is out of sympathy.
The virus of compassion is contracted through the eye. And often it is cured through the ear or

Pity is a fleeting response to visual images. But justice is a cool virtue of slow reason. And in our
world of speed, pity is more eye-catching than justice.

Visual mass-media serve as sympathy superconductors because they are so cold. I pity the
picturesque, but I pass by the needy. And it is pictures that wring our hearts more than people.
It’s not our own sympathetic imagination but external images that stir our feelings.

9 The melodrama of our pity

I love my own warmhearted gestures more than I do the people that they claim to help. These
are mere wordless extras in my pageant of affecting fellow-feeling. When I pity, I stage an
edifying mime of my own moods. And I watch that so that I won’t have to watch the writhings of
the afflicted. My sensitiveness starts me blubbering, but then succours me for the anguish of
others which I felt so weakly. My sobs and convulsions drown out their pain. How could I make
out their agonies through the haze of my tears?

Our egoism appears luridly illumined in the gloom of another’s death. What lament would speak
so eloquently, if it spoke solely of the dead?

We are so sensitive, that we end up pitying ourselves for having to endure the sight of so much
piteous woe.

10 We pity to display our sensitivity

Most of our pity lasts just long enough for us to mouth how much we feel it.

The deaths of others give us one more opening to flaunt our own sensitivity. Their death is an
event in our life, not in their own. We shrink it to a drama in which we play the starring role.
When others are in pain, we declare how our hearts bleed for them. And when they are
wronged, we act out our righteous ire. And when they die, we play up our own loss and grief.
When we mention their troubles, don’t we pay more heed to how we sound than to how they
suffer? We sum up in a glib phrase a life that cost such deep pangs to live. The deaths of others
are mere gossip for us.
Other people’s afflictions are mere comic relief for the serious drama of our own. Humour is the
best medicine that we have to deal with the woes of others, or at least it is the one that we use
most frequently.

We are quick to feel pity, so as to throw into relief our own admirable rectitude.

We build sepulchres to blazon how affectingly and glamorously we mourn. ‘Funerary pomp,’ as
La Rochefoucauld says, ‘has more to do with the vanity of the living than with the
commemoration of the dead.’ A funeral is a celebration of human self-importance.

Even your death does not belong to you. As soon as it comes, they snatch it, and use it to
bedizen their own grief and pity.

11 Squeamishness
We are the only animals that have a heart to feel pity. So why have we made such a pitiless

It may be that the anguish of others stings me so squeamishly because I don’t wish to do a thing
to mend it. ‘We all like to see people in trouble,’ says Twain, ‘if it doesn’t cost us anything.’

The squeamish think that they are kindhearted, and the hardhearted think that they are clear-

Some of us fancy that we feel an unselfish concern for the troubles of others, because we feel
so selfishly sensitive to our own, as invalids show a fond concern for anyone who might be
prone to the same ailment that they are. People view their hearts from the inside out. So their
squeamishness feels to them like pity for others. They hold that others should not have to put up
with the blows that they could not bear. Their tender egoism deems that all must be as
nerveless as they are. Would they be so solicitous to help the sorrowful, if it didn’t give them
hope that they could help themselves?

Unhappy people resent the happy for their heartlessness. But their own kindliness may be a
mere symptom of their sorrow. They vibrate to the world’s woes, because they can’t do anything
else, or else to turn their thoughts from their own woes.

So sensitive are we to the pain of others, that we have to shut our eyes and ears to it.

12 Pointless pity
If people ached for the woes of others half as much as they claim, how could they bear to live?
And if they loved others as much as they love themselves, would they not be crushed by all the
woes of the world, which they can’t lighten by an ounce? It would, as Johnson points out, be
‘misery to no purpose.’ Lucky there’s not much risk of us falling for that.

13 Indifference
We have so many ways of not caring and so many ways of seeming to. Behind the shining
mildness of good people you glimpse their glazed indifference. Beneath pity’s sparkling surface
rolls a cold unmoving ocean. Our fine feelings refresh us like oases of care in the parched
wastelands of our unconcern.

Indifference and selfishness are such native instincts, that we need years of training to do the
least act of self-denial.

Insensitivity is our prevailing moral habit, as self-interest is our prevailing motivator. We want so
much for ourselves, what do we have to spare for others but our stony indifference?

I snore through the pain of others, and wake for my own. The racked soul emits a shriek which
is pitched too high for our dinned ears to hear. The disciples sleep on in Gethsemane.

When ruffled by the sorrows of others, we find in our hearts a deep reservoir of apathy on which
to draw. When anything ripples our flat indifference, we calm it with yet more indifference. ‘We
all have sufficient strength to brook the misfortunes of others,’ as La Rochefoucauld showed.

The giant agony of the world is matched by its giant indifference.

14 Reluctant pity
We dare not go near those who stink of misery, for fear that they might taint our scented
gladness. We step gingerly over the puddle of their spilt sorrow, which oozes so unbecomingly.
It seeps from their pores like a fetid sweat, and we hold our nose as we pass by. And so we
sprinkle a few drops of pity to perfume our hardheartedness or to cover up our repugnance.

Pity is not a tolerant virtue. It exacts strict terms before it goes to work. Before I lend the afflicted
my fellow-feeling, I stipulate that they pledge the collateral of not presuming to equal me and the
interest of regularly acknowledging their inferiority.

‘Our sympathy is cold to the relation of distant misery,’ as Gibbon points out. It is killed by time,
remoteness and each recurrence. ‘Death or distance soon consumes them,’ as Hopkins wrote.
A far-off catastrophe merely piques our flippant curiosity, and a drawn-out one palls. ‘How much
does a bloodbath in China,’ asked Pessoa, ‘discomfort the most noble of us?’
I decorously try to hide how little sympathy I feel for my fellows by avouching that I have used it
up by feeling so much.

15 Fizzling pity
Our sympathies are selective, capricious, brittle, short-lived, amoral, easy to manipulate, and
proud of their softness. They lack the gravity of selfishness. They look bright on our horizon. But
most of them burn up like meteors before they reach our dark hearts.

Pity flickers with a thin flame which lends us a brief warmth, but fizzles before it has time to thaw
the frozen sufferer. It acts on us like ice. It seems to heat me when I first touch it, but I let go of it
before I feel how cold it is. ‘We talk of goodness,’ Renard says, ‘brimful of beneficence that
melts within us before, alas, we do any good to others.’

If tried too far pity sickens into a queasy repulsion. Those who suffer unduly lose our
commiseration, which soon curdles into blame. Why did they not take steps to get clear of the
cause of their woe?

When you leave your resentment to stand, it grows more and more sour. But when you leave
your compassion to stand, it just goes flat.

16 Indignant pity
Compassion fires us to hate as well as to love. Spite stirs us to pity those who have been
persecuted by our enemies. And pity incenses us with their persecutors. We don’t doubt that we
feel the pain of the oppressed, because we are so indignant with their oppressors. We pick up a
lot of our sympathies by moralizing our antipathies. And we mistake the blaze of our righteous
fury for the glow of real kindheartedness.

Pity and vengefulness are more often allies than adversaries. We burn to avenge injuries more
than to remedy them, and to bring down the powerful more than to raise up the downtrodden.
We develop compassion like a glossy photograph out of the scowling negative of our
malignancy. So we feel sorry for people not because they suffer what we would hate to, but
because they are wrestling with those whom we hate.

17 Polemical pity
Our pity is in great part polemical. It is as much a shot aimed at our enemy as a salve tendered
to the sick.

The woes of others are one of the best ways we know to prove our point.
Your creed, which you don’t quite believe in, frames a large portion of your sympathies and
affinities, which you don’t quite feel.

The circumference of our sympathy is exceedingly small. Cross the street, and you don’t know
the people there, and don’t care what they might be suffering.

Those who hold that all men and women are born equal can at least feel superior to the swine
who don’t. How nasty other people’s preconceived views are. And how I frown on those who
lack my own fine moral vigilance. Half our empathy would melt, if we weren’t so sure that it
would vex those whose prejudices smell so much more rank than our own.

A mob is both maudlin and punitive. It loves to pity almost as much as it loves to punish. But
what it most loves to pity is its own hard lot. And it will bow down to demagogues who prove
how much they pity it by persecuting its many enemies.

Indifference is the best we can hope for from others. ‘When others start to think of you,’ Céline
wrote, ‘it’s to figure out how to torture you.’ This seems to hold for the gods and fortune most of

18 Needless pity
Most people are too pitifully pleased with themselves to need your pity when they meet with a
reverse. And if they do need pity, they are more than capable of providing it for themselves.
They know so little of their hearts and think so much of their merits, that your sympathy for them
is as gratuitous as your revenge would be ineffectual. Pity and revenge are both vain, since
most people are too obtuse to feel the subtle pangs that they ought. Our vengeance, like our
tenderness, is too crude or too fine to impinge on the one whom it means to touch. Our soft
heart feels betrayed, when those whom it pities forsake their anguish. What right have they to
suffer less than we deem they should?

I don’t need others to pity me when I fail, since I never fail to spare myself the truth.

Shame and pride
Crafty confessions

We preserve our good conscience by practising our bad faith.

We don’t care what real carnage we cause, so long as it is not set before our eyes. Our decency
demands that we cover up the foul consequences of our deeds. A good society is careful to
conceal the brutal force on which its wealth rests. But there’s no need for it to be so scrupulous,
since its citizens don’t much mind.

Conscience, as Freud says, may chide you like a parent when you are young. But as you grow
up you have to train it to behave like a good child, to be seen and not heard.

The one weight harder to bear than our undeserved troubles is our deserved ones.

Remorse is one of the devil’s best ruses. Acknowledging one’s weak points may be the first step
towards correcting them. But it may just as well be the last excuse for not doing so.

1 Conscience and magic

Some people have scruples and inhibitions but no conscience, as some have gaudy
superstitions but no faith.

Superstitious people may feel more guilt for an unintended wrong than for an intentional one.
They justify their intended wrongs as necessary and fair retributions against their foes. But if
they can do harm unwittingly, they fear that they in turn might be punished despite their
blamelessness. They are ready to sponge every sin from their accounts. But their chance
misdeeds seem like someone else’s doing, and so they are less predisposed to wink at them.

You may feel less guilt for the wrongs that you have done than for those that you dread you
might do, which you fear will meet with a proportionately indeterminate punishment. ‘Present
fears are less than horrible imaginings.’

Bad conscience and remorse are like ghosts. Many of us claim to have been haunted by them
at some time, but few show any lasting effects.

2 Conscience and melodrama

It may be that people have crises of conscience only in books, though even in life they claim
that they do. When cleft between one temptation and another, they feel that they are torn
between desire and duty. Writers dramatize the moral choices which few of us have occasion to
make in life.

Most conscience has its place in literature and not in life. And most guilt has its place in magic
and not in morality. We superstitiously fear that a nonexistent cause might recoil on us as a real

To leave wrongdoers to the stings of their conscience is to let them slumber on a feather bed.


3 Shame and guilt
Morally dainty people grow furtive and mistrustful of their own fine intentions. And they feel
shame for some of their best deeds, though they still hope to win praise for them.

Why do some people go to such lengths to avoid feeling the gratitude or guilt which wouldn’t
oblige or inhibit them anyway? Sanctimonious people lumber themselves almost as heavily by
pretending to be held in check by their scruples as they would if they really were.

Shame, modesty and justice are forthright but shallow. And guilt, humility and mercy are deep
but dishonest.

I own up to acts that have shamed me, to show that they are nothing to me and so ought to be
nothing to everyone else as well.
4 Unforgiving shame
I don’t forgive those before whom I let my faults show. ‘You glimpsed his weak point,’ as Schiller
wrote, ‘and he won’t forgive you.’ I pardon people for the wrong they do me sooner than for a
humiliation that I bring on my own head in their presence. We are readier to forgive them for
mistreating us than we are for witnessing us misbehaving. They are guilty of seeing me at my
worst, and my shame gives them no quarter. ‘We often forgive those who bore us,’ La
Rochefoucauld says, ‘but we can’t forgive those whom we bore.’

Those who do unconscionable evil feel more easy in their minds than those who have suffered
it. These it coats in a sticky scurf, which they fear is apparent to all, whereas its agents deem
that they have dealt out a cleansing justice. It is the victims who wake with the clammy horror of
guilt upon them.

If to have an unspotted conscience is peace and happiness, then it’s evildoers who must be the
happiest of all. The damned in the pit of fire will be refreshed by cool springs of self-
righteousness, though they seethe with sanctimonious fury at the unjustness of their fate.

5 The pride of guilt

You need to learn what you have the right to be modest about, what you have the right to judge,
what to praise, and what to excuse. Is any of us entitled to give absolution to those who have
harmed others or to feel penitent for the blood-soaked crimes of the past, if we had no part in
committing or suffering them? Someone who has not been wronged has no right to forgive on
behalf of those who have. And to do so is a mere self-glorifying pose.

It may taste as sweet to confess as it does to crow. And it may be as presumptuous to pardon
as it is to convict. Moral play-actors are as keen to take on a confected guilt as they are to shirk
a real one. They force the note of their self-reproach, in order to play up their sensitivity.

Monsters of vainglory, such as Rousseau, love to show off their welts. It’s only terrible egotists
that feel terrible guilt. They swell the importance of all that pertains to them, even the wrongs
that they have done. People must take some pride in the misdeeds that they willingly confess.
Those who publicize their guilt must preen themselves on it. ‘We would rather speak ill of
ourselves,’ as La Rochefoucauld points out, ‘than not talk of ourselves at all.’

Saints lash themselves for their sins, but not one of them is humble enough to see that neither
they nor their sins matter.

6 The vanity of self-accusation

We freely own up to faults that we would crimson to have witnessed. ‘People,’ as Canetti wrote,
‘love as self-recognition what they hate as accusation.’ We accuse ourselves of flaws that we
would be incensed to be accused of by anyone else, since we judge ourselves by our own strict
standard, while they judge us by their lax one.

Conscience is indignant to be accused of the wrongs for which it pretends to feel guilty.

‘The human being,’ as Twain said, ‘always looks down when he is examining another person’s
standard.’ We may see quite well that we are despicable, yet still detest those who dare to
second our view. Those who make a show of their humility or penitence would fume if anyone
else were to treat them as they claim to believe is their due.

7 Conscience and convention
The shortest way to stay in touch with popular prejudice is by listening to your conscience.

Custom and conditioning weave for us a fine mesh of conscience when we are young, which
our impudence and self-interest then unpick as we grow older.

There is next to nothing that conscience can’t be trained to condone or to condemn.

Conscience is like language. You are not born with it. You have to be taught it. It fluctuates from
time to time and from place to place. And each of us speaks it with our own accent and
intonation and with more or less fluency.

Most people don’t feel the need to confess, as Goethe claimed they do. They confess only if
they have been conditioned or constrained to. And they choose which sins they will own up to,
and which they won’t, and to whom they do it.

Conscience plays the same part in our moral life as common sense does in our mental life. We
think that they are natural and universal. But they just keep us to the safe path laid down by

8 Conscience, the guard of habit

Conscience stands as the guardian of our habits. You can coach it to salute the wrongs that you
do each day. And it won’t meddle with you, so long as you don’t depart from your fixed ways.
Wilde notes how ‘the sin that we had done once and with loathing, we would do many times and
with joy.’

You cease to feel shame for shameful deeds, if you do them often enough. It’s the wrongs that
you do infrequently that make you feel uncomfortable.
The moral sense is a mirror. I gaze into it, and approve of what I look like most of the time, and
fret only when I swerve from this.

If you do our duty long enough, it becomes a joy. And if you practise injustice long enough, it
becomes your duty.

9 Power and conscience

How could those who wield power afford to feel keen remorse? They want to control as much as
they can, while feeling answerable for as little as they must. If you are the sort that can repent
the harm that you do, then you are not cut out to do great deeds.

No victor has an uneasy conscience. But a few have grown so rich on their depredations that
they can spend a bit of their surplus on the pretence that they do.

Notorious reprobates, such as Speer, though cognizant that all curse them for their crimes and
nerved to display their contrition, here and there let slip that they don’t quite grasp or recall what
it is they are supposed to feel so repentant for.

10 Profitable conscience
My conscience, like an attentive accountant, tots up the debts that others owe me to the last
cent. A well-groomed sense of right and wrong is more respectable and profitable than none at

A clear conscience costs so little, who would be without one?

The cudgelled are fond of recanting. It takes their mind off their defeat. And when their
conquerors are moralizing, as most of them are, then they may profit by it as well.

Our conscience doesn’t trouble us much, so long as we judge that we will lose nothing by our
bad deeds.

11 Confessing to escape the consequences

It’s advisable to blame yourself for a small fault now and then, so that others won’t blame you
for your big ones. I pity myself in the hope that others will do the same, and I accuse myself in
the hope that they won’t. So I pretend that I can’t spare myself, as a feint to get them to spare

I grant facts, so as to muddy my motives. I acknowledge what I have done, as a ploy to

misrepresent why I did it.
We confess in the hope of evading blame for the wrongs that we fear might be laid to our
charge. I admit my misdeeds, not because I feel that I ought to be punished, but because I trust
that I will be pardoned. So I acknowledge the derelictions that I know will be excused to the
people who I know will excuse me.

We are calculating even in our confessions. In my unbridled lust to lay bare my sins I still take
care to confide to those who love me too much to use my admissions to shame me or else to
those who could have no occasion to do so.

I don’t confess my real faults, because I know myself so little, or because what compels me to
confess knows the world too well. How mortifying to find out what were the real motives that
drove me to repent or mend.

12 Ineffective conscience
I feel morally healthier for having caught a mild dose of queasy conscience once in a while. But
my moral constitution proves more hale than I might have hoped. I’m too quick to recuperate
when my fits of heart-burning are past.

Our cowardice tells us that we are constrained by conscience more often than conscience
makes us cowards.

My conscience likes to scold me, since it is too weak to stop me. I’m willing to lend it a hearing,
on the proviso that it comes too late to hold me back from doing what I want to. I bear with its
stings, but kick back when it tries to put a brake on me. And I chafe at its prohibitions, but
lounge in its regrets. I leave it its teeth, but draw its venom. So when it bites me, I feel more
righteous and more alive.

Conscience is a still small voice, because it has grown hoarse with repeating admonitions to
which we pay no heed.

