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

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

Order is frugal, sober, chaste and austere. Energy is extravagant, irregular, promiscuous and

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 task 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, though control may be so assured 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, while regularity has the serene dignity of

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

‘Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might.’ What does it matter if you curse or
bless, praise or blame, so long as you do it all with gusto and relish? ‘Energy is eternal delight.’

2 Whole and parts
Only a dull work adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

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, naive and inefficient. As a poet he is deep, original and all-knowing.

Order coheres and unifies, imagination disunites and disaggregates. Imagination is a centrifugal
force that spurts out in a myriad sparkling fragments which never coalesce to form an unbroken
unity and coherence. Why else would Shakespeare’s plays be such prodigal anarchies 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 pith. ‘Digressions,’ Sterne says, ‘incontestably, are the
sunshine, they are the life, the soul of reading.’
3 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 rhetorical, 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 their structures. English ones have set the most copious and exuberant lexicon
in the simplest arrangements.

Whitman’s poetry has a democratic syntax, flattened and simplified, but a pluralistic vocabulary.

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

4 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. Some of the demonic imaginers are Milton, Melville, Hugo,
Beethoven, Pollock, Le Corbusier. Shakespeare was unique in fusing controlling form with
uncontainable imagination.

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, sedate and masterly. 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.

5 Pattern and variation
Pattern and repetition are the essence of beauty. Variation and strangeness are the seed of
originality. Coloured writing must justify its exacting strangeness by its lush suggestions. Plain
writing must justify its plainness by the grand truths which it reveals. Similarity manifests the
form, difference discloses the sense. Form iterates, force varies.

Form shines clearest where it shapes uniform patterns out of elements that are similar. But it
works most potently where it frames dappled patterns out of elements that are 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 sometimes the height of artistry.
Some superlative works, such as the Bible or Dickinson’s poems, hold us in the toils of an
ungainly grace.

Intelligence beams like white light, pure and limpid. Imagination shivers into the rainbow’s
scattered hues.

A word gains its force by being frequently repeated or else by being used charily.

6 Imagination not observation
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. Artists must use visible forms to give
shape to invisible imagination. They haunt us with unseen things, and delight us with stark and
vivid ones. ‘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 have not been 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 conjuring into existence kinds of splendour quite unlike the world’s.

7 Metaphor
A metaphor doesn’t bring out the latent analogies that join two objects, but applies the words
used of one to manifest and enrich the other. It is not discovered but invented. It does not
assimilate things, but differences language. So it is a substitution, not of one thing for another,
but of one set of words for another. It’s the verbal energy which 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. 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.

Mathematics proves rigorous equivalences between interchangeable quantities. Metaphor spins
improbable parallels between incommensurable qualities. ‘Each thought,’ Nietzsche says,
‘originates through equating the unequal.’

8 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 use the simplest style, as Coleridge said. A verbal imaginer, such as Shakespeare,
Melville or Conrad, generates a varied, profuse and elaborate dialect.

The sweetness of life lies all in the imagining, be it anticipating what’s to come, or recalling the
past, or creating works that are not prey to the havoc 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, which we have now sawn down, as 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.

9 Invention and imagination
Most people take imagination to be the same thing as invention, visualization or empathy. But
these are its mere mongrel likenesses which are prized by those who have no imagination.

Fantasy and invention are low stand-ins for imagination. ‘Imagination, not invention,’ Conrad
wrote, ‘is the supreme master of art as of life.’ Invention is the mechanical substitute for
imagination, and this age excels in ingenuity as it has run out of fresh ideas. Both realism and
fantasy are sure signs of its atrophy. We now crave titillating and unctuous impossibilities dealt
with in a flat naturalist manner.

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 that writing makes strange but
If God had had more imagination, he would not have needed to create a world.

Knowledge desolates the world. Only the most bountiful dreams can replenish it.

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.

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

10 Imagination defies belief
Belief petrifies imagination, and paralyses reason. What is faith but frozen vision? The intellect
is at its best when it imagines, but it is at its stupidest and most dishonest in what it believes.
Imagination 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.’ ‘What shocks the
virtuous philosopher delights the camelion poet.’ A poem glows, not by the one sense that it
states, but by the hundred that it darkly hints. There are a plethora of gods, and Shakespeare is
their prophet.

‘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 not having lived, and the stage
of our dreams shrinks when they cease to play on it. A literary persona, like a deity, has life
without incurring the taint of being real and human. The figures of art, like those on Keats’s urn,
gain 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 ever.’

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

11 Art and the creeds
Dante or Chaucer show that an orthodox creed is a good point for poetry to set sail from, but
neo-christians like T. S. Eliot show that it’s a dull port in which to come to anchor. The gods
were one of our most fertile fictions, though also one of our most fallow convictions.

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 decaying 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
civilization, as dung breeds the sweetest roses and lilies.

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

12 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.
Though they make us drunk with their pure and fresh distillations, they sober us from the flat
confections of life. They dry up our trust in the lies by which we live. They may not have enough
faith to doubt, but we lack the imagination 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 the world as it is at its most real.

Only an audience of infants suspends its disbelief, and is transported out of its own world, and
tries to play a part in the show.

13 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 periodic jolt of barbarism to revive it.
But now that the earth is smothered with global kitsch, where will the scythians come from, to
reinvigorate it with their untamed sap and sinew? There are no barbarians left, but only avid
consumers. ‘If mankind does not perish through passion,’ Nietzsche says, ‘it will perish through

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 the making of 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.

The artist’s imagination 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.
14 All things adverse
How but in fret and tumult could you shape an art of tranquility and poise? The one place that
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 inspiration.

Why would a soul that bathed in a tranquil bliss need to make beauty or 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 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.

15 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 is reared up on the wreck of a life. 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, for
both of which 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.

16 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, were it 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
possession of their soul when the muse visits. In those rare and blest 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 ownership 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 claim that they are inspired, in the hope of validating 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 euphoria of conceiving a child a pledge that it will tell no lies?

17 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

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. By patient craft they raise their shallow
frankness to the dispassionate veracity of art.

An inspiration is the sudden detonation of a long and deliberate obsession.

18 Inspiration is the effect 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. A poet comes to be
a poet by the habit of composing poems. The poem is the parent of the poet. Inspiration, as
Renard said, is ‘the joy of writing. It does not come before writing.’

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.’

19 The effects of art
The great heresies of aesthetics are that style should mimic its content, that a fiction means no
more than the tale that it tells, that art has a strong emotional effect or ought to have a strong
moral effect, and that a work of art should express the artist’s personality.

The distillations of pure thought or pure poetry leave us stone-cold sober.
We pay choice art the tribute of tawdry emotion which is due to cheap melodrama. Like Proust’s
Madame Verdurin, we greet with unearned feeling works which were conceived with abounding
poetic fire, and we deem that we thus confer on them the highest praise. Vermeer’s restful
scenes melt the hearts of meretricious sentimentalists. They were much loved by the nazis.

20 Art affects our imagination not our feelings
The effects of art and imagination are cognitive and not emotional. But they have so little
cognitive effect on most of us, that we conclude that their function must be to stir our feelings.

Most people presuppose that art at its most potent ought to work on them like an emotional
pornography, titillating them with an unceasing arousal of their worthy passions and climaxing in
some happy ending. Though 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 consolations of perfect and permanent
form. It falls short of our pretend praise, but outstrips our real one.

Our response to a work of art is at best a pale reflection of the intensity of its vision.

21 The impotence of art
We don’t doubt that what is precious, good or beautiful must touch the bottom of our hearts, and
that what fails to touch the bottom of our hearts can in no way 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. We can tell a strong work by how
limply it moves us, and a shoddy 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.

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 coarsest joking or the most asinine
farce gives rise to gales of hilarity.

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

Most witty writing, such as Dorothy Parker’s, is too palpably pleased with its own wit to please
us much.
22 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. Music is better at stimulating a fake grief than at assuaging a real one.

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

Life stirs us so much more feelingly than art, because life is pressing and personal, while art is
cool and ageless. We are untouched by art’s bland perfections, but we are delighted by 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 intoxicates, dull art that improves, and
phony affects that fire the soul. The only verse that evokes instant tears or smiles is on greeting

What impotent books ravished our youth.

23 Art does not remake us
We don’t grasp how rich a work of art is till it’s remade us, and that would take more than a
whole life.

How mortifying, that great books find me so facile, trite and forgettable when they read me. And
I don’t improve on a second reading.

You must be blind and lost 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 book acts like a virus which must infect a long column of unaffected carriers till it latches onto
the one victim that it was meant for.

24 Surprise
Real surprises go on astonishing us over and over. Yet they don’t startle us, but pour new light
on things that we see every day. Surprise is to wonder as lust is to love. Surprise craves
unremitting variation, wonder is content with the simple and unshifting. So surprise fades with
familiarity, but wonder grows in radiance.

The one kind of surprise that we don’t like is a new truth.

We keep on the watch for surprises, since they corroborate our predetermined 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.’

25 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.’

What a great book unfolds each time we read it is not more depth but more and yet more

Form rescues us from the depths. And yet in order to love art, we feel obliged to 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, and it’s this that is their true significance,
and 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 superficial to see the wonders that stare us in the face.

Beauty doesn’t dive to a hidden depth, but 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?

26 Words are deeper than we are
It is we who are glib, not words. We are too facile to grasp to what depth they might tow us or to
what height they might lift us. Poets do both by ravishing us with their ecstatic dialect. Words go
deeper than we do. But we find them superficial, since all we see of them is their upper face as
we paddle in the shoals above 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 sentimentality that we put there. We prefer to read
between the lines of a poem, so that we won’t have to grapple with its verbal power.
Words are the one hook with which we can catch the truth.

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

A poet is saved by words or not at all. A writer lives by language, but knows that it will not avail.
They feel empty if they can’t empty out their soul each day into words on a page.

27 Art is an antinomian
The creatures of fiction inhabit a spacious country of the imagination. So why do we persist in
judging them by the stifling moral protocols of the low cave in which we lodge? Pious writers
pardon their villains, to tout their own generosity, 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 that lie outside our suburban
codes of right and wrong.

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

A true artificer treats categories of good and evil as part 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. ‘The
morality of art,’ Wilde says, ‘consists in the perfect use of an imperfect medium.’ Right and
wrong are nets which enmesh small souls.

28 Sermons in story
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.

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

We relish fictions that show the triumph of the fine qualities which we assume we 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 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 the wicked 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
devising 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 which they so righteously condemn in their villains.

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

29 Art does not improve the world
The world is in such a state, that if poets are in fact its unacknowledged legislators, would we
not do well to burn their books?

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

‘All bad art,’ as Wilde said, ‘is the result of good intentions.’ Art is strong enough to live down 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 poem that could change the world would have to be doggerel.

30 The egoism of the artist
Art is indirect, egotistical, ineffective and devouring. It’s more like vindictiveness than sympathy.

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. They are moved
not by a generous and dissipating compassion, but by an omnivorous and focused self-will.
Their sympathies are profligate and not ethical, 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.

We like to believe that the task of art is 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.’

31 Art is irresponsible
Art gazes like an imperturbable olympian on the inferno of this world. Like the deities of
Epicurus, it sits uncaring and unruffled. 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 patient and inexorable. The finest, as Flaubert said, are calm and pitiless.

Why do we assume that artists can make no better use of 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 conceive. Thus they work not by empathy, which stays behind to
nurse aching hearts, but by audacity, which dares to dart 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 healthy, while those who write for therapy make
their readers sick.

The artist stems from a long and august lineage, which is made up 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.

32 Art does not make us pity
The sterile sympathies of art don’t move us to share the sorrows of live men and women. I
gorge myself on pity in literature, as I’d choke on it in life. Have we learnt to pity by simulating
bad art? Or have bad artists grown maudlin by mimicking us? We assume that we feel for
characters 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 characters 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 sway 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. We love to show off our stricken
artistry and air our agonized perplexity. The wounds that we feel for others speak eloquently,
but they don’t bleed.

We feel a pathos for great characters, not because they are like people in life, but because we
know that life would have 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.

33 The infernal method
Art owes more to evil than to good, both for its content and for the alienated energies which fire
its production.

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.

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

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
compromises that they make are with the prince of sin.

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

Hold fast to your integrity, but don’t allow it to taint your work. As Catullus wrote, singers ought
to be chaste, but not their song.
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 relish 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’ve 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.

We can’t get rid of our prejudices. So we should at least try to make them as discriminating as

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 rationalize 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.

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

God spent only a week on creating 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 his
workmanship, 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 pleased with his work, then he
must have as little taste as ability.

Create in haste, and repent at leisure. Time is the best critic.

3 Debauched by success
Each day good taste is stripped of a little 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 self-satisfied
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 infatuated with its crude effects. Style too has its hypocrites
and pharisees, who confuse it with the frills, flourishes and embroidery which mask its absence.
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 die before praise gets a chance to debauch you.

All that cosmopolitan 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 be willing to allow them to sink if you want
to succeed.
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
justifications 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.

Most people get the taste for the most expensive grade of vulgarity that they can afford to buy.

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

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. 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 what they usually 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.’

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

Our naturally bad taste is further corrupted by convention. It can be cleansed only in the sluice
of tradition.

7 Good taste, bad reasons
If you want to gauge the quality of a person’s admiration, don’t ask them what they admire, ask
them why. 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. It’s much easier to acquire good taste than good
reasons. We prize the right things for the wrong reasons.

It’s more of a surprise 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 generation.

We think that a work of art will be no good if it’s meant 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 hard-headed.

Now that we all make more money than we need, we feel contempt for anyone or anything
whose sole aim is not to make money. If a thing doesn’t pay, we deem it rank snobbishness to
indulge in it for any purpose more ennobling than fun. And yet if we were not nagged by
snobbery to prove that we are better than those round us we would all remain contented pigs.
We read bad books for enjoyment, and the odd great one for the prestige that it brings us.

A bestseller is a book that everyone buys because everyone else is buying it.
To refer to a book as a bestseller used to be to dismiss it. 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.’

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

The one way to spruik a thing nowadays is to tell people that a horde of other people have
bought it.

9 Taste and fashion
A masterpiece lasts, because it furnishes the passing generations with conceptions which they
can misinterpret each in their 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 dovetail with the prejudgments of their own age. So they end up admiring them
for the very traits that they lack. They make them their contemporaries by misunderstanding

We read great and desolating books to find the anodyne platitudes which we have been trained
to look out for by dull and conventional preceptors. The one style for which we now have any
relish is a debased democratic realism. And so we can praise even Shakespeare only by
demoting him to a democrat and obsequious realist. But on the rare occasions 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 inherited mould of form by compelling 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 is all case law.
‘Precept must be upon precept, line upon line.’ By revering rules artists are freed from following
fads and trends.

Artists don’t breach the rules, they lay down better ones, to found a new freedom and a new
rigour. Genius, as George Eliot said, ‘comes into the world to give new rules.’

Poets must create the taste by which they are relished, as Wordsworth said. They begin by
creating their own, to make it both exacting and permissive. And then they have 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, unlike moralists, practise better than they preach. Most of them have a theory of art, so
it’s just as well that they don’t obey it. Shakespeare’s plays give the lie to most of what he wrote
about play writing. Flaubert, if he had paid heed to his own impeccable aesthetic code, would
have disciplined his scandalous brilliancy into desiccated 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 Freedom and decadence
Artists have shucked off the bountiful ways which used to nurture them, only to give in to the
deadening conventions of the vogue. They 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 plainest axioms or won’t obey them?

‘Beauty,’ as Alberti said, ‘is the revelation of law.’ But each timid conformist now parrots the
platitude that regulations 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 gilded plinth.

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 creed. 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?

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.

12 The good and the great
Major artists don’t do better what minor ones do well. They have quite contrary aims, and
accomplish 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 may share more traits with the bad
than with the good. And some of the finest books, such as Wordsworth’s or Hawthorne’s, are
not much good, as a woman may have true grace and yet not look pretty. ‘In art,’ as Goethe
points out, ‘the best is good enough.’

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.’

A good artist experiments and innovates. A great one realizes and culminates. ‘Sowing is not as
difficult as reaping,’ as Goethe points out.

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.

13 The mind is matrix to the medium
The deepest thinking is neither conscious nor subconscious. 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.

Genius is not so much a high aptitude for general creativeness as a preternatural affinity for a
particular medium. A great mind is a dunce in everything but its chosen métier.

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

Imagination belongs more to the work than to the man or woman who conceived it. And the
work, which is all on the surface, is measurelessly deeper 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 its medium. A poor realist makes one
as thin and meretricious as life.

14 Imagination is an affinity for a particular medium
Imagination is essentially material. It grants the power to realize the maximum possibilities of its
elected medium. It is morally wayward, but embedded 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 medium than in all
Gaudi’s grotesqueries. There is more vision in one of Cézanne’s unobtrusive still lives than in
the bizarre hallucinations of Fuseli or Piranesi. Imagination is perennially revolutionizing its
means of representation.

15 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 inspires fresh

The passion that inspires a painter is the passion for paint. 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.

For the philosopher life is mediated through systems and ideas. For the poet life is mediated
through language. ‘Between me and life,’ Wilde said, ‘there is a mist of words always.’

Form guides a great writer to deep insights, but it waylays a mannered one into the paths of
cheap imposture.

16 The muse of language
Poetic souls are a dime a dozen. What is needed is poetic craft. When this is lacking, the poetic
soul is stillborn or sterile.

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.’

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.

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.

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

17 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.’

Language has more imagination than any individual. So the best writers are content to serve as
the clear channels of its up-welling. The poet is absorbed in language as the mystic is absorbed
in God.

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

18 The specificity of the medium
Why do people celebrate one form of art for doing imperfectly what another 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?

A painting turns to 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. A picture that tries to relate a story is as false to its medium 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 tolerate discordance in inverse ratio to how primitive it is, the nose least of all, and
the ear less than the eye.

19 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
underpinned by nothing but its words it will soon crumple.
The standard view holds that writing encodes visual images 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

Words stand for concepts, not for sense impressions. Their true sensory power lies in their
sound, not in the pallid duplicates that they make 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 fabricating crude images. But we have no ears to hear their

Words are not pictures. They impart vague, imprecise and indistinct pictorial 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.’ Who would read a description of a peach
to find out how it tastes? Just bite its pulp.

20 Genres
For a true artist a genre is a mere incitement to imagine. Order is generic, imagination is impish
and perverse. Genres are the bowls into which artists pour their imagination. They fix the outline
of the shape it will take, but they don’t determine its quality.

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

An epic is an essence of one third intense tragedy filled out with a wadding of more or less
tedious digressions.

Tragedy is not a particular kind of story. It is a grand character responding to the deepest
outrages with a commensurate depth of imagination. So in life there are no tragedies, only

Greek and french tragedy is formally frigid, imaginatively impoverished and emotionally
incontinent. The sole reason to read it is to grasp how great Shakespeare is, and how right he
was to keep clear of its bombastic minimalism, pompous choral insipidities, kitsch mythology,
vulgar spectacle, sophistic debates, copybook moralizing, pretentious yet prosaic rhetoric, and
formal monotony. All its bellowing has less to say to us than one quiet work of heartbreaking
savagery by Conrad or Faulkner.

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.
21 Music
Music arranges formal associations between sound and sound. It does not compose
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. It communicates no thoughts at all, as Stravinsky argued, or else it communicates none
but musical ones. And it evokes a restricted range of coarse, obvious and extraneous feelings,
not much more than sad or glad, up or down, sunny or spooky. And it’s the crudest sort that
sparks the strongest effects.

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 degenerating 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.

22 Savage dance
Ballet is the Fabergé egg of the arts, the over-refined knick-knack of an epicene age. It’s 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 ought to leave off straining
for fluid organic grace, and aspire instead to a mechanical, puppet-like and affectless
awkwardness. Nijinsky alone by his rigorous anti-ballet gave back to the dance its savage

23 Painting and sculpture
We assume that portraits get to the core of a soul, since we know the bare 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
brigand, singled out the markers of the true metaphysician in the robber, and the unmistakable
tokens of an outlaw in Kant.
Cézanne is the ideal painter. He framed a style scoured of affect, 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 commemorative statues.

24 Architecture
A building must have a function as a fiction must have a meaning. But whereas a book is able to
unroll the whole skein of the spirit, a building’s purpose is the mere servant of menial
instrumentality. Architecture is art contaminated by utility. It fouls pure form with functionality.
Literature lights it up with truth.

Sentimentalists claim that no building is worth as much as the acts that take place underneath
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 one 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. Is the ruby brightened by the grubby fingers that it adorns?

If form does follow function, then every building ought to 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 merely the builder loved by 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.

25 Film
Cinema is beggared by the wealth of its possibilities. 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
gratifications of plot. It feasts our greedy hunger for happy endings and our need to identify with
attractive idols. 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 make luminous images, and too stuffed with visual details to make
thoughtful drama.

Great novels make poor films. Films may preserve the skeleton of the plot, but they lose the
vocal life and glory. But they are so crammed with banal details, that we have to assume that
they are rich with symbolism.

Photography memorializes the sadness of time in a medium that claims to prevail against it. It
replaces artistic form with gadgetry and artistic feeling with sentimentality and self-centredness.
It paints the icons of our narcissism.

The camera acted as the cannon of kitsch, which battered down the ramparts of modernism.

26 The wisdom of tradition
Time is wiser than taste. 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 imperishable originality from each generation’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 most reliable consensus, since it is made without the need for agreement.

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 sumptuous 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?

27 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
hardihood of the few who fight to depose it. Creators cherish it only if they hope to become part
of it. But how can they enrich it but by being unequivocally of their own time? They are at once
idolaters and iconoclasts. ‘Each act of creation,’ Picasso said, ‘is first of all an act of destruction.’

Artists make a god of beauty. But they want to smash its old images and set up their own on the
unfilled pedestals.

Artists are mere conduits for the energies of their culture. 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.’

28 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 individual characteristics. ‘That
urge to find counterparts and analogies in the various arts gives rise to queer blunders,’ as
Baudelaire points out.

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 english put all of their music into their poetry.
The french put all their music into their prose.

Music had its rebirth long after the renaissance of poetry and the visual arts.
All great art is degenerate. All healthy art is kitsch. Each step forward is a new degree of
decadence. ‘All mortal greatness is but disease,’ as Melville wrote. So don’t look for a cure for
your malaise, but for a form to make it fecund.

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 doomed consumptive.

29 The greeks
Ancient Egypt shaped an authentically modern visual style, stark, impassive and menacing.
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 have gained a more accurate view of
them, we can’t glean a thing from them. They were sculptors, not psychologists. They carved
the embodied abstractions of architecture, geometry and myth. Their imagination 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.

30 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.

Classicism is a shallow pond, imagination is a shoreless ocean. Classicism cramps imagination
by trussing it in the brace of organic form and subjecting its exuberant parts to a dulling unity.

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 solitary

Paganism was a boon for painting and sculpture, because it was so picturesque. 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.

31 Modern
Discontinuity is the essence of modernity and the mainspring of all modern art, both in its own
form and between it and the works of the past, 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 is left with the fragment
as the sole weapon with which to combat kitsch and the whole. ‘Unity,’ as Blake wrote, ‘is the
cloak of folly.’

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 ones.

The arts grew modern by battling their own assumptions. 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.

32 Contemporary
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. Literature has ceased to reveal to us large truths,
since it has sold itself as a reporter of small facts. It now aspires to the condition of journalism. It
aims to make books that are as probable as a news report, as accurate as a chronicle, as
bustling as a film, or as instant as the net.
The contemporary novel is a composite monster, with a head of exploratory formalism, a heart
of egalitarian sentimentalism, and a trunk of nineteenth century naturalism bulging with a
paunch of workaday detail.

The one lesson that contemporary novelists have learnt from modernism is a concern with all
the different ways to spin a story. But the stupidity of story was the very thing from which
modernist experimenters aimed to emancipate art.

Most recent verse is cryptic yet prosaic, mystification illuminated by flashes of cliché. Its jumbled
platitudes scarcely repay the decoding. 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 is
a prosaic reel of personal anecdotes that lacks a continuous narrative.

33 Beauty
Beauty lives solely in its proper element. A swan out of water looks like 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.

Nudity may be beautiful, dress is at best merely elegant. Clothes are a needless decoration of
beauty, and an ineffective disguise of ugliness.

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

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?

Beauty doesn’t hasten like a disciplined line, but wanders like a sinuous curve. A tune is the
most roundabout way to get from c to c.

There are a hundred ways to look elegant, but a thousand to look unattractive, as there are a
hundred ways to write beautifully, but a thousand to write lamely, a hundred of reasoning right,
but a thousand that miss the mark, and one way to be good, but a squad that work mischief.

34 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 our
thoughts. 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.
A sun shower, by commingling a pair of things that you’re accustomed to see separately,
reminds you what a marvel each one is. Only love beauty, and the world turns to an endlessly
varying wonder.

35 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.

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 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 it failed to.

36 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.

Beauty is a rare visitor from the realm of being to our world of time and becoming. It has no
sooner entered our corrupting atmosphere than it starts to sicken and decay.

We have a disgusting propensity for manufacturing ugliness where there was once beauty, and
a charming gift for reclaiming small pockets of beauty from the encroaching ugliness.
37 Generic beauty
Beauty is exemplary not original. It is neither particular nor abstract but generic. It must
therefore be learned from experience and not deduced 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’ve seen more samples of its type. The proportions of a
flamingo would look absurd in an eagle, the plumage of a peacock would spoil a swan.

Ours is an ugly species which is full of breathtakingly beautiful individuals. And a human being
is beautiful because for a brief time she possesses in an abnormal degree those features which
typify the human form but which most humans are deficient in.

38 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 captivate you by recalling this one here in front of you. Beauty is old wine in new

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 has the potency to resurrect our buried hearts. Each lovely
thing enjoys a timeless bloom which is vulnerable to all the sad injuries of time.

39 The ruin of beauty
So much beauty is botched by the very process that should perfect it. Adolescence is a fiery
furnace. 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.

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 it to share its own overfed and florid likeness?

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.
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.

The young and lovely troop into the future like the unending waves of an inexhaustible russian
battalion, 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 the old.
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.

Artists make works of perfect taste by creating patterns which 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.

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’s worth
saying and all the multifarious 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 direction of thought. Prose, like an
equation, must press on to its conclusion. Verse, like a melody, 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.

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 which each poem makes new.

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.

A poem is distilled imagination decanted into language.

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 almost 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 which match its intensity.
It is speech imagined most passionately and composed most musically. A poem 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 above all else a piece of verbal music.

A poem must both mark out its unlikeness from the everyday language around it and knit
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
Shakespeare and Swinburne.

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 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 would be at a loss to explain, and imply much
that it would be at a loss to 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
proximity without quarrelling.

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

The aphorist acts 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 and abstraction, still reeks of the
anguished blood which it is too proud to show.

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

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.

Aphorisms are the fleas of literature, miniature, nimble, nipping and at times deadly.

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. Style ought to serve not as an echo to
the sense but as 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.

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.

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.

Imagination is the most arbitrary thing in the world. The task of the artist is to find a form that
makes it seem inevitable.

Architecture builds the music of space. Music composes 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 which has its own shape, but must borrow its light from the sun of its

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

Thought is the gunpowder, style is the match.

9 Natural style
Artifice is art’s nature. To write plainly takes complex art. To write unaffectedly, you have to
forsake nature. ‘Simplicity,’ as Leonardo said, ‘is the height of sophistication.’ You reach
spareness by an extravagance of effort.

Not one thing about writing is natural. 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

Art works by a conscious 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.

You grow spontaneous by long and weary assiduity. And you earn vivacity by dint of systematic
drudgery. Thus Matisse by joyless toil made designs of incandescent vitality and delight.

10 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 build for the future frame the
timeless contours of the age by battling 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 ought to make a strange tribal poetry, not a documentary transcription.

The true originators shun historicism for anachronism. What do they care for archaeology or
antiquarianism? Rapturous vision makes all things new. Art is indifferent to time and place.
Kitsch is both topical and eclectic, localized and globalized. The historical sense benumbs the
imagination. ‘All beautiful things,’ as Wilde says, ‘belong to the same age.’

