Sunday, July 27, 2014

‘We’ in favour of ‘I’

Our tendency to admire the rich instead of the virtuous is at the core of the corruption of our moral sentiments.

We live in the times when the object of each moment is first to record oneself  as having been there and second to broadcast the result to as much of the rest of the world as possible. With the smartphone at our service people click away with the lens pointed at themselves and post the visuals on social networking sites, imagining that all their other friends would be fascinated by what they had for breakfast or how they spent their weekends. Holding a mirror onto us, the University of Cambridge philosopher Simon Blackburn reflects that the real picture could be quite the opposite, akin to what David Hume would say: ‘A man will be mortified, if you tell him he has a stinking breath; though it is evidently no annoyance to himself.’

The arrogant belief that one is oneself the center of other people’s concerns and interest has become an all pervasive feature of the social world. This kind of narcissist’s self-esteem that is over-dependent on the opinion of others makes a person so fragile that it quickly resorts to anger, aggression, despair or paranoia when that praise falls into short supply. Taking liberal inputs from the work of Kant, Aristotle, Rousseau and Milton, who pop in and out of the pages, Blackburn explores self-love in its diverse manifestations. 

This brilliant book is about what we should make of ourselves for which the author takes a measure of ‘pride, self-esteem, vanity, arrogance, shame, humility, embarrassment, resentment and indignation’ in light of its implications on ‘integrity, sincerity and authenticity’. Mirror, Mirror offers a lively philosophical commentary on good and bad forms of self-esteem, helping the reader take a grip on the flip side of ‘selfie’ as connected to the tragic commodification of social life. Blackburn’s measured analysis does not draw any conclusion though, because the complexity in itself is highly instructive. After all, living is a process and not a product.  

For the self-esteem industry - fashion, cosmetics and plastic surgery - life is as good as a product. Applying carefully selected images, L’Oreal’s brilliantly successful marketing slogan ‘because you are worth it’ is both provocative and persuasive. Blackburn is personally irritated by the vacuous diktat and laments that it holds good for self-obsessed fragile personalities. While condemning the iniquities of the beauty industry, the author contends that it only leaves self-hood destitute. Even if one day the mirror on the wall tells us that we are the fairest of all, still we remain uneasy, for at any moment it may reveal someone else to have overtaken us. 

Blackburn’s grasp on the subject is impeccable and his lucid narrative is loaded with nuggets of wisdom: ‘Human relationships become structured around envy and spite from below, arrogance and contempt from above. It is our take on our own relative situation that bothers us, even to the point where it poisons our life’. The book provides enough resources for self-correction, a search for true self based on a hard process of analysis, discovery and purification. Unless we are idiots sky-high in our self-hood, thinking a way out of it is a clear possibility. 

Our tendency to admire the rich instead of the virtuous is at the core of the corruption of our moral sentiments. Unless we pull ourselves out of such moral elation, self-hood will continue to cast its shadow on us. It is a work of philosophy, beautifully executed.

Mirror, Mirror
by Simon Blackburn
Princeton University Press, UK
Extent: 209, Price: $ 24.95

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