The pure and upright treat their foes with punctilious fairness, that they might be free to curse
them with an easy conscience. Or else they claim to be encumbered by principles so much
more stringent than those of their opponents, that they have a right to act unscrupulously so as
to even the odds.

Some few may have died of a broken heart, but are there any who have died of a guilty
13 The confidence of justification
People hide their mean acts and motives in the dark. And yet they have no doubt that they
would be vindicated if they were judged by God who knows their secret springs. If he showed
forth their true value they would be seated at his right hand. They may think that they want to be
saved, but all they want is to be rewarded.

My scrupulosity must have the eyesight of a lynx, since it can make out none but my most
microscopic flaws. It penalizes my small misdemeanours punctiliously, but my large ones

Having repented so often to no avail, this time I feel sure that I can make a fresh start. My
imperfections serve to reassure me that one day I will grow perfect.

If I feel contrite, then I must have a keen conscience. And if I have a keen conscience, then I
can safely do as I like. I’m licensed to do what I wish, since I can count on the pricks of my
compunction to hold me back from doing wrong.

14 The rationalizing animal

A human being is not a rational but a rationalizing animal. Don’t we strain our topmost
potentialities to extenuate our lowest compulsions and to find fine pretexts to whitewash our foul

Principled people, unlike boldfaced scoundrels, can’t bring themselves to do wrong if they don’t
have a high-sounding rationale to make it seem right. But they never have to go far out of their
way to find one.

We use our conscience to find rationalizations for our own sins and to smell out the sins of our
neighbours. Those who have a strict conscience are never at a loss to justify what they do or to
condemn what their enemies do.

Our faith in our own impeccable conscience is incorrigible.

15 Exceptions and exemplars

When people are deliberating on how they ought to act, they take it that they are exceptions to
the moral code. But when they judge how they have acted, they feel sure that they are
exemplars of it.

We frame strict statutes of conscience, but then suspend their operation. We treat each of our
needs as a state of emergency. And the need may be supplied by a crushing affliction or by a
compelling ambition. We use all occasions to excuse us from abiding by the rules that we have
laid down for ourselves. And we use our own destiny as a pretext to exempt us from the rules
that the world has laid down for us. ‘Every man, in his own opinion,’ Hazlitt says, ‘forms an
exception to the ordinary rules of morality.’ And we judge that we form exceptions to the rules
because we fulfil them so faultlessly.

I congratulate myself that I have such unique faculties, and excuse myself that I have common

16 Conscience as judge and defender

Conscience ordains the code by which it is your duty to live. But it also acts as your advocate to
abet you in circumventing it. If acute enough to arraign you, it will be astute enough to acquit
you. ‘The moral sense,’ Twain says, ‘enables us to perceive morality and how to avoid it.’
Conscience makes casuists of us all.

Our conscience pleads our suit more cleverly than we know. But it rarely needs to plead it as
cleverly as it does.

Conscience lays an accusation against us now and then, but it rarely comes to trial. Charges

Righteous people are like intransigent autocracies. They have laudable principles but no
division of powers and no dissent. Their remorse acts like a conscientious but compliant judge
in a state where the executive supervises the judiciary.

How could God be guilty, since who is there to punish him?

17 We justify ourselves by blaming others

What we hate in others we love in ourselves. The ruthless self-seeking that we detest in them is
the selfless assertion of the right on which we preen ourselves.

I try to blot out the wrongs that I do by reproaching others. I can reconcile myself to the ill-
treatment I mete out to them only by believing that it is they who are to blame for it.

Those who are threshed by shame at their own acts are far more affronted by the vileness of
others. Most of us keep a sense of blame parked where our sense of guilt ought to be.

If it weren’t for our fastidious conscience, how would we know who to blame for all the wrongs
that we do?

Most of us are cynical about the motives of others because we are so sanctimonious about our

We won’t lift a finger to see that right is done. But how we love to rail when others fail to do it.
Self-righteous people don’t suffer from bad conscience. But how they make others suffer, so
that they won’t have to.

The thorns of conscience all point outward.

18 Our conscience is strict with others

Bad conscience is something that we judge our enemies ought to suffer from, though we
suspect they don’t, and that we ought not suffer from, though we assume we do. And yet no one
suffers much from it at all.

Those who live under the eye of their own unsparing conscience will sharply spy through the
motives of others and find fault with them. Our scrupulousness makes us more punitive than
forbearing. Self-accusers whip others’ backs far more spitefully than they do their own.

I have no doubt that my conscience is strict with me, since it judges the rest of the world with
such severity. I’ve trained it to bark only at strangers.

We, who are all guilty, blaze with indignation when the guilty go free.

19 The pleasures of indignation

What sore grievances I would scarcely feel, if there weren’t someone that I could upbraid for
them. And what grave self-inflicted harms I would scarcely regret, if I can hold someone else
accountable for them.

Indignation is colic and conceit secreted as a moraline acid. And the righteous hope to ease
their own discomfort by vomiting their bile on others.

The scruples of a prim swindler don’t stay silent, but rattle with righteous anger, like the press in
nazi Germany. Our conscience magnifies our grievances as much as it minimizes our sins.

There are few injustices that would much concern us, if there weren’t some enemy whom we
could tear to shreds for causing them.

We would rather reprove a few people a lot than a lot of people a little. We want to believe that
people are luridly though sporadically cruel, but not routinely coldhearted. Our indignation
shines more bright and gives us more warmth, if it flames narrow and fervent.

For every gram of remorse in the world, there must be a ton of fault-finding indignation. And for
every one person who is racked by self-blame, there must be a thousand who burn for
20 Flattering conscience
I accuse myself of the most gratifying faults. And I find myself wanting in the traits that no one
would claim to want. I mutter that my worst flaw is that I am too modest, and that I lack the
cunning to tell the lies that would serve my own needs. You have not completed your moral
schooling, till you have learnt the trick of idealizing your own motives. Vanity sews tunics for our
moral nakedness. ‘All a man’s ways are clean in his own eyes.’

Conscience teaches us to be severe to others for their bad deeds, and indulgent to ourselves
for our fine intentions.

We may be frankly ashamed of ourselves, yet still do all that we can to imprint our blotched
image on the world.

We don’t so much conclude that we must be good people because we do good works. Rather
we take it that what we do must be good because we are such good people.

When someone dies whom I loved but left in the lurch, I take comfort that I did all I could to help
them. I rarely reproach myself for the wrongs that I have done to one who is no longer here to
reproach me.

21 Innocence
Why in the wake of each atrocity do we take refuge in the cordial lie that we were all innocent
and undefiled before it took place? How many times have we lost our moral virginity, and how
many times has it been miraculously restored? Sanctimonious people love to paw and slobber
over lost innocence, so that they can anathematize the unclean who have robbed us of it and
fire us up to take revenge on them.

Our moral childhood comes to a close when we find out that people may not be blameless just
because they’ve been misused, and that the downtrodden may behave as nastily as their

It is the perverse who retain their childish innocence. They have not yet found out how dear
evildoing will cost them and how viciously the world will punish them for flouting decent worldly
interests. Or else they are so mad that they don’t care.

Children seem so ingenuous because they are so unnatural. They are still rehearsing a part
which they don’t quite grasp. And they have not yet learnt the craft to hide their guileless
If there were a true saint on earth, he or she would stink in the fastidious nostrils of the

Power, we say, corrupts. And since there is always someone more powerful than us, we know
that we must be innocent. And so we must have the right to go on exercising our brutal power.

22 We know not what we do

We are all irredeemably guilty, since we know not what we do, though we so easily could. We
pretend not to know, so that we don’t have to care. And we don’t want to acknowledge the costs
of what we are doing, because we want to be free to keep on doing it. It is a devious kind of
ingenuousness. ‘Ignorance is not innocence but sin,’ as Browning wrote. Our sheepish
innocence is a crafty ignorance, which spares us an appalled awakening to the harm that we do.

People are too childishly pleased with the childish toys that they get when they grow up to
mourn the loss of their childhood innocence.

We all have a bad enough memory to keep up our good conscience.

A grownup has no right to be innocent.

Anyone who has a clear moral conscience must have an underdeveloped intellectual

23 Forgiveness
In the end all must be forgiven. Don’t we each need something or someone more than we are

Even those who pardon their enemies may have their hearts parched by the day to day
vexations of living with the ones they love.

We forgive people more for our own sake than for theirs. As Pavese said, ‘We forgive others
when it suits us.’

When I have a deep personal motive to loathe someone, I’m glad when they furnish me with a
fine moral pretext to mask it. I feel grateful to them when they put themselves in the wrong and
give me a chance to rain on them my lofty forgiveness. I resent them for their rectitude more
than for their faults.

How could you bear to forgive those from whom you have had to ask forgiveness? I repent most
of my admissions more than the wrongs that I admit to.
24 The virtue of despair
We must spare our fellows, not because they have it in them to do so much good, but because
they have it in them to do so little. ‘The greatest forbearance with people,’ says Ebner-
Eschenbach, ‘comes from giving up on them.’ The Lord remitted our sins, not because he
hoped that we might mend them, but because he knew that the imaginations of our heart are
evil from our youth. Mercy is one of the virtues of despair.

Some of us are forgiving because we care so much for principles or persons, and some
because we care so little.

We forgive people either because they mean so little to us or because they mean so much,
because we have no need of them or because we can’t get by without them.

Most people are sure that they have a right to unconditional love. But if they need it, then they
have no right to it. And if they have earned the right to it, then they have no need of it. ‘Most
people,’ Ebner-Eschenbach says, ‘need more love than they merit.’

To understand all is to forgive no more than half. You can find it in your heart to pardon those
who have done wrong, once you have grasped that their past made them unable to do
otherwise. But you can’t help but condemn them, when you glimpse that they were actuated by
motives still more vile than you might at first have thought.

Contempt may make you magnanimous, as confidence may make you modest.

25 Forgiveness and revenge

It is the heartless conquerors, such as Caesar or Alexander, that may be the readiest to
overlook the offences of their enemies. They love to display their scorn for them and to
emblazon the greatness of their own soul and victory. There is, as Billings notes, ‘no revenge so
complete as forgiveness.’

We can afford to forgive our enemies, because we hope that God will not. But we find it so hard
to forgive them, because we fear that he might. The saints spare their enemies, as a farmer
fattens hogs, to render them fit and seasoned for the everlasting oven. ‘For in so doing thou
shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.’ Lukewarm christians might not have found it so hard to
love their foes, if they had had more faith in the hell that they hoped they were on the way to.

It’s dismaying to discover what small gibes people will loathe you for, or for what dire offences
they will forgive you. ‘An injury,’ Chesterfield points out, ‘is much sooner forgotten than an
26 Tolerance
When people approve of me or bear with me, they show what a low value they set on me. I
don’t matter enough to rebuke or to resent. We think too poorly of most people to impute to
them grand faults. How could they be proud, when they have nothing to be proud of? How could
they be avaricious, when they have got so little? Why would they be vain, when, unlike us, they
have no grounds to be?

If we don’t judge, in most cases it’s because we don’t care.

The blight of intolerance bedevils the unbelieving no less than the bigot, the progressive no less
than the paternalist, and the thoughtful no less than the unthinking.

It’s not principles that are intolerant but the self that speaks through them.

Indifference may pass for tolerance, so long as it’s not asked to care. Then you see that it’s just
a ferocious attachment to its own cravings.

Impatient people feel free to waste other people’s time. Those who take it that they have a right
to the forbearance of others don’t see that they have a duty not to trespass on it.

27 ‘They ne’er pardon who have done the wrong’

There are some people whom we can’t forgive, not because of how much they have wronged
us, but because of how much we have wronged them. ‘They ne’er pardon who have done the
wrong,’ as Dryden, Tacitus and so many attest. We are ill-disposed to pardon those whom we
have hurt. And we are least willing to pardon the ones who have not deserved to be hurt. And
we don’t pardon them in order to demonstrate how much they deserved it. When I slide in my
victims’ blood or it splashes back on my robes of white, I curse them for making such a mess.
But I have the grace to forgive my enemies the harm that I do them, so long as they don’t spot
that it is I who did it.

We hate those whom we wrong. So it’s just as well that none of us sees how much wrong we
do. But we see just enough to make us as nasty as can be.

I loathe some people because I have done them so much harm, and others because I lack the
power to do them any harm at all.

We don’t forgive people for the first hurt that we do them. And then we prove how right we were
to do it by doing them more. ‘By aggravating a wrong,’ Hazlitt says, ‘we seem to ourselves to
justify it.’ Our indignation with them excuses the wrongs that we do them. And when we wrong
them a second time we grow all the more indignant with them. And yet some timid souls pity
those whom they wrong, so that they won’t have to see how much they have wronged them.

Power of illusion
Individual and state
Democracy of greed
Creative state

1 All change
We want everything to change. But we want it all to change in the same direction that it’s going,
since it all seems to be going so well for us.

We don’t mind if we’re on the road to nowhere, so long as we hope that we’ll get there quick.
We can’t stop now, or slow down, or go back. So we have to go on and on, faster and faster to
our doom.

People come to accept change not by theoretical arguments which prove its rightness but by the
accomplished fact that it has already been made. Our acceptance of change is itself a kind of
inertia and surrender to established conditions.

Timid people lose hope when affairs don’t alter, but they grow apprehensive when they do. They
hate and fear change. Yet they like to be always tinkering with a few things, just to shake them
up. They can’t bring themselves to make slight reforms till they have had great ones thrust on
them. They dread innovations which they adapt to with ease when they come.
It may be that society can be changed only by a revolution in the human soul. But the human
soul could be changed only if there were first a revolution in society.

We now have to stake all our hopes on change to set the world right, since change has sent it
so wrong.

A society can’t reach its maximum velocity till it has been horizontally flattened by equality.

Our overstuffed and unabashed age boasts that it can jettison the old ways and yet still profit
from the past.

It’s fatal to dig at our roots, just because they are so thin and shallow.

2 Radical and conservative

A true conservative should be, like Montaigne, jovial but not hopeful, and sceptical but not

Each camp is sure that history is on its side, conservatives because they are striving to pass it
on intact, reformers because they have learnt from its blunders, and incendiaries because they
are fulfilling its iron law of change. Radicals assume that they can throw off the yoke of the past,
reformers that they are ameliorating it, reactionaries that they can bring it back, and
traditionalists that they can hand it on unscarred. But it will form the future in ways that none of
them can forecast or control.

Bourgeois reformers plan to end the abuses by which they have profited. And bourgeois
revolutionists plan to end the liberties with which they have made free.

An autocracy that tries to regenerate, such as the France of Louis the sixteenth or the Russia of
the tsars or the catholic church, will shortly crash, as Tocqueville showed. But it won’t crash
because it tries to reform. It tries to reform because it has long been doomed to crash. Or else it
may grow more repressive for the same reason and with the same results.

3 The reactionary
Not freedom but restraint, not equalizing but subordination, not fraternity but the solidarity which
links one generation to the next. These alone might have saved us. But since we are too
uncontrollable to put up with them, we have no hope of being saved at all.

Reaction is the politics of despair. And so it is the one ideology that fits our desperate times. But
it’s also the one stance that we can’t bring ourselves to take up.

Reactionaries are despairing radicals. They know that it would take root and branch change to
save the world, and that it’s too late for that.
It’s not by freedom but by repression that human kind gains the power to make what is of real

When we let go of our few irrational first principles, the world rationally goes to hell. We are
sensibly sustained by our deranged delusions. ‘Banish sagacity, discard knowledge,’ Lao Tzu
says, ‘and the people will be benefitted a hundredfold. The sage rules by emptying their hearts
and filling their bellies.’

There’s no point trying to reintroduce communitarian and traditionalist values as one option in a
system of self-determining individualism. ‘Tradition,’ as Johnson said, ‘is but a meteor which, if
once it falls, cannot be rekindled.’

There is now nothing worth conserving. So a reactionary must first of all be a revolutionary. How
else could we retrieve the past but by seizing the future? ‘What is tumbling,’ Nietzsche says, ‘we
should still push.’ It’s only by pressing onward that a state can go back and recuperate its old

4 Aristocracy
A true aristocracy is self-selecting. How did the children of Israel come to be the chosen seed, if
not by choosing themselves? We must each work out our own rank with fear and trembling. Like
Raskolnikov, we must show that we have the right to our post by brusquely commandeering it.
But most of us by doing so prove that we don’t.

A deed counts for as much as the man or woman who does it. But the man or woman who does
it counts for no more than the deeds that he or she does.

The traits of a race may go so deep that they come out only in a small stock of its members.

An aristocracy is an invaluable institution made up of worthless individuals. An academy is a

worthless institution made up of notable individuals.

The old aristocratic states were the dominion of pride. The new meritocratic states are the
dominion of greed. They give rise to mediocrity in all but money-making, hustling and haggling.
‘There is not a single american,’ Tocqueville wrote, ‘who is not eaten up with the desire of
bettering himself, but you meet virtually no one who appears to cherish great hopes or to aim
very high.’

Monarchy was the narcissism of one man or woman. Aristocracy was the narcissism of a select
few. Democracy is the narcissism of all of us, and hence is that much more voracious and
5 The power of illusion
Knowledge may be power, but they gain most power who know how to use the ignorance of
others to bend them to do their will.

When illusion collides with illusion, the blood that they shed is real.

The real world is a battlefield of furiously competing illusions.

Those who crave power must fool their dupes so as to get their hands on it. And those who
have no power must fool themselves as a sop for failing to get it. The one thing denied to the
powerful is the freedom to speak or to hear the unvarnished truth. But they prize this as one
more privilege that their power has won for them.

Their schemes prosper so suavely, that hustlers don’t doubt that it serves us right when they
take us in. The fox scorns the chickens for having been ensnared with such ease. Powerful
people are contemptuous of the dupes they exploit.

This world is a realm of appearances because it is a realm of power.

6 The power of interests

Power is acutely vulnerable to friction. So those who have it must learn not to use it needlessly.
Like the gods, they resort to coercion only when they can’t gain their ends by fraud and
dissimulation. Lies that are not buttressed by force rule precariously. And force that is not
underpinned by lies costs too much. Dominion undoes itself by being too hesitant or too harsh
to no purpose. Totalizing states soon fall apart, because they are spendthrifts of their own
might. Democracy lasts longer because it is more frugal.