11 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 discipline and taste from their shame. Pride
directs, shame corrects. Pride bestows imagination, force, exuberance and fruitfulness. 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.

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.

12 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.’

In art simplest is strongest, as the Bible shows. In order 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.

What is truly simple looks unfathomably strange or unbearably dull to our eyes, dazzled as they
are by all our intricate novelties.

Strong writers make their own strange phrasing of a thought seem the one shape that it could
A perfectly plain style must be perfectly executed, since it has no extrinsic adornments to fall
back on.

13 Rich style
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, where, as Yeats wrote, ‘there’s 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

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

14 Exactness and clarity
An exact style has the abstract rigour of a geometrical figure, not the representational veracity 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.’

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 us the key to a
startling significance 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.

Writers know that beauty looks like lucidity. So they polish their style so smooth that it seems
translucent, 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.
15 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 brevity’s strenuous concentration. 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

16 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 ought to 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. Serious works of art, such as Shakespeare’s
plays or Paradise Lost, fade out on a quiet note.

17 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, cleanliness,
stealth, poise and equanimity, patience to wait for the right moment, nimbleness when it comes.
They share in addition a cold playfulness, a saving discipline, a high delight and insular pride.

With regard to timing, an artist, like a soldier, has to master five skills, frugality of time, which
abridges, modulation of time, to shift velocity, 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, ought to 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.’

18 Styles of the self
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.

Style apprentices artists to wisdom and serenity. 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.

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.
19 Style is not expression
The greatest artists, like expert criminals, leave the fewest fingerprints. It’s the bunglers whose
smudge can be found all over the scene.

Artists shape their style by not being themselves and yet not belonging to anyone else. It
transmits thought without trying to look like it, and gives voice to the vitality of a being who is not
of flesh and blood.

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
learnt. Why do those who bleat that style is character write so unnaturally?

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 on the mask of form to elude
earnestness and tell the truth.

False style is an involuntary confession of our grave faults. True style is a deliberate atonement
for our mean virtues.

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 we forge nothing but kitsch.

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

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.

20 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
is 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
dramatics. Only bad painters 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.

21 Irony
The world wants so much and so little from you, that you answer it most appropriately with
cheap irony.

Irony doubles and disguises the self, imagination multiplies new ones. Irony is imagination’s
adolescence. It weans you from the literal, the didactic, the earnest and the personal. It is the
via negativa of imagination. Sterne is the preeminent ironic imaginer, as Shakespeare is the
preeminent poetic imaginer.

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

Self-knowledge strips you of all your decent self-deceits. So what do you have to clothe your
naked soul with 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.

22 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 licence to cheat, for an artist is a passport to
imagine. 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 sets a high premium on 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 application.

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.
23 The ironist exposed
If you use irony to deter others from understanding you, you must, like Hamlet, earn the permit
to your irony by understanding 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 kin to those teasers who refuse to tell you a secret but love to keep reminding you
that they have one.

24 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. Misery may school them, but
what they glean from it 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. Misery grinds your style smooth, and joy polishes it to
a high sheen.

25 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.

Irony is the revenge of the witty and impotent on the dim and self-important.

Self-mockery is the sly magnanimity of the powerless. Mercy is the disdainful irony of the victor.

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

26 The stupidity of story
The tale does not justify the telling, as Hardy claimed. It is the telling that must justify the tale,
‘the way to do a thing that shall make it undergo most doing,’ as Henry James phrased it. And
yet we regard the artistry as 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

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 the tale’s entertainment is
the sole aspect of art that we care for.

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

The true drama of a great novel is the drama of its author’s vision travailling to find the shining
words to blaze forth its splendour. It’s what D. H. Lawrence calls the ‘struggle for verbal

27 The stupidity of invention
Good fictions draw their plots from life or else invent them, great ones take them over
readymade from previous fictions. Shakespeare was able to find fresh words for all things,
because he was not distracted by the need to make up new stories. He sourced his plots from
second-rate historians, chroniclers and romancers. Only his words are his own. But now
storytellers have to surprise us with their clever plot twists, because they lack the capacity to
reimagine their medium. ‘It is,’ Wilde says, ‘only the unimaginative who ever invent.’

Good writers amuse you by contriving highly-wrought tales. Great writers awe you by revealing
the bare truth. They forgo the crude and evanescent shocks of plotting for the enduring marvel
of fresh insights illuminated in fresh forms.

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

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

Falstaff is ebullient comic humanity made flesh and words. So how could he be anything but a
monster of inhuman and selfish malignity?
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 surpasses Ahab’s
diabolic questing. Dickens constructs not characters but colourfully tinted wind-up toys, which
he jerks into mechanical spasms of life. Proust’s 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.

30 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 give voice to 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.

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
works which they shape.

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

31 Shakespeare, master of character
Shakespeare gave birth to 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
conversation. He doesn’t inhabit 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’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

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

32 Great characters are words
Personality becomes character where thought catches articulate fire. Like Cleopatra, all their
other elements they give to baser life. The most solid and indelible characters are words, mere
words. 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. The characters
in a potboiler 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.’

In life temperament and circumstance mould style. In art style gives birth to character.

33 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 vibrant, 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.

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

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 importance.
If you have gained a genuine self-knowledge, you suspect that others have not.

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. Which do we stand in more need of, to
misapprehend who we are, or to assume that we comprehend who we are?

We could redeem most of our faults or misfortunes if we used them to learn what we are. But
most rob us of the will to do so.

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 you get to know your
self as you do your native tongue. The best way to grasp it is by studying foreign ones, though
you have to learn them through the vehicle of your own.

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

Nothing is so unlike us that it can’t teach us what we are. We are able to get to know our self
because we are like others. But we are spurred to get to know it because we 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 for that
reason are in no way like the rest of our self-oblivious kind.

Some people have nothing to teach you, save what they don’t know of their own minds and
motives. They do their best to make you share in their self-deceits, but in doing so they show
you the truths that they dare not face. You learn to grasp what you are by observing those who
don’t grasp what they are. Why bother to set them right? Their witless misunderstandings are
more amusing and instructive than their few dry husks of information. And you can learn more
by cultivating their self-deceptions than you would by correcting them.

2 The proud alone can afford self-knowledge
If your aim is to know yourself, you must call in the aid of 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 bent 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 destitute, and the conceited don’t
wish to pay.

The ropes by which you have to haul yourself up to self-knowledge are plaited from fibres of
pride and self-disgust. 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? 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 best know their own hearts, and cynics are best able to burrow into the hearts of
others. Shame flays you so that you can scan your own inward parts. And malevolence 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 foolishness and vanity.

Shame drives us to know ourselves, and that 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 instils the
best but most unwelcome counsels. When he plucked the pernicious apple of self-reflection,
Adam learnt to feel ashamed and to hide from the Lord who knew him.

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’ve found if you’ve not
shrugged off its load. You can afford to learn who you are, if you possess a rich allowance of
guilt but don’t feel bound 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 see 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 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

Only a misshapen mind can focus the rays of truth till they catch fire.

The greeks did not know solitude. So how could they have learnt to know themselves?

6 The cost of self-knowledge
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.

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-awareness 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.

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 affliction.

Consciousness complicates our pain, and works up our natural fears into 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.

Life is fraught with disasters, but few are more dire than self-discovery.

7 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, take in their gulls but acknowledge the truth to themselves.

Those who gain 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’ve torn out their own. Who would want to know the few who know

8 Self-deception
Most fools know better than to want to know themselves any better than they do.
Most people know their souls too remotely to blench at what they might unearth if they knew
them more intimately. But there are a few who know themselves well enough to dread what they
might find if they knew themselves better.

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

How little effort it costs most people to keep their eyes shut to the most glaring truths.

‘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?

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.’

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.

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.

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

9 Self-deception and self-interest
There’s no lie that we won’t tell ourselves to justify doing whatever we think we have to do to get
whatever we think we want.

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

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

You beat your way more directly to what you want 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 reap the benefit of
I flee self-awareness, because I fear that it might cost me success. And yet at times I would
choose to go under rather than grasp who I am.

10 Self-deception and self-regard
We are saved from the ravages of self-knowledge by the buffer of our self-satisfaction and by
the simple expedient of not thinking.

We surround ourselves with mirrors, so that we won’t see what we are. They reflect back to us
precisely what we’ve made up our minds we look like.

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.

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

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

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, and often I admit it to everyone but myself.

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. No matter
what tincture they are dyed in, we weave them from the unbreakable threads of our self-belief.

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 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 propitiate it from afar in
fog and mystery. The less we know of it, the more devoutly we adore it.

11 Self-deception and the world
The world throbs with deception and self-deception, like the systole and diastole of the heart.
Nothing is dearer to us than our 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

Most people are ready to know themselves 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 crass will on.

We know our self through the mediation of the world. So we don’t know our self at all.

We want to learn how the world works because we want to control it. But we don’t want to know
what we are since we might feel that we had to control ourselves.

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.

12 Too near and too far
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 don’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 those close to us 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
13 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 but 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 children.

14 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 pretend that you don’t know 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 most of the time you need an excuse more pressingly than glory.
We fool ourselves most of the time. But we also pretend that we need to fool ourselves still
more than we do. Not even our self-deceptions are quite genuine. We are not so dainty that we
can’t admit the dirty truth to ourselves once in a while. We understand who we are a speck more
than we seem to, though much less than we suppose.

15 Secrets
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 no more than that, and they try to ferret out all but what
matters. They love to pry out a few shadowy secrets, but can make nothing of the best and most
luminous part of 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 hastily others see through me, yet how little of the truth they bring to light. Those who
boast that they’re an open book would be dismayed by how much or how little those who read
them find 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 you will grow more imprisoned by them. Yet they may yield
up to you the key to unlock the chambers of your heart. Secrets ferment your self-knowledge in
the dark.

16 Self-concealment
Few of us are alert to all the secrets that we’re attempting to hide. And f we were, we 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 we parry truths that we don’t even perceive.

I want others to watch me and feel for me, but not to see through me. So I waste my days
fabricating 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?
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 conversation, 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 isn’t it merely 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.

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 conjecture 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 guess 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 merely 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 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.

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. We 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 hard-hearted, 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. ‘We don’t show greatness by being at one extreme,’ as
Pascal says, ‘but by touching both simultaneously and straddling the gap in between.’

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 instruments of empathy, apathy and revenge. Some dispositions are penned in
an invisible ink, which you have to hold up to the flame of your ill will in order to read. And some
are so well secured by their self-opinion, 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 turn 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.’ We may be caught off guard by the very calamities that we foresaw. The most
surprising thing about most of us is how predictably we behave.

6 The complexity and banality of the self
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 surmise. Their transitory emotions,
recollections, intuitions, pinings and impressions pierce deeper than their conscious thoughts.
Their interior lives are as rich as a novel, but their views are as thin and meagre as a dusty
critic’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.

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

7 The shallow unconscious
Our unconscious is the shallowest part of us. And we live most of our life unconsciously.

We are lashed 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 a mysterious though shallow font. 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. And
by the time that we have seen our errors, they are so much part of our character, that we have
no wish 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. In the sea of sleep I still don’t cast off from the blighted island of self.

Those who hatch no valuable 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 to some degree a bad actor who has lost all sense
of self-mockery. Art and thought have gained far more from the vacancy of sloth and ennui than
from the tinseled hyperactivity of dreams. Dreams and wish-fulfilments are the type not of art but
of kitsch.

We confuse art, the most formed and considered thing, with dreams, the most unformed and
random one.

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 not much more than the sum of the stories that we tell of our doings. And
some are what remains 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 characteristic types.

11 Madness
Some of us seem sane because we are able 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 in our right minds. 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. Madness is an inflation
of self in ways that harm the self and others. 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.’

Mad people unnerve us, because they are so evidently the puppets of their compulsions. And
that is what we all fear we might be.
12 Grief
The deaths of those I don’t care for seem to accord with nature. The deaths of those I love
outrage nature.

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 we 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
We are so shallow, that we alleviate a grief more efficaciously by deflecting our mind from it
than by inquiring into it. We entomb our sorrows deep in our hearts, since that is the district that
we frequent least. In grief, diversion is better than cure. ‘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.

Most people readily 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.

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

The soul-stirring gestures of our grief help to take our minds off the dead.

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 once more the pain of their loss, unmolested by our showy tears.

Our mourning is selfish because our love is selfish. When we grieve, we are crushed by the
desolate selfishness of loss, from which we are 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 your egoism for a brief hour, but it won’t blot it out for long.

Any grief that can be assuaged by the rituals of mourning can’t have pierced too deep.
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 return you 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 memory and fantasy, guilt and desire.

Loss, like love or poetry, imbues the most exiguous details with meaning, and inspires a
rhapsody of superabundant suggestion. Do we cherish what has left us just to swell the
significance of what we still retain? We have nothing to lose but life, and so we assume that life
must be of inestimable value.

16 Cheap comfort
I feel that I have a right to find comfort when I let slip 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 lose the
cheap garbage that we have toiled so sedulously to shovel up.

At times I grope for some gaudy comfort to hide how soon I was comforted 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
numb us where a blow will barely bruise us. When we claim that art has saved us, we mean
that, like some cheap bagatelle, it has kept our minds from brooding on the real torments that
we need to be saved from.

When we’ve lost what’s most dear to us, we take refuge 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 I’ve been gored, while I push on to the next shallow enterprise that will soon fill all
my heart. But I scorn the facile succour held out by my comforters, which I soon won’t need
since I’ll be so swept up in my facile preoccupations. The scars have long since healed of the
lacerations that I was sure would send me to the grave.

17 The consolations of illusion and conceit
We are solaced by the lie that we are solaced by the truth.
We have to find a way to lose ourselves, as a ruse to keep our thoughts off our crushing losses.

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 sound sense was too faint-
hearted or too steadfast to provide.

We may allay a light loss by lessening it, but we 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. We have three sovereign
balms, truth, love and death. And when knowledge hurts and love goes, death alone is left to do
the work. But conceit plays the fraudulent comforter, and so it is the one 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 Golden comforters
The largeness of a great mind might go close to reconciling you to your own littleness. Things
that overtop you hearten you when high exploits exceed your reach. Your dumb and just
reverence for golden accomplishments may not lend you a ray of their own refulgence, but they
may lighten the load of your lumbering dullness. They may not give you solace, but they will
relieve you of the need for it. It’s petty minds that needle me into dissatisfaction and pettiness.
The brightest achievements extinguish envy yet stoke the flame of emulation. They elevate but
don’t ingratiate, cheer but don’t stupefy, teach me to pay tribute to their immensity while not
resenting my own inadequacy, and prove to me the fairness even of my own neglect. Emerson
says that ‘he that loveth maketh his own the grandeur he loves.’

19 Failed consolations
I treasure my consolations, but they crumble like porcelain ornaments as soon as I start to
handle them. They were made 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 up 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 which particular illusions you hold but as much 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 under.

20 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

The most frivolous customs may cling for the longest time. A catholic may sooner quit believing
in the trinity than eating fish on Friday. In this shallow world it’s the most superficial things that
go deepest and last longest.

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.

21 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 determined to succeed 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,
were I not so vain of them. It is an impotent autocrat whose sway would topple on the spot if I
once refused to bow to its directives.

We might not find it so hard to change our habits if we were less aware of them. We clutch them
so tight because we’re so proud of them.

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 miseries and the sole comfort we can count
on to quiet us for 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 the lungs of our delight. 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 is such a jovial companion, that we don’t mind that it leads us down the wrong path.

If we had any real grounds for hope, we would have no need of it.

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. Our lives are filled up by action and fiction, and
would be scooped out by contemplation and truth.

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 your fears disturb your
present peace of mind by apprehending knocks to come. Hope toys with you like a kitten with a
mouse, mercilessly deferring your reprieve. After a while you hear in its blandishments 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 fooled by hope, as polar regions, abandoned by the sun, are lit up by gaudy northern

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 only flag our hopelessness. Try to enunciate your faith, and you will let show
how deeply you despond.

25 We fail to despair
Life schools us to despair, but we are too smug and greedy to learn to do anything but hope.
We have plenty of reasons to despair, and 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 now 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 past them by. We’re all rocketing so fast that life can barely keep up
with the pace we set.

My hopes betray me, and I betray my despair. I’m 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.
I give up my lofty aims, because I can’t let go of my low cravings. And yet at times I have to put
on a fake despondency to navigate my thoughts away from my real one.

I try to dignify my frustration by titling it despondence, and my disappointment by titling it
disillusionment. We don’t have enough faith to be capable of much despair. And in this life,
where our will is so often thwarted, don’t we need to take refuge in hope’s sweet perfidy? Only a
lapsed demigod would have the fortitude to bear real hopelessness. To hope is human, to
despair divine.

26 Those who have no hope cannot afford to despair
When all your prospects have gone black, your anxiety lives on to tell you how strongly you are
still bound to the world.

‘Hope,’ Dickinson wrote, ‘is a subtle glutton.’ Overactive expectations breed tumours of despair.
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? Its ghouls 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.

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 flower 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 with your struggle once
that’s 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.

27 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 overcomes us when we have evacuated the lies that
help us to digest the truth. Lose the knack of deceiving yourself, and you are no longer fit to live
in this world. ‘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 that you’re approaching the heart of reality, the closer you get to the black hole of

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.

28 Hate
Our enmities and antagonisms arise as accidentally as our amities. Few of them are rich or
deep enough to last very long. There are a lot of people whom I might hate more reasonably
and fruitfully than the ones that I do, if I but knew them.

Few people are worth all the malice that we lavish on them.

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. Luckily for us few people care enough about us to wish to do us harm.

Those who appear to hate themselves in fact want to mark themselves off from the people
whom they despise but fear they might be lumped with. What better way to prove that you are
not bourgeois than by execrating the rest of the bourgeoisie? ‘The middle class,’ as Renard
notes, ‘is other people.’

There are two ways to hate a thing. You can hate it for what it is or you can hallow its fake
effigy. And isn’t this what we do with the image of our own self? We love it more than all the
world, but since we know it so distantly, isn’t it a mere shifty similitude that we adore?

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

29 Love
We have to go on adoring those we love, for fear of how we would feel toward them if we

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 settled knowledge. It performs 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 pretend that it is the
work of destiny.

Perfection compels you to admire, but blemishes kindle dry admiration into love. The flaws of
the one you’re fond of form gullies which you level by flooding them with yet more fondness, and
so make them 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.

30 Love and selfishness
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.

Even those who live for others live for those others who are their own, their family, friends, tribe
or nation.

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

Our egoism is such a burden to us, that we try to make others 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.

We praise dogs for their selflessness, because their selfish subservience gratifies our own
domineering selfishness.
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.

We’ve fixed it in our skulls that love rules the stars, since we’re sure that all things must love us.

31 Love and cruelty
Those who are sure that they’re 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?

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
possession of its beloved. Our sacrifices are self-forgetful and yet calculating.

Love or comradeship can turn to hate in the blink of an eye. It’s only in books that hate can turn
to tenderness.

We are so affectionate, that we need something to love. But we stand ready to throw this over, if
we find something more to our taste.

32 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.

We warp our feelings when we give vent to them. But don’t we do the same when we try to hold
them in, since we never cease to talk to our own hearts, which are so hungry to lap up our
sugared lies?

33 Marriage
Some of the sturdiest marriages are based 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
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 shared self-interest.

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
spell the end of a marriage.

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

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

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

34 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.

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 company,’ La Rochefoucauld
says, ‘because they’re 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

35 The sexes
Each sex both dotes on and in some degree disdains the other like a favourite child.

Men see objects, women see the interrelations which lace them to one another and to us.
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.

36 Unrequited love
No love is unrequited. It’s 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.

37 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, yet 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.

We let slip our bliss in our hungry rush to lay hold of it. We chase it with such breathless celerity
that we plough on past it. Brief as our pleasures are, they last a little longer than our absorption
in them.

We inflate our desires with our fantasies, until they burst in frustration.

Since we can’t curb our urges, we have to pretend that they meet our needs. We are suspended
between desires which we can’t quench, and death which we can’t escape from. Even if we
succeed in satisfying our passions, they still fail to satisfy us.

Our lusts make us at once crafty and incautious. They are keen-scented enough to smell out the
least opportunity. And yet they recklessly crash through all the barriers that would block their
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

38 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 expunges from our minds the disappointments 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.

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.

39 Pleasure and fantasy
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 skimming 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. 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’re in thrall to.

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 is. ‘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 dazzled by our gaudy dreams of
them. They keep us spellbound just because they are chimeras.

Our pleasures are so hollow, that we have to fill them up with our self-satisfaction.

A dash of repressive puritanism helps to season our licentious pleasures.

Your fantasies doom you to chase fictitious gratifications, but won’t take your mind off your real

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.

40 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. Some glow like
candles, bright erotic sparkles that soon sputter. 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. We are joined to those we love by small, frail and
imperfect bonds. But when these crack, it feels like the breaking of worlds.

Your friends are those whom you have no choice but to forgive, even when you have done them

41 We descend to meet
Isn’t most friendship less a kind 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 accepted frauds and feather-brained recreations. We want to snatch the most fun
for the least sweat. ‘Almost all people,’ as Emerson says, ‘descend to meet.’
‘Man,’ as Delacroix wrote, ‘is a social animal who dislikes his fellow men.’ We need to feel that
we have our own slot in a pack, most of whose members we don’t care for. ‘Although the ox has
little affection for his fellows,’ says William James, ‘he cannot endure even a momentary
separation from his herd.’

42 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. It’s our friends that we rely on 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. A sycophant just pretends to do so
for his 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 be our friend for long.

Don’t spare me the truth, I say to those who I know I can trust to tell only those truths that suit

43 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 enemies.
Anyone who has a knack for friendship intuits just how far a friend wants to run down the rest of
their friends.

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.

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.

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 near 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.’
44 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 we defer to some person who is old or august or staid, and we vie to
sound as respectable and prim. But in nimble-witted discussion we strive to outdo one another
in ridicule and wit, and strain to show that we have mastered the catchphrases of the hour.

We’ve 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

Sometimes you have to flee into company so as to stop thinking about other people.

We feel sure that we talk much less than we do, but say much more than others do, and that
they store up our few clipped and polished words like pearls.

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 hollow at the core?

45 Solitude
You must be exceptional, if you can win and keep your joy in retirement or your truth in the
crowd. Your solitude ought to be as replete and well-tempered as society, apt to tease and
shame you into good humour.

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.

46 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?

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?

We are not what we remember, as Augustine argued, nor are we what we forget or what we
have repressed. Are we not much more than each of these, but all of the things that we imagine,
hope, love, desire, own or aspire to?

Year by year our memories are clarified by our illusions. The eyewitnesses of the resurrection
incised it on their hearts in sharp but inaccurate detail.

47 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 ponderously?

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 our writing and our reading.
48 Bitter memories
Our memories may pester us like lice, 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 us with a freight of leaden memories, from which we have to hope death will
disencumber us.

When we are happy, all our memories, both sweet and bitter, sweeten our happiness. But when
we are sad, they all make our sadness more bitter.

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.

49 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.

Our memories seem as clear-cut as crystal, till we 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 we can
be sure that the events we recollect intensely did not happen as we remember. We think that we
remember experiences distinctly because we experience the recall of them so distinctly.

50 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 I can’t let go of 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 past’s
magic spell, since 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 afflicts 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.

51 The manufactured meaning of nostalgia
Memory, like art, manufactures meaning rather than representing it. But the meaning that
memory makes is temporary and fitful. 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. ‘It is always throwing away gold,’ Twain says,
‘and hoarding rubbish.’ It salvages splinters of cheap glass, which its alchemy makes glister like
diamonds. Like everything else that 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.

52 Nostalgia for nostalgia
Nostalgia is a yearning for a home which we 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.
53 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.

54 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 we learn so little from it, that it
always is, till it ends. ‘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?

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.’

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 drowsy to feel the good of it?

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.

The young strut and prance like vain players, and the elderly sit and judge like smug critics.
55 Senile heads on young shoulders
Only a soppy and doddering age such as ours could believe that children are geniuses. We all
agree that children are miraculous prodigies, but where are the masterpieces that they have

The young live as freshly and lustily as they think stiffly, stalely and drily. 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 without
developing them. But some people are sure that they must have been precocious children,
since they’ve still not outgrown their first adolescent opinions.

It is not the astonished philosopher who retains the heart of a child, but the acquisitive trader,
whose aim is to get hold of as many toys as possible to play with and show off.

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

56 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.’

At sixty our flesh shows what our mind has been since sixteen.

Some old people’s brains are so active and unimpaired, that they still have as many silly ideas
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 capacities 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 coming into our
prime and that our latest work is 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 are mad to keep up with the young. They fear that they are vegetating, if
they’re not roaring round like teenagers. We may be adult and efficient in our work, but we
regress to adolescence in our pleasures.

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

57 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’ll 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 into an unthinking viciousness.

How short is the interval from beholding the world with wonder to eying it with lust.

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.

58 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 prevail in a game which is not
worth the winning.

Even as children our desires are outsized and rapacious. And even as adults they remain trivial
and juvenile.
As we go on in life, we collect an extensive 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. ‘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
for a lifetime.

59 Time to leave
The young wreck the world to snatch their cut of it. And dotards wreck the world since they will
be departing it so soon. They 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 they’ve had no call

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 fitting punishment for those who
have had the temerity to live too long. We might soon bring a worse on ourselves when we find
out the secret of immortality.

We race through life, and crawl toward our end. We have sped up life and drawn out death. We
scarcely know that we’re alive, yet we feel death approaching for years, even as we remain as
gadding and distracted as teenagers.

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.

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 never bring ourselves to leave before it’s too late.

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.

When the one Lord withdrew into petulant transcendence, what was left to entrance the world
but sin?

Faith is the flag of God’s withdrawal. We’ve 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.

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 illusions.

Cursed by his omniscience and omnipotence, God lacks the two enviable powers which we are
blest 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. An impersonal god would be too
detached to have any use for it.

2 Types of religion
Revealed religion is empirical religion. Hence the knowledge that it gives is at best probable and
not certain, and the god that it reveals is contingent and not necessary.

Superstition is an abject fear of things that are out of our control, which prompts us to a mad
presumption that we can control them.

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.
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 really did exist,
how could he be God?

Mysticism is a rhetorical genre. And like all rhetoric it begins with the trope of rejecting rhetoric
and all mere words. Yet even for the most god-intoxicated mystics the point of their intercourse
with the divine is to blather about it to mortals.

Why does the Lord delegate rich minds like Pascal to act as his apologists, and then fit them out
with such fatuous arguments?

3 The hierarchy of religion
The most wholesome religions, like hinduism, biblical judaism or paganism, are strong and
mentally fresh. Islam, an abstract, otherworldly and sand-blasted judaism, universalized and
purged of its local history and ethnic roots, 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, superstitious, spiteful, sectarian, perfervid, poisoned by
maleficent spirits, shoddily theatrical, overwrought and corrupted by its idolatrous cult of

From its birth christianity 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 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 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.

Was the Lord corrupted, first by his elation at his own omnipotence and success, and then by
his despair at how we broke 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 ineptly.

5 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.

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. The soul has learnt to know good and evil,
and so has corrupted it. 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 dissolute lusts of the

When Adam ate of the tree of knowledge, he learnt that it was the Lord who lied and the serpent
that told the truth.

6 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 discovered that he had no sense of
humour. Or did he find our murderous antics too disgusting to be funny?

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, who loves spectacular effects, flares and explosions, but has not worked 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.

7 The perfect and insufficient deity
What pathetic need drove God, a perfect and self-sufficing being, to make a world so far inferior
to himself?

How was such a botched and aborted world brought forth by a perfect begetter? How did a
loving father sire such a detestable lump?

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.

We 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, he would not have done it.
And if he were all-powerful, he would have contrived some means to undo it.

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 in fact made in the image of God, is that
not one more reason 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.

A perfect being would have to be boundlessly evil as well as boundlessly good, or else it would
be deficient in some respect.

8 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 we have faith in a god who cares
whether we have faith in him or not? And yet this is the sole kind of god that we can care for.

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.

9 The religion of love
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 votaries 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 those of competing ones.

10 The divine despot
God’s state is indeed kingly. No one loves him, his entourage of lackeys curry favour with him to
get what they want, and he is never told the truth.

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 do honour 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 autocrat, not of an equal.
Mercy is in the realm of morality what miracles are in the physical realm. 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 about this.’

We taunt a defunct god like a cashiered dictator, who has lost the power to hurt us.

God is a devil’s notion of a supremely felicitous being, who has the unchecked power to do his
will with impunity.

The difference between God and the devil was in origin one of relative power. Satan was a
subject, and so his duty was to obey. God is a king, and so his privilege is to rule.

11 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 small-minded spitefulness might we not have to fear from them? Since God can’t forgive
us, we had better pray that he will forget us. ‘O that thou wouldest hide me in the grave, until thy
wrath be past.’

If God is all-knowing, then he must be all-pitiful too. But he is clearly not all-pitying.

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 incorrigible propensity for violence.

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.

12 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 love Jesus because they believe either that he didn’t mean
the anathemas that he vomited forth or that they were aimed only at his enemies and theirs.

God seems to have been an absent-minded father, unsuspecting for most of time that he had a
son. It may be 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 sons and daughters.

The gravest sin against God is to bow down to a man, yet many people know no other way to
worship him.

13 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 in what dire
need they stood of his saving grace. 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.

14 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. His
existence is such an appalling possibility, that one could well fear it might be real.

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.

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’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. In the old
principalities religion was a tool of statecraft. Now it is an outdated name for the caprices of
demography. ‘We are christians by the same title that we are périgordians or germans,’ as
Montaigne wrote.
Faith cometh by breeding. In matters of religion God proposes but man disposes. Divine grace
is no match for the feeblest circumstance.

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

15 The brutality of providence
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.

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.

God is a sentimentalist, who weeps for the fall of a sparrow but winks at mass extinctions.

16 False messiah
Anyone who aims 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.

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.

A messiah is a heretic and blasphemer come to unshackle the elect from the old sire’s hard
justice. He brings the glad tidings that by his merciful intercession no more than nine tenths of
us are damned 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 calling to be a sober pilgrim.

Jesus seldom communed with seraphim, but he was fretted by legions of devils.

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. If you aimed to follow his lead, you would take up faith-healing, exorcism and
millenarian ranting.

17 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 be saved? ‘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.

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

‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Jesus died in lucid despair, sure that God had
deserted him. Then he was raised from the grave 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 detested and that the world loves, a
triumphant usurper who stole God’s place in the hearts of the faithful. The cost of his success
was to have the gold of his message melted down to cast 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 God had abandoned him.

18 Religion and the cult of power
The gods are at their root power, 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 believed that they were good for something. 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

The pious trust in the authority of their god only because they see it incorporated 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 domes and cupolas and
robes and mitres.

The gods are one of our obsolete technologies. Having made them to get what we desired, be it
prosperity or victory, 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. 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 wiping us from the face of the earth.

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.

19 Faith and misreading
Where a religion is inscribed in a book, how could faith be more than a misreading?

Religion is a misuse and distortion of literature.

When they die, the gods go back to being what they were in the beginning, that is, to mere

The Lord has ceased to hand down new scriptures, since he has seen how we keep garbling
them. Like all fastidious authors, he found that his books were wasted on those who read them.

Is the Lord, like a prickly author, vexed that his far superior first book is overpraised at the
expense of his much inferior second one? Or is he like all writers past their prime, who are sure
that their best work must be their latest?

A lutheran must first of all be a literary critic. Salvation begins with an act of interpretation. And
since all such acts are partial and provisional, our salvation must be exceedingly precarious.
‘Thou read’st black where I read white,’ as Blake warned.

Fundamentalists insist that every word in the Bible must be read literally, and so have no choice
but to ignore nine tenths of it.
20 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 false. The new covenant boasts that it fulfils the old one, but
the old one gives the lie to the new. If Jesus appears in the hebrew Testament, it is as one of
the strange gods or false prophets which the one Lord warns the children of Israel to beware of.
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. Then believers 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 Testament 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 freshness and imagination. And the only good things
in the New Testament are the quotes from the Old.

21 Myth
Myths are sacred fictions which tell deep human truths. 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 small-minded moralists.

The gods are essential fictions, which quicken our imaginations and curtail our boisterous
appetites. They are poetically fruitful and politically useful. A faith is to be prized not for the
pedantic and delusional catechism which it promulgates, but for the terrific and stark myths
which it breeds. The best were the work of freedom and vision, the worst by a crabbed

Like poetry, the gods spring from the soil, and then ascend to the pale firmament.

The 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.

God, like all the great anonymous artists, is operant as a tradition, which is a far more precious
thing than a mere living being.

22 Faith
Salvation is by faith, that is, an imaginary reward for an imaginary virtue.
A creed is doomed to die out once its partisans 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.

The two sources of faith are scripture and tradition, and yet anyone who made a study of either
of these would lose all grounds for faith.

If faith is a wager, and God is a gamble, then the soul is a thing too cheap to be worth playing

23 The proof of power
The one proof that persuades us is the proof of power.

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 what demonstrates 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.

The chief appeal of a creed is the zeal of its believers. And yet when you know what coarse and
silly chaff feeds their fervency, you’re apt to be made sick by it.

In epochs of strong faith people were keen to fight for their beliefs which they were willing to
change a year later at the behest of their prince.

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 living believers. Who these days could do
homage to the deities of Egypt or the aztecs? A dead god can’t be brought back to life, as Julian
the apostate found when he tried to resuscitate the divinities of Rome.

24 Idols
Mortals can’t touch a god without transforming 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. Our
mouths gape to praise God, but then gulp down the world.

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 who excel in the plastic arts. Gods are the works of literate ones.
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.

25 Faith hates faith
Even more than reason, faith hates rival faiths, and the faith next to it most of all.

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.

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, and zealots love
their own zealotry more than their faith, and believers love their faith more than they love their

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 truth is best attested by the
shedding of blood?

26 Hallucination and hearsay
A faith begins in hallucination, but soon dwindles into hearsay.

‘Faith cometh by hearing,’ that is, from mortal mouths, not from God, by convention, not by
revelation. After the first divine visitation a revelation is mere hearsay. Faith without words would
be dead.
‘Faith cometh by hearing.’ We don’t believe because we see but because we hear the
professions of those who do believe. And then we begin to see once we 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’ve seen miracles, they see miracles once
they’ve 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.’

27 Miraculous stupidity
Miracles used to confirm faith, now they confound it.

Why have the omniscient gods stultified mortals with miracles, instead of enlightening us with
their insight? Do they know us so well, that they’ve 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
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 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
credulous to greet him as the messiah?

God providently sends each age and place the type of miracles that it is ready to be taken in by.
We have eyes only for those signs and wonders that we are attuned to. Pagans used to see
capering satyrs 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 in a position to
elucidate the inane mysteries which it has trumped up.

28 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 come back to life?
But we are more impressed 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 the shape of a man is so flattering to our human vanity, that it
never occurs to us how degrading it is to his divine dignity.
Thomas is not the patron saint of tough-minded sceptics but of the hysterically credulous, who
are able to work themselves up into hallucinating the fantasies which their creed has told them
are real.

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’re not real. Anyone now who set up to cure the insane by exorcising evil spirits would be
judged 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 whose 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.’

29 The church
The Lord is not a lamb. He is a prowling tiger. To love him would be to be torn limb from limb.
The church is his 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 chasten us for presuming to build the tower of Babel, the Lord sent a confusion of tongues.
To chasten us for expecting the kingdom, he sent us the church.

The church spent the first half of the twentieth century vainly calumniating the modern world,
and the second half vainly truckling to it.

30 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.

A saint is a lunatic inflamed by fanaticism and stupefied by orthodoxy.

A church is kept alive not by the zeal of its acolytes 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 our eyes would not be seared by
his shining?

31 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.

The godhead is a vast poetry which we shrink to the meagre jargon 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 instituting religions. A sect is the desolation of the
sacred. A faith needs a church to pervert it into longevity.

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’ve babbled in his name.

It seems beyond God’s power to inspire a pastor each Sunday with ten minutes of talk about
him which is more than banal.

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 an infinitely elastic illusion, a single name for a succession of
fantasies. Jews and christians pray to a divinity whom father Abraham and the patriarchs would
not recognize.

Jehovah unrolled his law to polygamists and slave-holders, and seemed to see nothing amiss in
polygamy and slavery. And though we claim to comply with the least of his behests, we now
count these as the most abominable sins.

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 immeasurable universe with its billions of cold galaxies that care nothing for

32 The needful disciples
A creed is betrayed by its most devoted disciples. Would a true prophet be more appalled to be
crucified by his foes or to be deified by his followers? 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 taken place. But if his act was foreordained, then God was complicit in the one
transcendentally evil deed in history. Judas was pivotal to God’s plan, and yet he was moved by
the prompting of the devil.

To save mankind, Jesus had only to lay down his life. Judas had to lose his soul and be
damned for all time.

33 Second-hand belief
The gods are part of culture not of nature, and like all cultural products, such as language, the
idea of God needs to be drilled into us. No child is born with it.

We are a credulous but faithless breed. We boast that we have won through to our faith by a
bold lunge into the unexplored. But we have just relapsed into the pusillanimous assumptions of
our flock. Even most converts reach for the faith that lies closest to hand.

A true faith would be a free personal relationship with God. But a faith can be transmitted only
by precluding a free personal relationship with God. If we had real faith, we would have no need
of religion. And if there were a god, we 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.’
Creeds last so long, because most people can’t be budged from their conventional allegiances
by an inward movement of the spirit.

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.

34 The unredeemed
We pin our hopes on a saviour, so that we need pay no mind to our salvation. 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. If we could be saved, we would have no need of a saviour. And if we could be
redeemed, we would have no need of creeds or religions. They 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 were not made to rise above
earthly things.

If only a god could save us, then how could we be worth saving, or what god would want to?

We don’t really believe the dogmas that make up our creed or practise the precepts that make
up our morality. By a strange reversal we practise our creed through its rituals of assent, and
assent to its morality as a theory good only for some other world.

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.

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.

35 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.’
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. The quest for the
life everlasting has been one of the desultory pastimes of distracted mortals.

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
have a real faith. What devious unbeliever could have set out so glaringly the all too fleshly
origins of faith?

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 trials weigh a great deal more with
them 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 more comfortably. God served as one of our worldliest fabrications. And the
most unworldly faith is made for this world and not for 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 sure that they’re at work in the field of the Lord have got their pay in advance
here on earth. And 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.

Believers may assert that God is infinite, yet the god that they have dealings with seems a sadly
circumscribed being. He needs constant suggestions or reminders of how he ought to act, and
even then he plays his part with scant competence.

We treat the Lord as an otherworldly Jeeves, astute and dependable but subservient, who is
there 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 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 suspended 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 to claim their fabulous
birthright of bliss in the next.

We hope for a second life, because we can’t break free of 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 it may be that they had 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.

38 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 delivered from it.

An apocalypse that’s timed to swallow the earth a second after I’m dead is of no concern to me.
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 leave the world, we will find comfort in the thought that it will be losing more
than we are.

39 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 at least let go our grip on them. Craving is craving, whether it’s for earthly trash or for
heavenly tinsel. Even the search for nirvana serves as one more excuse for clinging to life.
The meek don’t doubt that they are due an eternity of bliss with God and his seraphic choir,
enjoying the pageantry as each adversary who has triumphed over them fries in
inextinguishable fire.

The next world must be still worse than this one, since it is made to answer our sordid desires.

40 Out-foxing God
The faithful trust that they will win the Lord over by the mean stratagems that they’ve 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 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.

People haggle with God as they would with a business partner. What will you promise to do for
me if I take you for my deity? We auction our souls to the highest bidder. Most of us hock them
to gain the world. The god-fearing get paradise as a bonus. ‘All this, and heaven too.’

41 The meek have inherited heaven
Do pious people show more effrontery in presuming that God loves them or that they are
capable of loving him? A god of love is one of the more transparent projections of our own self-

God gives us unconditional love on condition that we love him to the exclusion of all else.

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.

Is the Lord disgusted more by the obsequious truckling of his attendants or by 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. 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.’
42 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 egoism. Now we
make do with our vast earth-bound egoism.

Our faith in our own feeble self is as boundless as our reliance on an all-powerful divinity is
feeble. And our adherence to our fickle and flighty selves stands as firm as our faith in a
changeless deity wavers.

43 Commanding God
Pray in hope, and your prayers are as good as answered, since the continuation of your
illusions is then assured.

Why when believers talk to God do they use the imperative mood? ‘The Lord knows the
thoughts of the wise,’ and fools have no doubt that they know the thoughts of the Lord. We
speak to God as if we were cheeky but irresistibly charming children and he had no option but to
wink at our endearing naughtiness. Our prayers are abject yet presumptuous.

The meek love to talk to their infinite designer, as they can be sure that he at least won’t
interrupt them. A prelate would cry out in fury, if you claimed that God spoke back to you when
you prayed.

The congregation chants hymns more to glorify and fortify its own faith than to praise the
goodness of God.

44 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 taken to be an indisputable proof that
he must exist in order to see that it’s done in the next. We assume that he must have made a
heaven above, since he has let loose such a mad chaos down here.

We are told to hate the sin but love the sinner, yet God whips the sinner through the vast tracts
of the next world and leaves the sin to flower in the foul marsh of this one.
45 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 assume that they will go on indefinitely here on earth. We don’t genuinely 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.

Each of us is a little town besieged by death, but inside life goes on as if it had never heard of
the threat.

We doze through time, and dream that we will wake for eternity. We die like beasts, and hope to
live on like gods.

46 Faith, hope and charity do not abide in heaven
God has arranged heaven so neatly, that the saved 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 paid 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.

47 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
how we’ve laid waste the spotless earth, why would he let us in to his resplendent dwelling?
He’d 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 death fails to change us, then we surely won’t have won a home in God’s high heaven. But if it
does change us, how could it be we who have won it? Our souls could not be saved without an
infusion of grace. But if there’s one thing that this life shows us, it’s that there is no grace.

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.

48 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, and 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 mere rickety automata to ensure that we live for ever.
God used to be the withholder of immortality. But now, as William James wrote, he is its

We have dreamt up an inhuman and immoral hell, and an irreverent and sacrilegious heaven.
We feel sure that each of our paltry doings on this ball of mud will reverberate through the whole
of time.

If heaven is the goal, earth is a queer place to start from.

49 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 a reward for yourself 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 that you might be saved, 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 deception.

The entrance to heaven will be an unbecoming crush, with the saints shoving aside their fellow
saints 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.

50 Our less than mortal souls
Far from enduring through the whole of time, our souls linger barely till we draw our last breath.
Senility is a bad augury for immortal life. Living will use up our souls as it does our flesh. 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.

The soul dies and is good for nothing. The flesh dies and is at least food for turf and trees.

What deity would be so careless as to leave the jewel of a deathless soul in the trust of a being
as rash and graceless as a mortal? What a leaky tub to stow an ambrosial cargo in.

How could we merit or endure a state of grace or damnation? We can’t be redeemed 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?

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. The dirty human soul is of all things the least
deserving of everlasting life. And if the kingdom of God is within us, it must be a clogged and
seedy neighbourhood, never at peace but enviously eying the spoils of foreign domains.

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?

51 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

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 being saved? 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?

52 Profane redemption
Why did Nietzsche, who denounced the nazarene faith for its baseness and decadence, 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?

‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’ What vitality could be hoped for from a sect whose sole
sacred tree was a dead plank on which a man was hanged?

Christianity gave us a few eunuchs, eremites, masochists, fantasists and fanatics. The church
gave us Giotto, Dante, Michelangelo, 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 counteract 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 Nazareth.

53 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 so
outrages our unspoiled instincts, that it could do no more than bind them 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.
54 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
beginning 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 the one true God took on human form, it was inevitable that humanity would
appropriate the place of the one true god. 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 blest 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.

55 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 safe. 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 we are all captivated
by at least one of them.

The cult of Jesus was the kitsch of judaism. The church was a plaster paganism. 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 its doggerel. If Bach’s music was a strong proof that there
is a God, then contemporary liturgy is a strong clue that he is dead.

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. Heaven 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.

1 Unhappiness
How much untold woe we bring on our heads in the hope of making ourselves happy one day.
We are paddling 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 we keep spooning into it the spice of expectant desire, till we
end up spoiling it. Though we stock all the ingredients to make a rich happiness, we brew up a
foul stew of misery. We are thrust on by an unquenchable thirst for joy and by an ineradicable
propensity for reducing plain gladness to seething grimness. Even fools are clever enough to
make their lives simply wretched.

We’re just poised to reach the pinnacle of joy, and we’re 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.

We are fools for improvement. We feel that life is no good if it’s not continually getting better.
We have to race so frantically to make life better, how could we find the time simply to live well?

Earth’s atmosphere 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

2 The habit of happiness
If there are things that we could easily do to benefit ourselves but we aren’t doing now, we can
be sure that we never will do them, since we have no wish to.

Some people need the courage to combat unrelenting misery, since they lack the resolve to
retreat from the routines that have caused them such harm. We are addicted to misery, but we
soon lose the frail habit of happiness.

For the damned in hell each day is the same, and yet every morning they wake to a fresh
3 The plurality of hells
There must be an infinite number of cells in the underworld to house the infinite 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 my suffering. 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.

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.

Your misery may lurk for years in remission, but it will never be cured. It may break out years
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 snuff us out.

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.

Life’s torpid stream now jets in rapture, now swirls in a vortex of sweltering misery.

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. Our expectancy has already sucked the juice
from our pleasures before we reach them, and it leaves our experience nothing but their dry
bones to pick over. We are far more present for our pains than we are for our 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 that are wrung by agonizing pangs. If you
are forced 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.

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 bliss melts in the heat of our embrace.

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, since
they no sooner transport us to some joy than they drag us out of it to chase some new quarry.

6 Time and place
When you feel heartsick, even your dear familiar places seem smeared with a mildew of stale

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

7 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’ve been entrusted with the loathsome
gift? Life is a poor thing to gain, but a great thing to lose.

Life lures us on like someone 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.’

8 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. 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 which lacerate us so bloodily. 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 to be leaving a world in which all that we loved has long since left us. How hard to let
go of this life which our miseries have made so hard to bear.

9 The great swindle
Life is the great swindle. It gives us nothing that we want, but keeps us hanging on for its least

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 that they long for.
We have no choice but to stay in the game, the losers in the hope of recouping what they’ve
lost, the victors to win yet more and to reap the fruits of what they’ve 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.

10 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. Dying had to be made 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. But when did we ever
know what was good for us? Death, which knows nothing, knows our own good better than we
do. We shun it, as a rabid dog shuns water. 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. ‘We all labour against our own cure,’ as Browne wrote, ‘for death is the cure of all
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 doesn’t give us a thing that we want.

11 Condemned to everlasting life
Immortality would be as harrowing as an unabated insomnia. One sleepless night ought to cure
anyone of the yearning for eternity. Life has played us such filthy tricks, we 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.
We 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 have to strain all your muscle to lug them with you.

The light drizzle of small irritations will in time drench you as thoroughly as a sudden downpour
of affliction, yet it still feels quite different.

12 Narrowing unhappiness
The heavy-hearted 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 revisit each day the same stinking spot which they lack the
power to leave. 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, allows the whole garden of your gifts to flower. But heartache,
like a vain autocrat, constrains them to turn their face to it.

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 cudgel 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 just give up. You can be sure that
it won’t leave off till it’s 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.

How we curse the smugness of those who are as happy as we were till yesterday. And how we
wish that we 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.

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.

We can’t see what’s in store for us, but we can be sure that it won’t be good. Even while we
sleep, some indifferent doom is preparing the catastrophe that will flatten us. ‘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 those who are not me are not important
enough. What right have they to be happy, since they don’t share 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 slowed down by such
ordeals. But their troubles count for so little, that they should be able to bear them with ease.
And we’re so sure of our own worth that we feel we have no right to make so dire a rent in the
world by bereaving it of our bright attendance.

How could conceited people presage the misery that they’re in for, when they have too much
conceit to acknowledge how foolishly they starve their real good to feed fat their empty self-

We burn in the hell of the insignificant. But all we feel is the heat of our self-importance.

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, but don’t we all wear the crown of our own self-
consequence as if it were a crown of thorns?

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, unless we’re ballasted by such a freight of it that we might well capsize.
Some people know that they are chosen, because things that are forbidden to others are
permitted to them. And some know that they are chosen, because things that are permitted to
others are forbidden to them. To be cursed is one way of being chosen.

16 Not happy if not envied
We could easily get what we want, but we waste our lives struggling to get what everyone else
wants. Happiness seems so fleeting and unsubstantial, that we give up the search for it and
spend all our time amassing the more solid and lasting acquirements of our greed, in order to
prove to our rivals that we’re 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. ‘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 imagine we cause our rivals by our success.

We feel half jealous of others, seeing that, unlike us, none of their loves or schemes matter
enough to be worth breaking their hearts for when they fail. We both envy and disdain them for
their trifling bliss, as we do children or birds, the immortals or the dead.

17 Happiness
There are four keys to happiness, live on the surface, think none but the most conventional
thoughts, 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

You don’t need good reasons to go on living if you’re happy. It’s only the hapless who need that.

Happiness is as shallow as beauty and as wise as truth.

Happiness, like health, streamlines life for you, so that you can breeze through it with least

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 competent 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 The illusion of happiness
In order to find joy, I try to make myself believe that all’s well with me, but I may feel even more
need to make others believe it. 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 I was fooled by them. 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 of.

We forge our brief joys out of our vacillating fantasies, and our lasting happiness out of our life-
long 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 have hit on the craziest route to reach it.

Illusion frees us to act and be happy. Truth would freeze the will to act.

20 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 conceitedness. 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 settled 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.
21 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. The miserable are
sure that their misery has won them their grim wisdom.

If you’re resigned to be unhappy, the surest way is to be clever. 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.

Self-deluding people know how to make the best of their imprisonment by insisting that they are

22 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 exhaled 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 prevent you from savouring it.

Most of us would rather be busy than happy. We love to be doing, even when we don’t much
like what it is that we’re doing.

The wise scorn the vacuous bustle and commotion which ordinary people mistake for
happiness. But they are mistaken to think that there is anything more to happiness than this.

Our discontent makes us restless, and our restless activity yields us as much happiness as we
will ever get.
23 The speed of happiness
I chase joys, but they fly me. And creeping sorrows catch me, though I fly them.

We feel light and joyous, when our gadding desires jockey us so fast that we don’t sense the
weight of our despair pressing down on us. How miserable we must be, that we can find our
way to happiness only by beetling so giddily that we don’t have leisure to feel how happy we
are. We bolt life so ravenously, that we scarcely taste it as it goes down, and yet we’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.

Happiness needs to maintain a high velocity in order to stay airborne.

It’s not your past but the years which you have left that your sadness makes seem long.

24 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.

We won’t be at peace so long as we keep desiring. But if we once ceased to desire we 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 instead of happiness.

Progress has provided all of us with more and more deluxe substitutes for joy.

25 The gospel of work
Most people love happiness because they are in love with life, but a few because they’ve found
that this is the best way to keep it at bay. They scorn life too much to think it worth the pains
which its afflictions cost them. They use cheerfulness to hold life at arm’s length so it won’t sink
its teeth in them and savage them. 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. A few aim 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. But
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 most of their gifts.

26 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. 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.

It’s as dreadful to drown in a ditch as it is 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.’

God adds a pinch of the macabre and degrading to all our ordeals, 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 desperation and disrepute. The last indignity that
petty suffering pelts us with is to make us as petty as itself.

27 The trivial reasons for happiness or unhappiness
Our predicament is profound and tragic. But its causes are superficial 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.

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.
The sole happiness 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 more contentment than the most sublime and assiduous wisdom could have done.
How happy you are will depend 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.

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? How does
something as blunt as life hack our souls so frightfully? Why does what counts for so little hurt
us so much? How does such a light thing crush us like lead? How does what will end so soon
seem to have space for such endless sorrow?

28 The triviality of happiness
Life is such small beer, but our self-delight lends it the fizz and flavour of the best 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. But it is still worth attaining, so that you won’t have to
waste your years in the hunt for it. And yet once you have built your house of joy, however light
it may be, it will crush you when it collapses.

If you can’t tell from your afflictions how little life matters, you can at least tell from your success.

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

We aim so low, yet we still miss our mark. Like Madame Bovary, we dream such tawdry
dreams, and yet even these life brings to nought. How aridly we answer its 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.

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.
29 The fear of happiness
Some trials harrow you by requiring you to act while rendering you incapable of action, 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.’

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
pretend that life gushes with horrors, so as to gain the strength to bear its emptiness.

30 Prosaic happiness
When you’re young, unhappiness alone may seem deep enough for life. But as you grow older,
you learn that life is too light to be worth such unhappiness. Aren’t most of our afflictions as
trivial as the goals that we aim at? However piercingly we suffer, we still remain buoyantly

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 glee’s brief
and causeless poetry. We breathe a sense of wellbeing as ordinary as air, but we inhale a rare
joy as volatile as oxygen.

Our glad times gleam not like a wildfire but 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 wounds
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.
31 The ridiculous tragedy
We ought to have 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 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. How little it might take to make us happy. But most of us want
a lot more than that.

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

Joy, like love, is a generous but jealous god, which inflicts a fearful beating on any who dare to
reject its gifts.

Our wings melt before we have left the ground. Yet we still break our necks when we fall.

32 Expensive pessimism
We use pessimism as a kind of insurance, but its premiums cost so much that they go halfway
to bankrupting us. 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 that they were
endeavouring to preserve.

Expect the worst, and you’ll never be prepared for how bad it will get.

Life makes liars of those who boast that they have abandoned hope. 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.
33 The huckster’s creed
Optimism is the gullible and cunning creed of hucksters, spruikers and boosters. They trumpet
it, because they have so much faith in themselves, or else to cajole 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 costly pessimism or our arduous hopes on anyone’s plight but our own.

We love to be seen to hope against hope when we know that the failure of what we hope for will
not touch us.

Optimists charm us, because they shine back to us our own smiling self-approbation.

34 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 courageously?

We are now so delicate, that we can’t even swallow optimism if it’s not sugared with nostalgia.

We used to cling to the illusions of faith to console us for the truth that we can’t be happy on this
earth. Now we are too weak to acknowledge so much as that.

We are driven to optimism out of despair that our pessimism held too high an expectation of our
fellow men and women.

An optimist is one who trusts that things can’t get much worse. 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 gratifying close. Since all stories are about ourselves, we can’t stand any that don’t
have a happy ending.
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 gratifying lies, hope that its
greed will one day land the prize it craves, and charity for the rogues who keep it going.

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.

Those who vaunt that they are paid to do what they love are willing to love whatever they are
paid to do. Those who boast of their incorruptibility often lease out their souls for a low rent. And
yet some who have made their fortune from an occupation grumble and mutter how dear it has
cost them.

1 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 we may choose a scheme or occupation with no thought of our own gain, how
could we stick at it for long, if it yields us no advantage?

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.

We are perverted alchemists who melt down all the more precious things to the base metal of
self. There’s nothing so great but we will find some means to milk it for our 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.

2 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. 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. And we
love life as it has not yet seen fit to butcher us.

It would be easier to believe that this world of cramming and copulating is the work of a crazed
satyr than of a serene spirit.

Hell needs no devils. Won’t the damned be 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.

3 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 it is expedient for me
to believe in order to further them. I’m prompt to feel whatever emotions might advance my

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 invest it in a range of
external projects.
4 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 schemes? We persist in our
fancies, but waver in our faith. Our desires are biddable yet unrelenting. 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 set of conditions and gain from every enterprise?

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

5 Renunciation
Where our self-interest is not in play, our capacities are miraculous but soon discouraged, but
where it is, they are unwearying but mediocre.

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 up a still paltrier replacement for what I hoped to gain from
success. When a tall undertaking burns down, a hundred squat weeds soon shoot up in its
place, and I tend one of these, and put my former pet out of mind, and marvel that I gave so
much time to a thing so slight and unrewarding. We don’t remit our zeal when we retrench our

We may cease to hanker for any one thing, but we 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
possesses slipping away.’ It may be easy to renounce success, but it’s tough to live without it.