Interest is power, and illusion is power. And the most astute place-hunters know how to multiply
people’s self-interest by their illusions and how to put both of them to use to serve their own
ends. Politicians convert the interests of others into their own supremacy, as capitalists convert
the wants of others into their own wealth.

A political party, like a bird, has two strong wings and a very small brain.

Power corrupts people by enabling them to indulge their base will. And powerlessness corrupts
them by coercing them to compromise their high principles.
7 Popularity and the crowd
Intriguers, such as Nixon, steal the people’s love by being hated vociferously by the right
enemies. They know that if they make enough of these, they will make them all the friends they

Few things are more ticklish to control than public opinion, since few things are more easy to
manipulate. Like the surf, it is soon whipped up since it is all on the surface, and it’s blown this
way and that by the least flurry of wind. And now that it can be so minutely quantified, we are
more in its grip than ever. The crowd is persistently demanding but cheaply impressed.

The United States ended up with the worst of both federalist overreach and hillbilly jeffersonian

8 The demagogue
A populist politician is ready to do the right thing so long as it’s popular, and won’t do the
unpopular thing except when it’s wrong. When they have the courage of their convictions, it’s
others that will be sent off to die for them.

The demagogue rides into the new Jerusalem on a scapegoat.

Hypocrisy is one of the skills of true leaders. Sincerity is one of the ploys of political-brawlers
and populists.

The demagogue has to tell the public stupid lies, so that it will believe that he is as smart and
honest as itself.

A demagogue fans the crowd’s fears, so as to inflame its more malevolent resentments and
craving for power.

Some people rush to submit to a tyranny in order to stop others stealing their freedom.

9 Pretending to persuade
Trimming politicians use the currency not of belief but of personal trust. They don’t strive to
change your views but to hitch your self-interest to their cause. They know how to win your vote
even when you don’t believe what they say. Their aim is not so much to convince you as to
flatter you that they need to. They make do with facades, since they know that nothing in this
world has more force or substance. All they ask is that you should pretend to have faith in them,
since they are merely pretending to persuade you. And we don’t care what lies they tell, so long
as we calculate that they won’t hurt us. We are too shrewd not to allow their frauds to fool us.
Passion and convenience cue us to say what we don’t mean, so that we can make others
accept what they don’t believe.

Rabble-rousers economize not only with the truth but with falsehood as well. They are so skilled
in harmonizing appearances, that it’s rare that they need to tell a lie. ‘The best liar,’ as Butler
wrote, ‘is he who makes the smallest amount of lying go the longest way.’

10 Tartuffe at the ballot-box

The public demands to be lied to. And the first lie that it wants to be told is that it wants to be
told the truth. As Plato said, it is the most incorrigible of all sophists. One of the hardest jobs for
a lying politician is to keep pace with the pious dissembling of the public. It is so self-righteous,
that it leaves them no alternative but to act like prigs and charlatans. It tutors its representatives
to mimic its own hypocrisy, and then reviles them when they act like hypocrites. Having elected
them to lie to it, it then rages sanctimoniously when they are shown to have done so. And it
votes in one more rascal whose lies it hopes will yield it more loot.

The public expects its leaders to keep up the most scrupulous standards of tartuffery. They
might not act like whores if we didn’t urge them to it like avid lechers.

You can count on the people in their intermittent fits of disgust with the lies of politicians to flock
to the most impudent knave to save them.

We are smitten with those candidates who protest that they won’t act like slimy politicians, till
they refuse to bribe us with all a politician’s oily enticements.

11 The pretence of good intentions

In their efforts to seduce our prim pretences, malign leaders have to talk finer than they mean to
act, and well-meaning ones have to talk worse.

A democracy is a marketplace of competing lies, in which the majority sits in judgment on which
ones best seem to flatter its self-regard and feed its self-interest.

Our leaders must flatter us that we do our best at all times. But we do the least best that we can
get away with. And yet we do go as straight as we have to in our race to snap up as much as
we can. And most of us are ready to do the right thing once it’s too late to do any good. We
won’t wake to the horror that our greedy dreams have made till it’s too late to put a halt to it.

Governments now act both more equitably and more destructively than individuals. We want
them to deploy on our behalf the lucrative brutality which we don’t dare to use and to mouth the
showy virtues which we are too mean to pay for. We deem that groups or nations make
interests innocent. And we are proud to pursue in the mass schemes and stratagems that we
would blush to own up to as private citizens. As Cavour remarked, ‘What scoundrels we would
be, if we did for ourselves what we stand ready to do for Italy.’ But fetterless individualism now
grants to each of us the right to act as recklessly as a mob.

12 Democracy
The seven deadly virtues of democracy are liberalism, individualism, consumerism, humanism,
technomania, universalism and nationalism. They will end up overturning all the restraints that
make life possible.

Democracy swings back and forth from a condescending universalism to a craven relativism.

In our consumer democracies all politics is performed as a series of fierce wrangles over small

No one now dares fault democracy itself. And we don’t dissent from the government line unless
to object that it ought to be more democratic.

Democracy is the narrowest and most wolfish oligarchy that has ever been. As Tocqueville
showed, it excludes the true majority, that of the past and the future, those who are gone and
those still to come, the earth and its tutelary gods. It disenfranchises all but the iron cohort of the
here and now.

The social contract is not a pact made by the people to protect the rights of all. It is made by
property-holders to protect their goods from the predations of the propertyless.

A regime of human rights is better at extending the rights of those who already have some than
at protecting the rights of those who have none.

13 Flattery and warfare in democracy

What two prescripts must all the people’s tribunes heed? Woo the rabble’s truculent self-regard,
and gorge the gaping jaws of its greed. How could they hope to win the public’s trust, if they
don’t start by flattering its judgement? No one, said Tocqueville, ‘whatever be his eminence, can
decline to pay this tribute of adulation to his compatriots.’

We live in an age of mass swagger and mass flattery. Common people are now too proud to
court those in power. But those in power must stoop to fawn on those below them. They bow
down to the electorate the better to tie its hands. The day that Burke feared has come, when
rulers act as ‘flatterers instead of legislators, the instruments, not the guides, of the people.’
Kings and queens used to thank the Lord for enduing them with humility. Demagogues now
thank the mob, which clamours to be grovelled to the whole time. It refuses to be fooled till it has
been flattered how shrewd and discerning it is.

Democracy has taught dictators that even the masses are worth exterminating. War used to
slay only the combatants, who were a small cadre of highborn men. Now it massacres vast
conscript armies and civilian populations as well. Mass persuasion makes all of us worth
deceiving. And mass warfare makes all worth slaughtering. ‘The wars of the peoples,’ Churchill
warned, ‘would be more terrible than those of kings.’

14 Liberty, equality, fraternity

The french revolution bore a monster with three heads, democracy, which promises too much
liberty, socialism, which imposes too much equality, and nationalism, which enforces too much

Liberty sets a limit to equality. Equality puts a halter on liberty. And fraternity does away with
both. Liberty and equality form a toxic compound. And when mixed with fraternity they form an
explosive one.

15 Liberty
A state thrives by the liberty and vigorousness of its citizens which will soon rip it apart. And it
must strive to free them from its own might, which is the one force able to secure their freedom.

Our love of freedom is no more than our infatuation with our power.

A liberal state is one that hosts more parasite lawyers than productive engineers.

With true freedom comes responsibility. But we want the kind of freedom that allows us to act

In the next hundred years the masses will prove how woeful they can make their plight without
the need of gods or great men to prey on them. They will at last be free to do just as they
please. And they will use their freedom to pull down the sky on their own heads.

A society made up of shameless self-admirers will place no value on privacy.

Free speech is a right, but free thought is a duty. And we much prefer to press our rights than to
fulfil our duties.

A democracy needs free media to tell its citizens what they think.

We don’t want freedom for ourselves, but dominion over others and all the earth.

The more we optimize the conduits of communication, the more we degrade their content.
16 Equality
Nature seeds superiorities. But the state singles out which types it will water and cause to grow.

We need to hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal,
endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, because it is so evident that they are
not. People are not equal. They are incommensurable. And on any scale by which we can
measure them they don’t come out equal. And what rights has nature, our creator, endowed us
with? A self-evident truth is one that lacks all evidence.

17 Equal in conceit
We are all born equal in conceit. And so we are obliged to avow that we are all born equal.
‘There are no grades of vanity,’ as Twain points out. We have each been apportioned the same
sum of it, to offset the manifest disparities of our talents and fortunes. Conceit cuts us off from
others, and yet is common to us all. It makes us think we must be extraordinary, but it is one of
the most ordinary things about us. It is the great leveller, which clips us back to equality while
congratulating us on our uniqueness. Each of us now has an entitlement to the security of being
equal and the vanity of feeling special.

Now that we are all equal, we each have to compete feverishly to show that we are an inch
more equal than our peers.

18 Equal by shared superiority

Take away rank and superiority, and equality goes too. The members of one group are equal
only by virtue of their shared difference from other groups. Equality results from the enforcement
of ranks, differentiations, layers, gradings, tiers and hierarchies. A class comes to be coequal by
asserting its own rights over those that are lower than it. And it maintains its own equality by
refusing it to all the rest, and this is what it calls justice and fair-dealing. It constitutes itself as a
class by severing itself from all the others.

Each successive age is sure that it has set up a perfect justice, since it has enlarged the caste
that is equal and therefore empowered to mash all those that are below it.

19 Class
The middle class makes the future of a state. The working class will make no more than its
future middle class. The bourgeoisie is the sole revolutionary class, as capitalism is the sole
system that is continuously revolutionizing itself. The proletariat is the obsolete tool of one of its
The sole drive that unites the members of the proletariat is their shared determination to climb
out of it.

The middle class watch politics and vote for a party as the lower class watch sport and shout for
a team.

20 The voracious present of democracy

‘People will not look forward to posterity,’ Burke warned, ‘who never look backward to their
ancestors.’ Posterity is always in the right. And democracy will prove how wrong it was by
leaving no posterity. But it won’t care, since it will have had its day of repletion. Democracy has
cancelled our compact with all those who will come after us. It devours the future to stuff its own
insatiable maw. It lives entirely for the present, and won’t make a thing that will outlast it. The
present presumes that the ordinances of the past have no right to bind it. And yet it usurps the
right to eat up the inheritance of the future.

We presume that the only people who matter are the ones that are alive now. But all the people
who matter are long since dead. And we are the hungry ghosts who haunt this world of
voracious mediocrity. We ‘but live where motley is worn.’

The ravening majority of the hour outvotes the select majority of the ages. The living are like the
rich and well set-up, free to tread on or neglect the dead, who are as defenceless as the poor
and despised.

21 Fraternity
We are all brothers and sisters. Why else would we hate each other so bitterly? Fraternity is a
fratricidal virtue. It tells you who your comrades are, so that you can band with them to slaughter
the aliens who are not. It takes for its byword, as Chamfort said, ‘Be my brother, or I kill you.’

A shared resentment links a stronger bond than a shared love, since it is forged from our lust for
power. We love singly, but we loathe in common. We are united by what we hate, but we are
divided by our desires.

A capitalist state stands in such danger of being torn apart by its competitive greeds, that it can
be held together only by its shared fears and hatreds of internal or external enemies.

Every nation, like each one of us and our whole species, is sure that it is exceptional yet central,
unique yet indispensable. Tell it that it’s the chosen race, and you are sure to have avid

In order to win the people’s hearts, you have to give them an enemy to hate and a pretext to
love themselves more. And this is not hard, since they’re so ready to do both.
Nationalism is a cancerous growth of decrepit nations in their second childishness. It is the
frenzy of adolescent minds in a senile polity.

We venerate the flag at the same time as we vandalize the land.

22 The social bond

Society is held together not by truth but by lies, not by love but by jealousy, not by charity but by
avarice, not by justice but by rivalry, not by courage but by cowardice.

Society holds together, because each of us agrees to keep in check our hostile intents, since we
know that the harm that others could do to us is far greater than the small sum of good that they
might wish to do to us.

What unites us most deeply is our shallow selfishness. And what we share with others is a
brittle compromise with their wants and fears. If we weren’t so egoistic, we would have much
less in common with people.


23 Rights
We must act as if we all had the same rights, since we quake to think what we might do to each
other if we did not.

Global capital spreads universal rights and values, so that it can circulate round the world more

How stridently people now clamour for their rights. And how contentedly they lived without them
for thousands of cruel years.

Nature, which is our generator, snips our thread capriciously, has not made us free, and makes
a mock of our pursuit of happiness. Nature deals with each one of us as the nazis dealt with the
jews, subjecting us to pointless and excruciating experiments before it kills us. ‘Heaven and
earth are ruthless,’ as Lao Tzu says. ‘They treat the ten thousand things like straw dogs.’ And
we now do the same to nature as a whole. We grant our own kind a fictitious troop of rights so
as to make war on her.

We now insist on our right to know. Yet we seal our eyes to all the bad news. ‘Prophesy not
unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits.’
24 Individualism
The melodramatic form of bourgeois individualism appears in the sphere of faith as revivalism,
in the sphere of art as romanticism, in the sphere of the emotions as rousseauism, in the sphere
of thought as existentialism, in the sphere of the spirit as transcendentalism, and in the sphere
of ethics as byronism.

Catholicism commands obedience to a crooked human corporation. And protestantism

commands disobedience to all but the crooked human conscience.

We fashion our individuality by our choices of the things we want. And yet we learn to want what
we do from the choices that others make.

25 The system shapes the individual

The individual does not shape the system, the system is prior to the individual and shapes it.

In a system of free choice each choice entrenches the system, and no choice could change it.
Yet we love to be told that change starts now with this choice.

The system can leave its citizens free to choose what they want, because it has shaped them
as consumers that want the sorts of things that the system wants to give them.

Where each of us is free to choose, the course of the future is fixed by the system of choice.

In order to solve the problem of production, factory capitalism had to shape its workers as a
globular mass. But in order to solve the problem of demand, consumer capitalism has had to
divide the middle class into diverse individuals.

26 The individual, the economy and the state

People do not shape the economy as they wish. The economy fabricates the sort of people that
it needs in order to run it efficiently. They are not the cause of the kind of economic system they
form part of, but one of its effects. And the ultimate product of mass capitalism is the individual
consumer, shorn of its past, its roots, its regional links, its ethnic identity and its corporate
memory, free to move unencumbered through the wonderland of the world market, in its orgy of
getting and spending. It’s this that makes for the unrestrained proliferation of wants and the
unrestrained multiplication of profit.

The individual is one of those illusions which have had such disastrous effects in the real world.
‘An imaginary cause,’ Gibbon wrote, ‘is capable of producing the most serious and mischievous
Individualism will steadily grind down the world’s finely graded diversity to oblivious uniformity.
By liberating all our manifold desires, it will make the lush world the same everywhere. To the
end that the world might be globalized, each of us must first be individualized. Once we have
been freed to choose, we all pick from the same stock of homogenized commodities of the
world market. ‘Variety is disappearing from the human race,’ Tocqueville wrote, ‘the same ways
of acting, thinking and feeling occur in every corner of the globe.’

27 The atomized individual and the centralized state

Now there is nothing but the atomized individual and the centralized state. There is no
obedience or allegiance to what should lie between them, no loyalty to class, creed, clan, guild
or locality.

The economy eats away the commons from below, and the state stamps on it from above.

The modern state exists to serve the greed of the individual. And the atomized individual exists
only to add to the power of the centralized state.

Capitalism atomizes individuals, the better to aggregate capital.

Between the boundless greed of the individual and the boundless force of the state the green
earth will be pounded to a mash.

28 Individualism shrinks the individual

Individuals are all that matter, since they alone give birth to great achievements. But regimes
are all that matter, since they alone breed great individuals.

Fine capacities flourish only where foul injustice stunts most fine capacities. Preeminent
individuals are reared by states in which a privileged caste has the sole charter to make
individuals. Strong individuals are made by strong forms, laws, castes, traditions and authorities.
And where these are decayed, the individual will be as weak as they.

Where there are only individuals, there will be nothing but mass.

Mass individualism spawns an infestation of narcissists, but few individuals. As Kraus wrote,
‘where every scatterbrain has individuality, individuality becomes scatterbrained.’ And now that
there are so many billions of us on earth, there is not enough individuality to go round.

The human race now contains so many zeroes, that its value comes close to infinity.

The system of mass individualism caters to the mass part of each one of us, and starves the
best and most individual part.
We have the greedy individualism which will devour everything. But we lack the generous
individualism that could create anything. We live in the epoch of the indiscriminate ant hill.

29 States and peoples

A people loses its identity as it asserts its nationality. ‘Where there is still a people,’ Nietzsche
said, ‘it does not understand the state and hates it.’ But now that there are no distinct peoples,
all that we know or trust in is the state. And now that jews have a state like the rest of us, they
are at risk of becoming as stupid as the rest of us.

Distinct peoples had to be pulverized in order to turn us all into a mass of individuals, who could
then be aggregated in centralized states and co-opted into the world market.

In a monarchy the king or queen may have held unchallenged sway in the state, but the state
itself was weak and limited. In a democracy there are a host of checks on governmental power,
but the state is strong and omnipresent. ‘Nothing is strong in a democracy,’ Tocqueville wrote,
‘save the state.’

As the community grows more atomized, the state comes to be more centralized. And as the
state comes to be more centralized and standardized, it compels each of us to grow more

30 Totalitarianism and democracy

Liberal regimes license individuals to do what they want. And authoritarian regimes license the
state to do whatever it wants. Totalitarianism used all the power of the state to trample on the
mass of individuals. And democracy frees the mass of individuals to trample on the whole earth.
Totalist states are noxious to humans. Democracy is noxious to nature.

Totalitarian states outlaw or draught all the forms and customs of civil society. Democracy,
which sets up personal desire as the sole canon of value, abandons them to die of neglect.

Totalitarianism is the birth throes which nations go through when they try to modernize too fast.
Or it may be the shortcut that undeveloped countries take to grow into liberal market ones. It
makes use of the machinery of the state to pulverize the intermediate framework of civil society
so as to leave nothing but atomized consumers.

Despotism and fundamentalism are two harnesses which help to keep a state strapped together
so that it won’t disintegrate while it’s hurtling towards modernity.

Democracy panders to the optimistic egoism of greed. And totalitarianism panders to the
pessimistic egoism of fear. And an agitator who knew how to yoke these dual passions would
soon be unassailable.
31 The paradox of toleration
The paradox of pluralism. The more we tolerate differences, the fewer differences there will be
to tolerate. As we make room for personal differences within the state, we will flatten the abiding
differences between states which make for dynamic cultures. By trying to show respect to
differences we raze them.