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 hold out against the world’s
blandishments, but are seduced by its asperities.

6 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 ventures, 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 inexhaustible fount of commodious illusions.’

We consent to be served by reason, but not to be ruled by it. And we want to be guided by
cunning, but not governed by wisdom. Calculating prudence grunts and sweats as the lackey of
our crazy compulsions. 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 slave for our low and delusive desires. Our delusions serve us so well
that we would be mad to give them up.

A worldly climber is a combination of cunning realism and childish narcissism.

Passion and convenience cue us to say what we don’t mean, so that we can convince others of
what they don’t believe.

Most of us think and act judiciously only in what serves our own ends, a few in all but that.

7 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. Any object seems to shine, once it has come in range of the halo of my own

We prefer our own advantage to most truths. And yet we prefer our own errors to many
advantages. We’re 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 do anything 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 fantasies, to help us sate our sullen lusts, or else to salve
our chagrin when we fail to do so.

My illusions land me in real troubles, which hurt me so bad, that I’m forced to seek sanctuary in
further illusions.
8 Self-interest forecloses self-knowledge
We are more foreign to ourselves than we are to our ambitions. 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, in order 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. We don’t dare to grasp who we are, and we don’t care to know what
we aim at. These would just hold us back from getting what we want.

We have to hollow out our hearts in order to lay hold of the junk that we are sure will fill them up.

9 We don’t know what we want
We don’t quite know what we want, but how unwaveringly we fight to get our hands on it. We
don’t know what we want, and yet there’s nothing we won’t do to grab more of it.

We squander all our selfish initiative on ventures that yield us no gain. What won’t we suffer or
sacrifice to reach a goal which will bring us no good?

We never know 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.

We can’t stop wanting not just what we do want, as Schopenhauer showed, but even what we
don’t want. ‘We not only keep wanting what we cannot have,’ Hoffer says, ‘but go on wanting
what we no longer really want.’

I oppose those who try to injure me with the same ferocity that I do those who try to save me
from injuring myself.

Few people care enough for us to do us as much harm as we do ourselves. ‘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 all.

10 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 indulge
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 devoted to our own interest, our folly would be sure to undo us. And if we
weren’t handicapped by our folly, our self-interest would lay waste the whole world. The harm
which we cause by our flailing avarice is abated less by our fine charity than by our gross

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. Some care for a small
segment of their own self, and 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.

11 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’re 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 disadvantage them.

A human being is a selfish and self-lacerating animal.

12 We are swindled by our own self-seeking
If we weren’t in such a sweat to snatch what we want, would we be so readily defrauded of it?
We are as ruthless in the pursuit of our own 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 nothing 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 tricked by our gullible self-regard. ‘A person’s vanity,’ Balzac says, ‘is a pretender
that never lacks for a butt.’
I’m glad to be gulled by my own mad fantasies, 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 them 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 all the rest of us.

We don’t trust those who tell the truth, yet we are snared by those who forge plausible
falsehoods. The faithless 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-swindlers.’

We feel a great need to believe in the wisdom of those who fool us, so that we won’t need to
see that we are such fools.

13 Our cunning credulity
We fool ourselves ingenuously but not innocently. The self-seeking that makes us cunning
makes us credulous. 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. 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.

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, because they naively trust that the world will keep its
promises. And the crooked are not hard to bluff, since they are so keen to hear what might bring
them the least gain.

Who can tell whether our deceitfulness is more credulous or our credulity more deceitful? We
allow ourselves to be cozened in our urge to snatch a brief advantage.
14 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 gratify or snub my

Charisma is one of the fake forces whose effects in this world of fakery are all too real.

We are beguiled by the self-belief of those who puff their own importance as much as we are
repelled by the scornful disdain and detachment of the few who mock at the impostures of the

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 advantage.

15 The ruses of self-interest
Our self-seeking stoops so low to pocket the least gain that it seems meek. It consents so
readily to be foxed that it seems ingenuous. It schemes so wholeheartedly with anyone to get
what it wants that it seems trustworthy.

Like a menaced nation, we have three options to deal with the world, appease, ally or attack.

By promoting our schemes, we grow both brutal and accommodating. We forward them with
implacable economy and implacable excess. We’ll drop any principle that might hold them back,
and we 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
vexations that they’ll heap on 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 justify it.

16 Little interests
The tiniest 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.

Since we are too weak to dominate the big world, we decide that our own cramped 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

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? 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’re quilted from.

17 Zealots and opportunists
Those who have no principles may be induced 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 such as 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’ve 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 eschew
their mean ones.

We pursue goals that are unworthy of us, but by pursuing them we grow unworthy of anything

18 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 am I overjoyed at the lowest prize? How readily
we are disaffected, yet how cheaply we are delighted. We crave so much, we make do with so
little, but we are not satisfied with a single thing. Such dull pleasures tickle us. But a world would
not be enough for us. 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

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.

Our defeats are more bitter than we feared. 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 other.

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.

19 We are proud of our demeaning self-interest
Since we can’t sate our greed without the forfeit of our proper self-respect, we all protest that
the schemes that profit us do not demean us. But we may still blush to seek the prizes that even
our pride wants us to get. We have to make our profligacy our pride, since we are too much in
thrall to our 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 lose.

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 an inch above our peers.

20 Self-interest is self-repairing
Self-interest is unashamed, yet is prompt to mend when it fails. 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 be ruined than admit that we were
wrong. We would rather weather our acts’ calamitous outcomes than mitigate them by
recognizing that we had brought them on our own heads.

Some people recover from reverses because they’re so limber, and some because they’re so
unbending. My self-seeking makes me pliable but persevering, and my self-regard makes me
obstinate and unwavering.

21 Self-regard trumps 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.

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.

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. We think in order to puff up our self-regard. We act in
order to do well for ourselves. We reflect in order to think well of ourselves. Our thoughts frame
a continuous appreciative gloss on the text of our conduct. Conceit is our faith, and our self-
seeking is our works, and we trust that we are justified by both.
Our reason is busy and ingenious in devising means to serve our advantage and pretexts to
justify our vanity.

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 our deft self-interest is the dupe of our simple-
minded self-regard.

22 Self-sabotaging 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.

We are too selfish to repent the wrongs that we do to others. And we are too smug to regret the
harms that we do to ourselves. The very damage that we cause ourselves saves us from
recognizing that we were responsible for it.

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 people, such as Mussolini, have marched to office by appearing irresistible.
And some creep to it by appearing innocuous.

The prosperous smoke out the needy, and force them to give up their time and autonomy to
purchase a slender share in their own ruthless scams. 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, and how to convert the respect which no one quite feels for them to a firm position of
advantage, and then how to put this position to use so as 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 are at work in the service of our

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?
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.

People who have achieved small things by means of their small talents are sure that great
things are achieved 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 been promoted
to a higher office.

However low our success, most of the time it tops our abilities.

We strain to swipe the prizes which are high enough to seem worth attaining but low enough to

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.

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 better adapted to profit from the world’s

People who never think have an answer for everything.

A low success now comes so ready to our hands, that we don’t aspire to anything more glorious
than an easy ordinariness. 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.

They thrive most splendidly, whose superficiality best suits the world’s. Their shallow gifts are
best proportioned to serve the world’s shallow needs. Their efficient brutality is best calculated
to master its brute indifference.

Most of us trot on so well with the world, because we have no untoward thoughts about it. The
fewer ideas we have, the better we get on in life, and the more stolid our intellect, the more
secure our seat in it. Lack of imagination is the key to success in any profession.
It takes little intelligence to make a big success. Recognizing this, intelligent people scorn
success, and successful people scorn intelligence.

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, and they are resolved to learn not a whit more than

5 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. ‘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.’

The medals go to those who are sure 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
comes to share your inflated self-opinion.

6 Overestimate yourself
In order to do great things, we need to overestimate our ability. And in order to be content with
doing small ones, we have to overestimate their importance.

I overrate my aims more than my ability to achieve them. My conceit keeps me small by
assuring me how great my goals are. It forgives all my faults, since they were serving such vast

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 destination 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 their high aims.
I readily leave off aspiring to the loftiest things, but I resent any objections that might chill my
lust for the lowest.

7 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 self-opinionated people so overprice their success, that they may demur that they have
no right to it. Yet they are so self-opinionated, 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.

We know that we are such miraculous winners, that we of course feel that winning must be the
best proof of merit, and that failure is the one indubitable refutation.

Our greed craves more than we get. Our pride tells us that we deserve whatever we’ve got. And
our smugness assures us that all we have was worth the getting.

What we get is a measure of what we deserve. So how could we rate its value too high?

Winners can afford to rate 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. But then if we fail to win any garlands, we feel all the
more certain that we must merit them.

8 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’m over-qualified.

I learn from my own adversity and from my neighbour’s prosperity, as both taste so bitter to me.

I learn from my stumblings, though in most cases the wrong lessons.
Winning hardens us, defeat corrodes us. Good fortune tempts us to dispense with our prudent
virtues, and mischance makes us too poor to use them. We 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.

Are failures galled more by the indignation that they don’t deserve to fail or by 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 have no doubt that they have earned them.

9 Prudence and wisdom
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’re exasperated by their ill luck, and some because
they’re 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’s not
worth hazarding, 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 stand in awe of 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?

10 Success and failure urge us to repeat them
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.

A small promotion is enough to buy off our deep disillusion.

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

All that I love and hate, each of my cronies and foes, all my devotions and ventures, keeps 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.

11 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.

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 additional medals that they
deserve still less.

The brazen beg so much for themselves. 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. Our self-seeking racks us, but our self-
satisfaction soothes us.

12 The success of failure
Grant that you’re a failure, and you’ve 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’ve been worsted in the one
aspiration that counts?
13 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 that they cause us. We look on failure as a foreign land, which a few of us may have
strayed into for a short stint, but in which none of us are enrolled as 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 be 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.’ 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.

Failure is a diminished country, in which everything goes on as it did before, momentous,
absorbing and bright with hope.

14 Pride denies that we have failed
Conceit makes us mad to win and too blind to see that we have lost.

We are too small to take the blame for our setbacks or 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.

We hold our own value so dear, that we don’t have to win, and can’t grasp that we have lost.
We’re too pleased with who we are to be much put out by the massacre of our 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 failures. I have done as much as could be expected of anyone, and they have got
more than could be hoped for from their poor endowments.

How could I learn from my ill luck or from success? My defeats seem so small, that I can’t see
them. And my successes seem 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
useless failure. My success looks to me much more substantial than it is, though a little or
perhaps a lot less than it ought to be.

I can endure to be stripped of all that I have, since I am still sheltered by my assurance of my
own worth.
15 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’ve 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 filled 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
delighted 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 were straining

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.

Even the few who tastefully understate everything else grossly overstate their own success. The
one thing that no one makes too much of is the world’s indifference to themselves.

My self-congratulation fattens my lanky wins, and lightens my heaviest discouragements.

16 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
by me, or else it arrived a long time ago. 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?

We fail so slowly, that we don’t see that it is happening. And we rise so slowly, that we feel
licensed to do all we can to hurry it on. We don’t doubt that victory will atone for all the wrongs
that we had to do to slash our 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.

17 Illusion is the staff of failure
The blindness that lures me to my ruin mercifully spares me from blaming my own faults for it.
We need half-lies and self-flattery if we are to rise in the world. And we need them all the more
when we 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
confirmation that I am exceptional and that I will achieve at the last sortie some unexampled

We make nothing of our fall, since we lack the nerve to see the nothing that it has made of us.

We don’t dare 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.

18 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 cowardly 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 renders me incapable of 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 nothing?
What does not kill me may make me too grasping to let go. And that may be the most abject
kind of weakness. It is the blind pertinacity of a cancer cell which has lost the capacity to die.

19 The bitch goddess Success
Human beings have never been convinced by reason. They have only been swayed by
authority. We won’t yield to evidence, but we 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.

‘Success,’ as Nietzsche wrote, ‘has always been the great liar.’ Those who have been battered
by years of ill 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 looks like intelligence, so long as it has luck on its side.

I preen myself on my own evaluation of people and things. So why does their status and
success sway me more than the inherent traits which prove their true worth? ‘Most judge
people,’ La Rochefoucauld says, ‘by the favour that they’ve 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.’

1 We live in the minds of others
Our greed covets images that catch our eye. 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 set our hearts on glow for us. Our self justifies our wants and all that 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.’

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. I’m satisfied with my
own talents, but I don’t suffice for my own approval. Whatever the world may think of me, I still
think that I am all in all. But 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 scarcely care for, were it not that I have the opportunity to win it.

We take most notice of our own mirrors, since they have learnt to flatter us so well. How did we
teach them? And there are no more gratifying mirrors than our friends or spouse.

2 The contemptible
How viciously I will vie with rivals that I don’t regard, to net prizes that I don’t want. 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. I’m glad just to be noticed by those whom I grade so low. If we can’t get what we
do value, we will still fight just as hard to get what we don’t. We have to learn to esteem more
than we in fact do, since we can’t refrain from hankering for more than we esteem.

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’s worth striving to prove.

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, to be raised so high by such trifles.
People are willing to act contemptibly to buy a good name, and to do demeaning things in order
to earn praise.

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’re attached. The ferocity of the selfishness bears no proportion to the quality of the self that
it’s championing. Many people chase a cheap prize as relentlessly as they would a grand
aspiration. 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.

A small-minded specialist struggles for a low goal with all the dedication of a conquistador, and
feels like stout Cortés, dizzied by the vast bonanza that they hope to reap from some tiny patch
of barren fact. Let the skies fall, but let my treatise on roman bean farming be published.

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 wealth of self-
love on so botched an object?

If there is anyone more ruthless than those who are determined to rise, it’s one who is
desperate to escape from drowning.

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
lap up to get it?

We want to show that we outshine others by showing that we don’t need to, and that we 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 that they didn’t care enough to impress them.

Proud souls disdain to conceal anything, apart from the craft that they use to conceal their pride.

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
Arrogant people want to win the race, yet ridicule it a touch in case they don’t, and display a
slight scorn for their own victories, to show that they are worth more than them 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. Those who hate the
world still want it to love them. What brag could be haughtier 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 dispraise it without being accused of sour
grapes. Others think it best not to try, since they know that the prize is out of their reach. ‘I
cannot be first. I do not deign to be second. I am Rohan,’ proclaimed the highborn motto.

We want to look down scorningly on success from the high citadel of our own impregnable

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 excellence, 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 which is not meant, because we don’t see how little thought people give us.

‘We are so vain,’ said Ebner-Eschenbach, ‘that we care for the regard even of those we don’t
care for.’ I toil so unwearyingly 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.
We may spend no thought on others, but we still want them to spend all their thought on us. We
may look down on the rest of their opinions, but not the one they form of us. ‘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.

7 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. We
want to be valued for the one accomplishment that we see most value in. Who could think of
desiring any kind of reputation but the one that they’ve set their hearts on? But don’t we all
cheerily make do with whatever one we get? How pliantly we adjust the narrative of our self-
satisfaction to follow the ebb and flow of our fortune.

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?

I don’t think much of a goal if I’m not in the chase for it, but I don’t think much of myself if I have
no hope of reaching the goal I choose. 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.

8 We want the respect of those we don’t respect
Why do we long for applause which we know is unworthy of us, yet feel unworthy if we 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. 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 so much trouble to impress them.
It galls me that those for whom I have such low regard should have such low regard for me.
Futility is the lives of others. The goal that’s worth aspiring to is the one that happens to lie
within my reach.

9 The perspective of egoism
Our ego frames the perspective by which we gauge all that we 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. 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. ‘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.’

The world is a smudged backdrop, from which I stand out as the one glowing figure who has a
right 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.

10 We care and don’t care for others’ approval
In our inmost hearts we scorn the world and esteem only ourselves. 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 mind how we are thought of in towns that we pass through, as Pascal showed. Why
would we go to great lengths to impress either our friends, whom we see each day, or
strangers, since we 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’re in company with strangers whom
we have the chance to dazzle. Does the respect of each, of no worth on its own, make the
other’s worth the winning?
11 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 entirely egoistic, and our egoism is entirely social. The worth
that we have in our own eyes is determined by 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. 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 one loves others for his or her own ends.

12 We are 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 rage 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 sprint so fast to reach a
goal, that they lose their way. If they thought less grandly of their worth, how could they bear to
sacrifice 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 shifts I had
to stoop to on the path to attaining it. 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?

13 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. 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 was
conferred on others to help or amuse us.

We know that the boss who fills the place one rung above us is a fool. And yet when we are at
length ensconced in it, we have no doubt that it proves how savvy we are. My success is proof
of my own merit, their success is confirmation of the world’s conniving stupidity.

We think as well of a thing as we think it makes the world think of us.

14 We love the world as much as it loves us
We are willing to love the world as much as we judge that it loves us. So it’s lucky 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.’ We will kneel to kiss its foot, as soon
as it shows us the least favour. We judge its prizes unfulfilling and deceptive till we’ve won a
small clutch of them. And we don’t see what good sense some people have till they come to
share our 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 are praised by those whose vision is bleary, we take it that our worth shines 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. What dearer compliment can I pay people than to
appreciate how much wit they must have to appreciate my own gifts? The simplest way to coax
self-believing people to think more highly of your merits is to coax them to think more highly of
their own. And that’s never hard.

15 Pride and conceit
True pride is cool and nonchalant. Conceit is at once touchy and dependent.

Our conceit shields us from humiliations which would prove fatal to our pride.

Though you may outdo a person’s virtuosity and achievements, how could you get the victory
over their conceit?
Proud people pay too dear for good turns. Braggarts deem that they are due all the favours that
are done them, and so they pay them back too stintingly.

How could our self-opinion be overthrown, when it is 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?

16 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 tortured, 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’re sufficiently flattered, 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’ve won in the eyes of the world.

17 Conceit and illusion
Pride pioneers new concepts. But conceit satisfies us with the rusty banged-up idols of our tribe.
Conceit contents you with humbug, but honour contents you with nothing short of the truth. Most
people’s self-assurance is sturdy enough to buttress all their trumpery, though few have a
springy enough pride to propel them to seek out the truth. Principled people give up their
chance of happiness to serve the truth. The vain give up happiness to serve a lie.

Our pipedreams cost us nothing but our true pride. And we’re always ready to shop that to keep
up our sham self-belief.

18 Conceit
We are gratified both by our enemies, since we know that we are not like them, and by our
friends, since we’re 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 in tandem, 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.

Some vainglorious people babble to you about all the wonderful things that they’re up to, and
some are sure that they are so well known that they have no need to. They don’t want to insult
you by assuming that you alone of all the world could be ignorant of 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.

Ambitious people tell themselves the self-serving lies that most of us only tell others. And they
dare to tell others the mad self-glorifying lies that most of us keep locked in our own breast.

19 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 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 farther than the self that others can see. So without perceiving it they are
constantly bumping and bruising my imaginary being. We use words to fix the outline of our
shape, and they have the elasticity to stretch it farther than we reach.

I reckon myself richer for each of my belongings. And I reckon my belongings 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.

20 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. 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 like an ever-flowing fountain, which can’t get any fuller, but can’t run down.

21 First in all comparisons
We are cursed to be all the time comparing our own merits with those close to us. But we have
the good fortune 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.

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.

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.

22 Conceited knowledge
I don’t doubt that my ideas are unique. But it 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 am unquestionably
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 nonsense as everyone else, but we’re 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 are 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 heft of their news. They ought to be shot from time to time, to lance
their tumid pomposity.

23 We are proud of what we don’t know
We glory not just in what we do know but even in what we don’t know. And we are vain of what
we don’t know, since we take it that it certifies the value of what we do know. We feel like great
landlords, who don’t deign to attend to all that occurs on our vast estates, and are too grand to
seek to grasp such trifling details. What we modestly pretend tops our competence we in fact
judge falls below our 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 reasons.

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.’ We
heap some of our most sincere disparagement on the great achievements that we are least
worthy of. Few things fill ordinary people with more contempt than great art, as few things fill
them with more true veneration than cheap kitsch.

We don’t fear what we don’t know. If we did, what would we not have to be afraid of? And how
could we fear it, when we don’t so much as know that we don’t know it? We mock and scoff at
what we have no grasp of, since we have too little regard for it to quaver at it. ‘All that seems
strange we condemn,’ Montaigne says, ‘as well as all that we do not comprehend.’

People plume themselves even on the mannerisms that they’re not conscious of.

1 Vanity is our most loyal friend
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 the thickest 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 delicate and fleeting as vanity is resilient and enduring. Time despoils beauty. But vanity
triumphs over time.

Vanity gives its possessor an ease and confidence which mere good looks or talent could never

Our vanity inventories each slight alteration in our aspect, while overlooking its long geological
collapse. Our very flaws help to conceal from us the wrecks that we’ve 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, who still presume on their title, though they lack the means to keep it up.

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.’

2 Our botched 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 at peace, 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 follow the
character in Balzac, who ‘was wise enough to estimate life at its true worth by contenting
himself in all things with the second best’? We ought to thank life each day for illustrating that
we were right to rate it so cheap. What pangs I cause myself and others by striving to perfect
my perfectly mediocre life.

How hard I toil to improve, but how enamoured I am of the botched job that I make of it.

Perfection is mediocrity polished to a high sheen.

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?

3 So vain of our imperfect self
Those who are irreparably flawed still flog themselves to prove how marvellous they are.

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 superior to them? We spend all our strength striving to
prove to ourselves that we’re better than we are and to others that we’re better than 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. Vain
people are not unaware of their flaws, but they assume that they will have won through to
perfection once they have rectified these. My past botches promise me that I must be
progressing, rather than alerting me to how far I’ve gone adrift. And my own faults are mere
chips which I’ll set right with a few revisions, but others’ are unquestionable proofs that their
design was wrong from the start.

We don’t want to change, but we do want to grow perfect, and we trust that we will have done
so once we have grown more perfectly who we are.

4 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, which is the one catholic and universal 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.

How did we end up with so many illusions yet so few beliefs? Though I am willing to trade most
of my misconceptions, I cling to the overestimation 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 coax 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.

5 The metaphysic of our ego
Providence is the metaphysic of our ego. Our littleness stretches a vast way.

We’ve long known that the earth doesn’t stand at the pivot of the universe, and so I’m thankful
that I am still the axis round which all bright things revolve.

We may not believe in God, but don’t we all trust in a power immeasurably bigger than us which
is there 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 insignificant to form part of God’s plan. How ready the
unassuming are to see fate busy in their own small lives.

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’re 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 disguise their self-worship as gratitude to some superhuman

We swell our self-worth by our insistence that we are self-made or else by our praise of those
who have made us what we are.

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.
6 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 abandoned to 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 particular protection so that no harm can come
to them.

7 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 humblest people presume that they would be blissfully happy, if only
they got what was due to them.

8 Conceit consoles us
Conceit finds the right words to soothe us for all our humiliations. We brazen out most 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.

9 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 self-estimate?

People’s conceit, which promises them that they have a right to the best, makes them sure that
they’ve got it. It turns their life into one long victory lap. They’re deafened by the clapping, 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 end that each day we’ve been surrendering a
portion more to death. We are such triumphant nobodies.

We are ballasted by the freight of our self-importance, and we are buoyed up by our expansive
self-delight. Kept afloat by our swollen self-opinion, we don’t drown, but don’t see that we need
to be saved. We are so light and hollow that nothing can sink us.

10 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 coax
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.

Our conceit sweetens or curdles all that we feel. It may assuage our pains, yet it poisons our
joys. It both intoxicates and embitters us, rendering some of us serene and others savage. So it
maddens some, and mollifies others. 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

If we felt less need to think so well of ourselves, we might be more contented. And yet if we
thought less well of ourselves, we would have no grounds to be content at all.

11 Dependent conceit
Why do we sweat for the pay of the world’s respect, when we could live at ease on the
independent income of our 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 for its

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 to be loved and admired. Pious people find both in the Lord.

We are self-absorbed but not self-sufficient. ‘We seek for knowledge,’ Pascal wrote, ‘to show it
off. 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.

12 Conceit shows too little self-respect
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.

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.
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.

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 well of what they are to
be humble. But they don’t think well 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’re too vain of what we are, but we lack the
imagination 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.’

13 We can’t see our own vanity
None but the proudest 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 can’t break the grip of our egoism which stings us to act with such ruthlessness. Yet nor can
we conceive the rare accomplishments that might prove our right to our ambitions.
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.

When you are praised 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 known by the whole world. So why is the mouth honour of
five flunkeys enough to turn our heads?

1 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.

We resent the world still more for its rightful neglect of us than we do when it neglects us
undeservedly, since we know that its rightful neglect won’t change. On good days I’m vexed 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 talentless to such heights of fame, how could its esteem be worth

2 Fame
Most of us have no need to become famous, since we feel as if we already were.

I am resigned to 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
content 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?
None are more heedful of the transience and futility of fame than the few who have earned a full
measure of it. They aim 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 We exaggerate praise
The ledger of my self-commendation always shows a profit, since I take much offence which is
not meant, but far more as a compliment.

We take it that we’re 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 it feels like I’ve been brought to the ridge of a 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.’

4 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. Since you learn by admiring, 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 thing that might lead you to the truth.
You ought to praise because you understand or else in the hope of understanding. But many
praise because they don’t understand or so that they won’t have to. Their praise is mere
presumption. They’re willing to imitate the lazy applause that all give to acknowledged
masterpieces, but not to strain their intelligence to find out why they deserve it.

Unthinking acclaim wins a name for generosity in this self-congratulatory world, while cool
comprehension plies its plain justice to no avail. As Pope wrote, ‘Fools admire, but men of
sense approve.’

We ought to admire as we ought to read, not much but ardently.
5 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 extraordinary excellencies.

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. We 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 plausible 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
achievements 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.

We claim to be awed by the great, though we have no idea why they deserve our awe. And we
may know full well why the poor and unconsoled have a claim on our sympathy, but the best we
can do is sham it.

6 It is ourselves that we praise
Most of us venerate nothing but weightier and more prosperous 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 the ways that sort best with the norms of
the age.

What better wish could you have for those whom you love than that they should turn out to be
like you, though more fortunate? Parents hope that their sons and daughters 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 most valuable legacy they have to pass on. Procreation is an organism’s way of flattering
itself, while rendering its own existence obsolescent.

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 at all. 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.
7 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.

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.

We may espy all the traits of those whom we look down on, save how like they are to us.

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.

When we praise, we preen ourselves on our generosity. And when we censure, we preen
ourselves on our discrimination.

We choke on the acclamation that we are obliged to dole out to our rivals. But we lavish praise
on those who are like us, in order to boost the price paid for our 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.

You can count on people’s admirers to pare them down to size, and in most cases it is their own

8 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’re 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 cajole 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 detached enthusiasms advantage us as much as our most self-seeking
schemes harm us.

Enthusiasm is the virtue of salesmen. It makes them seem big-hearted, since they hike the price
of what they hawk, and then convince their dupes 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

9 Vanity and flattery
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. 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 have we got it lodged in our heads 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 belaboured by incertitude and ambivalence, or that the self-righteous are in
flight from their conviction of their own culpability, or that ingrates feel overburdened by the
heaviness of their debts, or that executioners are traumatized by the atrocities they commit? If
only they were.

We are more gratified by an opportunity 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’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.

10 Flattering
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.

We gild the undeserving in order to lay bare their clay and to show off how handsomely we treat
them. We don’t care enough for them to find fault with them. We’re willing to make much of
them just because we have such slight regard for them. We condescend when we compliment.

How could we bear to praise the talents of others, if we didn’t think so well of our own?

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.’

Those who make much of themselves can bear to make much of others, who in return can bear
to pander to them since they see how preposterously they overvalue their own worth.

11 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 inside our head, who praise us for 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.

We live inside a bubble blown by our own self-flattery.

Fake praise is good enough for me, if I trust it will last. And if a pleasing semblance stays fixed,
I’ll be glad to take it for fact.

Even the most dim-witted people are never at a loss for ingenious pretexts on which to preen

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.’

Even in others we find self-flattery more attractive than self-knowledge.

12 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 mete 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 portion out to 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.

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 be wrecked.

13 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.

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 overpraise myself just as I like.

We love to learn from experience and flattery, since they don’t teach us a thing 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.

We are never more candid than when we are flattering ourselves, or less convinced than when
we 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 D. H. 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. Flattery is the insincerest form of imitation.

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’ve put
themselves to shame in front of you, and have no more to lose.

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 our dignity we 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 we press our claims
to it, we show that we don’t deserve it. Dignity is ust the solemn face which plodding self-
importance presents to the world. It is the swollen gravity of a ponderous and inert body.

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 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, which is so humdrum, from time to time turns shabbily operatic, and tempts me to
improvise a bogus role, which my pride then forbids me to give up. I hope to prove that I am 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 people are so proud that they have to act as if they were vexed by their own successes in
order to scarf their ebullience. Others try to veil their embarrassment by pretending to be elated.
They need to work up their affectations, since they blush to seem so affected.

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 their acts will be regarded by the world. They become
the captives of chance, in order to prove that they are free. 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 show 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 antics that have shamed them, in order to prove that they have not.
They hope to hide that they have gone wrong by continuing to go wrong in the same way, and
so 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
We are as self-effacing as we have to be, but we are as pretentious as we can get away with.

Shrewd climbers speak reticently of the success that 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.

Most of us pretend to be meek from prudence and good policy, but some do so out of a
circuitous pride. We may speak bashfully to savour our strength in overmastering or
underestimating ourselves. We take pleasure in our icy strictness when we judge our 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 panegyrics,
since they know how valueless they are. They class their worth so far above most people’s, that
they feel no call to boast to them. They parry some compliments, since they feel that they fail to
do full justice to their vast talents.

5 The vanity of modesty
We are ashamed to expose our pride, but we are proud to flaunt our meekness. Watch out that
you don’t overplay your lowliness, lest others spot how highly you rate yourself. Those who are
genuinely modest are chary of advertising their modesty, since they have no wish 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.

If you can’t flatter yourself that the world appreciates you, you can at least flatter yourself that it
undervalues you.

Even unfeignedly diffident 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 accomplishments 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 can 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 successes.
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. 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’ve gleaned in their retreat.

Some people are so proud that they refuse to laugh at their own foibles. 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.

I presume that my meekness will make people see how much they have underestimated me.
But unfortunately I overestimate how insightful they are.

8 The insincerity of modesty
I think it right that others ought to be modest, but that they only fake it, whereas I am sincerely
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.

I hope 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 wit 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
9 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 puff of air to breathe? Even if my pride failed to trounce my
humility in a direct assault, my greed would still overrun it in its inexorable march.

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?

10 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.

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 that all the rest of us
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. Is it not more desirable 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.’

11 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 everything else 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.

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 lack faith in their own flair, 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 stupid to give them their due. 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.

I shun those who seem stricken with self-doubt, for fear that it may be catching, though I’ve not
shown any symptoms of it myself.

12 Shame
Nothing but love or self-love is strong enough to prevail 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.
13 Shame, guilt and sympathy
Shame can inhibit you or incite you. It may make you brazenly own up to your faults, or else
brazenly deny them. It may stay you from doing wrong, but it will bind you to requite small
insults by the most unjust means.

Guilt torments, but shame prevents. 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-observing 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 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 accomplishes 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
oversized self-respect. As Nietzsche wrote, ‘it annoys one to give to them, and it annoys one not
to give to them.’

14 Shame and embarrassment
Embarrassment may spread like a blush over a whole life.

Egoism embarrasses some and emboldens others.

I’m mortified by the least frailties that should in no way embarrass me, and I’m far less
embarrassed by more grievous ones that 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.

1 Servitude and independence
We resent restraint, but we don’t want to be free. And though we chafe at duress, we all need to
find some person or some cause to depend on. We cast off the encumbrance of choice, but we
hit back at those who would dare to take it from us. We are born rebels, because we are born
serfs. And we long for liberty only with a view to selecting our own kind of subjection. We know
neither what it is to be truly free nor what it would be to serve loyally. We are content to sell our
independence. But we bite and claw at those who would come between us and our borrowed
wants. Those who drudge as uncomplaining servants of their own compulsions scream if the
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.’

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 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 feel sorry for 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. We are imprisoned by our desires, 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.
3 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. Work, the inveterate demeaning affliction of the many, has become just as much the vaunt of
the few. All now honour it, because 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.

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 augment our means.

4 Time and independence
The poor have no choice but to 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 bear to enjoy leisure?

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 reality by being paraded before others. Time is an intrinsic good, and is therefore of far
less value than money, 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’re to get your true work done. But most of us now rush at
such a dizzying clip that we have no time to shape what might last. As Kraus notes, democracy
‘makes no provision for those who have no time to work.’

5 Money and employment
The devil finds hands for idle work.
‘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 money since
it is such an enviable way of using up the time that we take to get and spend it.

Work is the refuge of the intellectually unemployed.

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.’

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 doesn’t alienate you but integrates
you. And it’s your alienation that might have forced you to rely on your own resources, and
inspired you to find your path to the truth.

The rest of us work for our living, artists must work for their lives.

Even the luminous moment wins its worth only by being transfigured into the hard lustre of a
lasting work.

Your own work is always easy. 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.

6 Dependence and independence
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.

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 courage to retreat
from it. The brave must come to craven accommodations with the world, since they are too
weak to defeat their lust to bend it to their will.

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 in such a way as to win 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.

7 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. 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. 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.

8 A hero needs a cause
A hero may fight in a bad cause but not in a small one.

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. 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 right. The grossest hokum arms them in a sterling resoluteness.

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 audacity or
clarity to find a deserving one.
9 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. 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.

Truth alone could shame us out of our pride. Yet none but proud souls can pluck up heart to
seek out the truth.

10 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 that they must defend the steep price that they set on their own merits. But they
scorn most of the usual undertakings that could prove it to their peers, and so they spend their
force on the rare ones which fail to.

11 The rewards of vocation
High aims work you like a navvy and shackle you to anxiety, 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 more worthy 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 conscious futility. Dickinson toiled for twenty queenly
years to shape her impeccable songs, which she felt sure no one would hear.

12 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’re thrust on by a fiery pride,
and disciplined 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.

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.

13 Selfishness redeemed
We are unable to shrink our selfishness. So we should strive to make the most capacious self
that we 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. 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 scope 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.

The most bitter martyrdom is to give your all and find that no one wants it.

14 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. When distilled as form it shapes the most
appealing 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. We learn by genuinely esteeming what merits our respect.
But we please and thrive best by pretending to prize what does not. We rise in the world by
lowering our 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 have to use both the veneration which prompts them to emulate and the
imaginativeness which spurs them to deviate. Their task, as Hopkins said, is to ‘admire and do

15 Independence and imagination
The best we can hope to attain is neither true humbleness nor true heroism but a mere
semblance of them. But by aspiring to nobility we may bring off rare achievements, whereas
when we try to put on lowliness we stunt and deform our 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. The vain preen themselves on what the world
takes them for.

Imagination makes the coward as imagination makes a hero. The faint-hearted see the threat in
all its horror. The fearless see the fine figure that they might become by defying it.

Resolute people have both the imagination to glimpse how much they might gain by losing all
and the fortitude to lose it.

Heroes must be the sculptors of their own lives. Artists strive to make new forms that they
imagine. Heroes strive to remodel their clay as an ideal that they imagine. Saints dream that
they can turn themselves into paragons that they take to be real.
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, and
rack me with a martyr’s anguish, just so that I can earn a clerk’s scant pay.

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?

Irresolute people love to flaunt their staunchness where they’re not in jeopardy. Mean people
love to proffer what would cost them nothing to give. Cruel people love to show off their
gratuitous chivalry by sparing someone who is sure to be pilloried in any case. We like to give
poignant voice to our gratitude, when there is no one in particular that we have to be beholden
to. We are fond of parading our virtues where there is least call for them.

The Lord knew that, in order to tempt us to eat of the tree of knowledge, all he had to do was
disallow it.

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 acquisitive to sit idle, too inconstant to nurse a long revenge. Some of
us have such grave faults, that we need to grow strenuously good in order to live them down.
Virtue is a balance of conflicting vices. We don’t hold fast to a single vice because we are torn
between so many of them.

The just relish deeds that meld right and wrong. The wrong wakes their compulsions, and the
right lulls to sleep their watchdog contrition. ‘What we all love,’ wrote Clough, ‘is good touched
up with evil.’

2 The two devils
Two dark angels hold us in their 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, prudent, 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 unavoidable evil, as 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.’

3 The prince of this world
Even the devil’s disciples are sure that they are doing God’s work.

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.

The Lord may have made our metal, but it’s the devil 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 everything thereafter. The Lord made the
heavens 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. The
sanctimonious are in the saddle since they have the both of them.

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 emits when it grates on the unyielding steel of circumstance.

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’ve 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 a voluptuous pleasure in those activities 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.

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.

Greed will do whatever it needs to do in its rage to get what it does not need.

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.

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 money is a waste of life. But a lot of life counts for so little, that it could be called a
mere waste of money.

Greed fills up each of our lives, and hollows out life as a whole.

Now that we have cheapened all that is truly precious to the sordid touchstone of money, 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’s 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. We call grapes sour when we fail to obtain them, but would they have tasted so
sweet if we had caught hold of them?

Everything that we possess threatens to possess us. Yet we never really own what we have got
hold of.

How jovially I could abjure most of the things that I drool for, if only I were first accorded a
sumptuous glut of them. ‘Many disrespect money,’ as La Rochefoucauld notes, ‘but few know
how to give it away.’

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 we feel about death. Now we are not even afraid to die. We are just too
possessive to let go of this life which has given us so little. As consumers we seem to be reborn
with each fresh desire. We feel that we will never die, since there is always one more want to
fulfil. So we no longer fear death as the king of terrors. We merely resent it as the cessation of
all our getting and spending. We loathe it because it cuts short our career of guzzling and
devouring. But we’re too busy cramming our maws to give it much thought. Life is what is next,
and we hate death, because when it comes, nothing at all is next.

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’ve 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 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 we play for a prize that we can’t carry home.

Life yields us such meagre satisfaction, that the best we can do is scramble to get more of what
has failed to satisfy us.

11 Greed and nostalgia
Nostalgia, like the rest of our avocations, now garnishes our gaping hunger for the bliss that 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

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
discipline us 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 is warmed by the spectacle of
random and unavailing charity. It throws a sop to our conscience, while leaving in place the
system of privilege that we’re profiting from. We dole out charity so that we can withhold justice.

The dream of do-gooders is to lift the poor to the same level of rapacious affluence as the rich.

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. 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.’ 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 money, 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.

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 crass stuff that 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’re 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 dreams and aspirations, but we mean our greed. And we keep spawning
more and more exorbitant fancies, to justify our sharp-toothed voracity.

We have to keep multiplying our desires so as to give some purpose to our affluence. What was
all that frantic accumulation for, if we could have satisfied our needs so much more

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

16 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.

Each plump devourer now feels like a little Napoleon or king Ubu, a triumphant gullet that has
wolfed its way through such fat years. All that we gobble swells our faith in our importance and
prosperity by exhibiting our taste or wealth. Half the pleasure that we take in a thing comes from
the pride that we feel in our own success, that we possess the means to procure it and the taste
to enjoy it. And when we think that we are savouring a scene or experience, we are in fact
exulting in the trophies that make us feel so important. Our expensive pleasures assure us that
we’ve made it.

17 Insatiable
Our nature could be satisfied with so little. But it’s our nature not to be satisfied with a single
thing. We’re lashed on by a fundamental need to want more than we fundamentally need. We
could so easily have all that we require, if we could just stop clambering to snatch all that we
don’t even want.

Greed rides us at such a furious gallop, that we’re forced to postpone life from one hungry
instant to the next, till we have raked up more than we could ever need. One day when we have
got hold of more than anyone could use, we will no doubt find the time to start to live.

Life is a mad scramble for things that we wouldn’t want if we didn’t have the chance to heap up
more of them than others.

Wealth frees you from every kind of captivity, save that of having to waste all your time
labouring to stash up more of it.

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. We did not need to need this much. Each smile
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 cupidity 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.

To live in this age is to have too much and to lack the self-control not to want to get more.

18 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.

The tame shall inherit the earth, but why would they want it? Are their dreams as vile and venal
as those of the rich who tread them down?

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.
19 Corruption
The independent are incorruptible. But it’s the corrupt that are indispensable. It is they who keep
the world turning so smoothly. The self-sufficing are too proud to submit and too disengaged to

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 are expert in respectably
depraving others.

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’re 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 could do without it.

Opportunity may make a petty thief. But a great rogue makes every occasion an opportunity for
pious swindling.

20 Ideals and compromise
We live our real life through our compromises with the world. The blurred prints of my ideals fail
to come into sharp focus. Most of us mislay our ideals before we get the opportunity to barter
them. I may seem to play them false, but I never quite cared enough for them to find out what
they meant. Yet they live on to tell me what I have failed to live up to.

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’ve invested in it.

Some people lie with no compunction because they have no principles, and some because they
are serving such high-minded ones.

Few of us believe in any principle enough to be capable of betraying it.
21 The small rewards of corruption
Our desires debauch us, though most of them yield us so little pleasure that they seem quite

Our accommodations with the world diminish us, though they lend us an exaggerated stature in
our own and others’ eyes. They tempt us not into crime but into littleness. The cramped arenas
in which I conduct my mean schemes motivate my mean shifts and then deck them out as the
most solemn duties.

‘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 meagre
yield for it. The price of souls stays low, because there’s such a queue lining up to bargain day
by day. But does anyone feel so burningly irate as one who has closed the deal and not
received the world?

We are willing to sell a lot more than our souls to gain a lot less than the world.

We have no soul to traffic. 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.

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.

22 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 jolts some people to acts of mad fearlessness, and 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.’
Some cowards are shocked into daring by a sudden upset. 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 struck out on a foray, they need the
headstrong mettle to encounter any menace, since they lack the audacity to retreat.

Cowards, like tottering autocracies or our ebbing democracies, squander their strength battling
phantom enemies, because they lack the courage to discern who their real ones 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.

Fools have no choice but to act fearlessly, since they don’t dare to be wise and sit still.

Cowards tend to treat most amicably those whom they like least, since they dread lest their
dislike will be detected, and being cowards they quail at what they hate.

23 The cowardice to stay alive
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.

Since we lack the decision simply to die, 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.

A suicide is always too late. If it were not, there would have been no need for it. Suicides know
that their life will go on interminably, if they don’t put a stop to it this day.

We are rats in a maze scurrying to locate the way out but forbidden to take the nearest one.

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 consequences of their own mistakes. Cowardice foists
on them such rigours, that it leaves them no alternative but to act nobly.

Who knows how to take life with the gravity or levity which it deserves? It may be the few who
have made up their mind to end it. ‘The wish to die,’ as Kafka wrote, ‘is the beginning of
wisdom,’ as the Book of Job or Ecclesiastes also show. For one who has seen the truth, merely
to go on living is to lie.
24 Cowardice loves cruelty
Fear bids us entrust our safety to people of dubious valour, whom we think brave since they
have a brand of cowardice that is at variance with our own.

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 safe. It’s thus
that the faithful adore their god.

People are willing to take a lot of risks in order to feel safe.

If bullies were cowards, the world would be in a quite different state. Nor are tyrants sadists.

25 Treachery
In this double-dealing world even the perfidious may be betrayed by their own conniving

Can’t we 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, as their envy would be more
gratifying to us than their pity.

Tell the truth, and you will lose everyone’s trust. Hold fast to your integrity, and they will all
desert you. The world is sure to make a fool of you, if you’re foolish enough to refuse to fool

Life is a treacherous game, in which the worst form of betrayal is to tell the stark truth.

26 We are all traitors
We are all traitors. We just don’t agree on what country we belong to. And we keep up our
fidelity by our opportune defections.

Don’t we betray most eagerly the ideals that we know are too good for us? We are glad to sling
off their yoke and to prove that they were not 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 collapse
the day after they leave it. What stronger proof could there be of how indispensable they were?
27 The ruses of treachery
Most of us have too much guile to act like patent traitors. So we withhold our disloyalty as warily
as we withhold our 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
crooked world and drag us up in their train.

28 The bond of perfidy
The most trustful 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’ll pretend to share our self-deceits and not blurt out what might hurt us.

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.

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.

Some of us can think of no more convincing way to prove our loyalty than by offering others as
an oblation to it.

29 Cruelty
Honour and its codes necessitate a vast deal of cruelty. In them shame is more to be shunned
than torture, and pride means more than life.

We take pride in our brutality 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.

30 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. 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.

Cruelty requires as much imagination as kindness, and far more than we are prepared to lend it
or than our everyday niceness calls for.

Children love to play at cruelty. It tickles us when we’re 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. A child, like a cat, dabbles in sadism with an offhand curiosity. Like
innocence, it 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.

31 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 don’t feel jealous 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.

When we envy, we set ourselves aflame so as to light up the achievements of our rivals.

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.

32 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 mitigate 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.
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?

33 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 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 almost as much as we like to believe that they envy us.

34 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 I love and have hurt much more.

Revenge is a kind of violent restorative. We are goaded 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.’

35 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 tastes 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
Not only are all the virtues not one, as the stoics claimed, no single virtue is simple and
undivided. 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 consists 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.

1 The unnaturalness of natural law
Nothing is less innate than our innate sense of right and wrong. Nothing is more conventional
and 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 pretend that there is 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.

Few eternal laws last as long as written ones.

2 The moralist
A moralist blasts your innocence by opening your eyes to it. Once you’ve been told that it is
more blessed to give than to receive, the fine freshness of your generosity withers. And when
you’ve 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 masters 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 will find that 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.

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. What they ask of you is the flannel forbearance that won’t thwart
their own self-interest or ulcerate their own self-love. They wish you to be flexible and
complaisant but not sternly just. 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 qualities.’

4 Moral thrift
What others want from you is not your best but what will gain them most and ask least of them.

The golden rule, to do to others as you would have them do unto 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, which none of us has the right to receive or the duty to render. The most you can
expect or are obliged to do is to cause them as little harm as practicable and to tender some
minimal help.

Righteous people resent their own good deeds almost as much as others’ bad ones. ‘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 conscience, like an
attentive accountant, tots up the debts that they owe me to the last cent. A well groomed sense
of right and wrong is more respectable and profitable than none at all.

A clear conscience costs so little, who would be without one?

My faults scald me, but I refuse to part with them. My virtues cost me a pittance, but 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 Moral posing
Most of our good intentions are mean thriftiness or gaudy showmanship. 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. Morality, finding
that indifference or self-interest has long occupied most of our acts and emotions, migrates to
our words and gestures. But our life is not a charged melodrama of moral choice. And yet we
still love to declaim like moral posers, whose 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 put an end to
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.

6 The virtues of hypocrisy
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.’

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.’

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.’

The self-righteousness that tells us that we are better than we seem spurs us to become so for
real, though we end up as fake and hollow as the virtues that 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.

We mimic bad people’s motives and good people’s stratagems for disguising them. The fine
deeds that we do may be the one thing that can make amends for the reprehensible 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 improvers.
7 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 thing strong
enough to thrust out bad. Our moral medicines work by homeopathy.

Our moral scruples are adjustable, but our moral prejudices don’t budge. The first are at the
beck of our self-interest, but the second are held fast by our self-regard.

The shortest way to stay in touch with popular prejudice is by listening to your conscience. ‘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. The
individual defies the omnivorous claims of the collective by insurrection or by indifference.
Where you need merely collude to prove your loyalty, you may turn renegade to hold fast to
your truth.

8 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 robes itself in the
decorous outfit of integrity to walk up and down in the world.

We are disciplined more by the things that we want for ourselves than by the truths that we
know of ourselves. We are kept on the straight road more by our self-seeking than by our self-
awareness. What small joys won’t we set aside to make way for our heftier selfishness?

What unites us most deeply is our shallow selfishness. And what we share with others is a mere
brittle compromise with their wants and fears.

Justice is composed of noisy interests, but in such sweet consort that they make an even music.

We may be as offended by self-interest as a platonist or gnostic is by the flesh, but what else
could we live by? When we are not acting for our own ends, it’s from some worse motive that
we act.

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
shove their way to feed their preferences.
Egoism knows how to put everything to use for its own ends, even kindliness. ‘Self-interest,’ as
La Rochefoucauld says, ‘speaks all sorts of tongues, and plays all sorts of roles, even that of

9 Adversity improves us
Setbacks don’t make us better, but 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

If we had been as untouchable as the gods, we would have been stupider and more brutal than
the worst of the beasts.

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 but 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 fit us for the
underworld, not for the upper one. Yet a few years of bliss would steel 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 the property of someone

Unfortunates long to have sharers in their gloom, and some, if they find none, will go out of their
way to make them.

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 destination one hour late?

10 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 bear them. We have to learn to
bear up under brute pains, since we can’t hold out against the lure of our brute desires. I grow
hardened 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 dominate them.

We let our own ambitions bully us as much as we use them to try to bully others. We are strong
enough to hack our way to what we want, but we are so weak that we need to. And we’ll stop at
nothing to feed fat our overweening desires, because we’re loath to do the least thing to bridle
them. We owe our sterile enterprises to our lack of self-restraint, and so we have to slave to pay
off the arrears by decades of strict self-discipline.

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 try to control themselves by concealing themselves. They manage to seem
mature by learning to hide how childish they are. They have rigged out their own immaturity with
the gear that’s tailored to master the world’s immaturity.

11 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 no choice but to encase his
heart in brass, and then dig out from that carapace all that was soft and human. Why wonder
that what he made of himself should ring so hollow? Since he shuddered at the least touch, 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

How could the strong, who are so proud of how much their strength is able to shoulder, guess
how much weaklings have to brave in order to bear the weight of 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.

The true test of courage comes when your luck runs out, when nothing remains 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.

Frailty may make people firm and timidity may make them bold.
12 Courage
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 iniquities in check.

It takes as much courage to fight for a bad cause as for a good one. And it takes far more daring
to become a criminal than to remain a law-abiding citizen.

Courage is not so much a virtue as a core competence.

What extraordinary tenacity you need just to get through a single hour on this ordinary earth,
where, 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?

The wise know why they ought to give up hope, the undaunted carry on as if they did not. It may
take as much firmness not to scare yourself with phantom frights as it does not to flinch from
real ones.

When we meet with disaster, we may slip the fetter of our fears, once we’ve learnt that if we can
bear this then we can bear anything. Or else we may see that anything might scar us, and so
we fall back to a trench of consternation, from which we may never climb out. In middle age we
realize that there’s no infamy or calamity that we can’t ride out. And then we know that we
should despair for real.

13 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 sensibility of others, till they find that they have need of it in their own ordeals. 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 must be too important to come to rack. But this
same conviction prods the dauntless to rush 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.

14 Generosity
Our impulses are generous, but our hands are stinting. Our second thoughts keep back 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. 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.’

We are reluctant to give more of ourselves to others for fear that they will take too much or that
they will spurn what we offer.

I give gifts to show off my own taste and to mould the taste of those I give them to.

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 carelessly waste their spare cash on all sorts of
things, even other people.

15 Gratitude
I expect others’ thanks when I do them good as much as I resent them expecting mine when
they do me good. 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 courtesies
that cost me nothing.

We are disappointed with everything that we are given, and it may be with gratitude most of all.

We grow more attached to people when we give them gifts than when we receive gifts from

16 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 purport to be thankful, in order to shuck off the
weight of their dependence. They feign gratefulness so that they won’t be obliged to feel 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 people’s estimation.

‘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. People’s avid expectations touch us nearer than their gratitude. It’s
our pride more than our kind heart that piques our generosity. Their very unthankfulness goads
us to give more, if only to show them that we weren’t angling for their thanks.

17 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 bankrupted 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.

18 The pride of ingratitude
We are so ungrateful, because we undervalue what others give us and overvalue what we get
for ourselves. What we value highly we come to believe we have earned by our 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 that we have harmed or to those who have helped us.

Our ingratitude is as sincere as our self-belief, and our gratitude is as feigned and grudging as
our modesty. We really do feel unappreciative, since we can’t see that we have a thing to thank
our benefactors for.

19 Gratitude and resentment
Be generous to a person, and from then on they will assume that you must owe them
something. The more you give to them, the more they feel that you are in their debt.
Need can drive people to love their helpers or to resent them. 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 patrons that we need to disguise our debts
by detesting them. Dependent people don’t doubt that they are of more use to their benefactor
than their benefactor 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.

Giving and gratitude make such a soup of pride, spite, recriminations, expected dividends and
bad faith, that cold monetary exchange smells pure and clean when set beside them.

20 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 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.’

21 The ego, the source 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 individual ego is the source of all injustice. And yet justice exists to serve our collective

We fail to see the most flagrant injustices, until they have ceased to profit us.

Most people’s sense of justice exhausts itself in their eagerness to press their own claims.
22 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 everlasting oven. God shows leniency to
his lambs, but not so much as justice to the kids. And this is what the lambs 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.

23 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 obligations 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 resembles 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.

24 Our due
We presume that right is what we are used to doing, and that justice is what we are used to
obtaining. We deem our innate rights to be whatever we are in the habit of receiving plus the bit
extra that we assume we deserve.

If we meet with good luck, we gather that what is rightfully due to us is what we are accustomed
to get. And if we don’t, we gather that it is what others get. If we fail repeatedly, we feel that we
have a right to fare well for a change. And if we fare well, we infer that we ought not have to fail
when we’ve grown so used to victory. But we 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
None of us complains of injustice when we get more than we have earned the right to. And
which of us nowadays 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 still feel sure that
we deserve to have the best of everything.

25 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.’

26 Duty
I have to make too much of the urgency of some of my obligations so as 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, since 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 reach, 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 the whole world spinning.

The work-ethic is an excuse to 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, though they seem so to me, since they are too busy
doing what they want to do, to do what I think they ought to do.
27 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 sentimentalists is always for more charity and less justice. And so
they will collude in inverting all right.

28 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 discern 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?

You ought to do a little occasional charity, 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 shared frailty which makes us feel how we needs 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 by their own efforts, while abandoning
them to drown in the ghastly 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

29 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 inhabit 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 preserve your country.
Some people 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 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
discovering your own strong reason to live.

30 Self-sacrifice sacrifices others
To forward our schemes, we are ready to damage our own happiness. And how much more
ready we are to damage the happiness of others. Those who sacrifice a little of their own good
for the sake of some cause won’t balk at sacrificing a lot more of others’ good. And those who
have the charge of the welfare of many feel sure that they have the right to wreck scores of lives
to safeguard it. ‘Self-sacrifice,’ says Shaw, ‘enables us to sacrifice other people without

Those who impair their interest to keep up their conceit are sure that they are actuated by a high
principle. And when they restrain their conceit to push their own claims they judge that they
must be actuated 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 feel sure that they have a mandate to use whatever means they
need in order to gain their ends.

31 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’re not exulting in their triumphs, are wallowing in self-

Those who are victims of their own overweening egoism are sure that they are martyrs to
benevolence. They have reaped no gain from their selfishness, and so they conclude that they
must be behaving unselfishly.
32 Self is the idol of altruism
A code of selflessness will serve to make us more self-obsessed. By trying to act altruistically
we will grow more clamorously selfish. Our solidarity tells us that there is no gem so rich as the
self and its service.

By encouraging men and women to act for the sake of other selves, we won’t induce them to act
unselfishly. We will merely teach them that the human self is the sole thing worth acting for. But
the self is neither an end nor an enemy but a tool. Try to act philanthropically, and you blunt the
tool. Try to act disinterestedly, and you wear it out for the sake of keeping other tools in good
trim as if they were the true work.

We assume that we win high merit when we spend our own paltry self to help others just as
paltry, and that these paltry selves must be priceless because we have effaced our own selves
for their sake, and that what is akin to us but not us 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.

Don’t the righteous feel that the rest of us have been put on earth to serve as the grateful
recipients of their own good works? 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.