In a tyranny all are forced to think the same, and in a republic all are free to choose to.
‘America,’ as Tocqueville wrote, ‘is a country where they have freedom of speech but all say the
same thing.’ Where everything can be spoken, we all grasp that truth is the one thing that no
one wants to hear.

As human kind grows more unified in the present, it is more and more cut off from all its many

Intolerant societies keep alive the diversity between cultures. Tolerant societies which allow for
the free intercourse of peoples and ideas reduce the globe to an undifferentiated mass.

32 The fruits of intolerance

Thought thrives best where it has less than total licence. ‘Freedom of thought and spiritual
freedom grow best under absolutism,’ as Ibsen said. But the state now sanctions its citizens to
speak as they wish, since it knows that it can trust them all to think alike. ‘People,’ says
Kierkegaard, ‘never use the liberties they do have, but demand those that they don’t have. They
have liberty of thought, they demand liberty of speech.’

When lawgivers censor artists for moral or political ends, they free them from ministering to
moral or political aims. Censorship has hitherto been the sole contribution that the state has
made to art. It has acted as the shears which prune and preserve art and stop it from going to
seed. Now everything is permitted, and nothing is possible.

Great writers are safely secretive yet dangerously indiscreet. They keep up the front of the
herd’s everyday decencies, but indecently strip bare its seamier truths.

33 Utopia
The state can’t make its citizens happy, but for most of time it has made their life unspeakably
grim. The rare outbreaks of justice in world history have provoked reigns of terror, as projects of
mass welfare have led to mass wretchedness. When flesh and blood presumes that it is made
for heaven, it is sure to make for its own flawed self a hell. Utopias serve to remind us how
much worse our life might have been.
We deem a good society to be one that would prize our own métier at a higher rate. In a
philosopher’s utopia philosophers reign as kings, and in a dentist’s utopia dentists do.

Human kind has spent as little effort imagining its utopias as it has to make them real. It’s as
mindless in planning them as it has been merciless in policing them. They are all as dull and
predictable as they are vain and impractical. We have too much obsessive fantasy not to go on
projecting them, yet too many unruly cravings to confine ourselves to them.

A utopia aims to operate as an atrocious engine of correction on those who, unlike its founders,
are not yet fit for it.

Democracy has debased progress as it has debased all that it has touched. In the past
philanthropists hoped that humankind, unfettered and right-thinking, would one day rise to a
moral perfection. Now the most glorious goal we can aim at is to get rich.

34 The immaculate majority
Under mass rule the majority is blessed with an unimpeachable innocence. Not the least
offence is to be laid at its door. These days the multitude must be fawned on for all its fake
virtues and exonerated from all its frank crimes. Like our sycophancy and our sentimentality, our
indignation has now been democratized. All our ills must be the doing of some sinister minority.
As Tocqueville said, the common herd ‘lives in the perpetual utterance of self-applause.’

The herd is always wrong, even when by some fluke it turns out to be in the right once in a
while. Even if it hits on the right conclusion, it will be for the wrong reasons. Fickle in all but self-
flattery, it will be retracting tomorrow what it is espousing today. ‘Surely the people is grass.’ But
we now know that the majority must be right, since the majority says so, and even the minority
bows to its high good sense.

To be out of step with the compact majority is the beginning of virtue.

35 The democracy of greed

The will of the people has redeemed greed, and christened it as the one virtue that all are
obliged to practise. Each of us now has a right to seize as much as we can, and a duty to grab
more than we have, so long as we don’t get in the way of the rest as they try to do the same. It
is now our wants that lead us to cleave to our liberties. We wage wars to make the world safe
for plutocracy. The sole freedom that most of us care for is the freedom to get and spend.
Greed is the irreproachable democratic vice, and the sole democratic virtue. ‘For the many,’ as
Aristotle points out, ‘are more eager to make a profit than to win honour.’ We conveniently fail to
identify it except when it is out of all reason, in the few who have a vast deal more than the rest
of us. It is the vice of a corrupt minority. And so it is in no way like our own praiseworthy desire
to make life better for ourselves and ours.

36 The get-rich quick scheme of democracy

Bygone epochs used to feast the rapaciousness of a small favoured class. Our own calls all of
us to share in the spree. The moderate greed of the multitude will chew up far more of the earth
than the monstrous greed of the few.

The old patrician states chose the long glory of the few before happiness. Our new democracies
choose the instant greed of the many before happiness.

Democracy is a get rich quick scheme which has bankrupted civilization and beggared the

Greed, in the guise of the work ethic, is the first duty of the citizen in a democracy.

Republican virtue sprang up as a tall tree with shallow roots, which was soon dug out to plant
the squat but more robust bush of democratic greed.

Capital makes the climate of democracy. The state makes only its day to day weather.

37 The greed of left and right

Our grand struggles for justice are mere squabbles over how to divide the spoils won by our
injustice. The factions in a democracy are cartels contending to snatch the most loot to portion
out to their members, the left to those who have not earned it, the right to those who have no
need of it.

Capitalism will degrade the globe to a vast factory to stock a vast shopping mall. And socialism
will reduce what is left to a vast sickroom. The right would burn up the earth as an unholy
offering to liberty and material self-interest, and the left to equality and moral self-conceit.

Because capitalism was so successful in solving the problem of production, the whole world had
to be turned into a consumer free-for-all, to soak up its excess commodities.

A conservative is now someone who insists on their right to keep on consuming in the careless
way that they’ve grown used to, which is the very thing that has turned the old world on its head.
They aim to conserve the economic structures which have torn apart all the things that would
have been worth conserving. They want nothing to change, so as to be left free to get and
spend in the same way that is bound to change everything.

Conservatism is a symptom of the disease that it claims to cure. It fuels a system of permanent

Collectivism does not do away with the capitalist lust for gain. It merely redistributes it.

Capitalism is more contagious than communism, as greed is more addictive than envy.

38 Democracy and unrestraint

Personal unrestraint is one of the system requirements of capitalism. And civilization has come
apart, not, as Freud claimed, by too much repression of our natural instincts, but by too much
indulgence of our competitive greeds.

As it can make all the goods that it wants, capitalism must enforce a system of unrestraint so
that all its goods will be bought.

To bring down the system would require not hope and audacity but restraint. And restraint is the
one thing that the system does not allow.

Capitalism has an accelerator but no steering-wheel. It keeps us going so fast, that we can’t
change our course.

A democracy is able to do everything but check its ungovernable appetites. Its animating
principle is lack of self-control. The people has won the right to rule itself, but has lost the
strength to restrain itself.

Our species would rather kill itself than control itself.

Our collective illusions used to hold us back. Now the atomized dreams of our greed lash us on.

Capitalism puts even prudence to its worst use. It was once modest, cautious and saving. Now
it is hungry, money-grubbing, and always on the make.

As Burke wrote, ‘Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put
moral chains on their own appetites.’ But the sole kind of liberty that we now crave is that which
breaks all the chains off our own appetites.

39 The golden calf

The state used to try to keep in check the greed of its citizenry. Now its sole task is to feed it.
For the last two centuries democracy has drummed into our ears that we are mature enough to
be free. So it’s too late to put a brake on our childish desires, now that they have caused such
giant havoc. It grants a limitless licence to beings who lack the will or capacity to curb their
limitless cravings.

The modern state has turned into a cow of gold, dispensing day by day the milk of human
kindness from its distended udders. The state used to make serfs of its citizens by brutally
repressing them. Now it does so by benevolently indulging their wants.

Democracy robs the populace of the self-determination which they need if they are to act as
good participants in a democracy. By rendering them mild and compliant, is it readying them to
be offered as helpless prey to a coming god of blood? It is the benignant dictatorships that are
the most degrading. They don’t confiscate our freedom by force, but lure us to give it up of our
own volition. As Tocqueville wrote, the caesarism that democracy might lead to ‘would be more
widespread and kinder, it would debase people without tormenting them.’ In our sheep’s
paradise it is the sheep who swathe the wolf in sheep’s clothing, so that they can feel safe that it
won’t eat them.

40 Emancipated to be slaves of greed

All the liberators of the previous two centuries, who crowed that they were sabotaging
capitalism, were in fact fortifying it, by enfranchising more and more of us to get and spend.
They untied us from the restrictions of all the old authorities, only to bind us to the tyranny of our
own desires. Greed makes all the revolutions. But it drapes itself in the tricolour of equity to lead

It was the sledgehammer of avarice that broke the slaves’ manacles, ‘not,’ said Tocqueville, ‘for
the sake of the blacks, but for the sake of the whites.’ They were sure to be emancipated, once
their taskmasters learnt that they toil more compliantly when they have been loosed from their
fetters. Liberate them, and they labour as productively as robots. ‘The work done by free men,’
Adam Smith points out, ‘comes cheaper in the end than that performed by slaves.’ Slavery was
abolished, not because it is immoral, but because it had become obsolete. Profit needs
employees and consumers, not slaves.

Mammon is a jealous god. It won’t rest till it has untethered all of us to buy and sell, and has
snarled us all in the net of the world market.

Now that people are free to do what they want, they have no choice but to work as hard as they
can to get more of what everyone else wants.

These days, when all of us have sold our souls as willing slaves, we are indignant that there
were once forced ones.
41 The solvent of civilization
Money has no memory, and leaves none. It is the solvent of time. It scorns the past as a dead
force which would trammel its desires. And since it has no stake in the future, it feels no
remorse for the rich heritage that it’s squandering. Why should it mind if the game will be broken
up the minute it has raked its own winnings off the table? And why would it care to bequeath a
slow and exacting work to live on in our remembrance? Our world and its predatory scheming
will soon be consigned to the oblivion which is all that it deserves. What we leave for our heirs
will be not a lavish civilization but a meagre economy.

How could capitalism make anything that lasts, when it puts no value on work that is not for
immediate gain?

Greed is the voracious now labouring to fill the future with its sieve of gold.

The world that we hand on will prove how much we craved and how little we mattered.

Money acts like an Archimedes lever, which has wrenched the world from its rightful station.
And nothing now could put it back in its proper place.

When we are rich enough to get all that we want, we will grow used to choosing the worst that is
on offer.

Our age has left off aspiring to the best. And so all we can do is try to grab hold of the most. And
thus we will soon hack our way to the worst. ‘It will rob and plunder and accumulate into one
place,’ as Blake says, ‘but not make.’

42 Degenerate democracy
All things go to seed in the rank air of democracy. All forms of democracy are bad, and they get
worse the closer they come to its pure form.

43 The creative state
A whole culture to breed one or two spendthrift generations, and a whole generation to breed
half a dozen choice men and women, and half a dozen men and women to make a few
masterful books, buildings, theories, symphonies and statues. But now that each one of us have
been taught that we are unique, none of these half dozen will be made. All ancient Zion toiled to
write one book. And the whole of heaven heaved to bring forth the Quran.

All noble societies know that life is a means and not an end.
Humankind makes good its claim to be here by its few inhuman exceptions. Life is justified only
by what transcends it.

It takes a ton of societal repression to set free a few artists to make art.

We have made for ourselves a material opulence and a spiritual squalor. And we are so proud
of our handiwork.

People used to be oppressed by the material squalor which they couldn’t escape. Now they
delight in the spiritual squalor which they have chosen.

All epochs are spiritually impoverished. But the great ones have enriched their heirs with works
which redeemed their poverty of soul.

44 The creative class

The ruling class lends a state its order. And the middle class lends it its force. A society grows
pregnant when its old lordly forms are fertilized by the unresting dynamism of the bourgeoisie,
which is invigorated by its new freedom and by its ancestral animosities. Most of the finest art
has been brought forth by states in which a hereditary military caste was giving place to a new
mercantile gentry.

The upper class ought to rule, since it is good for nothing else. When the merchant class rules,
it makes itself good for nothing at all.

Artists and intellectuals rise out of the middle class to rebel against the middle class.

45 Creative violence
Civilization sprang up as an accident of barbarous patrician despotisms. Mass rule has now torn
it out and supplanted it with commerce and kitsch.

Civilization is shaped by essential violence and superfluous grace. It weds sophistication to

savageness, to breed a turbulent but abounding creation. It mates the force of instinctual
energies with the force of constraint and organization.

Past civilizations were hard like a diamond or the claws of a jaguar. Ours is hard like a rock drill
tearing up the earth. Previous epochs were realms of force. Ours is the realm of mass.

The sweet works of imagination, whose creation and contemplation make life worthwhile, were
framed when life for most people was not worth living. And now that we have made life worth
living for most people, we have lost the power to frame the sweet works which make it
‘We can conceive of nothing great,’ Nietzsche says, ‘which does not involve a great crime.’ You
can tell the great seminal periods by the stench of charred corpses from their uprisings and
unrest, invasions, intrigues, pogroms and witch-hunts, rapine, persecutions, conspiracies,
crusades, butcheries and liquidations. Would Europe have been reborn in the renaissance, had
it not been waked by gunpowder, seditions, usurpations, assassinations, schisms, demographic
slumps, depressions, inflations, dynastic disputes and epidemics? ‘Their crimes conspired to
make ’em great,’ as Mandeville wrote. Civilization thrives close to violence, as the most fertile
loam sits on the slopes of volcanoes. ‘Build your settlements on the inclines of Vesuvius,’ urged

46 Creative inequality
‘The sole live societies,’ Claudel wrote, ‘are those that are energized by inequality and injustice.’
We can’t eradicate unhappiness. And by seeking to do so we will only sterilize all excellence. So
we must choose between large achievement and a shrunken justice. There will be no grand
civilization where there are no gross inequalities. We surrender to a levelling sameness, and so
lose the gift for freewheeling imagination.

Exorbitant wealth corrupts the state. But deplorable inequality may stimulate its highest
energies. Vast and murky earnings form the muck in which civilizations flower. They were all
bedded in the foul mire of usury or extortion. But our once fecund culture has made itself a
eunuch for the kingdom of Mammon’s sake. It lacks the sap to make anything but money.

47 Meritocracy, mediocrity and democracy

The merit that meritocracy rewards is the sort of competent mediocrity that can be put to use to
fill the present need.

Merit is flattened and cooped by the conditions which make a meritocracy, its compulsive
tabulating and bureaucratic gradations. A meritocracy opens the field for all sorts of talents,
barring the few that are worth nurturing. If you hope to make headway in one, you must be
extraordinarily good at being average. You must excel at being second-rate. As Tocqueville
said, ‘They strain their faculties to the utmost to achieve paltry results, which soon cannot fail to
narrow their vision and restrict their powers.’

Our age smelts the gold of genius to coin the small change of huckstering innovation.

Meritocracy cheapens true merit by rewarding mediocrity so exorbitantly.

In our meritocracies we now mistake success for merit, as in monarchies they used to mistake
birth for merit. In feudal states the talentless were born at the top. But in a commonwealth they
must grope their way up to it. In days of old, as Shaw said, only martyrs and kings could win
fame without the need to earn it. Now anyone can.

48 War and civilization
War is not an aberration from civilization. It is its quintessence. They are both structurings of
energy and violence. Their patron deity is Minerva, the goddess of order and intelligence, not
Mars, the god of chaotic savagery. Only those species, such as ants, that have cities,
federations, agriculture, specialization, organization, territorial demarcations, intricate modes of
communication and complex communal codes, will wage war as well.

Cultures have warriors, civilizations have armies. Cultures fight skirmishes, civilizations fight

The same obedience that makes dutiful citizens in peace makes diligent killers in war. ‘It is,’
Brodsky says, ‘the army that finally makes a citizen of you.’

War is the one grand altruistic act that has pervaded the whole course of our growth. Solidarity
can be mobilized on a vast scale only where it is in the service of aggression against a common
enemy. So people will lay down their lives in large numbers only if it gives them the chance to
kill those whom they have learnt to look on as their foes.

War is, as Heraclitus said, the father of all. Pacifism won’t cut its throat. It will only castrate it.

A state that can’t make war won’t make much else. Those who lack the daring to destroy will
lack the courage to create.

War is not the locomotive of history but its signal-switch. It sends the train off on a loop from
which it may take years to find its way back, as it did subsequent to the two world wars. Hitler,
Lenin or Mao were outrageous aberrations who made their detours through seas of gore.

The second world war began abjectly with the appeasement of one tyrant who had just annexed
half of Europe, and it finished triumphantly with the appeasement of another.

49 The end of war

In our quest to bring peace to the earth, we will gradually give in to a global despotism.
Governments that pledge to make their citizens secure from all hazards will soon have them
consenting to be serfs. By endeavouring to render fear needless, we will make bravery otiose.
A world in which we have made all things safe would be one not worth protecting. As Franklin
said, those who trade liberty for security have forfeited their right to both. But we will be sure
that we have grown surpassingly wise and good when we are all of one mind that we have no
principles worth contending for.

Those who judge that no cause is worth dying for will soon find that they have no cause that is
worth living for.

Capitalist states have lost the will to fight the wars which might solve their periodic crises of
over-production by stimulating aggregate demand and removing excess supply. So now they
have to depend on debt to do it. And soon they may have to count on man-made natural

50 The art of war

The art of war, like the art of rhetoric, seeks to make the lesser force the greater. Out of slim
differences it spins decisive advantages. It turns your vulnerabilities into strengths, and your
enemy’s strengths into vulnerabilities, correcting your own weak points and capitalizing on your

To win allies is more desirable than winning wars. And to refuse to give battle may be the best
defence. ‘To subdue the enemy without a fight,’ Sun Tzu says, ‘is the apex of skill.’

All inherent advantages imperil you. A moral advantage that you can’t convert to force is no help
at all, and you will waste more of your means to guard it than it’s worth. Defence yields a real
material assistance and not a sham moral one. If you win, you feel no need to prove your cause
legitimate. And if you lose, it will soon have sunk from sight. ‘The loser is always in the wrong,’
as the spanish proverb has it.

51 Might makes right

No victorious war seems ill-advised or unlawful. Even the losers, if they get a sound enough
thrashing, grant that those who beat them must have been in the right. Justice rides with the
conquerors. The god of war absolves all winners. A clear victory blots out the worst wrongs, and
gives a sanction to the most vicious creeds. ‘Successful crimes alone are justified,’ as Dryden

Victory proves nothing. But that’s why we crave it, because it has no need to.