1 Pity is politeness
Passion is brusque to all but its beloved. Pity is a mere embellishment of our tact and decorum.
It’s born in politeness, but in a lot of instances it’s kept warm and breathing by our hostility to
those whom we blame for inflicting the hurt.

We are so tactful, not because we don’t wish to cause pain to others, but because we would be
embarrassed to show how little we care for their pain.

We show courtesy by pretending to notice the frailties of others no more than we do our own.
And we prove our empathy by pretending to feel their anguish as much as we in fact feel our

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’ve not had to go through
anything like them ourselves, or else because we have. We make light of them, because we
have had no occasion to feel how heavy they are, or else because we have weighed them and
found that we could bear them with ease and so we think that others ought to 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 subdue.

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’s past. Though I’m too smug to feel sorry for
myself, at times I act as if I did, as a feint to glean others’ aid or attention. 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 own.

I don’t feel sorry for others, because I care too frigidly for their troubles. I don’t feel sorry for
myself, because I think too warmly of my own importance.

We are racked by our own imaginary woes. But we are scarcely touched by the real woes of

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.

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.

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, but cheers you that you are so far removed from them.

5 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.

Pity is one luxury that the rich are happy to deny themselves.

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.’
6 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 a mere daydream. It’s easy to
see how much others are suffering, but it’s hard to believe that it matters. We can know about
such a range of things, but there is just one thing we can care for, our own selves and what is
ours. And if we care for anything larger, we can do so only by making it part of our self.

Most people see more and care less than they let on.

My egoism 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’ pain.

Moralists bleat that a bloodthirsty torturer 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?

7 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 in many cases it is cured through
the ear or nose.

Pity is a short-lived response to visual images. Justice is a cool virtue of slow reason.

Visual mass-media serve as sympathy superconductors because they are so cold. We pity the
picturesque, but we pass by the needy. It is pictures that wring our hearts more than people. It’s
not our own sympathetic imagination but external images that stir our feelings.

8 The melodrama of our pity
I love my own warmhearted gestures more than I do the people that they claim to help, to whom
I assign the part of 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. I can’t 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

9 We pity to display our sensitivity
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 them to mere dramas in which we play the principal
role. When others are in pain, we declare how our hearts bleed for them. And when they are
wronged, we give utterance to 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 and achievements 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 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.

10 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 us 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.’

Some of us fancy that we feel an unselfish solicitude 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 ordeals that they could not bear to. Their tender egoism deems that others must be as
nerveless as they. Would they be so solicitous to help the sorrowful, if it didn’t make them think
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’re unable to do
anything else, or else to turn their thoughts from their own woes.

We are so sensitive to the pain of others, that we have to shut our eyes and ears to it.

11 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 drilling 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 slumber 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. The
giant agony of the world is matched by its giant indifference. ‘We all have sufficient strength to
brook the misfortunes of others,’ as La Rochefoucauld showed. If we ached for their woes half
as much as we claim, how could we bear to live? And if we loved others as much as we love
ourselves, would we not be crushed by all the burdens of the world, which we can’t do a thing to
lighten? It would, as Johnson points out, be ‘misery to no purpose.’

Our callousness keeps us in sound moral health, as our immune system keeps us in sound
physical health.

12 Pity is hard to start and quick to give up
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.

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?’

If tried too far pity promptly 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 affliction?

We decorously try to hide how little sympathy we feel for our fellows by avouching that we have
used it up by feeling so much.

13 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 afflicted, because we are so indignant with their tormentors. We pick up a lot
of our sympathies by moralizing our antipathies. And we mistake the blaze of our righteous fury
for the warmth of real kind-heartedness.

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.

14 Polemical pity
Our pity is in great part polemical.

The woes of others are one of the best ways we know to prove our point.

Our creed, which we don’t quite believe in, frames a large segment of our sympathies and
affinities, which we 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 sensitivities. 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, though
what it most loves to pity is its own hard lot.

15 The futility of pity
Our sympathies are selective, capricious, brittle, short-lived, amoral, easy to manipulate, and
proud of their softness. They lack the gravity of selfishness. And though they look bright on our
horizon, 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 us when we first touch it, but we let go
of it before we 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.’

Most people are too pitifully pleased with themselves to need your pity when they meet with a
reverse. 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. Compassion and retribution 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
affect. Our soft heart feels that it has been betrayed, when those whom it pities forsake their
anguish. What right have they to suffer less than we deem they should?

We don’t need others to pity us when we fail, since we never fail to spare ourselves the truth.
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
inveigles us to cover up the foul consequences of our deeds. A good society is careful to
conceal the brutality on which its affluence rests, though it needn’t be so scrupulous, since its
citizens don’t much care.

Conscience, as Freud says, may chide you like a parent when you’re young, but as you grow up
you have to train it to behave like a good child, to be seen and not heard.

1 Shame and guilt
Morally dainty people grow furtive and mistrustful of their own fine intentions. They feel shame
for some of their best acts, though they still hope to win praise for them.

Some people go to great lengths to avoid feeling the gratitude or guilt which wouldn’t oblige or
inhibit them even if they did feel it. 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. Guilt, humility and mercy are deep but

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 too.

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’d
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.

2 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 that they do me sooner than for
a humiliation that I bring on my own head in front of them. We are readier to forgive them for
mistreating us than we are for witnessing us making fools of ourselves. They are guilty of
witnessing 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 innocent than those to whom it has been done.
These it coats in a sticky scurf, which they fear can be seen by 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 the unjustness of their fate makes them seethe with a sanctimonious

3 Conscience, magic and melodrama
Some people have scruples and inhibitions but no conscience, as some have gaudy
superstitions but no faith.

Superstitious people feel more compunction when they do an unintended wrong than when they
do an intentional one, which they class as a necessary and fair retribution against their foes. If
they can do harm unwittingly, they fear that they in turn might be punished despite their
blamelessness. They are willing 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.

Some people feel less guilt for the wrongs that they have done than for those that they dread
they might do, which they fear might meet with a proportionately indeterminate punishment.
‘Present fears are less than horrible imaginings.’

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. 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 effect.

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.

4 Conscience and convention
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 almost nothing that conscience can’t be trained to condone or to condemn.
Conscience is like language. We are not born with it. We 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 of us don’t feel the need to confess, as Goethe claimed. We confess only if we have been
conditioned to. And we choose which sins we will own up to, and which we won’t, and to whom
we do it.

5 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. 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.’ We cease to feel shame for shameful deeds, if we do them often enough. It’s the wrongs
that we do infrequently that make us feel uncomfortable. The moral sense is a mirror. We gaze
into it, and condone what we look like most of the time, and fret only when we swerve from this.

If we do our duty long enough, it becomes a joy. And if we practise injustice long enough, it
becomes our duty.

6 Power and conscience
How could those who wield power afford to feel keen remorse? They want to control as much as
possible, while feeling answerable for as little as they have to. If you are capable of repenting
the harm that you do, then you are not cut out to do great deeds.

No victor has a bad conscience. But a few may 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.

7 Confessing to escape the consequences
It’s advisable to pretend 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. I pretend that I can’t spare myself, in the hope of cajoling
them to spare me.
I grant facts, so as to muddy my motives. I acknowledge what I have done, in order 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 else because what compels me to confess knows the world too well. How
mortifying to uncover the real motives that drove me to repent or mend.

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.

8 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-aggrandizing pose.

It may taste as sweet to confess as it does to crow. 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. Only terrible egotists feel
terrible guilt, since they swell the importance of all that pertains to them, even the wrongs that
they have done. People must take some pride in the wrongs 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.’

‘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 hate 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.
9 Ineffective conscience
I feel morally healthier for having caught a mild dose of queasy conscience once in a while. My
moral constitution proves more hale than I might have hoped. I’m too quick to recuperate my
strength 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 a good conscience. Or else they claim to be encumbered by principles so much more
stringent than those of their opponents, that they have a permit to act unscrupulously so as to
even the odds.

10 The confidence of justification
We hide our mean acts and motives in the dark. Yet we have no doubt that we would be
vindicated if we were judged by God who knows our secret springs. If he showed forth our true
value we would be seated at his right hand. We may think that we want to be saved, but what
we really 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.
11 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
concupiscence? Principled people, unlike brazen scoundrels, can’t bear to do wrong unless they
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
enemies or neighbours. Those who have a strict conscience are never at a loss to justify what
they do or to condemn what their opponents do.

12 Exceptions and exemplars
When we are deliberating on how we ought to act, we assume that we are exceptions to the
moral code. But when we judge how we have acted, we feel sure that we 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. So 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

13 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 in few cases needs to plead it
as cleverly as it does.

Most 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?

14 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 upbraiding others. I can be reconciled 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 are affronted by the wickedness of others far more than they
are by their own. 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?

We won’t lift a finger to see that right is done. Yet we love to rail when others fail to do it.

15 The pleasures of indignation
What sore grievances I would scarcely feel, if there weren’t someone that I could blame 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.

The scruples of a prim swindler don’t stay silent, but rattle with righteous anger, like the press in
nazi Germany.

There are few injustices that would much concern us, if there weren’t some enemy whom we
could excoriate for 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 cold-hearted. Our indignation
shines more bright and gives out more warmth, if it flames narrow and fervent.

We, who are all guilty, blaze with indignation when the guilty go free.

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 the backs of others far more spitefully than they do their own. 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

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.

16 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 complain that my worst flaw is that I am too modest, and that I lack the
cunning to tell the lies that would serve my advantage. You have not completed your moral
schooling, till you’ve learnt the trick of idealizing your motives. Vanity sews tunics for our moral
nakedness. ‘All a man’s ways are clean in his own eyes.’

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
assume that the works 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 that I could to
help them. I rarely reproach myself for having wronged one who is no longer here to reproach

17 Innocence
Why in the wake of each atrocity do we take comfort 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 irrational 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

It’s well attested that power corrupts, and since there is always someone more powerful than us,
we know that we must be innocent, and thus entitled to go on exercising our brutal power.

18 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 see 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.

A grown-up has no right to be innocent.

19 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.

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 an opportunity to rain on them my lofty forgiveness. I resent them for their rectitude
more than for their faults.

20 The virtue of despair
We must spare our fellows, not because they are capable of so much good, but because they
are capable of 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 seeing that we are but dust and that the imaginations of our heart are evil from our
youth. Mercy is one of the virtues of despair.

Some people are forgiving because they care so much for principles or persons, and some
because they care so little.

We forgive people because they mean so little to us or else because they mean so much,
because we have no need of them or because we can’t get by without them.

We are all sure that we have a right to unconditional love. But if we need it, then we have no
right to it. And if we have earned the right to it, then we 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. We can find it in our hearts to pardon those
who have done wrong, once we’ve grasped that they were conditioned by factors that left them
no choice. But we can’t help but condemn them, when we glimpse that they were set going by
motives still more vile than we might at first have thought.

Contempt may make you magnanimous, as confidence may make you modest.

21 Forgiveness and revenge
It is the stony-hearted conquerors, such as Caesar or Alexander, that may be the readiest to
overlook the offences of their enemies, in order 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.’

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’d had more faith in the hell
that they hoped they were bound for.

You might be dismayed to discover what small gibes people will loathe you for, or for what dire
offences they’ll forgive you. ‘An injury,’ Chesterfield points out, ‘is much sooner forgotten than
an insult.’

22 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 lukewarm no less than the bigot, the progressive no less
than the paternalist, and the thoughtful no less than the unthinking.

Indifference may seem like tolerance, until it’s asked to care.

23 ‘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 we slide in our
victims’ blood or it splashes back on our garments of white, we curse them for making such a
mess. But we have the grace to forgive our enemies the harm that we do them, so long as they
don’t spot that it is we who did it.

We hate some people because we have done them so much harm, and others because we lack
the power to do them any.

We don’t forgive people for the first hurt that we do them. 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.

You must love someone dearly, or else not care for them in the least, if you can forgive them for
the wrongs that you do them or for forgiving you.

How could we forgive those from whom we have had to ask forgiveness? I repent most of my
admissions more than the wrongs that I admit to.

1 The power of interests
Interest is power, and illusion is power. The most astute climbers know how to multiply self-
interest by illusion and how to put both of them to use to serve their own ends. Politicians
transform the interests of others into their own supremacy, as capitalists convert the wants of
others into their own wealth.

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. Force that is not
undergirded by lies costs too much. Dominion undoes itself by being too hesitant or too harsh to
no purpose. Totalitarian states soon fall apart, because they are spendthrifts of their own

A political party, like a bird, has two strong wings and a remarkably small brain.

Power corrupts people by enabling them to indulge their marauding will. Powerlessness
corrupts them by coercing them to compromise their high principles.

2 All change
We want everything to change. But want it all to change in the same direction that it’s going,
since it’s all going so well for us.

We don’t mind if we’re on the road to nowhere, so long as 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 are persuaded to accept change not by theoretical arguments which prove its rightness
but by the accomplished fact that it has already been made.

We lose hope when affairs don’t alter, but we grow apprehensive when they do. We hate and
fear change. Yet we like to be always tinkering with a few things, just to shake them up. Timid
people can’t bring themselves to make slight reforms till they’ve had great ones thrust on them.
They dread innovations which they adapt to with ease when they come.

We now have to stake all our hopes on change to set the world right, since change has sent it
so wrong.
A society needs to be horizontally flattened by equality so that it can reach its maximum

Our overstuffed and brazen age boasts that it can jettison the old ways yet still profit from the

3 Radical and conservative
A true conservative ought to 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 break free 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 put a halt to the abuses by which they have profited. And bourgeois
revolutionists plan to put a halt to 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.

4 The reactionary
Not freedom but restraint, not equality 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.

It’s not by freedom but by repression that human kind grows capable of creating anything of

When we give up 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

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.

Those who crave power must fool their dupes in order to get their hands on it. Those who have
no power must fool themselves as a sop for not possessing it. In order to succeed you have to
lie to others. And if you fail you have to lie to yourself. 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 we are
fooled by them. The fox scorns the chickens for having been ensnared with such ease. Powerful
people are contemptuous of those that they’ve grown used to exploiting.

6 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 troublesome 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
7 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.

Demagogues ride into the new Jerusalem on a scapegoat. 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.’ Now we are all the chosen.
And the whole globe is our Canaan, which we must clear to make room for our sacred race.

Hypocrisy is a necessary skill of true leaders. Sincerity is one of the ploys of demagogues and

8 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.

Rabble-rousers economize not only with the truth but with falseness 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.’

9 Expert deceivers believe their own lies
Sincere partisans can’t tell when they are lying from when they are just being stupid.

Even the most hypnotic orators are unable to induce us to take up an idea that we don’t already
hold. The most they can do is make us see that our own prejudices are congruent with their
crooked lies.

How could we have faith in a politician who has no faith in his or her own lies? It takes a
charlatan to inspire unquestioning trust. It takes a great narcissist to play on our own narcissism.

‘Preachers know that the mood which comes on them as they speak,’ wrote Montaigne, ‘moves
them to belief.’ They have the knack of being taken in by their own sincerity, and are guilefully
duped by their own guile. ‘Always they have faith,’ says Nietzsche, ‘in that with which they
infuse the most faith, faith in themselves.’ They work by ruthless manipulation and artless self-
delusion. They fool us with such facility because they seem so frank. And their self-belief ripens
as their deceits gain credence. It feeds on its own sense of success and good faith.

How short is the step from displaying more emotion than you feel to feeling as much as you

10 The lie gives light
The deceiver’s self-belief is so incandescent, that it warms the people close to them and casts a
bright light on their own innocence. They may appear generous, because they applaud
whatever seems to stroke their own ego, and since they take it that most things do, they’re
applauding night and day. They win your heart by first elevating their own significance and then
condescending to pay attention to you. Only a swaggerer seems to be important enough to play
on my own swaggering self-importance.

Sly persuaders contrive to believe not just in their own mission but in their audience as well.
Anyone who is credulous enough to trust in them must deserve to be imposed on by their faith.

11 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 public’s pious dissembling. 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 politicians 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.

Most of us are not hard to fool, because we are so eager to believe, or at least too lazy to doubt.

You can count on the people in their intermittent fits of disgust with the dishonesty of politicians
to flock to the most impudent liar 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.
12 The pretence of good intentions
In order to seduce our prim but crafty pretences, malignant leaders have to talk finer than they
mean to act, and honourable ones have to talk worse.

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.

Politicians 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 stop 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 irreproachable. All of us 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 unfettered
individualism now grants to each of us the right to act as irresponsibly as a mob.

13 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. We
must, like Raskolnikov, determine if we have the right to our post by brusquely commandeering
it, though 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 set 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.

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
14 Democracy
The seven deadly virtues of democracy are liberalism, individualism, consumerism, humanism,
technomania, universalism and nationalism. None of us can now get free of them, and 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 struggles over small

No one now dares fault democracy itself, and we don’t dissent from the government unless to
object that it ought to be more democratic.

15 Democratic flattery, democratic massacre
What two prescripts must all popular politicians abide by? Woo the rabble’s truculent self-
regard, and gorge the gaping maw of its greed. How could they hope to win the people’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 democratic swagger and democratic wheedling. Ordinary people are too
proud to court the powerful, but the powerful must stoop to fawn on those below them. They
bow down to the electorate so that they can 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.’ Emperors 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. Democratic persuasion makes all of us worth
deceiving. Democratic warfare makes all worth slaughtering. ‘The wars of the peoples,’ Churchill
warned, ‘would be more terrible than those of kings.’

16 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 curb 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.

17 Liberty
A state thrives by the liberty and vitality of its citizens which will soon rip it apart. And it must
strive to free them from its own might, which is the one thing 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.

18 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 they can be
measured they don’t come out equal. A self-evident truth is one that lacks all evidence.

19 Equal in conceit
We are all born equal in conceit. 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 assume that we must be unique, 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, each of us has to compete feverishly to show that we are an inch
more equal than our peers.

20 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 enforcing
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 it calls this 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

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, which are too weak to wrest our power from us. We
are all now 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.

21 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.

22 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. Yet it usurps the right
to eat up the inheritance of the future.

We assume that the only people who matter are the ones that are alive now. But all the people
who matter are long since dead. We are the hungry ghosts who haunt this world of voracious
mediocrity. We ‘but live where motley is worn.’
The hungry majority of the hour outvotes the select majority of the ages. The living are like the
rich and well set-up, who are free to tread on or neglect the dead, who are as defenceless as
the poor and despised.

23 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.’

Every nation, like each one of us and the whole of our species, is sure that it is exceptional yet
central, unique yet indispensable. Tell it that it’s the chosen race, and you’re 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.

24 Rights
We must pretend that we all have the same rights, since we quake to think what we might do to
each other if we did not.

How stridently people now clamour for their rights, which they lived without contentedly 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. Each day it deals with us as the nazis dealt with the jews.
‘Heaven and earth are ruthless,’ as Lao Tzu says. ‘They treat the ten thousand things like straw
dogs.’ What rights has nature blessed us with? We grant our own kind a fictitious troop of them
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.’

25 Individualism
The melodramatic form of bourgeois individualism appears in the sphere of faith as
protestantism, 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. Protestantism commands
disobedience to all but the crooked human conscience.

26 The individual, the economy and the state
People do not make an economy. The economy fabricates the sort of people that it needs in
order to run it efficiently. 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 catastrophic effects in the real

Individualism will steadily grind down the world’s finely graded diversity to oblivious uniformity.
By liberating all our variegated desires, we will make the lush world the same everywhere. In
order that the world might be globalized, each of us must first be individualized. Once we’ve
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.’

Now there is nothing but the atomized individual and the centralized state, and no obedience or
allegiance to anything intermediate, no loyalty to class, creed, clan, guild or locality. Between
the boundless greed of the individual and the boundless force of the state the green earth will
be pounded to a mash.

27 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 bred by states in which a privileged caste has the sole charter to make
individuals. Strong individuals are made by strong laws, traditions, authorities, castes and
institutions. Mass individualism spawns an infestation of narcissists, but few individuals. As
Kraus wrote, ‘where every idiot has individuality, individuality becomes idiotic.’ And now that
there are so many billions of us on earth, there is not enough individuality to go round. We have
the greedy individualism which will devour everything, but not the generous individualism that
could create anything. We live in the epoch of the indiscriminate ant hill.
28 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
left, all that we know or trust in is the state. And now that the 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 undifferentiated individuals, who
could then be aggregated in centralized states and coopted into the world market.

Monarchs 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

29 Totalitarianism
Liberal regimes license individuals to do what they want. Authoritarian regimes license the state
to do whatever it wants. Totalitarian states are noxious to humans. Liberal states are noxious to

Totalitarian states outlaw or coopt all the customs and institutions of civil society. Liberal states,
which set up individual wants as their sole canon of value, abandon 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, by
utilizing 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.

Democratic states indulge the optimistic egoism of greed. Totalitarian states indulge the
pessimistic egoism of fear. And an agitator who knew how to yoke these dual passions would
soon be unassailable.
30 Toleration
Thought thrives best where it doesn’t have 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.’ 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.’

Intolerant societies preserve the diversity between cultures. Tolerant societies which allow
diversity within their borders reduce the globe to an undifferentiated mass.

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.

As the conduits of communication are optimized, their content is degraded.

When lawmakers 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

A great writer, safely secretive and dangerously indiscreet, keeps up the front of the herd’s
everyday decencies, but indecently strips bare its seamier truths.

31 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
universal welfare have led to universal 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 give those like us the scope to thrive more
abundantly, and would reimburse our own prowess more amply, and prize our métier at a higher
rate. In a philosopher’s utopia philosophers reign as kings, and in a dentist’s utopia dentists do.

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 everything else that it’s touched. In the past
philanthropists hoped that humankind, unfettered and right-thinking, would one day reach
perfection. Now the most glorious thing we can aim at is to get rich.

32 The immaculate majority
Under mass rule the majority is blest with an unimpeachable innocence. It is not to be blamed
for the least offence. 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 work 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 chance it turns out to be in the right once in a while.
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 superior judgment.

33 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. It 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. ‘For the many,’ as Aristotle points out, ‘are more
interested in making a profit than in winning 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.

Bygone epochs used to feast the rapaciousness of a few favoured souls. 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.

Democracy is a get rich quick scheme which has bankrupted civilization and beggared the

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 its day to day weather.

34 The greed of left and right
Our grand struggles for justice are in fact 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
share out to their members, the left to those who have not earned it, the right to those who have
no need of it.

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.

Capitalism will degrade the globe to a vast factory to stock a vast shopping mall. And socialism
will reduce what’s 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.

A conservative is now someone who insists on their right to go 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.

Collectivism does not suppress the capitalist lust for gain. It merely redistributes it.

Capitalism is more contagious than communism, as greed is more addictive than envy.

35 Democracy and unrestraint
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
capacity to restrain itself.

We must choose between self-restraint and self-destruction. But the choice is already made for

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

Our collective illusions used to hold us back. Now the atomized fantasies of our greed lash us

Capitalism puts even prudence to its worst use. It was once modest, cautious and saving. Now
it is hungry, rapacious, and always on the make.
The state used to try to keep in check the appetites of its citizenry. Now its sole task is to feed
them. 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 an unlimited licence to beings who lack the will or capacity to
curb their unlimited cravings.

‘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.

36 The golden calf
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 obedient, is it readying them to
be offered as defenceless 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 will. 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.

37 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 avarice. 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 in the net of the world market.

Now that we are free to do what we want, we have no choice but to work as hard as we 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.

38 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. 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.

We have made for ourselves a material opulence and a spiritual squalor. And we are so proud
of our handiwork.

All societies are spiritually impoverished. But the great ones have enriched their heirs with
works which made up for their poverty of soul.

39 The creative class
The ruling class lends a state its order. The middle class lends it its force. It grows pregnant
when its old lordly forms are fertilized by the unresting dynamism of the bourgeoisie, which is
invigorated by its recently won freedom and by its ancestral animosities. Most of the finest art
has been brought forth by states in which a hereditary military nobility was giving place to a new
mercantile gentry.

The upper class ought to rule, since it’s 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.
40 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.

How could capitalism make anything that lasts, when it puts no value on work that is not done
for immediate gain?

Civilization is shaped by essential violence and superfluous grace. It weds sophistication to
savageness, to breed a turbulent but abounding creation. It mates the brutality of instinctual
energies with the brutality 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 is found on the slopes of volcanoes. ‘Build your settlements on the slopes of Vesuvius,’
urged Nietzsche.

41 Creative inequality
‘The sole live societies,’ Claudel wrote, ‘are those that are energized by inequality and injustice.’
We can’t cure 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 faculty for multiform imagination.

Exorbitant wealth corrupts the state, and yet 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 force to make anything but money.

42 The solvent of civilization
Money has no memory, and leaves none. 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? It is the solvent of time. Greed is the voracious now
labouring to fill the future with its sieve of gold. Our world and its rapacious scheming will soon
be consigned to the oblivion which is all that it deserves.

The world that we leave behind us will only prove how much we craved and how little we

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.

Money acts like an Archimedes lever, which has wrenched the world from its rightful station.
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 society has left off aspiring to the best, and so all that 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.’

43 Meritocracy, mediocrity and democracy
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 almost no one who appears to cherish great hopes or to aim
very high.’

Merit is flattened and cooped by the conditions which make a meritocracy, its fiddling
individualism, compulsive tabulating and bureaucratic ladder of advancement. 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 mediocre. 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.’

We now smelt the gold of genius to coin the small change of huckstering innovation.

Meritocracy cheapens true merit by rewarding mediocrity so exorbitantly. 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?

In our meritocracies we now mistake success for merit, as in monarchies they used to mistake
birth for merit. In feudal states the mediocre 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.

44 War and civilization
War is not an aberration from civilization. It is its quintessence. They are both structurings of
energy and violence. The same obedience that makes dutiful citizens in peace makes
conscientious killers in war. ‘It is,’ Brodsky says, ‘the army that finally makes a citizen of you.’
Cultures have warriors, civilizations have armies. Cultures fight skirmishes, civilizations fight
wars. 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.

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 been taught to regard as their foes.

War is, as Heraclitus said, the father of all, and pacifism won’t cut its throat but will only castrate

A state that can’t make war won’t make much else. Those who lack the daring to destroy will
lack the audacity 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 not find its way back till long years have passed, as it did subsequent to the two
world wars.
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.

45 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’s
worth living for.

Capitalist states have lost the will to fight the wars which are the sole means by which they
might solve their periodic crises of over-production by stimulating aggregate demand and
removing excess supply.

46 The art of war
The art of war, like the art of rhetoric, seeks to make the lesser force the greater. Commencing
from slim differences it spins out of them decisive advantages.

To win allies is preferable to winning wars. 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 resources 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.

47 Might makes right
No victorious war seems ill-advised or unlawful. Even the losers, if they are thrashed soundly,
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 wrote.
A stony-hearted 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 in some way be linked to it, be it as its cause or as its

Power is our real idol. So we view its mere assertion as a sure proof that its cause must be just.

48 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
manufactured by material interests and welded close with cables, roads and railways with a
view to promoting trade. Most are artefacts forged by nineteenth century nationalism or
nineteenth century imperialism.

The development of political institutions lags behind the problems that they are required to
solve. When Europe needed the centralized 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.

49 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 powers have ceased to rape and plunder their colonies, they have
turned to lecturing them on how far they fall short of the fine example that they have set them.

Conquerors and colonists have drawn the map of the world in the blood of the conquered, who
are now mad to spill more of it in order to redraw it.

Colonies were the pulsating tumours by which the cancer of capitalism metastasized round the
Australia was set up as a penal colony for petty thieves by honourable men who had just stolen
a continent. It is a comical country burdened by a tragic history.

50 Righteous empires
All empires are brutal and moralistic. They place their trust in violence and providence, which
have put the weak and godless in their hand. ‘The strongest poison ever known,’ Blake wrote,
‘came from Caesar’s laurel crown.’ Ruthless aggressors assume that they owe their hegemony
more to their piety than to their might. They thank God for granting his favour to those who use it
for his glory. ‘Not unto us, O Lord.’ Thus Cicero affirmed that though each nation overleapt
Rome in some accomplishment, 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 overrun the world. Now we are all romans.

A long-continued illegality, such as the outrages of imperialism, comes in time to form the very
basis of law and the state. Time, power and numbers suffice to absolve any crime. 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.

51 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. He rises up at times of crisis, to combine
burgeoning interests, or to sever strong interests from outmoded structures. There’s no way he
can change the direction that the wave of events will take. But he does increase its amplitude,
deepening its troughs, though not heightening its crests.

Napoleon was a relic of the antiquated aristocratic type which the new world brandished as a
battering ram to break down the old. Hitler, Lenin or Mao were outrageous aberrations who
made their detours through seas of gore. Demagogues 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 an exceptional ambition yoked to a middling intellect.
Napoleon may have been the only one to have had a first-rate mind.
52 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 flies 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. Leaders who lack a war are like poets
who have not yet found their great theme to build a lasting fame on. Like a taper in daylight,
they would be hard to make out in the absence of its black 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 circumstances than an affirmation of character.

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.

53 Learning from history
The human race is not a single individual moved by good intentions which can learn from its
blunderings by summoning them to mind.

History and experience teach us to grow prudent, not to be wise. They guide us how to get what
we want, not to want what we ought.

History keeps a school for cynics.

History is the bad conscience of humankind, from which we draw the unlikely lesson that we
must be infinitely perfectible.

History’s tide turns so fast, that those who take it at the flood are soon left stranded.

Leaders now spend their term in office failing to make any history and their retirement in trying
to rewrite it.

The smugness of times to come will mock the smugness of our own.

The smug present asserts its high-handed jurisdiction over the past by presuming to learn from
it. The sole lesson that history has taught us is that we have at last got loose from the past
which has shaped us and that we are now free to shape the future as we like.
Now that history is more than mere 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. One that can recall its past has lost it a long time back.
History is the legend which is engraved on the tomb of tradition.

54 Repeating the past
Those who forget the past are condemned to relive it. But so are those who remember it. Those
who have pored over its registers will be best armed 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 sane and 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.’

55 The fables of history
We try to recount events, but all we do is reconstruct them as fables. Yet we trust that when we
do so we grasp what they mean, whereas all we do is falsify them, though we do grasp what our
falsifications mean. As soon as an event is turned into a story, it’s lost to truth for good. But it
may survive as a narrative long after it has died as a fact. If we live by telling our stories, it’s
because they are lies.

Nature, the past and experience are dumb. It is we who put in their mouths the things that we
want them to teach us. We don’t learn the lessons of the past. We learn the lessons of the lore
and legends that we hand on to teach us what we wish to learn. 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.

56 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 preconceptions. The eighteenth century, disputing divine
benevolence, had its Lisbon earthquake. 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 for the holocaust to shock them.

57 A history of the future
The United States is what the whole world is now or is well on the way to becoming, a republic
of hucksters, friendly and corrupt, pacific and bellicose, jittery and bullying, shiny new and
already rusting, cold-hearted 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-

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 have conjured up. The union may have grown
great if it had 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 swallowed up so soon by the sale yard of huckstering self-promotion?
The statue of liberty is its fit symbol, oversized, showy and hollow, a miracle of engineering and
a monstrosity of taste.

1 The end of all flesh
The end of all flesh is come before us. But we are too caught 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 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.

The world is overpopulated with other people’s children.

It’s our resilience that has made the earth so fragile. Nothing can kill us, and so we are bound to
kill it.

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. We don’t want to touch the ground lightly, we want to make it feel
our full weight. And we are proud that we can force it to yield so pliably to our brutal

Our last illusion 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 we have at last got hold of the power to achieve any end we want, we will use every end
as a means to get more power, and that will spell the end of us. We’ll soon have procured a
power as limitless as our will, and we’ll use it to lay waste the earth.

We overblow our importance, yet deny our liability. We are awed by our own power. Yet we still
sentimentalize ourselves as too weak to do the earth any harm.

3 Ecological collapse and our doomed omnipotence
For all our prudence, we will lose everything. For all our greed, we will end up with nothing. For
all our wiliness, we will prove the dupes of our own shallow desires. For all our dexterity, we
won’t solve a single one of our problems. For all our enlightenment, we will plunge the earth into
darkness. For all our generosity, we will leave nothing for those who come after us. For all our
creativity, we will wipe out 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
glory in every extension of our power which will bring us to our ruin.

Our omnipotence will only demonstrate that we were too unwise to know how to wield it.

Our omnipotence will reduce us to helplessness, and our pitiless arrogance will leave us abject
and self-pitying.

4 Colonizing the galaxy
Having rendered this accursed orb uninhabitable, we now dream of abandoning 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 stars.

Having wrecked this planet by colonizing every corner of it, we plan to save our rapacious
species 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
hunger for. We will wear out the old earth in our vain striving to slake our thirst for unstopping
fun and novelty. This planet is our plaything. We will break it and scrap it and get a new one.

5 Our frantic activity will kill us
We all now 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
Each generation will grow more predatory, more restless and more distracted than the last,
more rootless and more plugged-in, 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.

6 The end of nature
We are bound to stamp out nature, because we see that we are part of a polity, but not that we
are a part of it. We feel that we have a slot in a rapacious economy, but no home in a broader
ecology. We can make no contract with the earth. Our sense of right 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.

Since nature has doomed us to die, why should we care if we blast it with a universal death?

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.

Our war on nature has entered its triumphal phase. All that remains is to mop up the bedraggled

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 earth was doomed, the day that civilization was born. Civilization was the brief phase that
we forced nature to pass through on its way to becoming garbage.

Say that life is sacred, and you blaspheme nature, whose first and final sacrament is death. Our
blest species is a curse to all the rest. We profane the face of the earth in order to propagate its
holy strain. A form of life that’s sure that it is chosen will stop at nothing to sate its unholy
cravings and spread its stain over the whole globe. To call our species sacrosanct is to sanctify

7 The wild and the tamed
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. 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 it has been domesticated or exterminated.

Only a being alienated 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 wild beasts were a benediction to us, and 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
get the chance to claim their bequest.

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.

8 The fiction of nature
Nature 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 notice its passing. We are too busy documenting our own
wonderful lives to notice that we are exterminating all life around us. We will be travelling too
fast for the report of its perishing to reach our ears. Our machines are gnostic angels poised to
deliver us from the toils of this earth.

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 will turn the earth to a hell, because we can’t let go of the hopes which we trust will make it
a paradise.

9 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.

We set democracy and capitalism to work as unerring counters to register and indulge
worldwide cupidity and solipsism. So they are bound to wreak on us our doom. They are
steadily destroying the planet. But since we can’t bring ourselves to give them up, we have to
put our trust in them to save it. And so what will bring them down is not the proletariat but the
earth which they’re oppressing. Their eradication won’t be the mere overturning of one class by
another but will spell the elimination of our whole kind.

The all-consuming gods of silver and gold are now unifying the globe in their frantic worship.
The human race claims to be the gardener, but it is the locusts come to devour the garden. We
do homage to earth’s maker by ravaging what he has made. ‘The land is as the garden of Eden
before them, and behind them a desolate wilderness, yea, and nothing shall escape them.’

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.

10 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

11 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.

We have to keep growing richer, so that we can pay to repair the earth which we have wrecked
to grow so rich. But we are too greedy to stop and fix anything.

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.

We are entering on the golden age of Midas. Our lust for more will doom us to lose it all. We will
stop at nothing to get all that we want. But how we will squeal when we soon get just what we
deserve. Once we have gained the power to gratify our least whim, we will at last get exactly
what we deserve.
12 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.

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 globalized problems are the slogans of the same
globalized greed that is poised to end us. The best that we can do to save the planet is to mouth
the catchcries that are urging us on to destroy it.

Democracy auctions the land’s extorted plunder to pay for its short heyday of affluence.

In the past we used to be prey to the diseases of want, but from now on we will be prey to the
diseases of affluence. We now lay out vast sums of money and ingenuity to treat illnesses for
which there is no cure. But we are too lazy and self-indulgent to stay clear of the diseases that
could so easily be avoided.

13 Those who love it will destroy it
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’s 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’s killing us, and
we are killing this life that we love.

Could a misanthrope wish for our race a more sombre doom than the one that its own bright
hopes are preparing for it?

We shall perish as the helpless casualties of our own insuperable compulsions.

The ride has never felt so fast and exhilarating as now when we’re rollicking downhill. And woe
to anyone who would dare to put a brake on our hard-driving haste.

14 Our ugly desires
We are willing to squander our lives but not to scant our fidgeting desires.
We are now recreating the plentiful land in our own worst likeness, flat, wasted, withered, sere
and stunted. We will soon have made it as ugly as our heart’s desire.

We will devour all that’s fresh in our rage to feed fat our stale desires. And our rapacious inanity
will eat up the whole earth in order to fill itself.

We don’t know what we want, but we will despoil the dappled world to grab as much of it as we
can. Our schemes are as mean as they are peremptory and rapacious. For such small bait we
will chew up the multitudinous world. We harpoon great whales, to whittle their bones to make
walking sticks.

Our mean desires will soon drain the broad earth of its unfailing bounty, like a swarm of ants on
the carcass of some great bull.

We may prove 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. We will be too busy rummaging the corpse to grieve
for the life that we have murdered.

The earth will be baked to ash not by the blaze of some grand enterprise but by the brushfires of
ten billion low desires.

Our society resembles a mad person, barreling along, ranting incoherently, wild eyes fixed on
some nonexistent goal.

15 Individualism
We all know that each of us has far more to gain from the individual greed which is sure to
wreck the world than from the collective self-restraint which might save it.

The innocent freedom of each of us will make the brute power of all to squeeze the life out of
the earth. 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 held to account for any of it.

The net effect of all our discriminating individual choice will be an indiscriminate obliteration.

In our age of self-admiring individualism we love to be told that each of us can make a
difference, and this is exactly what each of us is now doing by every free act of getting and
spending. All that we do adds fuel to the conflagration.
In the past society bore down hard on the individual. Now the individual partners with society to
bear down hard on the earth.

16 The wreck of perfection
To flee our personal torments, we feel that we have the right as a species to scourge the planet.
We will turn the earth to a hell, to air-condition our private inferno.

We will make the worst of everything by scrabbling to get the best for ourselves. We are each
so bent on bettering our own small nook, that together we will wreck the whole globe. In order to
make our own little life charming, we will make the lush earth desolate. We’ll smash it to bits in
our madness to make our own puny and broken lives whole.

We don’t hesitate to empty the earth of all life in our rage to fill our own small lives with a minute
more of tawdry fun.

17 The end of causes
Millions have died to defend a false idea of their country. But we won’t moderate a single one of
our sterile desires for the sake of conserving 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.

We now feel sure that no cause is worth fighting for, but the least of our wants is worth
ransacking the entire earth for. We have thrown off the baggage of beliefs in our sprint to get

Mass suffrage has taught us that where there is no vision the people flourish.

18 The rapacity of happiness
The pursuit of happiness is a fine pretext for the untrammelled indulgence of our greed.

The earth is dying, and we are having a high old time doing all the things that are killing it. We
all wring our hands over the destruction of the earth, while we all go on doing the things that are
destroying it.

The long-suffering earth won’t last through a few more centuries of our scramble for happiness.
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 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 our chronic woes we will turn them into acute and lethal ones. We will fall
victim to the frenzied remedies that we take up to heal the wound of our being. 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.

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 poised 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.’ The earth has for millennia been sodden with our agony. Now
we will scorch it to kindle the flame of our joy.

We, who can never find happiness, will badger the happy beasts to extinction in our vain hope
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 snuff it all out to snatch a brief joy that we would not feel anyway. If
life’s purpose is the pursuit of happiness, ought we not leave it to the animals? They are so
much better at it than we are.

We now fly so fast, we trust that we are approaching escape velocity from the miseries of the
earth and time. But we will burst into flames and crash before we reach 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 earth 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 the same kind of beings as us. It is a ruthless juggernaut that 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 system of global
domination to make a local human emancipation.
We are so eaten up by our discontent, that we have resort to a manic hilarity which will eat up
all the world.

22 The real cost of the mirage of happiness
Our fruitless search for merriment will ring in long ages of affliction. It will make a worldwide
doom, to scrounge a brief luxuriance. ‘They joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and
as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.’ We won’t hesitate to put an end to the earth for all
time, in our rage to snatch a mite more of what we will lose so soon. The last two hundred years
have shown what small satisfaction we get from gaining the whole world. The next two hundred
will prove how much it will grieve us 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 a reality. Our shiniest dreams will
turn the earth to a 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?

We presume that nature has put in our hands the right to be happy, yet we callously gouge from
it the mere right to live.

23 Destructive justice
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. Sinfulness hath slain its
thousands, and good will slay its ten thousands. The world is in such a state, not because the
few rogues stop at nothing to get what they want, but because the many good people do so.

We are so full of our own rectitude, that we will feel no guilt when we have emptied the earth of
all living things.

We are the salt of the earth, and we now crust it so thickly, that it’s no wonder the ground will
bear nothing.

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. Malice slew its
multitudes, but virtue will bring death to the innocent earth. 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.

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.

24 Sanctimonious terracide
Our species hopes to get away with planetary murder. If we succeed, it will show that we are
exceptions to nature’s laws, as we always thought. And if we fail, it 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.

When we have ground to chaff all our fellow forms of life, we will tell poignant stories to weep for
our plight and how we have been forsaken and to boast of how heroically we struggled to save
them. How we will pity ourselves for having been deserted by all that we have so pitilessly
destroyed. 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. We will keep on extolling our good
intentions right up to the point when they bring down the curtain on the disgraceful farce.

Our heaven on earth will soon have us praying for death or else glad just to drag out one more
day of crippled life.

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.

25 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 prove to be of far greater moment than their exquisitely judged motives.
It makes no difference now how well-intentioned our views might be. In the world market we are
all mere consumers, and the righteous and the unrighteous together will soon have sucked the
earth dry to its last morsel.

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.

What a profusion of physical inputs is required to keep a disembodied intelligence running. The
future of humanity is a sum that doesn’t add up.

We are so transfixed by the spectacle of moral bogeymen and horrors, 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 that 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.

26 The havoc of freedom
Why would the rest of life rejoice at the triumph 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.

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 ought to be free to get
what we want, though what we want will tear from the rest of life the mere freedom to draw
breath. We can’t so much as tend our gardens without poisoning the soil. We can all now claim
our place in the sun, though we may find it a bit too hot for our liking.

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.

The car is the prime symbol of our individual freedom, and one of the chief tools of our species’
domination of the globe.
27 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 glory 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.

We will wreck the earth not by the wrongs that we do to one another, but by the rights that we
arrogate to our whole species.

Our evolved ethical codes will prove less effectual than the instincts of a parasite, which at least
has the sense to preserve its host. 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. And how could we owe them a thing,
when they don’t have the means to enforce our debts? Our love of right, by assuring us that we
are superior to the rest of the beasts, will grant us a warrant to wipe them out.

28 Equal by shared superiority
Democracy is the narrowest and most wolfish aristocracy that has ever been. As Tocqueville
showed, it excludes and disenfranchises 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 oppresses all but the
iron cohort of the here and now. And it 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 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.

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 now treat nature as great landowners, according to Tolstoy, dealt with their serfs. ‘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.’

29 Gang of equals
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.

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. But it will still dare to boast
of its benevolence in liberating 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 great things have been made by elites. But the humblest of us will have a hand in
democracy’s crowning work of world destruction.

30 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.

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, both of which 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. And when the whole of our kind is leagued in brotherly love, it will
work with one accord to wipe out the rest of the beasts that are not its kin. We are doing all the
good that we can, and it will soon have put paid to the earth.

We assume that we will have attained a state of supreme justice, when the meek members of
our one species have ceased to prey on each other and are joined in harmony to prey on all the

31 Peace and the war on nature
The nations now toil so resolutely for their greed, that they have no vigour left 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. We’re 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.

Now that we are too prudent or too exhausted to put an end to ourselves by violence, we will
use what’s left of our vitality to do it by our greed.

When the human family has learnt to live as one, it will be free to eat up all the rest of life. 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 wastes 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.

32 The chaos of 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 tried to replace divine providence with
human progress, 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 enlightenment will run as the scout in the van of worldwide wreckage. ‘Now nothing will be
restrained from them, which they have imagined to do.’

Patriarchal societies were prisoners of a past which was no more than a myth. Progressive
states are prisoners of a future which will prove to be no more than a dream.

The course of events in a technocratic age illustrates the cunning of unreason in accomplishing
the most chaotic and destructive ends by the most rational means.

33 The ravages of knowledge
Our knowledge killed the gods, and our technology will kill the earth.
We can’t know a thing without destroying it if we can get our hands on it. 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 destroy it. Explorers
were the advance guard of empire, as knowledge is now the advance guard of worldwide

We are an imperial species, and every place on earth is now ripe for our exploitation.

34 Saving ignorance
Our desires are so unnatural and immoderate, that they can’t be kept within the pale of nature
except by ignorance and repression.

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. 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.’

Heretofore the coercive sleights of established custom, superstition, usage and bigotry have
held us back from exterminating all that lives. Our rapacity used to be hobbled by our ignorance,
but is now sped on by our ingenuity.

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.

35 Confronting our condition
We don’t want to face our real predicament, since we can’t bear to undergo the shock treatment
it calls for.
There are two kinds of optimists. The first don’t want to take the cure, and so claim that the
malaise is not real. The second accept that it is real, and must therefore pretend that the cure is
well on the way to succeeding.

Our condition must now be terminal. We can’t bear to face our real dangers, but have to steer
our thoughts from them by fretting about things that are no threat to us.

We are now so powerful that we provoke the very threats that we 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.

Science now shows us how bad the future will be, and technology supplies us with the tools to
make it still worse.

36 The sleights of optimism
Our rapacious optimism will make this the most exciting time to be alive, since we doubtlessly
won’t leave a scrap for those who are so unlucky as to come after us.

To solve our global problems we have had to take up a personal optimism which fuels the
frantic buying and selling which is the main 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. 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 us.
The future that our optimism will soon bring about will be an apt chastisement for our deluded
and arrogant hopes.

Our despair would wear us out, and our hope will wear out our species and the whole earth.
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.

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.

In the past our hopes served as a harmless refuge from our inescapable disappointments, now
they goad us to get and spend as much as we can. They used to deny reality, now they drive us
on to devour it.
37 Humanism
Gods and creeds used to help keep it free by oppressing and stupefying us. Now like all the rest
of our illusions they urge on our avarice and self-assertion.

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. 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 deity.

Each god has tried to bring an end to all flesh. The old ones were too weak and decrepit to do it.
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, fetterless and almighty.
Humanism is the gold leaf encasing the monumental clay image of Mammon which we all bow
down to.

The face of the earth now swarms with ten billion extortionate divinities, 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 cross it.

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.

38 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 lends us the power to call up permanent global problems by finding temporary local
solutions. Progress is piecemeal improvement leading to universal ruin.

We will die in thrall to the technologies which we hoped would make us free.
39 The mechanical enablers of our greed
Technology has loosed our greed from its physical bonds, and capitalism has loosed it from its
social bonds. Our gadgets lend us the means to control the wild earth, so that we won’t have to
control our own wild cravings. We have to keep driving automation to add to our power, since
we are too weak to hold out against our desires. It will serve as the perfect detonator for our
incendiary greed.

Technology is the servant of our greed, and will soon prove to be the master 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 technologies will obstruct us from repairing
the ruin that they will let loose on us.

40 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 both 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.

Technology has lavished on us all the tools and toys to keep us physically and mentally active
yet sedentary and oblivious.

Technology 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, so that we can hear the idiot burble of our babbling

We will grind the earth in the mill of our ingenuity.
41 The mechanical 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,
crowded, 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

42 The disease of time
Progress is the acute stage of our diseased attitude toward time.

Progress disowns the past, devours the future, and reduces the present to a transit camp on the
way to some receding paradise.

Progress makes us more smug but more unsatisfied.

We have never been more consumed 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. All our
time-saving devices prove that we have lost the patience to live in the present. Now that we set
no value on time, we can’t bear to wait for anything. Everything is urgent, but not one thing is
present. The more we make it all speed up, the farther everything gets from us. We live as if
everything were makeshift, transient and provisional, and yet we are never in the moment. We
don’t take the time to build a secure foundation. We’re in too much of a whirl to lay up the
materials that we might need in the future.

‘Progress would be wonderful,’ said Musil, ‘if only it would stop.’ We can never reach our
destination, because we have to keep on the move. If progress could ever give us what we
want, we would have no need of it.

43 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 degraded.’

In this world of continuous 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 finds out more and more ingenious routes to send us off course.

We are ingenious enough to solve all of our problems, save those brought on us by our own

Progress has unchained our marauding breed from the natural checks which have stopped any
single one from exterminating 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.

We have made so much progress, what hope of reclamation could there be for us?

44 Our lethal addiction
Progress has infected us like a virulent pestilence. We would rather die from it than be healed. 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’s our last and most lethal
addiction. We gladly give up our real good to keep it on the go. We have shrunk to its hungry
junkies, mad for our next fix of technology to solve all our problems. It 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.

45 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 given or the ugliness of the world which we have made.

Each generation will now 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.

46 Deliverance by annihilation
We are the one indispensable species, since we alone have been entrusted 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 universal extermination. Life is an evil machine. 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. The life of the beasts is a
lethargic nightmare from which we’ve awoken to appalled consciousness, resolved to electrify
the world, so that no one will need to dream any more.

The world is heading for annihilation. So it may be that everything is for the best after all.

Climate change will act like chemotherapy on our cancerous species, but not till it has killed off
the body that sustains us.

47 Correcting the mistake of life
Conscious life is perhaps the universe’s grand mistake. So it has raised us up to blot it out. 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 we have a purpose on this orb, it must be to wreck it. Our species
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.

Our preference for a planet teeming with life may be a mere prejudice in favour of what piques
our interest because it’s like us. Life is a mere local infestation on an out of the way planet.
Earth is no more beautiful than Saturn or Mars.
48 The end of us
God could find no other way to wipe out 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, including our self-destruction.

We are so determined to make the present better than the past, that we will make the future
worse than both.

The world may not look so grim as I paint it. But it’s progressing at such a frantic pace, that it
soon will. Progress will make the future the best of all times not to be alive in.
Few of us are able to think, and still fewer care to. ‘Man is a thinking reed,’ as Pascal said, but 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.

‘A great many people,’ says William James, ‘think they are thinking when they are merely
rearranging their prejudices.’ But few of us go to the trouble of rearranging them. We just apply
them to new facts in the confidence that they will be proved right once more. We’re sure that we
have said something witty when we trim an old cliché to fit a new context.

When we think, we try to compose believable ideas from those that we 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 impose on

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, 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 have made it too easy to talk and too
hard to think. ‘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 allow all the rest of our wants to 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.
We had far rather retell common fallacies than find out uncommon truths.

2 Thinking is superfluous, stupidity is thrifty
Thinking is a surplus activity. A thinker is one who thinks uneconomically. Most of us pick up all
the opinions that we need without the need to think. A thinker thinks long and laboriously to earn
a few unnecessary insights.

Some people will go to great lengths to seem original, short of thinking for themselves. They
cling to their quirks, but take no pains 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.

We fervidly long for illumination, and we will do all that we can to get it, except think. We prefer
to gain our opinions by any means other than reflecting for ourselves. We are keen to acquire
new information, so long as we are not forced to quit our old ways of acquiring it.

Most of us feel sure 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 choose our beliefs by whim
We choose most of our views by mere aesthetic whim, whether we hold that the world is made
of matter or of mind, that we know it by reason or empirically, that our acts are free or fated, that
we will soon return to dust or that we will never die. We are deaf to the melody of some ideas,
though we 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
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 milieu. They are aimed less at the things that we
think of than the people that we talk to.

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 we take to seek out the truth, yet how much pride we take in pronouncing what
we’ve made up our minds it is.

I take up my creed on impulse, since it’s merely a creed. But I argue for it vehemently, since it is
now a prized part of my self.

We refuse to part with views which we have not pondered enough to make our own. We are
willing to go to great trouble to fight systems of thought which we are too slack to make sense

We don’t think, since we can’t see the people round us doing it, and so we can’t mimic them.
But since we can see and copy their views, we have no dearth of opinions.

Like most of what we prize, speculation subsists in this world of mirrors mostly as a mere double
or simulation of itself.

5 Truth is not a human need
Most of us are agnostics on the great questions, not because we find it so hard to make up our
minds what we think of them, but because we give them no thought at all.

Most people have no interest at all in general ideas. The sole thought that fills their minds is the
plans for their own amusement or advancement. They never get close enough to thinking that
they need to go out of their way to avoid it. Truth is not the stuff out of which we weave the
fabric of our lives.

One mistake which all thinkers make is to assume that ordinary people care for ideas.

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.
Few of us care enough about the truth even to resist it.

Most of the deepest truths are too scandalous or else too obvious to be spoken. But few of us
care enough for the truth to be scandalized by it. How could we be horrified by the truth? We are
just too heedless of it for that.

Few of us think enough to be perplexed by life’s mysteries. We’re just scrambling to ride its
rapids with as few bumps and overturnings as we can manage, while scooping up all we can of
the rich jetsam that floats past.

6 The stupidity 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.

We collect opinions like a hoard of tawdry keepsakes. They’re all we have to show for the
decades and regions that we have idled through. Most people contribute to the conceptual
economy by circulating borrowed ideas, but they turn out no new ones of their own. Their minds
orbit in a closed loop of rattling platitudes, which they couch in current clichés and fill out with a
padding of irrelevant anecdotes.

Few of us think, yet we all hug our obsessions and convictions.

We need opinions like small change to deal with the exigencies 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.

7 We believe without understanding
With what certainty and satisfaction we ground our lives in a sophistry which we have made no
effort to examine.

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. We keep up our faith, because we have never
taxed our mind to grasp what it means. We take pride in spouting opinions that we 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 tenths of the articles to which they’re subscribing.
A sect must profess a welter of dogmas which are obviously ridiculous, but which train its
adherents to submit without demur to superstitious explanations.

8 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 proposition 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.

We don’t understand a great deal of what we believe in, and we don’t even believe in a great
deal of it. Our faith is what we believe we believe in, and most of us believe 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, and by which they are enabled to take up and act out a
creed that they don’t quite believe. We must make our choice between no faith and bad faith.

Because we have faith in so little, we can coax ourselves to lend our faith to nearly anything.
Our self-interest will suffice to heal our unbelief.

9 ‘Our faith is faith in someone else’s faith’
We believe truth itself, not because it is true, but because others believe it. The received
opinions of our herd teach us to trust in the supreme being. We have faith in our fellow flesh and
blood more than in the vaporous fabulations that it dreams up. We put our trust in a creed, not
on the strength of the reasons that we have found to think it true, but on the strength of the trust
that we 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 a
sage or else a crackpot.

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.
10 The stupidity 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 we appear to do by rote we in fact do by express though
routine intent. And much of what we reckon we think intuitively we in fact think by rote.

We assume that we do so much from habit because we reflect so much from habit. It rules how
we think far more than what we do. We allow torpid routine to fence in our meditations, and
unresting self-interest to thrust us 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. We even think without thinking.

Some minds run with clockwork regularity on tracks laid by a maniac. They are dependable and
efficient, but inflexible and misguided.

11 Hardening into belief
By the time that we are of an age to think, most of us are crammed with so many opinions, that
we have no more need to, and would scarcely be able. ‘We acquire our ideas,’ Lichtenberg said,
‘at an age when the understanding is at its most unsound.’

We take up tenancy in our cramped house of thought when we’re 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’re children 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.’

At the expiry of forty years of strict reasoning and intrepid speculation, most philosophers still
hold at sixty the same viewpoint that they did at twenty.

12 Restless sloth
We are too restless or too idle to think. But we are too slovenly and skittish to do nothing. Our
indolence whirrs so frenetically that it looks like a kind of animation. We have the roving lethargy
of those who can’t keep still. ‘The shiftless,’ as Vauvenargues says, ‘are always anxious to be
doing something.’
We itch to learn new things, so long as we have to flap about to learn them and not sit
motionless where we are. And so what we end up with is a mishmash of busy, pushing
information, and not a sanguine wisdom. We don’t love truth so much as the rush and ruckus
that we make to find it out and show it off.