A stonyhearted tyrant knows that might makes right, a mealy-mouthed one loves to bleat that
right makes might. If this were the case, then the powers that be would indeed be ordained of
God, and the downtrodden would have no claim to redress. Since all that we worship is power,
we cling to the superstition that right must bear some relation to it, be it as its cause or as its

We trust that right will triumph, because what we really trust is triumph and not right.

It suits us to believe that right makes might, since we have no doubt that all the right is on our

Power is our real idol. So we view its mere assertion as an irrefutable proof that its cause must
be just.

52 Nationalism
A nation knits its parts into a whole by abhorring rival nations and by debarring its own nationals
from securing the freedom to be individuals. ‘Each of us wants to be like the rest,’ wrote
Baudelaire, ‘but on condition that the rest are like us.’

Modern states have not evolved organically through the centuries. They have been forged by
monetary interests and welded close with cables, roads and railways with a view to promoting
trade. Most european states are artefacts forged by nineteenth century nationalism. And most of
the rest are leftovers from nineteenth century imperialism.

The nation state was a tool of producer capitalism. Globalism is a tool of consumer capitalism.

The nation state is the fittest form that capital has found to grow in. And we are so much the
robots of capital that we assume it is the natural form to foster our freedom and happiness.

A nation, even more than a person, owes its character more to circumstances than to the so-
called spirit of its people.

The development of political institutions lags behind the problems that they are required to
solve. When Europe was in need of the centralizing nation state, it still had only ramshackle
local feudal authorities. And now that the world needs supranational powers to deal with global
threats, it still has to make do with outdated nation states. The world is always in such disorder,
because its economic conditions are so far in advance of the social and political structures
which they are dismantling and rebuilding.

Why is it that nationalism is asserted most vociferously by those who add least to the lustre of
their nation?

53 Imperialism
An empire is the murder of the cultures that it conquers, and the suicide of the civilization that
hopes to suck life from them.
How righteously we now condemn the evil of colonialism, yet how tightly we cling to all the land
and booty that it gained us.

Now that the old colonial states have ceased to rape and plunder their colonies, they have
turned to lecturing them on how far they fall short of the fine principles they have given them.

Conquerors and colonists have drawn the map of the world in the blood of the conquered, who
are now all afire to spill more of their blood in order to redraw it.

To explore the world has been the first act in exploiting it. ‘To find a new country and to invade
it,’ Johnson said, ‘has always been the same.’

Colonies were the pulsating tumours by which the cancer of capitalism metastasized round the

All settler societies are wrong from the start. Their original sin is their seizure of a land that does
not belong to them, irrespective of the good or evil they might do after that.

Australia was set up as a penal colony for petty thieves by pious men who had just stolen a
continent. It is a comical country burdened by a tragic past and threatened by a dark future.

54 Righteous empires
All empires are brutal and moralistic. They place their trust in violence and providence, which
have put the weak in their power. ‘The strongest poison ever known,’ Blake wrote, ‘came from
Caesar’s laurel crown.’ Ruthless aggressors take it that they owe their hegemony more to their
piety than to their might. They thank God that he grants his favour to those who use it for his
glory. ‘Not unto us, O Lord.’ Thus Cicero said that though each nation overleapt Rome in some
feat, it had conquered them all by its godliness. The romans were the dullest people, self-
righteous, self-pitying, incurious, smug, covetous of dainties but careless of beauty, soulless
technicians and administrators not imaginers. So they of course thought it their duty to lord it
over the world. Now we are all romans.

A long-continued crime, such as the outrages of imperialism, comes in time to form the very
bedrock of law and the state. Time, power and numbers suffice to absolve any illegality.
Democracy can justify anything by a majority. It has legitimated colonialism by sanctioning those
states in which the settler population grew to outnumber the native one.
55 The great man
The great man in history twists the interests of emerging castes to his own ends. He is half a
self-convinced messiah and half a ham showman. So he rises up at times of crisis, to combine
burgeoning interests, or to sever strong interests from outmoded structures. He can’t change
the direction that the wave of events will take. But he does increase its amplitude, deepening its
troughs, though not heightening its crests.

Nations are not great because they have great leaders. They produce great leaders once they
have become great.

Napoleon was a relic of the antique noble type which the new world brandished as a battering
ram to break down the old. Tyrants stoke with corpses the locomotive of liberty and progress.
They mince flesh and bone to sawdust which they use to stuff their own reputations. ‘A man like
me,’ as Napoleon tells us, ‘does not fret much about a million men.’

A great man or woman of action is a middling intellect in the service of an excessive ambition.
Napoleon may have been the only one to have had a first-rate mind.

The great man is the iron tool which the iron laws of history use to shape events.

The laws of history care no more for individuals than the laws of physics care for atoms. They
govern them, but have no solicitude for them.

56 Hero and crisis

Some heroes call up a crisis, and some crises call up a hero to confront them. A bloody
catastrophe brings out great men, as the blistering sun brings out maggots in carrion. They have
the good luck to arrive on the scene at the very worst time.

War is the poetry of history, peace is its uneventful prose. A leader who lacks a war is like a
poet who has not yet found the great theme on which to build a lasting fame. Like a taper in
daylight, they would be hard to make out in the absence of its dark background. They are
matches which need a cataclysm to strike flame from. And what do they care how many lives
the blaze might singe? Had Lincoln not been embroiled in the civil war, he might have turned
out to be a mere wily temporizer.

A great leader is more an accident of time and place than an affirmation of character. In the
great events of life chance must use whatever tools are at hand to get its work done. But in art
and science it must find a genius to do it.
57 Learning from history
Books of history distract us from the lessons they might teach. By piling up facts, particulars,
persons and places, they prevent us from discerning its most basic patterns. And by
concentrating on hinge events, they pretend that it might have come out differently, if a few
circumstances had been altered.

Ideas are not the cause of big historical events. They are not even the cause of big historical
ideas. Yet they still rouse a lot of feeling, and spill a lot of blood.

If events take place only once, then history can teach us nothing. And if they happen over and
over, what need is there to study more than one or two of them?

The human race is not a single individual with a heart awash with good intentions which can
learn from its blunderings by summoning them to mind.

History and experience teach people to grow prudent, not to be wise. They guide them how to
get what they want, not to want what they ought.

History keeps a school for cynics.

Leaders now spend their term in office failing to make any history and their retirement in trying
to rewrite it.

58 Capitalism and the end of class war

Capitalism does not deepen class divisions. By atomizing individuals, by breaking down
privilege and primogeniture, by allowing estates to be sold, by cutting off family continuity, and
by disrupting all relations, it puts an end to fixed and permanent castes. It is the last phase of
the demolition that had been going on since mediaeval times. Class is one of the solid things
that it melts into air.

The class struggle is not the cause of historical change. It is one of the accidents of the
economic base of society. Marxism was part of ideology. It mistook what was an accident of the
superstructure for an essential part of the base.

59 Estranged from the past

The study of history is a symptom of our estrangement from the past, as science is a symptom
of our estrangement from nature.

History has come of age in an epoch that is cut off from the past. So even if it could teach us
any lessons they would of next to no use to us.

History’s tide turns so fast, that those who take it at the flood are soon left stranded.
Now that history is more than mere lore or legend, it no longer has anything to teach us. And
when it has come to form a science, we won’t learn a thing from it. A nation that lives by
immutable custom has no history, only mythology. And a state that can recall its past has lost it
a long time back. History is the legend which is engraved on the tomb of tradition.

60 Flattered by the past

The smugness of times to come will mock the smugness of our own.

The complacent present asserts its highhanded jurisdiction over the past by presuming to learn
from it. All that history has taught us is that we are now free of the past which has shaped us,
and that we can shape the future as we like.

History is the bad conscience of humankind, from which we draw the unlikely lesson that we
must be illimitably perfectible.

61 Repeating the past

Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it. But so are those who can recall it. Those
who have pored over its registers will best know how to reprise its crimes. The monsters who
plan to perpetrate a future holocaust could cull as many hints from the past as those who aim to
prevent one. Men and women of goodwill go to the school of history to find out how to stand up
to tyrants. But the tyrants graduated from that college long ago. While well-meaning citizens are
labouring to learn from history, the mad and malignant are already hard at work making it. As A.
J. P. Taylor wrote of Napoleon, ‘Like most of those who study history, he learnt from the
mistakes of the past how to make new ones.’

History is what we argue over while the past is finding new ways to repeat itself.

We recall the past for a purpose, and the purpose is for the most part to learn how to thrash our
enemies. And that is how the past repeats.

Those who claim to recall the past are mad to kill each other to impose their own side’s version
of it. As much harm has been done by remembering the past as by forgetting it.

62 The fables of history

People try to recount events, but they just reconstruct them as fables. Yet they trust that when
they do so they grasp what they mean. But they only falsify them, though they do grasp what
their falsifications mean. Once an event is turned into a story, it is lost to truth for good. But it
may survive as a narrative long after it has been killed as a fact. If we live by telling our stories,
it’s because they are lies.
In order to make the past useful, you have to misunderstand it.

If we are the sum of the stories that we tell, then there is not one word of truth to us.

Nature, the past and experience are dumb. It is we who put in their mouths the things that we
want them to teach us. And we choose the stories that will teach us what we wish to hear. The
deep precepts taught by the daughters of memory rehash the latest cant. Anyone who thinks
that the past instils a simple schoolbook moralism will be too simple to glean a thing from it.

63 The memory of catastrophe

We need exemplary catastrophes in history as well as in our own lives. And each age needs its
own catastrophe to prove its prejudgments. The eighteenth century, disputing divine providence,
had its Lisbon earthquake. And the twentieth century, disputing human melioration, fastened on
the holocaust. The shoah, which was so prosaic in its operations, has come to stand for us as a
terminal and sublime poetry.

We have lived through too much savage history to find our way back to the green world’s
savage innocence.

How softly the horrors of history tinkle when they happen, but how deafeningly they reecho. The
nightmare of history may take a generation to seep into our dreams and poison us. How
belatedly the sons and daughters learn to be haunted by the spectres of what their parents lived
through. The world had to wait twenty years to feel the shock of the holocaust. ‘Late resounds
what early sounded,’ as Goethe wrote.

64 A history of the future

The United States is what the whole world is now or is on the way to becoming, a republic of
hucksters, pacific and bellicose, jittery and bullying, shiny new and already rusting, coldhearted
and maudlin, wide-eyed and wised-up, populist and plutocratic, coordinated and disorderly,
conformist and exhibitionist, regimented yet anarchic, bumptious and epicene, just being born
and a long while dying, a light to the nations and an abomination, a dustbowl flowing with milk
and honey, puritan and lewd, a giant blinkered by its own sanctimoniousness, rich and in debt,
globalized and parochial, self-intoxicated and self-doubting.

The United States is not a country but a plague, the pox americana. It has infected the globe
with the fever of its venal optimism, so well-meaning and so self-serving. It is a land of optimists
who live in terror of some enemy which they themselves have conjured up. The union may have
grown great had it been content to stay small. It chose instead to swell to a colossal continental
empire. It fulfilled its manifest destiny by betraying its founding principles. How was the frontier
of pioneering self-reliance paved over so soon to make the sale-yard of huckstering self-
promotion? The statue of liberty is its fit symbol, gigantic, brassy and hollow, a miracle of
engineering and a monstrosity of taste.

Imperial species
Nature’s end

1 The end of all flesh and ecological collapse
The end of all flesh is come before us. But we are too swept up in our greed to see what’s in
front of our face. Look on the dead earth. This is our work. This is what our hands have made,
and we find it all very good. But a dark time is on the way. We can see it close at hand. But we
have to shut our eyes to it, since we don’t care to stop it, as we trust that it won’t come till we
are gone. From now on the end of the earth and its ecological collapse must be the starting
point of all our thinking. But this is the one theme that no one can bear to think of.

It is our own resilience that has made the earth so fragile. Nothing can kill us, and so we are
bound to kill it. Fire one year, flood the next, but we come through it all with heavier pockets and
lighter hearts.
We know how to adapt to every environment. And we destroy every environment by adapting it
to our own needs.

2 Our infatuation with power

We measure our own power and influence by how heavily we press on the earth and by how
much room we take up in it. Why would we want to touch the ground lightly? We want to make it
feel our full weight. Our self-importance grows with our girth. And we are proud that we can
force it to yield so pliably to our brutal manipulation.

Our last idol will prove to be the exterminating godhead that we have made of our own

We used to be exasperated by the helplessness which hemmed us in. Now we are awed by the
might which will bring us down.

When people have at last got hold of the power to achieve any end they want, they will use
every end as a means to get more power, and that will spell the end of them. They will soon
have procured a power as limitless as their desires, and they will use it to lay waste the earth.

Human kind overblows its importance, yet it denies its liability. It stands in awe of its own power.
Yet it still sentimentalizes itself as too weak to do the earth any harm. We invoke our modesty to
evade our responsibility.

All the things that add to our power bring us nearer to our end. And all that we now care for are
the things that add to our power.

We now have the means to end ourselves, and we lack the restraint to save ourselves.

3 Ecological collapse and our doomed omnipotence

For all our prudence, we will lose everything. And for all our greed, we will end up with nothing.
For all our wiliness, we will prove the dupes of our own shallow desires. All our dexterity won’t
solve a single one of our problems. And all our enlightenment will plunge the earth into
darkness. For all our generosity, we will leave nothing for those who come after us. And for all
our creativity, we will do away with the whole of creation.

What hope could there be for us, when we have to look for our rescue to the very powers that
have brought us to this brink, freedom, democracy and technology?

Our homicidal kind, unyoked from all its oppressions, has set itself up as the sanctimonious
autocrat of the wide earth, which it will keep on ravaging till it rebels. And like all autocrats, we
exult in every addition to the might which will bring us to our ruin.
‘All men,’ as Defoe wrote, ‘would be tyrants if they could,’ and now each tame feeder can. The
aim of democracy is to raise each one of us to the greedy beatitude which despots alone used
to possess. Any leader now who dares to interfere with our tyrannical whims must be a tyrant.

Our omnipotence will prove that we lacked the wisdom to know how to wield it.

Our predominance will reduce us to impotence. And our pitiless arrogance will leave us abject
and self-pitying.

4 The imperial species

We are an imperial species, and every place on earth is now ripe for our exploiting. The empire
of human freedom and power will be the last and most extortionate empire of all. And it will soon
go the way of all empires, and will die by its own overreach. Our domination of nature will leave
us more vulnerable than ever to its lethal force.

Prior to entering the promised land, the chosen must first show that they are fit for it by
subjugating or liquidating the sub-humans who by some oversight are in possession of it. ‘Thou
shalt smite them, and utterly destroy them, thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew
mercy unto them.’ And now we are all the chosen. And the whole globe is our Canaan, which
we must clear to make room for our sacred race.

As soon as nature became part of human history, it ceased to have a future.

The most pernicious invasive species on every continent has been the white race.

5 Colonizing the galaxy

Having rendered this accursed orb uninhabitable, we dream of forsaking it and infecting the rest
of the solar system with our taint. Once we have turned this Eden to a garbage dump, we will
quit it to found our paradise among the constellations. We reach for the stars, and pull down the
sky on our heads. And having wrecked this earth by colonizing every corner of it, we plan to
save our ravening breed by colonizing the galaxy.

Having pillaged the planet so heedlessly, why would we deserve to live through its jaunty
holocaust? We act like its spoilt brats, sulkily set on mangling it if it won’t disgorge all that we
demand. We will wear out the old earth in our vain striving to slake our thirst for unstopping
novelty. This planet is our plaything. We will break it and scrap it and get a new one.

6 Our frantic activity will kill us

Nothing can save us, since nothing can stop us. We all spin like tops, knowing that if we slowed
down, we would totter and fall. The earth can’t be saved, since we can be coaxed to do better
but not to do less. And there’s no money to be made from persuading people to stay put and be
content with what they’ve got. We would rather do anything at all than do nothing. And we would
rather run mad than slow down. ‘If a soldier or labourer complains of working too hard,’ Pascal
proposed, ‘try giving them nothing to do.’

We think that we can be saved by getting more of the things we crave, freedom, growth and
machinery. But these are the things that we need to be saved from by the things that we recoil
from, repression, restraint and simplicity.

Each generation will grow more predatory, more restless and more distracted than the last,
more rootless and more plugged-in, more disembodied yet more in thrall to its gross cravings,
more solipsistic and more connected, more helpless to quash the giddy wishes that will wreck it,
too weak to save itself, and not worth saving.

7 The end of nature
Humans are bound to stamp out nature, because they see that they are part of a polity, but not
that they are a part of it. They feel that they have a slot in a rapacious economy, but no home in
a broader ecology. How could they make any contract with the earth? And how could they owe
a thing to the animals, when they don’t have the means to enforce their debts?

Since nature has doomed each of us to die, why should we care if we blast it with a universal

Our war on nature has entered its triumphal phase. All that remains is to mop up the bedraggled
residue. But all our victories will prove to be pyrrhic, and one more will be enough to break us.

In order to put an end to nature, all we need do is stay true to our own nature. God help any
cause that’s so weak it has to rely on human nature for its success.

The little that is left of our own nature will soon make an end of the little that is left of the rest of

The earth was doomed, the day that the first crop was sown.

Civilization was the brief phase that we forced nature to pass through on its way to becoming
8 The wild and the tamed
We talk as if there were no form of life on earth but our own, and soon there won’t be. In a short
time the whole globe will be humanized. And soon after that it will be dead.

We are genially reducing the earth to a vast labour camp and a vast death camp. We cram it
with breeds that live and die for us, while fecklessly extirpating the rest. So we hold out to the
beasts an unenviable choice, feed us, amuse us, or die. But we will pamper the tame remnant in
zoos and kennels as our near equals, once we have rid the world of all the untamable ones. We
love wild nature, now that we have domesticated or exterminated it.

Only a being that lives at a safe distance from nature could love it.

In order to enjoy the simple and natural, you need to have the wherewithal to live out of range of
their unpleasantness.

The only wild things that will survive are those that learn to scavenge off our refuse.

The wild beasts were a benediction to us. But we have been nothing but a scourge to them.

The meek who are to inherit the earth should doubtless be the sinless beasts of the field, and
not the unrivalled but perverted predator mankind. But we will have wiped them out before they
can claim their bequest.

9 The fiction of nature

Wildlife is now just one of the synthesized fictions which we are fond of consuming.

As the green world goes to rack, instead of cherishing its last frail traces, we more and more
hanker for the synthetic and the virtual. Our devices add to our dominance, while distancing us
from real life. By the time that we put an end to the real world, it will have so long faded from our
view, that we won’t so much as remark its passing. We will haunt like white ghosts the
nightmare of this tormented globe.

Now that nature is done with, after every natural disaster we lament the loss of pristine nature.

We are too busy documenting and photographing our own wonderful lives to perceive that we
are killing off all life around us. We will be rocketing too fast for the report of its perishing to
reach our ears. Our machines are gnostic angels which will soon deliver us from the toils of this

The camera replaced art with a gaudy yet mechanical realism. And now it is replacing reality
with a thin image of itself.
In books what we like is tragedies that end happily, as Howells said. But in life we are
manufacturing a paradise that will end in devastation.

We have to hope that stories will save us, since we want to keep on doing the things that we
think make good stories of our lives. And all these spell bad news for the earth.

10 Greedy apocalypse
Our avarice is preparing for us a humane and prosaic armageddon.

We have drawn fire down from heaven, and we will use it to burn up the earth. Our promethean
greed will put out the stars, and poison the pure air.

Democracy and capitalism work as unerring counters to register and indulge worldwide cupidity
and solipsism. So they are sure to wreak on us our doom. They are steadily grinding down the
planet. But since we can’t steel ourselves to give them up, we have to put our trust in them to
save it. And so they will be brought down not by the proletariat but by the earth which they are
oppressing. Their eradication won’t be the mere overthrow of one class by another but will spell
the elimination of our whole kind.

Capitalism does not raise up its own gravediggers by consolidating the proletariat as a class. It
digs its own grave by exploiting the entire earth.

As Marx wrote, ‘No social order ever comes to an end before all the productive forces for which
there is room in it have developed.’ And all the colossal productive forces set in train by
capitalism won’t have developed to the full till they have devoured the whole earth.

We prefer to be rich hirelings than poor and free. We refuse to submit to a voluntary poverty. So
the maimed and broken earth will soon force us to submit to a compelled one. Our race will live
on as a residue of harried scavengers, roaming in a vast red desert, preyed on by implacable
nomadic bandits.

11 The innocent earth

Our innocent greed will soon eat up the innocent earth.

The world was made for us. So we must have the right to smash it so as to snatch the small
shard of it that we want. This earth, pure and unprotected, is just the quarry to tantalize our
bullying greed. But as Faulkner prophesied, ‘The people who have destroyed it will accomplish
its revenge.’ We have shown the land no justice. So it will soon show us no mercy. It will visit
the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of us who hate

The all-consuming gods of silver and gold are unifying the globe in their frantic worship. We do
homage to earth’s maker by ravaging what he has made.

How many Edens did we have to desecrate, to found this barren paradise of consumers?

12 More will be less

The law of nature is growth. But we will wear out nature because we have found an unnatural
means to an unnatural form of growth.

People have to keep growing richer, so that they can pay to repair the earth which they have
wrecked to grow so rich. But they are too greedy to stop and fix anything.

Money and machinery will brutalize the earth before they have time to soften and civilize us.

Our social drive to compete exceeds our natural urge to survive.

Man is an animal that has learnt how to harness forms of energy other than its own food. And so
we cease to live in the present, and migrate to a future of restless accumulation.

Human kind is entering on the golden age of Midas. Its lust for more will doom it to lose it all. It
will stop at nothing to get all that it wants. But how it will squeal when it soon gets just what it
deserves. Once it has gained the power to indulge its least whim, it will at last get exactly what
is coming to it.

We must choose between self-restraint and self-destruction. But the choice has already been
made for us by the system of which we are a part.

The fatal syllogism. Human kind could be saved from annihilation only by restraining itself.
Human kind will not brook the least restraint. Therefore human kind cannot be saved from

By making more of everything, we will make everything worse.

Any species or society that rises above subsistence won’t stop till it has devoured the earth.

13 The diseases of affluence

Our greed for more and more life will soon make an end of all life. Our age of barren affluence
will soon give place to a far worse age of barren havoc.
Having been so long oppressed by famine and scarcity, we are now merrily oppressing the rest
of creation to snatch our brief day of plenty. The old dreams of abundance will soon come true
as a nightmare of squalid planetary immiseration. As private greed is turned into collective
prosperity, so now collective prosperity turns into global carnage.

Mass consumerism is ravaging the planet. And all we can think of to repair it is to consume in a
new way.

The only solutions that we have for our global problems are the slogans of the same global
greed that is poised to end us. And the best that we can do to save the planet is to mouth the
catchcries that are urging us on to wreck it.

Democracy auctions the land’s extorted plunder to pay for its brief heyday of luxuriance.

In the past people used to be prey to the diseases of want, but from now on they will be prey to
the diseases of affluence. They lay out vast sums of money and ingenuity to treat illnesses for
which there is no cure. But they are too lazy and self-indulgent to stay clear of the diseases
which they could so easily avoid.

To find cures for the diseases that shorten human life is to feed the disease that is devouring all

How droll to watch a culture that is killing itself and the earth from too much love of life wring its
hands over a suicide or euthanasia here or there.

14 Those who love it will destroy it

We love life so much, that we won’t hesitate to kill all of it, just to tear one more bleeding hunk
from its flank to feed our hunger for it.

The natural will to live makes unnatural monsters of us all.

Our frantically life-affirming society will force a final ruin on the earth. It clings to life while
hurtling on to a destruction of its own making. It is those who love life that will soon bring it to its
unlovely end. We clench it so tightly that we are crushing it. We love this life that is killing us,
and we are killing this life that we love.

The ride has never felt so fast and exhilarating as now when we are rollicking downhill. And woe
to anyone who would dare to put a brake on our hard-driving haste.

We shall perish as the helpless casualties of our own insuperable compulsions.

The young wreck the world to snatch their cut of it. And dotards wreck the world since they will
be departing it so soon.
15 Our ugly desires
We are willing to squander our lives but not to scant our fidgeting desires.

We are recreating the plentiful land in our own worst likeness, flat, wasted, withered, sere and
stunted. So we will soon have made it as ugly as our heart’s desire.

We will devour all that is fresh in our frenzy to feed fat our stale desires. And our ravening
inanity will eat up the round earth in order to fill itself.

People don’t know what they want, but they will despoil the dappled world to grab as much of it
as they can. Their schemes are as mean as they are peremptory and rapacious. For such small
bait they will chew up the multitudinous world. They harpoon great whales, to whittle their bones
to make walking sticks.

Our mean desires will soon drain the broad earth of its unfailing bounty. We swarm like a
battalion of ants on the carcass of some great bull. Yet when the carrion earth wriggles with
twelve billions of us, it will seem to us more animated than ever.

We are too weak to resist our cravings. But we will be bold enough to ransack the whole globe
in our rage to feed them.

The last dark day will dawn on mortals still dreaming of plunder and scrabbling to wring some
reckless profit from the gangrened earth. They will be too busy rummaging the corpse to grieve
for the life that they have murdered.

Our society acts like a lunatic, barreling along, ranting incoherently, wild eyes fixed on some
nonexistent goal.

16 The wreck of perfection

To flee their personal torments, people feel that they have the right as a species to scourge the
planet. They will turn the earth to a hell, to air-condition their private inferno.

We will make the worst of everything by scrabbling to get the best for ourselves. Each of us is
so bent on bettering our own small nook, that together we will flatten the round globe. In order to
make our own little life charming, we will make the lush earth desolate. And we will smash it to
bits in our madness to make our own puny and broken lives whole.

We can’t so much as tend our gardens without poisoning the soil. All of us can now claim our
place in the sun, though we may find it a bit too hot for our liking. As Emerson exclaimed, ‘What
a hell we should make of the world if we could do what we would.’
17 The end of causes
Millions have died to defend a false idea of their country. But we won’t check a single one of our
sterile desires to conserve this common earth. We were always willing to kill foreign peoples to
assert creeds that we didn’t quite believe in. Now we don’t scruple to kill the whole of creation to
get things that we don’t even want.

Humans now feel sure that no cause is worth fighting for, but the least of their wants is worth
ransacking the entire earth for. They have thrown off the baggage of beliefs in their sprint to get

Mass suffrage has taught us that where there is no vision the people flourish.

18 The rapacity of happiness
The search for happiness is a grand pretext for the untrammelled indulgence of our greed.

The pursuit of happiness is the ideology of an age so caught up in accumulating the means of
happiness that it can never be happy.

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for us spell death, bondage and woe for the earth.

This earth is dying, and we are having a high old time doing all the things that are killing it. ‘They
joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.’
We all wring our hands over the wreck of the earth, while we all go on doing the things that are
wrecking it. There’s more money to be made and more fun to be had from ruining the planet
than from repairing it.

People don’t hesitate to empty the earth of all life in their rage to fill their own small lives with a
minute more of tawdry fun.

The long-suffering earth won’t last through a few more centuries of our scramble for happiness.

We will lay waste the whole earth to get our hands on things that are wasted on us.

19 From misery to ecological collapse

We subsist in a brief interim of frantic happiness between the end of universal misery and the
dawn of universal destruction. We have had the best of it, and it has not been much good. Our
prosperity has hoisted us an inch above the ground for a brief term. But its loss will bury us a
mile below it for all of time. We will presently be more forlorn than ever, ground between our
ancient afflictions which we can’t evade and our gluttonous new appetites which we can’t resist
or satisfy.

By seeking to cure their chronic woes people will turn them into acute and fatal ones. They will
fall victim to the frenzied remedies that they take up to heal the wound of their being. They are
so eaten up by their discontent, that they have resort to a manic hilarity which will eat up all the

Nothing now will change, and it will all keep on getting worse. Life will soon revert to a fevered
gloom more black and miasmal than it’s ever been.

All our good days are done, our bright dawns have waned, their freshness has faded, their dew
has sweated off in our glaring neon. ‘For the world has lost his youth, and the times begin to
wax old.’ The best of life is over before it’s even begun.

20 The happy earth, the frantic world

The woes of our unblessed race have for so long weighed the earth down. Now its convulsive
gaiety is set to burn it up. ‘And thy heaven that is over thy head shall be brass, and the earth
that is under thee shall be iron.’ This globe has for millennia been sodden with our agony. Now
we will scorch it to stoke the flame of our joy.

We, who can never find happiness, will badger the happy beasts to extinction by our vain
schemes to reach it one day. The earth, caked so thick with our misery, will soon smother all the
more carefree kinds of life. We will kill them all off to snatch a brief joy that we would not feel in
any case. If life’s purpose is to be happy, should we not leave it to the animals? They are so
much better at it than we are.

Human kind now flies so fast, it trusts that it is approaching escape velocity from the miseries of
the earth and time. But it will burst into flames and crash before it gets to it.

21 The greatest unhappiness of the greatest number

The pursuit of the greatest happiness of the greatest number will inflict the greatest misery that
the globe has ever had to bear.

We seek the happiness of the greatest number, but only of that small class of beings who
matter because they are of the same species as ourselves. It is a ruthless juggernaut which
doesn’t care how much life it will crush under its adamantine wheels. It costs a ton of irreparable
animal wretchedness to squeeze out one gram of our brief felicity. And it takes a regime of
global oppression to make a local human emancipation.
22 The real cost of the mirage of happiness
People won’t hesitate to put an end to the earth for all time, in their rage to snatch a mite more
of what they will lose so soon. The last two hundred years have shown how little joy they get
from gaining the whole world. And the next two hundred will prove how much it will grieve them
to be reft of it.

Our day of prosperity will cost the earth, and we won’t scruple to force it to pay the price. We will
trash it to tighten our grip on a gladness which we would scarcely feel.

Happiness is a mirage. But we will turn the lush earth to a desert in our fury to make it real. Our
shiniest dreams will melt the earth to a dark shadow. We will never bring in the millennium, but
we will incinerate all living things in the attempt. As Baudelaire wrote, ‘the cannon booms, limbs
whizz hither and yon, one can hear the groans of the victims and the howls of those officiating at
the sacrifice. It’s human kind in search of joy.’

We befoul the innocent air with the stinking discharge of our industrialized jollity. And now that
we are cut off from our roots, why should we mind how we blight the soil?

People presume that nature grants them the right to be happy, yet they callously gouge from it
the mere right to live.

23 Destructive justice
The earth will be laid waste, not by war but by peace, not by poverty but by plenty, not by
ignorance but by ingenuity, not by repression but by liberation.

The earth has more to fear from our good angels than from our bad ones. The more tame we
grow to one another, the more savagely we hack and mangle the earth. The world is in such
straits, not because the few rogues stop at nothing to get what they want, but because the many
good people do so.

People are doing all the good that they can, and it will soon have put paid to the earth.

We are the salt of the earth, and we crust it so thickly, that it’s small wonder the ground will bear
no fruit.

Sinfulness hath slain its thousands, and justice will slay its ten thousands. Malice slew its
multitudes, but virtue will bring death to the innocent earth.
Our love of justice, which sets us above the rest of the beasts, grants us a warrant to wipe them

24 Justice won’t save us

There’s no need of bad people in order to wreck the earth. All that’s required is plenty of good
people, and there’s now more than enough of them.

We are transfixed by the spectacle of moral bogeymen and horrors. So how could we see the
nest of everyday blameless greeds that are poisoning the ground beneath our feet? We love to
wring our hands at moral abominations such as the holocaust, since they keep our minds off the
philanthropic holocaust of nature which we are all at work on right now. And we frighten
ourselves with monsters, so that we don’t have to see that the monster is us.

Our selfishness will crush the earth beneath its boot, but our benevolence couldn’t save it. We
are so intent on obliterating it, that by acting in unison we will do so the sooner.

Our heaven on earth will soon have us praying for death or else glad just to drag out one more
day of crippled life.

25 Sanctimonious terracide
Our species hopes to get away with planetary murder. If it succeeds, this will show that it is an
exception to nature’s laws, as it always thought. And if it fails, this will be one more proof that
nature is unjust.

Our extermination of all living things won’t put the least dent in our moral self-satisfaction.

We are well-intentioned devils. And the earth won’t be good enough for us, till we have turned it
into a perfect hell.

We will have just cemented in place the copestone of the temple of our righteous new
Jerusalem when the end time comes to pluck it down on our heads.

We boast that we are the stewards of creation, while we rack it like fiends of destruction. The
human race claims to be the gardener, but it is the locusts come to devour the garden. ‘The land
is as the garden of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness, yea, and nothing
shall escape them.’

We glory both in our righteousness which has loosed all humans from their thralldom, and in our
power to bind the whole planet to do our will.

Each of us would balk at doing the least wrong, and yet we are all colluding in the most
monstrous wrong that could be conceived.
A species that is sure it will one day ascend to live in a pure kingdom of ends will reduce the
whole planet to form a sordid kingdom of means.

26 Our self-applauding rectitude

When people have ground to chaff all their fellow forms of life, they will tell poignant stories to
weep for their plight and how they have been forsaken and to boast of how heroically they
struggled to save them. How they will pity themselves for having been deserted by all that they
have so pitilessly destroyed.

The dead earth, which we have made the scene of so many smug moral fables, would present a
pretty moral fable, if there were anyone left to read it.

We are so full of our own rectitude, that we will feel no guilt when we have emptied the earth of
all living things.

Though we make the worst of everything, we won’t stop believing the best of ourselves. We are
such scrupulously moral creatures, that we don’t just want to ruin the earth, we want to be
applauded for our fine motives as we do it.

We will bring nature to its opprobrious end in a festival of self-congratulation. And our
recessional will be an anthem of booming self-satisfaction. Our species will keep on extolling its
good intentions right up to the point when they bring down the curtain on the disgraceful farce.

27 The irrelevance of good intentions

We preen ourselves on our nice distinctions of right and wrong. But they are nothing weighed
against our brute physical impact. We fiddle with our fine moral discriminations, and meanwhile
our material might goes on callously decimating the earth. The gross physical consequences of
our acts will far outweigh their exquisitely judged motives. Our good intentions blind us to the
great evil that we do.

It makes no difference now how well-meaning our views might be. In the world market we are all
mere consumers. And the righteous and the unrighteous will work as one to suck the earth dry
to its last drop.

Our evolved ethical codes will prove less effectual than the instincts of a parasite, which at least
has the sense to keep its host alive.

Our race with its greeds and gods has dropped like a slow asteroid on this sad planet. This will
be the sum of the moral significance of our incorrigibly moralizing breed.
Our machines will bring us to ruin, not by the moral corrosion they cause in our minds, but by
the material destruction that they wreak on the natural world.

What a profusion of physical inputs it costs to keep a disembodied intelligence running. The
future of humanity is a sum that doesn’t add up.

28 The havoc of freedom
Why would the rest of life rejoice at the reign of carnivorous human liberty? Every extension of
human emancipation has come at the cost of the enslavement of the earth.

Freedom of choice is the sole kind of enfranchisement that we now set any store on. And all our
choices work to one end.

Democracy has freed our species to lord it over the earth.

Human liberty has bound the earth in chains. What has cut us loose will make an end of us, but
not till we have used our surly freedom to make an end of all the earth.

As Pascal said, it is not good for us to be too free. Or it is not good for the earth which groans
under the weight of our oppressive freedom. We deem that each of us should be free to get
what we want. But what we want will tear from the rest of life the mere freedom to draw breath.

In the past we cursed our servitude. In the future we shall have reason to curse our freedom.

The car is the prime symbol of our personal freedom, and one of the chief tools of our species’
enslavement of the globe. It helped to wreck the city, the matrix of civilization, and now it is
helping to wreck the natural world.

29 The wrong of rights

Human rights seemed at first to be no worse than a benevolent fiction, till we turned them into a
terracidal fact. They do more damage than human crimes, since all rights are the one right, the
right to consume and to subdue the earth.

Human rights make earth’s oppression. We now exult in our inviolable rights with the same
assurance that sovereigns trumpeted their divine right to rule just in time for their anointed
heads to be chopped off.

A species each of whose members has a chance to flourish is destined to eat up all the rest.
Where each of us is such a miraculous winner, the one loser is bound to be the earth.
Each of us is too important to die, and all of us together are so important that we will kill the
earth to keep on living.

Humans will wreck the earth not by the wrongs that they do to one another, but by the rights that
they arrogate to their whole species.

We solemnly debate the duties that we owe to the animals, at the same time as our sheer
numbers are shoving them off the edge of the earth. To confer rights on them would be to add
insult to injury by pretending to make them part of the regime of liberal individualism which will
soon do them to death.

30 Individualism
Each of us has far more to gain from our own greed which is sure to wreck the world than from
the collective self-restraint which might save it. And each nation state knows the same.

Individuals are casualties of nature’s care of the species. And the whole of nature will be a
casualty of each individual’s care for itself.

The liberty of each will lay waste the patrimony of all.

In the past society bore down hard on the individual. Now the individual partners with society to
bear down hard on the earth.

The world is overpopulated with other people’s children. And it will be wrecked by other people’s

31 Doomed by choice
The system of rational choice leaves us no rational choice but to maximize our own utility at the
expense of all other living things.

The innocent freedom of each of us will make the brute power of all to squeeze the life out of
the earth. And the sum of all our individual rationality will add up to a terracidal madness.
Everything that each of us does will help to bring ruin on the earth. But nothing that any of us
does could help to save it. And there’s no need to stop, since none of us will be called to
account for any of it. The one thing that all will agree on when the end of the world comes is that
someone else must have been to blame for it.

Each of us is happy to do what all of us know we can get away with. And since all of us are
doing it, each of us knows that we can get away with it.

The net effect of all our discriminating personal choice will be an indiscriminate obliteration.
In our age of self-admiring individualism we love to cheep that each of us can make a
difference. And this is exactly what each of us is doing by every free act of getting and

32 Equal to oppress
Equality for all will rape the globe far more brutally than the lusts of the few. When they have
ceased to dread the wild beasts devouring them, the lambs will feel safe to nibble the pasture
bare to the dead root. A few billion sheep will chew up much more than a pack of wolves.

The earth will be baked to ash not by the blaze of some grand enterprise but by the brushfires of
ten billion low desires.

Democracy grants to each of us a patent to the overbearing voraciousness which in the past
fine lords alone were graced with. It is the human will free and equal to tyrannize over the rest of
creation. We treat nature as great landowners dealt with their vassals. In Tolstoy’s words, ‘I sit
on a man’s back, choking him and forcing him to carry me, and yet assure myself and others
that I am very sorry for him and wish to ease his lot by all possible means, except by getting off
his back.’

33 Gang of equals
Democracy is one more syndicate of gangsters, hustling to bag as much loot as it can and get
out before the crash comes. It will lay waste all that it has inherited, and squander all that it has
stolen. But it will still dare to boast of its benevolence in enabling each class to get rich on its cut
of the spoils. It is indulging its brief prerogative to devour all that is too weak to fight back, the
past and the future, the memory of the dead, the blackened planet.

All of us are now equal and free to grind the face of the gracious earth for our gain, as once the
ruling class trod down those below it. There is only one class now, the class of all human
beings, who have been freed to work the indentured earth till it gives out. The few used to club
in oligarchies to stomp on those beneath them. Now we gang together in democracies to pillage
the subjected land. Inequality cut off one class from the next, equality cuts off the whole of
human kind from the rest of life.

Now that the franchise has been extended to all classes of beings that matter, any that don’t
have it don’t matter. And so we are free to ride roughshod over their interests.

Democracy mows down everything to clear a path for its marauding greed. It claims every right
for its own, and abrogates all its duties to the rest of creation.
All great things have been made by elites. But the humblest of us will have a hand in
democracy’s crowning work of world destruction.

34 The one equal species

All of us now know that we are born equal because we all belong to the one species that is
superior to all lower grades of living thing. And they are too weak to wrest our privileges from us.
We are all equal because we are biologically separate from the rest of the beasts. And this
separateness gives us the right to enslave or to eliminate them at will. It is not one class preying
on another. It is one species preying on all the rest.

Our sense of justice grants that we owe duties only to the class of living things that are like us.
And so it will help to empty the earth of all the rest that are not like us.

The more freedom for us, the more bondage for the earth. The more wealth for us, the more
poverty for the planet. And the more justice between the members of our own species, the less
justice there is for the rest of the species. And the more widely power is dispersed among us,
the more of it there is to press down on them.

35 The injustice of altruism

We are all now so well-intentioned and cooperative, and we each bring our modest faggot of
kindling to add to the common bonfire that will burn up the world. All that we do adds fuel to the

We can pity a dying animal, and yet we go on inflicting such dire injuries on this dying planet.

We work as one to smash the whole earth, so that each of us might seize our own small shard
of it. By cooperating so closely, we will screw up our sanctimonious ravenousness to a
murderous predominance.

We are strangling the land in our close fraternal bands. Our solidarity has multiplied by many
times the destructive force of our selfishness. Altruism is the egoism of our self-infatuated
species, and our pacifism is its jingoism. And they both arm us to make war on the earth with a
more brutal effectiveness. We use them as the oil to grease the engine of greedy capitalism
which is pulverizing the land.

When the human family has learnt to live as one, it will be free to eat up all the rest of life. And
when the whole of our kind leagues in brotherly love, it will work with one accord to kill off the
rest of the beasts that are not its kin.
People assume that they will have attained a state of supreme justice, when the meek members
of this one species have ceased to prey on each other and have joined in harmony to prey on all
the rest.

36 Peace and the war on nature

The nations now toil so resolutely for their greed, that they lack the vigour to wage big wars. And
they won’t resume, till their insatiability has sharked up all that is worth wrangling for, and has
left nothing for them to loot. But we are yet to see how nice they will be to one another once
their candy and toys have been torn from them. They may turn cannibal again, when they have
chewed through the rest of their fodder.

Greed is the great peacemaker. What’s the point of keeping up all those old quarrels, if they
don’t make any money?

We are too prudent or too nerveless to put an end to ourselves by violence. So we will use
what’s left of our vitality to do it by our greed.

We have made peace with each other, so as to make war on the verdant world. Like the
romans, we cause a desolation, and call it concord. Peace now wrecks the globe as war once
did. The age of destruction will dawn the day that we call a halt to all conflict. It will roll out to the
accompaniment not of martial trumpets and drums but to the merry blare of pop tunes.

The old nation states laid waste continents from time to time. The new solidarity of the human
race will lay waste the whole planet for all time.

37 Our dark enlightenment
We have woken from our morose superstitious dreams to an enlightened devastation, which will
have a fiery but unilluminating end. The age of reason set up human progress in place of divine
providence, and so we will anticipate a god-sent apocalypse with a godless one.

How this bright globe began to go dark, when our benighted race grew enlightened. We use our
reason to light the way for our greed. So the enlightenment, which rose like a dawn, has now
blazed into a noon of rapacious mayhem. Having suffused the earth with such a gleam, how
could we see that it is an emanation of hell fire? ‘To light the streets by setting fire to houses,’
Lichtenberg wrote, ‘is a bad form of illumination.’
When we threw off the chains of superstition, we didn’t free ourselves to seek the truth, but
bound ourselves as slaves to toil for our avarice. Our ignorance gave way not to the reign of
wisdom but to a mad scramble for lucre.

The diffusion of knowledge will run as the scout in the van of worldwide wreckage. ‘Now nothing
will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.’

Knowledge fails to stop us from going wrong. It helps us to profit so much from it, that we can
keep on going wrong in the same way.

The course of events in a technocratic age exemplifies the cunning of unreason in

accomplishing the most chaotic and destructive ends by the most orderly and rational means.

38 The ravages of knowledge

Our knowledge killed the gods, and our machines will kill the earth.

We can’t know a thing without destroying it, if we can get it in our power. But we will succeed in
destroying our own kind without ever having known who we are.

Knowledge has now so ravaged the world, that not even the old reliable stays of prejudice and
stupidity could save it.

The future, as Wells wrote, will be a race between education and catastrophe. But each will
nudge the other to speed up, and it will end with them crossing the finish in a dead heat.
‘Knowledge,’ said Cioran, ‘having irritated and stimulated our appetite for power, will lead us
inexorably to our ruin.’

The same greed that lured us to explore the globe will soon goad us to wreck it. Navigators
were the advance guard of empire, as knowledge is now the advance guard of the exploitation
of the whole earth.

Science is the champion of human liberation. And by liberating all our energies with its
knowledge, it has enslaved the whole globe to our desires. Art was the lackey of tyrants and
obscurantists. But it did no harm, because it held no sway.

We will soon find that to know nature and to kill it are phases of the same process.

39 Saving ignorance
Our desires are so unnatural and immoderate, that only ignorance and repression can keep
them within the pale of nature.
Our progenitors were saved from ruining the land as we have done not by their wisdom and
innocence, but by their nescience and incompetence. They had no choice because they lacked
the means. And we have no choice because we abound with them. We are no more vicious
than they were, just more successful. And they knew too little to make as much of a hash of
things as we have. ‘If we possessed one granule of knowledge,’ Montaigne wrote, ‘there would
be no restraining us.’

Gods and creeds used to help keep the earth free by oppressing and stupefying us. Now like all
the rest of our illusions they urge on our avarice and self-assertion.

Heretofore the coercive sleights of established custom, superstition, usage and bigotry have
stopped us from exterminating all that lives. Our rapacity used to be hobbled by our ignorance.
Now it is sped on by our ingenuity.

We can be held in check only by illusions. But all our illusions now tell us that nothing ought to
hold us back.

Natural ignorance is the one thing that might have saved us. But all we have is the unnatural
kind which does even more harm than our knowledge.

40 Confronting our condition

Humans don’t want to face their real predicament, since they can’t bear to undergo the shock
treatment it calls for. And even if they dare to recognize the symptoms of their disease, they still
can’t bear to admit its real cause, which is too many people and too much growth.

We are at a loss as to how to deal with our real threats, which are growth and overpopulation.
And so we have to waste our time failing to deal with second-order threats such as climate

There are two kinds of optimists. The first are loath to take the cure, and so claim that the
malaise is not real. The second accept that it is real, and so must pretend that the cure is on
course to work. They deem that if the disease is dire enough, there will be some miracle cure.
There are those who must shut their ears to the bad news, because they don’t want to change
how they live. And there are those who are willing to listen to it, but still don’t change their life.

Our condition must now be terminal, since we have to steer our thoughts from our real dangers
by fretting about things that are no threat to us.

Humans now have so much power that they provoke the very threats that they are so afraid of.

Since we have outgrown our innocence, we need to cling all the more to our illusions, so as to
shut our eyes to the ruination that our knowledge will bring on us.
41 Addicts of hope
Our despair would wear us out, and our hope will wear out the whole earth. When there is so
much hope in the world, you know that it’s time to despair. There is no future for us, now that we
have all turned into the hopeless addicts of optimism. The best we can hope is that it will kill us
quick. It would be too optimistic to trust that a dose of despair could save us now.

We would rather kill the earth with our hopes than save it at the cost of our despair.

Optimists trust that the costs of their hopes won’t run fast enough to catch up with them.

In the past our hopes served as a harmless haven from our inescapable disappointments. Now
they goad us to get and spend as much as our hands can grasp. They used to deny reality. Now
they drive us on to devour it.

Could a misanthrope wish for our race a more sombre doom than the one that its own bright
hopes are preparing for it?

People will turn the earth to a hell, since they can’t let go of the hopes which they trust will make
it a paradise.

When people feel hopeful, they go shopping.

42 The sleights of optimism

Our rapacious optimism will make this the most exciting time to be alive, since we doubtlessly
won’t leave a morsel for those who are so unlucky as to come after us.

To solve our global problems we cling to a personal optimism that fuels the frantic buying and
selling which is the principal cause of all our global problems.

We will have to use all the sleights of our optimism to get through the terminal havoc wrought by
our advances. And we will need to make our songs and movies cheerier and more affirmative
than ever, to lighten our spirits as we bring the earth to its dark close. Our best days are in front
of us, we have to keep chanting as we go down into the black pit that our hopes have dug for

The future that our optimism will bring about will be an apt chastisement for our deluded and
arrogant hopes.

The twittering optimism of experts who ought to know better tells us that it is high time to have
done with hope.

Our pessimism can’t guess how bad our optimism will make the time to come.
The whole of human kind will soon be like children on christmas eve, too keyed up to sleep for
excitement at the good things that are in store for it.

43 The god of humanism

When half-gods go, we are free to give our full devotion to the real idol of our greed.

Humanism is the collective egoism of our species. It is the creed which justifies our domination
of the earth.

When sovereigns set up their religions, the poor had good reason to tremble. And now that
humans have set themselves up as gods, the land has reason to tremble. Humanism will be our
last idolatry. And we will immolate the smouldering planet as a burnt offering to its insatiate

Each god has tried to bring an end to all flesh. The old ones were too weak and decrepit to do it.
And the new humanist one will prove how far it outranks them by succeeding. Marx called it ‘the
highest divinity. There shall be none other beside it.’ Humanity is a god powerless to save itself
from the mayhem wrought by its own irresponsible power. Having shed the shining gods which
we made to reflect our glory, we now worship our own selves, naked, unhampered and
almighty. Humanism is the gold leaf encasing the monumental clay image of Mammon which we
all bow down to.

God tried and failed to wipe out all life. We will succeed without even trying.

We have at last come of age, and can do all that we want by our own hand, even bring an end
to all flesh. Our machines will soon complete God’s work of sweeping us off the earth.

Progress will prove to be our most lethal superstition.

44 The sacred species

Say that life is sacred, and you blaspheme nature, whose first and final sacrament is death. Our
blessed species is a curse to all the rest. And we profane the face of the earth in order to
propagate its holy strain. A form of life that is sure that it is chosen will stop at nothing to sate its
unholy cravings and spread its stain over the clean earth. To call our species sacrosanct is to
sanctify voracity.

The face of the earth now swarms with ten billion extortionate demigods, sure of their own
sanctity and determined not to be balked or delayed in the least of their sordid desires. We deify
our own will, and won’t scruple to desecrate all that dares to stand in its way.
Having sent the gods to their dim graves, we will soon flex our godlike might by abolishing all
the rest of life. So we are doomed to die alone in omnipotent desolation. But the suicide of our
species will come too late to save the earth.

45 Marauding technology
Our technological precocity has spread our sway over the earth. But we grudgingly hug justice
to our breasts, and refuse to extend it to the rest of creation, since it is too weak to wrest it from
us. Our humane amelioration will merely screw up our mechanical preponderance to a more
lethal pitch.

Our cooperation and resourcefulness are provisioning our brutishness and unwisdom with the
tackle which they will use to crush us.

Technology brings us permanent global problems by devising temporary local solutions.

Progress is a piecemeal reclamation which will lead to a universal ruin.

Science now shows us how bad the future will be. And technology gives us the tools to make it
still worse.

People will die in thrall to the technologies which they hoped would make them free.

Humans have to pretend that the earth can be saved by their machines, since they love their
machines more than they want to save the earth.

Our species will come to ruin not through its stupidity but through its ingenuity.

46 The mechanical enablers of our greed

Technology has loosed our greed from its physical bonds, and capitalism has loosed it from its
social bonds. Humans use their gadgets to control the wild earth, so that they won’t have to
control their own wild cravings. They have to keep driving automation to add to their power,
since they are too weak to resist their wants. It will serve as the perfect detonator for their
incendiary greed.

Our machines are the servants of our desires, and will be the masters of our destruction.

Technology is a noxious fume which is exhaled when science reacts with utility and greed.

The road to hell on earth is paved by good inventions. Each accursed device piques our
rapacity and will hasten our perdition.
The same greed that has pricked us on to invent our machines will prevent us from repairing the
ruin that they will let loose on us.

All societies risk becoming like the slaves by which they live. And since our menials are
machines, we will grow ever more like them, more clever, efficient, fast and inhuman.

47 Ingenious stupidity
Technology makes us more restive, rapacious and distracted, more divorced from all but the fun
that we crave right now, more disembodied and more in thrall to our appetites, more self-
obsessed and more connected, more equipped to kill the earth and too weak to stop ourselves,
more smug and inventive, less wise and imaginative. It and the kitsch that it serves will render
us more and more brutal and sentimental. We have become the tools of our tools, as Thoreau
said, and the greedy dupes of our own ingenuity.

We have devised such smart appliances so that we can be more efficiently stupid. Our
ingenious prostheses extend the reach of our ravening inanity. The might of our machines will
lay bare the squalor of our desires as they enrich us before they end us.

In the age of faith it was God who knew us better than we know ourselves. Now it’s Google. It
used to be an illusion. Now it’s an algorithm. And what could better show how shallow we are
and how little there is to us?

Technology has lavished on us all the tools and toys to keep us physically and mentally jittering
yet sedentary and oblivious. It gives us the means to go so fast that we don’t have to stop and
think where it is that we are going.

We will silence the chorus of nature, the better to hear the idiot burble of our gibbering devices.

We will grind the earth in the mill of our ingenuity.

48 The machine-minded utopia

Human kind gave up aspiring to a moral utopia an age ago. But we still look forward to a
mechanized one, which will heave into our lap all the trash that we crave. We count on our
machinery to manufacture the millennium for us. But we will use our prostheses to degrade this
god-hated globe to an airless plastic paradise. Our Eden will be a moronic funfair, buzzing,
thronging, garishly lit, blinking with devices and distractions. The human race will die not from
truth or light, but from their shabby reproductions, mindless information and mercenary

Convenience is one more name that we give to our power. And each one of us now is armed
with such a mass of small cheap conveniences, that the earth has no chance.
49 The disease of time
Progress is the acute stage of our diseased attitude toward time.

All our time-saving devices prove that we have lost the patience to live in the present.

‘Progress would be wonderful,’ said Musil, ‘if only it would stop.’ We can never reach our
journey’s end, because we have to keep on the move.

If progress goes on for ever, then it fails to reach its goal. But if it does reach some destination,
then the future will one day cease to be an improvement on the past. It must tend towards some
end, but it must never have a stop.

We fail to deal with our long-term threats because we are so caught up in our short-term ones.
And by ignoring our long-term threats, we make our short-term ones more acute and more

50 Consumed by the future, consuming the future

The hungry present is consumed by the future, which it is hungrily consuming.

Progress disowns the past, devours the future, and reduces the present to a transit camp en
route to some paradise that is forever out of reach.

Progress will make posterity stupider than the present. It will be too arrogant to look back to the
past, and too greedy to leave any scraps for the future.

People want to make a future better than the past. But they want to have this better future for
their own use right now.

Those who stand by tradition and the past feel sure that it is coming to an end with them. And
those who cheer on the future think that the world is just beginning with them.

We have never been more engrossed by the present, and never less present. We can’t live for
today. But we will burn futurity to cinders so as to live in opulence the day after tomorrow.

Patriarchal societies were prisoners of a past which was no more than a myth. And progressive
states are prisoners of a future which will prove to be no more than a dream.

51 The summer is past

Now that people set no value on time, they can’t bear to wait for anything. Everything is urgent,
but not one thing is present. The more they make it all speed up, the farther everything gets
from them. They live as if everything were makeshift, transient and provisional, and yet they are
never in the moment. How could they take the time to build a secure foundation? They are in
too much of a whirl to lay up what they might need in the future.

We live as if in the aftermath of some great event which never came to pass. ‘The harvest is
past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.’

52 Progressing to perdition
Progress is the defeat of life by the machine, of insightfulness by inventiveness, of grace by
utility, of ends by means, of civilization by technique, of wisdom by power, of love by lust for
gain. ‘The more the human race advances,’ as Flaubert said, ‘the more it is debased.’ It perfects
itself by the inch, and is corrupted by the mile.

As we perfect the means, we lose sight of the goal or degrade it.

Progress finds out more and more ingenious routes to send us off course.

We are ingenious enough to cure all of our ills, save those brought on us by our own ingenuity.

Our inventiveness has put into our hands all the power that our doltishness needs to do us to

Progress has unchained our predacious breed from the natural checks which have stopped any
single species from killing all the rest.

There can be no doubt that we are progressing. How else could we account for the vastation
that we have made?

In order to wreck the world, all we need do is persist in the projects by which we hope to perfect

The wave of progress which has raised us so high and carried us so fast will soon dump us and
break our necks.

Progress will make the future so much better than the past, why should we care how bad it will

Progress is the process by which each generation proves that it is worse than the last, and
makes the world worse for the next.

53 The swindle of progress

Progress makes each one of us a free rider on the future.
If progress could ever give us what we want, we would have no need of it. We have to keep
improving, since we can never find satisfaction.

In this world of endless improvement the one thing that doesn’t get any better is progress. Its
costs continue stubbornly to mount up, while its benefits are subject to the law of diminishing

Progress keeps us in its thrall, since its benefits are tangible but delusory, while its costs are
covert but real. Like a mastiff, it has clamped the world in its jaws, and it won’t let it go till it has
dashed it to shreds.

We seem to be making progress, so long as we can keep on shifting its costs on to the future.

Progress is a swindle which the present perpetrates on the future.

True progress is the sacrifice of small present gains for the sake of some great future good. But
our sham progress is determined to grab these small present gains and leave the future to pay
the cost.

Progress is a cheque which we make out to the future, and then cash and spend for our own

People used to be inspired to aim at great things by being told how hard they were. Now they
have to be assured that they will cost them nothing, and they still don’t want to do them.

The future would be right to curse us for the woes that our progress will bring on it, though it will
no doubt be too swept up in its own advances to feel them.

54 Our deadly addiction

Progress has infected us like a virulent pestilence. We would rather die from it than be healed.
But it will spare us its worst horrors by annihilating us. A utopia is an inferno which soon burns
itself up. But progress won’t peter out till it has burnt up the whole globe. It is our last and most
lethal addiction. We gladly give up our real good to keep it on the go.

We have shrunk to the hungry junkies of progress, mad for our next fix of technology to solve all
our problems.

Progress has so addled our brains, that we look back on the havoc it has caused as one of the
mistakes of the past which progress will soon put right.

Progress makes us more smug but more unsatisfied.

Progress is the cause of most of the ills of which it thinks it is the cure.
55 The earth and the world
In the louring evening of the world we still have such sights to charm us. But the green earth will
go dark, before we learn to see the beauty it abounds in. We have no eyes to see the loveliness
of the earth which we’ve been blessed with or the ugliness of the world which we have made.

Ours is the sole species that can contemplate the beauty of the world, and all it has done is to
make it uglier.

Each generation will palm off on the next a better world and a worse earth. Each day the world
gains at the expense of the planet. Our worldly hearts will be glad when they can chew up the
earth and not need to taste any dirt. All the things that have been a boon to us have been a
bane to it, such as technology, democracy, individualism, and our manic pursuit of happiness.

As the world becomes more free, more rich, and more enlightened, the earth grows more
enchained, more exhausted, and more bleached. The human race has swallowed the earth and
vomited up the world. The earth so innocent, the world so tainted.

56 Salvation by annihilation
Ours is the one indispensable species, since it alone has been tasked with the mission to kill all
the rest.

Far more effectually than any Buddha, we will soon make a lasting release from the cycle of
birth and death by snuffing out all sentient life for good. The salvation that our cursed species
brings this earth will be a mass extermination.

Life is an evil machine. And our consciousness has cranked it up to such a pitch of restless
frenzy, that it will soon break its springs. Our wisdom has not found a way to make the wheel
stand still. So our avarice will set it spinning so fast that it will burst into flames. Our cruel breed
will grant a merciful deliverance to the earth that it has persecuted so unmercifully. Our noisy
kind will soon bring a dead quiet to the deafened globe.

Nature is a monstrous whirring clockwork of cruelty and futility. And the life of the beasts is a
lethargic nightmare from which we have awoken to appalled consciousness, resolved to electrify
the world, so that no one will need to dream any more.

The world is set on its path of annihilation. So it may be that everything is for the best after all.

Climate change will act like chemotherapy on our cancerous species. But first it will kill off the
body that we have ravaged.
57 Correcting the mistake of life
Conscious life may be the universe’s grand mistake. So it has raised us up to blot it out.
Mankind was the last angel that God made, the angel of death to scythe the rest of creation.
And the appalled earth will make use of our meddling kind as the engine to unload it of its freight
of misery. This planet won’t be glad and light again, till it has been disburdened of our desperate
and oppressive band. Is the peaceful moon mocking the earth for having to tote such a weight
of heaving wretchedness?

If our species has a purpose on this orb, it must be to wreck it. It will stay on it just long enough
to wipe all the rest off it. We will leave it denatured, sanitized, deodorized and disinfected. God
the destroyer has commissioned us to crown his work by restoring the earth to its pristine
lifelessness, or at least to a festering clod crawling with eyeless grubs and maggots.

We might not quite succeed in emptying the globe of all life, but we will at least fill it with the
worst sort. Having killed off all the wolves and lions, our fate is to be devoured by vermin.

Our preference for a planet teeming with life may be a mere prejudgment in favour of what
piques our interest because it is like us. Life is a mere local infestation on an out of the way
planet. Earth is no more beautiful than Saturn or Mars, and soon it might be quite a bit uglier.

58 The end of us
God could find no other way to do away with our insatiate race, and so he sent us progress.

The wheels of our discontent have to rotate more and more rapidly as the runaway train of
progress speeds up. Modernity accelerates all our enterprises, not least our self-destruction.

People will stop at nothing to make the present better than the past, and so they will make the
future worse than both.

Progress spurns the claims of the dead, but it will soon make them the sole cohort worth

The world may not look so grim as I paint it. But it’s progressing at such a frantic gallop, that it
soon will. Progress will make the future the best of all times not to be alive in.

Unthinking reed
Indifferent to ideas

Few of us are able to think, and still fewer care to. ‘Man is a thinking reed,’ as Pascal said. But it
is a thinking reed that would go to any length so as not to think, and which would soon split if it
tried to. There are so many tasks that the mind is good for, but reasoning is not one of them.
Stupidity is its element.

People are so unused to reflecting, not because they find it so hard to do it, but because they
find it so convenient not to. They have a mine of plans and pastimes to take its place, or whose
place they don’t want it to take.

When people think, they try to compose believable ideas from those that they already believe.

Thinking is our glory. So why to our shame have we made it so hard? Though we have no wish
to do it, we hold its fruits in high regard. It’s filthy and boring work, but we prize the gold that it

Most people’s minds are too vacant to bear up under the vacancy that thinking would force on

Our ideologies bind us so indissolubly together because they work in tandem with our
unwillingness to think.

1 We would rather talk and feel than think

We like to talk as much as we hate to reflect. We must speak before we think, or we would
never have a thing to say. Trollope shrewdly sketched a man who ‘half thought as he spoke, or
thought that he thought so.’ I feel less than I feign, and I think less than I ought.
Most of us know what we think before we think. I speak before I feel. I feel before I believe. And
I believe before I think. And often I feel because I speak, and believe because I feel. But
because I speak, feel and believe, I have no need to think.

‘In speaking,’ Trollope wrote, ‘grand words come so easily, while thoughts, even little thoughts,
flow so slowly.’ We dawdle behind the truth, because we are too quick to speak and too
reluctant to reflect. ‘It’s where a thought is lacking,’ Goethe said, ‘that, in the nick of time, a word
turns up in its place.’

We don’t let truth get in the way of our style. But don’t we let all the rest of our wants get in the
way of truth?

‘We all do no end of feeling,’ as Twain said, ‘and we mistake it for thinking.’ We prefer to feel
rather than to think. But we prefer to think that we feel rather than feel in good earnest. Thinking
is hard. Feeling is easy and far more gratifying.

Most people had far rather retell common fallacies than find out uncommon truths.

2 Thinking is superfluous, stupidity is thrifty

Thinking is a surplus activity. And a thinker is one who thinks uneconomically. Most of us pick
up all the opinions that we need without the need to think. But a thinker thinks long and
laboriously to earn a few needless insights. ‘In philosophy,’ Wittgenstein notes, ‘the winner of
the race is the one who can run most slowly.’

Some people will go to great lengths to seem original, short of thinking for themselves. They
ham up their quirks, but take no trouble to find new truths.

We are appalled by the thoughtlessness of those who fail to embrace the precepts which we
have embraced with no thought.

People fervidly long for illumination, and they will do all that they can to get it, except think. They
prefer to gain their opinions by any means other than reasoning for themselves. And they are
keen to acquire new information, so long as they can keep to their old ways of acquiring it.

Most of us think that knowledge is best got by whatever means we reckon we’ve got ours, be
that by experience, research or reflection.

We have a limitless capacity not to think about what doesn’t tend to our own profit and yet to
meddle in what is none of our business.
3 We believe on a whim
People choose most of their views by mere aesthetic whim, whether they hold that the world is
made of matter or of mind, that they know it by reason or empirically, that their acts are free or
fated, that they will soon return to dust or that they will never die.

People are deaf to the melody of some ideas, though they may grasp their meaning quite well.
‘Most faiths,’ says William James, ‘are bred from an aesthetic demand.’ The haphazard
unshapeliness of quantum mechanics repulsed Einstein. What bard does not feel that rhyme
proves more than reason?

I choose my beliefs with no more thought than I would a favourite football team, but I cling to
them with the same ferociousness.

4 Ideas are not objective propositions but a social currency

Our convictions are meant less as a picture of the world than as a glue which we use to keep
ourselves in one piece and to bind us to our tribe. They are aimed less at the things that we
think of than at the people that we talk to.

Our personal beliefs are products of our social practices.

Our need to believe is a pale shadow of our real and deep need to belong.

People refuse to part with views which they have not pondered enough to make their own. They
go to great trouble to fight systems of thought which they scarcely grasp.

Like most of what we prize, speculation subsists in this world of mirrors mostly as a mere double
or simulation of itself.

Most people don’t think, since they can’t see the people round them doing it, and so they can’t
mimic them. But since they can see and replicate their views, they have no dearth of opinions.

5 We assert ourselves through our ideas

I cling to my convictions as I do to my wonts, not because I give them so much thought, but in
order to assert who I am. A belief is a more or less sincere pose meant to affirm our own being
in the eyes of the world.

How few pains people take to seek out the truth, yet how much pride they take in pronouncing
what they have made up their minds it is.
I take up my creed on impulse, since it is merely a creed. But I argue for it vehemently, since it
is now a valued part of my self.

How did we end up with so many illusions but so few beliefs? Our ideas are a small subset of
our illusions, most of which are too personal to form general views.

People take themselves so seriously, how could they afford to take ideas seriously, since these
would show them how trivial they are?

We think an idea true, if it gives meaning to our own lives. But it does so because it is our
egoism that gives meaning to ideas.

6 We are indifferent to ideas

Most people have no interest at all in general ideas. The sole thought that fills their minds is
their schemes of greed and fun. They never get so close to thinking that they need to go out of
their way to avoid it.

One mistake which all thinkers make is to assume that most people care for ideas. They sound
as if they were speaking of some legendary species, which lived to think, and for whom
thoughts were meat and drink, and truth a matter of life and death.

Most people are impermeable to ideas. They can grasp what they mean, but they can’t see why
they matter, since they lack the rich grounding of thought which might cause them to resonate.

In most minds sports hold the place that intellectuals think ideas do.

Unlearned people are too shrewd to be intimidated by ideas. All their experience tells them that
these have no valency in this world.

Some people are too ignorant to know how little they know. But most don’t even care.

The flesh fascinates us even when it is repulsive. But the truth bores us even when it is

7 The obtuseness of opinion
We treat our opinions as a carefree holiday from the exacting rationality to which we needs must
submit in the prosecution of our day to day schemes.

I collect opinions like a hoard of rubbishy keepsakes. They are all I have to show for the
decades and regions that I have idled through. Most people contribute to the conceptual
economy by circulating borrowed notions, but they turn out no new ones of their own. ‘We think
as we do,’ Butler said, ‘mainly because other people think so.’ Our minds orbit in a closed loop
of rattling platitudes, which we couch in current clichés and fill out with a padding of irrelevant

Few of us think, yet we all hug our obsessions and convictions.

If vain opinions and flattering hopes were taken out of our minds, Bacon says, they would turn to
‘poor shrunken things, unpleasing to themselves.’ If we cleared them, we might find out what
cheap junk clutters them.

You need opinions like small change to deal with the demands of day to day life. And who wants
their thoughts to do more than that? They are the dust flung up by our careening greed.

Most intellectual life is now just a more prestigious make of patter, journalism, showmanship,
storytelling and self-promotion.

8 We believe without understanding

With what certainty people ground their lives in a sophistry which they have made no effort to
examine. And they will glibly bet their souls on a creed which they have not gone to the trouble
of understanding.

Faith is a substitute for understanding rather than a spur to it. Most beliefs don’t have reasons
but causes, and those not overly deep ones. People cling to their faith, because they have
never taxed their minds to grasp what it means. And they take pride in spouting opinions that
they don’t quite understand. ‘There are,’ Lichtenberg says, ‘few who do not hold a lot of things
which they would, if they put them to the test of close inspection, find they did not comprehend.’
They sign up to a creed without penetrating nine in ten of the articles to which they’re

A sect must profess a welter of dogmas which are obviously nonsensical, but which train its
congregants to yield without demur to superstitious explanations.

9 We believe without believing

If we gave more thought to our beliefs, we might find that we don’t much believe them. ‘Most
people,’ Montaigne says, ‘force themselves to believe, having no idea what real belief would
mean.’ They will assent to a thesis sooner than devote serious thought to it. They believe not in
order to make sense of the world, but so that they won’t have to, just as others doubt for the
same purpose.
People don’t understand a great deal of what they believe in, and they don’t even believe in a
great deal of it. They believe less than they think they do, but more than they understand. Their
faith is what they believe they believe in. And most of us believe in much less than we believe
we do. ‘Religion,’ as Twain notes, ‘consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he
believes in.’ Faith is a respectable shared form of delusion and insanity, which most of its
votaries only dream they suffer from. It enables them to take up and act out a creed that they
don’t quite grasp or believe. We must make our choice between no faith and bad faith.

The fraud that faith perpetrates is not to claim that there is a god, but to tell us that we believe in

Because we have faith in so little, we can bring ourselves to lend our faith to nearly anything.
Our self-interest will suffice to heal our unbelief.

10 ‘Our faith is faith in someone else’s faith’

People believe truth itself, not because it is true, but because others believe it. It’s their fellow
flesh and blood that they have faith in, far more than the vaporous fabulations that it dreams up.
So they put their trust in a creed, not on the strength of the reasons they have found to think it
true, but on the strength of the trust that they see the rest of the world puts in it. Most of us catch
ideas by contact with close-by infected bodies. ‘Our faith,’ says William James, ‘is faith in
someone else’s faith.’ And even our doubt is faith in someone else’s doubt. Our minds are too
weak to keep up a single opinion on their own without the concurrence of those round us.

If you can hold fast to your own standpoint when no one else agrees with you, you must be
either a sage or a crackpot.

We get our opinions, like our clothes, readymade, mass-produced and cheap.

We get our precepts by borrowing them from others. So we feel that we prove them most
conclusively not by grounding them in logic but by cajoling others to take them up in turn. It is by
converting others that we convince ourselves. But we ought to have the modesty or pride not to
try to bring others round to our own point of view.

11 The inanity of habit

Most of our habits are more premeditated than they seem. But most of our thinking is more
habitual than it seems. Much of what I appear to do by rote I in fact do by express though
routine intent. And much of what I reckon I think intuitively I in fact think by rote.
People assume that they do so much from habit because they reflect so much from habit. It
rules how they think far more than what they do. They allow torpid routine to fence in their
meditations, and unresting self-interest to thrust them on to act.

Habit is a kind of thrift, and what we wish to skimp on is the work of the mind. Most of our habits
of thinking are makeshifts which save us from the need to think. Our habits of conduct free us to
act without the need of reflection. And our habits of thought enable us to get and keep opinions
without the need of reflection. So we even think without thinking.

Some minds run with clockwork regularity on rails laid by a maniac. They are dependable and
efficient, but inflexible and misguided.

12 Hardening into belief

By the time that we are of an age to think, most of us are bursting with so many opinions, that
we have no more need to, and would scarcely be able. ‘We pick up our ideas,’ Lichtenberg said,
‘at an age when the understanding is at its most unsound.’

We take up tenancy in our small house of thought when we are young. And then instead of
broadening it, we spend the remainder of our life bricking it up as a thick-walled prison.

The doctrines that are drummed into our heads when we are young keep such a hold on us, not
because we think about them for the rest of our lives, but because we don’t think about anything
much at all. ‘Most people grow old within a small coop of notions,’ Vauvenargues said, ‘which
they have not found out by their own efforts.’ Their views set so hard in their heads because
they n