‘Mankind,’ as Johnson points out, ‘have a great aversion to intellectual labour.’ Mental sluggards
are hustled on by a physical restlessness, and their stir and hustle is the mark of the torpor of
their minds. The faster you rush, the more indolently you reflect. A thinker such as Pascal would
have us believe that we can’t bear to stop moving because we would start thinking. But we don’t
wish to think because we would have to stop moving. Our physical activity cloaks the lassitude
of our minds, but so does most of our mental activity. We love to be swept up by hurry as much
as we hate to fix our minds on ideas. I’m so fond of travelling because it gives me things to chat
about without requiring me to think.

13 Too impatient to find the right way
Nine tenths of the thinker’s work is waiting. ‘Leisure,’ Hobbes wrote, ‘is the mother of
philosophy.’ Thought thrives by boldness, but dies by impatience, which is, as Kafka says, the
one cardinal sin.

We are so impatient that we take the most meandering way in all that we do, since we won’t
spend the time to find a more direct one.

We are in such a rush to make up our minds, why would we slow down to reflect?

We lose our time by rocketing so fast. We are stupefied by our own speed. Move briskly, and
you have to give all your mind to how you move. Loaf, and you’re free to let it wander where it

Most discoverers don’t start right, because they start too soon. They begin to build their house
of thought before they’ve laid the groundwork. Commencing in air, they never reach the light.
They would have done well to heed Lec’s admonishment to ‘Think before you think.’

We are so impatient that we never have time to start on our true work.

Most of my ideas are inevitable approximations, which I keep till I fix them in their final precise
untruth. Some misleading shortcuts may lead you to the truth as unswervingly as others lead
you from it. You have to use the simplifications of yesterday if you’re to form the thoughts of
Truth, if we ever do see it, is a blurred smudge which we glimpse in our peripheral vision while
we zoom on to grab what we don’t really want.

14 ‘The idiot questioner’
When critics ask how a bold mind works, why do they all come up with the same stale reply, that
it doesn’t smell out fresh answers but asks fresh questions? Questions are what you make of
your patrimony. Answers are what you make of your own best gifts. A fine rejoinder may form
the most fruitful queries. ‘To ask the hard question is simple,’ as Auden wrote, and jesting Pilate
proved. A probing retort mocks Blake’s ‘idiot questioner, who is always questioning but never
capable of answering.’

I mistake my own horizon for the farthest rim of the world. I trust that I have hit on the one field
where all that’s gone before needs to be corrected by my own inquiries or where corrections
count. We assume that our intellectual responsibility ends where our own questions end. For
most of us it has not yet begun. We each lift a small square of the sheet of unreality, to catch a
peek of the inch or two of the truth that lies adjacent to us.

The best method would work like a mechanism to turn out answers which modify the
mechanism so that it can ask further questions.

The seeker’s task is to fill a capacious why with an adequate because.

Glib people reword deep questions to chime with their own glibness, and then plume
themselves on answering them with such easiness.

15 Superficiality
We bob up and down like corks on the surface of life. I skim along where the world has strewn
the gilt refuse which I want to scoop up. We feel borne up by its unfathomable depth. But it’s our
own lightness that keeps us afloat. Some of us are emptier than we appear on the outside. Even
our innermost qualities don’t go very deep. Go as far down as you may, what do you meet with
but one more exterior and front? How many break their necks when they plunge into the sea of
truth and find it so much shallower than they guessed. But some of our thoughts may reach
farther down than we judge, since we leave off before we get to the bottom of them.

You don’t glimpse how shallow some people are, till they dredge up their deepest beliefs. Most
of our visceral convictions don’t go even skin deep. They’re as thin as the paper or the blinking
screens from which we filch them.
A few mouldy crusts and parings of prejudice are sufficient to keep most souls from starving.
The most feathery stuffing is enough to fill our light and hollow hearts.
Each day that you spend on earth ought to be an adventure in thought, where every hour, as
Wordsworth wrote, ‘brings palpable access of knowledge.’ Thinking is the disease, more
thinking is the cure.

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.

Thinkers such as Schopenhauer who deride the cult of progress still don’t doubt that the light is
advancing, since they are confident that their own dogmas will soon have eclipsed those of their

Some sages, such as Confucius, Emerson or Thoreau, provide a bracing course in mental and
moral hygiene but few new concepts. They are more a tonic than an aliment. They refresh us
rather than feed us. But we have now grown so morbid, that we mistrust sound intellects till we
have traced the spot where they ail. Goethe irks us as a person in rosy health affronts an

1 Thinking about thinking
There is no one method. We need a whole spectrum of them, to suit each tenor of mind,
question, faculty and style. And there is no technique that can teach you how to reason. The
best it might do is show you how to mend the ideas that you have found out by chance or by
unguided persistence. Descartes’s Discourse on Method demonstrates that there is none.

A good inspiration shows you a new thought, a great one shows you a new way of thinking.

When writers try to unpack how they make their fictions, they make one of the most implausible
of their fictions. When they try to expound the procedures of a daring mind, they demurely set
out their own. But when they try to set out their own, don’t they get them quite wrong?

The hardest thing to think about is thinking itself. It’s more difficult to grasp how you do an easy
task than it is to do a difficult one, and, as Wilde wrote, ‘it is much harder to talk about a thing
than to do it.’ Napoleon can’t tell you how to win a war. ‘I have fought sixty battles,’ he said, ‘and
I have learned no more than I already knew after the first.’ Descartes, who meditated more
incisively than anyone on how to think, announced that if you accede only to what you know to
be right then you won’t go awry. Coleridge’s bland recipe of ‘best words in best order’ would turn
out uninspired verse. Do we ever think more dully than when we analyze genius, or more
stolidly than when we speculate on the impassioned mind?

2 Idle curiosity
Most of our searching deflects us from discovering truths that are worth knowing. It immerses us
in trifles, gabble and gossip. When you’re thinking for your life, you need more than mere idle or
professional curiosity to drive you. Yet most of our curiosity is merely professional or idle. What
we long for is to hear some snippet of information that we can use for our own ends or else
some tattling chatter to regale our tired minds.

Curiosity, like greed, always wants more, but just more of the same. Most of us gawk about like
sightseers, and scoot through what all the world is well aware of. Independent minds scout like
adventurers, to blaze their way to thoughts that no one else has yet dreamt of. Were they
merely inquisitive, they could have learnt far more quickly what the rest of us have been taught,
rather than labouring so long to reach a few unforeseen truths of their own. In the time that it
took them to track these down, they could have gleaned great sheaves of known facts.

Most children’s curiosity, like their cruelty, is just their unoccupied and aimless boredom on the
lookout for some new sport to titillate them.

Our inquisitiveness leads us conventionally out of the right way and on to the trail of trivia, news
and small talk. We are as credulous as we are curious.

3 We find the truth not by courage but by restraint
The sole cowardice for which thinkers can be blamed is a failure to think as far as they ought.
And if they do this, it’s not from pusillanimity but from haste to reach a conclusion and claim
their reward.

In order to reflect, it’s not bravery that you require but restraint. To reach the truth, you don’t
need to beat down daunting obstacles, you just need to withstand the world tempting you to
chase after its cheap allurements. Fear doesn’t hold us back from thinking, greed goads us on
to do things that pay better. It’s our itching lust for the rest of life’s good things that keeps us
from uncovering the truth. I have nothing to fear from truth, but what do I have to gain from it?

Few of us think, not because we dread what it will get us, but because we crave what we know
it won’t, that is, profit and amusement. We don’t want to hear the truth. It would stand in the way
of us having more fun or making more money. The one sort of thinking that we do is scheming
how to come at what we want.
I don’t think, not because I’m afraid of what I might find, but because I want so many other
things so much. And I lie, not from trepidation but from the lust for gain. And if I tell the truth, it’s
not by overcoming my fretfulness, but by embracing pride.

How could we spot the truth, when our eyes are on the watch for the least hook of advantage?

4 Cowardice finds out the truth
We are so unused to reflecting, not because we find it so hard to do it, but because we find it so
convenient not to. We have a mint of plans and pastimes to take its place, or whose place we
don’t want it to take.

We are not afraid to think, though we may claim to be, so that we don’t have to do it or so that
we can boast of our daring if we do.

Your cowardliness will teach you more than your courage could have done. For a thinker, to live
fearfully might be the next best thing to living dangerously. Timorous people sound life much
more deeply. They die so many times before their death, that they see more of life than the
courageous. They’re all the time peering through the window of their disquiet on the watch for
what might be approaching to scare them.

Some people have been backed so far into a corner by their panic, that they have to turn and
face the truth. They shiver through in a minute more revealing moods than the stalwart do in a
month. They scan the rest of life with such nervous penetration, since they dare not look it in the
face. Since they have seen the truth up close, it’s pure luck that it doesn’t kill them.

Faint-hearted people, such as Hobbes, love to wield the cold steel of truth. With its protection
they feel as if they were dauntless and unafraid. They take revenge on the world which has kept
them so intimidated by venturing to make sense of it.

5 Dangerous truths
Have intellectuals ever been so craven, or so proud of their pluck? They chirp that they roam
like nomads or exiles, when they are just cosily mobile careerists, a clique of tenured dissidents.
How many cautious and inoffensive dons feel that they are dynamite. ‘A roofer,’ as Sartre wrote,
‘takes more risks than an intellectual.’

World-improvers argue that art ought to subvert prejudices, but only the ones of which they
disapprove. And they praise it for being disconcerting, but just so long as it’s their fusty
opponents that it disconcerts.
Some truths are too dangerous to be spoken. There will always be some firebrands who will
have the courage and consistency to act on the false inferences that they draw from them.

6 Enlightenment
The thinkers of the enlightenment promoted a naive credence in perfectibility, a facile
psychology, an impertinent universalism, an unreasonable faith in reason. They were drunk with
their hopes for the future, disdainfully disavowed the past, fomented rebellions which raised up
bloodstained despots, and championed a humanism which will bring ruin on the human race
and all living things.

Enlightenment, rather than inaugurating the kingdom of autonomy and ends, has reduced the
world to a tyranny of heteronomy and means.

Some writers, such as Voltaire or Franklin, grow great by endorsing the progressive platitudes
of their age, its rationalism, positivism, deism, tolerance, enlightened self-interest and faith in
human perfectibility, and some, like Balzac or Dostoyevsky, have grown great by assaulting

7 Prophets of perversity
Since the age of reason we have had to rely for our saving wisdom on our holy or unholy fools,
the prophets of perversity, such as Maistre or Baudelaire, Blake or Yeats, Dostoyevsky or
Céline, D. H. Lawrence or Rimbaud. Poe was Dostoyevsky’s vaudeville or waxworks John the
baptist, which is a more praiseworthy thing than most writers. Yeats made the Psalms to
Nietzsche’s new Torah.

The most reliable guide through the chaos of the modern mind is Dostoyevsky. The most
reliable guide through the chaos of modern society is Balzac. Nietzsche is the most reliable
guide through the chaos of modern culture. And Yeats is the most reliable guide through the
chaos of modern art.

As ‘the fool by persisting in his folly would become wise,’ so cynics by persisting in their
cynicism would turn back to enchantment. They sigh for the luxuriant credulity of superstition to
sweep away the parched calculations of the faith-starved present. Better the vivid and breathing
faith of an age of magic than our own passionless instrumental rationalism.

Reason acts like a heartless bailiff, coldly evicting settled views which have lodged in the one
spot for generations.
Cosmopolitan and cerebral northerners, such as Nietzsche or Lawrence, pine for the blood, sap
and verve of the savage, sun-drenched southland. They had far rather been ‘pagans suckled in
a creed outworn.’ So the drooping twilight yearns for the dawn, which it dreams still lies in front
of it, though it’s lost in a past that they can never get back to. ‘The longing to be primitive is a
disease of culture,’ Santayana wrote. ‘To be so preoccupied with vitality is a symptom of

8 Humanism
Humanism would have us believe that we are exceptional in our nature and central to the
purpose of the universe. No wonder that we are all now humanists, infatuated as we are with
our own sacred station. It is the apotheosis of a species alienated from the earth and intoxicated
by its own omnipotence. The god that it bows down to is a self-adoring and suicidal deity. We
are as pitiless as gods, and just as doomed.

Secular humanism has tamed and gelded our kind far more effectually than his cult could have

The mortal animal has grown or shrunk to a baffled god, distracted by joy, or dazed by woe, lost
amid the wreckage made by its all-powerful prostheses.

To swap theism for the cult of humanity is to exchange a god of imagination for the idol of our
self-admiration. Human beings can’t help believing that individually and collectively they are the
finest things in creation.

The humanity that humanism puts its faith in is the one generation now alive that we chance to
be part of, which cares nothing for its long inheritance that it will lay waste for its own brief gain.

9 Common sense the enemy of thinking
We call common sense whichever of our herd’s prefabricated notions we happen to concur with.
Einstein defined it as ‘the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen,’ as conscience is
the stash of moral claptrap that we pick up by age eighteen. Once mocked by faith, common
sense is now confuted by science, which advances by deposing it and installing unlikely
imagination in its seat. ‘This will be found discordant with all experience,’ as Euler said of one of
his demonstrations, ‘yet it is true.’

Common sense paves the world with flat platitudes, so that we can walk round in it and not trip
up on its lush unevenness. It is the common enemy both of science and of art. Aristotle was its
most accomplished exponent, and so for two thousand years he lay like a dead hand on all
intellectual life.

Common sense when sensible is not common, and when common is not sensible. Half our
truisms are not so much as half true, but all of our commonplaces are irretrievably

A platitude is a truism the converse of which is also true. Too many cooks spoil the broth, yet
many hands make light work.

Common sense is baffled by the perverseness of the heart and by the weirdness of the world of
matter. Use it to scan the world outside or within you, and you won’t make much of what you

10 The speed of thought
It takes so long to get to know a thing, because you have to spend so much time first learning
what sorts of things might be worth learning and then learning how to learn them.

We ought to think as urgently as if we were to die today, and as patiently as if we were sure to
live for all time. Our audacity goes to waste if it is not kept in order by patience. And our
patience goes to waste if it lacks the spur of audacity. A seeker must ruminate like a cow and
pounce like a tiger. You reach the truth by daring and delay. And the best perseverance waits
so long, that it gains ends quite unlike the ones it first hoped for. How many teeming ideas you
may breed in the interim from when the brain takes thought till the point at which the pen starts
to work.

Half of talent consists in perseverance. But you won’t have the heart to persevere if you don’t
have the talent for the work.

You conceive an idea in a brief flash of rapture, carry it round in a long pregnancy, give birth to it
in a quick struggle, and then have to spend years licking it into shape. You may incubate your
thoughts unconsciously, but you must hatch them deliberately.

Ponderous minds preen themselves on their thoroughness. Slapdash minds preen themselves
on their quickness. Those who write at a plodding pace are proud of their fastidiousness. Those
who write in haste are proud of their fluency.

Streams are not shallow because they run so fast, though they may run fast because they are
11 The blessings of boredom
Only a creature that has the capacity to think can be bored. But one that is free to think should
never be bored. And yet most of us would be intolerably bored if we were left with nothing to do
but think.

Boredom and passivity lour like the sultry sky that preludes the lightning-bolt of inspiration. But
we have now dreamt up countless diversions to skirt the tedium which might have precipitated
thought. Ennui was the productive curse of aristocratic societies. Busyness is the sterile curse of
commercial ones.

Instantaneous strokes of inspiration need long spans of vacant waiting in which to gather their

You have to stick to a steady diet of dry inactivity, if you want to think world-shattering thoughts.
‘To do great work,’ Butler wrote, ‘a man must be very idle as well as very industrious.’ A great
artist or thinker must bear with being bored, and a great work of art must dare to be boring. We
know great minds and their products by how soon they start to fatigue us. We don’t find them
hard, but simply bland and foreign to all our interests.

Good art invents and surprises, is colourful and amusing. But the best imagines monotonously.
It dares to bore you and to demand that you give it all your attention. It repels you, where
lacklustre art charms and entertains, satisfies and salves. Second-rate works invite us in and
make us feel at home. They amuse us but don’t ask anything of us.

Great books are so boring because they don’t feed our hunger for amusement, and mediocre
ones are so banal because they do.

12 Fortunate obstructions, dangerous rewards
A constructive mind is imperilled more by the incentives that are held out to it than by the
impediments that stand in its way. Hindrances toughen and extend it, remuneration would shrink
and slacken it. Golden prizes call forth tinsel virtues. The opportunities that come to us turn us
from our real work. The world tempts the least talent with such rich bribes, that even the
greatest are now willing to sell their best gifts to win them.

How delicate a fine intellect is, and yet how robustly it thrives in the stoniest soil.

Like and unlike, associates and attackers, emulation and opposition, all goad and fire you to
think. ‘Our antagonist is our helper,’ as Burke said.

A thought has to hide a little, to show that it will repay the finding.
Our deficiencies enlarge us. Our flaws may save us from squandering our best gifts. Cowardice
keeps us from coveting the tin trophies which our dauntlessness might have won for us. Pride
may stay us from misspending our talents on small aims. Our self-deceptions free us from
scattering our force on worthless undertakings by daring us to hope that we might be capable of
grand ones. They bar us from the concessions and compromises that our advantage would foist
on us by blurring our eyes to it.

Genius makes life hard and art easy. It puts everything to its best use, by smoothing the path, or
else by roughening it.

Impotence is the teeming father of imagination. Those who can’t do dream.

In the dungeon of this world you have nothing but your shackles to winch yourself up to

13 The wandering paths of genius
How many times you have to get everything wrong, so that you can at last get a few small
things right. When you lose your way and retrace your steps, you gain such unlooked-for vistas,
that you bless your errors.

Thinkers, like explorers, inch forward haltingly, get lost time and again, double back, and lose
half their posse. At length they reach a newfound land of strange ideas which they never hoped
to see. And what they leave for us is not the unruly realism of a log-book, but a map, a thing
much more tidy, artificial and abstract. Then at their heels come the critics and savants, who
pave a broad and level way, so that we can all commute back and forth to where they got with
so much sweat. ‘Improvement makes strait roads,’ Blake says, ‘but the crooked roads without
improvement are roads of genius.’

Pioneers have a knack for making fresh and fruitful blunders. Their wanderings will teach you
more than a subaltern seeker’s truths. Fine insights avail, even when they err. Dull facts would
still be dry and flavourless, were they ever so true. ‘Great men’s errors are to be venerated as
more fertile than little men’s truths,’ as Nietzsche wrote.

It takes a fecund mind to spin a rich system out of a few initial misconceptions.

14 The stuff of thinking
Only the immature live their mental lives through the intermediary of ideas. These are the hard
cash of the intellect. A thinker, like a great speculator, works with a currency that is ampler and
more abstract.
Romantic writers aim to make you feel. Realistic writers aim to make you see. But the best
rouse you to imagine. But they use a means other than ideas to do so. Most novels of ideas,
such as those of Mann or Bellow, are novels of second-hand and second-class ideas. Shaw
was an intellectual shopkeeper, retailing coarse copies of continental dainties to the english
suburban trading class.

If a work of fiction has views, then its author has not thought deeply enough.

15 Passionate detachment
Genius feels thoughts, good sense merely thinks them. A powerful mind feels ideas as if they
were passions, and transcribes its passions into ideas. Montesquieu remarked that the
percipient take to their hearts what the dull merely grasp with their brains. Yet they burn through
the ideas that we merely think, and they are tinglingly awake to the trials through which we
sleepwalk. They take in things as if they were close at hand, but can judge them as if they were
miles away. They dream audacious dreams, yet still reason with all rigour.

Passion gives light to some, but it darkens others. It may urge you to search for the truth, but it
makes you feel sure that you have already found it.

Thoughts are made like rocks, some by the pressure of a long despair, some by the
transformation of sediments laid down an age ago, and some in a sudden eruption of ecstasy,
‘the fine delight that fathers thought,’ as Hopkins phrased it.

To make sense of a phenomenon, you have to back off just far enough from it so as to
misperceive it plausibly. Keep too far, and your eyes can’t make it out. Come too close, and you
won’t misjudge and oversimplify it in a beguiling way.

16 Solitude
Solitude confines and concentrates your gifts, society broadens but dissipates them. Other
people rouse you to be brighter and more false.

Curiosity craves colleagues, the reflective mind is content to retire into quiet isolation. It bathes
in a vast sea of loneliness. It needs companionship as a dolphin needs air, but sparingly. The
poet is, as Shelley wrote, ‘a nightingale who sits alone in darkness, and sings to cheer its own

Society, like suffering, furnishes you with all the stuff that you would need in order to think, but it
hinders you from constructing anything with it. To do that you have to stay contentedly on your
own. Solitude is a darkroom that you enter to develop the photograph of the world that you took
in society.

Thinking is a solitary activity, but few of us do it alone. Our heads hum with the bawling voices
of the tumultuous world. What light could I gain from my seclusion, when I fritter it away in such
lustreless company? A plodding mind stays with others, even when it’s on its own. But a rare
and audacious intellect goes its own way, even when it’s with a crowd. For a crystal soul like
Dickinson’s, friendship felt at once too intense and too insipid, and so she shut the door.

We should have the modesty or pride not to try to bring others round to our own point of view.

17 Deprivation
You come to know a thing by desiring it, by acquiring it, by losing it, or by missing it. When you
long for what you don’t have, don’t you learn all there is to know of it, apart from how palely you
will care for it once you’ve got it in your hands?

You learn because you lack. Plenty gives you confidence, but privation makes you hunger. And
confidence may train you to grow modest, light and quiet. But hunger goads you to excess,
intrepidity and desperation, and it’s these that will guide you to the truth.

Some know the world through copious acquaintance, and some through deprivation. ‘It would
have starved a gnat,’ Dickinson wrote, ‘to live so small as I.’ These view it as through a camera
obscura. A tiny pin slit lets in the wide show.

Some of the most profound reasoners, such as Kant or Nietzsche, had a scant familiarity with
the world, as some of the most prosperous lands are the most lacking in resources, while others
are, like Africa, made poor by their natural wealth.

Most of us have cheap substitutes for thinking so that we can live at peace. Thinkers are
content with cheap substitutes for living so that they can think at liberty. You have to get hold of
a few chattels that you don’t prize, so as to be free to risk all that you do prize. You have to
learn to live safely, so that you can think dangerously.

18 Out of the dark
How could you make out what is real or deep, till your eyes have got used to the murk of
unsuccess and aloneness? Dusk brings out the subtle shades for those whose lives go dark
before they close. You have to wrestle for years with the angel of your failure, till it will bless
Misery acquaints you with strange bedfellows, and one of the strangest of these is truth.

We are all plummeting down a chasm. Thinkers are those few who can still muse on what they
see as they spiral downward.

There will never be a machine so distraught that it will feel the urge to form a work of art or a
thought of its own. Yet it may easily be programmed to turn out endless iterations of kitsch.

Sadness files the intellect to a finer and finer tip till at length it blunts it. Like a monsoon, it first
refreshes it, then swamps it, and in the end rots it.

We net our most profound perceptions from our abysmal fiascos, provided that we don’t drown
in their instruction first.

Not even suffering abysmally cures us of thinking superficially. Life weighs us down, but fails to
deepen us. It doesn’t grow. It thins out as it gets longer, and has less to show us as it gets
darker. As we grow up, our world dilates, but our minds stay as small as ever they were.

Insomnia is the emblematic lot of the thinker, the eerie emptiness and despair, lost in a fog
haunted by zombies, to feel one’s being evaporating into the night.

19 We think by exaggerating
Overstatement can spice the blandest truths. A platitude, like rancid meat, must be pungently
seasoned to make it palatable. ‘The mixture of a lie,’ Bacon says, ‘doth ever add pleasure.’
Thinkers bring moribund views back to life by exaggerating them, and so they’re reborn as more
interesting untruths.

We can believe anything if it’s stretched far enough, even the truth.

A sprightly mind can trace its way to the plain truth by reading too much into the quotidian things
that cross its path. Thoreau circumnavigated the globe by canoeing round Walden Pond. He got
to know all the inequity of the state by spending one night in the county jailhouse.

20 Wonder is the fruit not the seed of thinking
Scientists don’t study nature because they are overawed by its rainbow multiformity. Their aim
is to shrink it to a small number of reductive laws of their own discovering. And they call nature
beautiful because it yields them beautiful equations. The purpose of science is, as Einstein put
it, ‘to make the chaotic diversity of sense experience correspond to a logically uniform system of
Wonderment is the consequence and not the cause of our discoveries. It is not the seed of
knowledge, as Bacon claimed, but its fruit. We don’t learn because we wonder, we wonder by
dint of what we have learnt.

21 Cultivating wonder
Born blasé, we come by slow steps to be startled. Children are not prone to wonder. All the
world is too new to them.

The starry cosmos and uncharted space grow more strange and uncanny the more we get to
know of it, though we marvel at it less and less. Our minds have the capacity to solve its most
involved mysteries, and yet are too harried by their own low compulsions to be much in awe of
them. We are, in Dickinson’s phrase, limited guests in this incredible lodging. How inadequate
our use to the infinite gift. We are so cheaply amazed, yet so reluctantly awed. Having framed
this world of wonders, the Lord made our hearts dry and small, so that they wouldn’t burst in

Is there any puzzle too large to baffle the human mind, or too small to engross it?

We are more wonderstruck by the images of things than by the things themselves. We are awed
not by the stars but by the names we assign to them, not by the cosmos but by the theorems
that we use to construe it, not by its subtle laws but by the overpowering machines that we use
to probe it.

22 The ladder of abstraction
Genius is the exception that is able to piece out the rule. A great theorist, such as Newton, is the
first to draft an overarching law, the instances of which men and women had been witnessing
day by day for thousands of years. ‘Great ideas,’ as Johnson wrote, ‘are always general.’

The mind climbs to its acme by the scaffold of abstraction. The best writing builds on
unsupported speculation. ‘Man,’ Valéry says, ‘fabricates by abstracting.’

We postulate general laws from specific precedents which strike us just because they jar with
general laws.

23 The discipline of distraction
The best way to catch real thoughts is to lay out in writing a sprinkling of decoy ones, and you
can ambush mindfulness by allowing your mind to ramble. Thinking is a studied vagrancy, and
distraction is the devil’s providence. What the years will teach you are the innumerable small
lessons that you glean while you’re waiting for your one grand awakening, which will never

24 The idiocy of anecdote
‘Common minds,’ Macrobius notes, ‘are more struck by examples than by arguments.’ We are
repelled by cold reason, but soothed and amused by bubbly anecdotes. They divert us but don’t
strain our minds. The worst story draws us in more compellingly than the best idea. Christians
love their faith for its fables more than for its edicts. They like to be told how Peter sheared an
ear, but take no heed of the injunctions to turn the other cheek and resist not evil. The trivial, the
personal and the anecdotal trumps the serious, deep and transcendental.

We are all swimming away from the strand of truth out to a waste sea of stories. We go from dry
and barren fact to gaudy and barren anecdotes. Anecdotes are as amusing as analysis is
mortifying. Stories dress up our selfishness, but analysis strips it bare. We tell them in order to
garnish our greed and hide how implacably it wolfs its way to what it wants.

Average people reel off anecdotes and opinions, intellectuals cobble ideas and systems, but a
true pathfinder must dare to imagine.

We prefer to be fooled by stories than fatigued and disillusioned by the truth.

We love stories, because they are intimate yet shared, entertain but don’t enlighten, sparkle with
droll circumstances, and gratify our itch for what is new and titillating, while conforming to the
old tropes which comfort us.

We want to see all our tired old tropes reworked in bright new stories. What people want, as
Goethe said, is ‘a new way of putting what they are used to.’

25 We trust experiences rather than reason
I place more trust in my experiences than in my reasons, since my experiences are more my
own. When asked to adduce a pertinent reason, we prefer to cite a personalized illustration.

A poet to whom nothing has happened is still older than the pharaohs. ‘I have more memories,’
Baudelaire said, ‘than if I had lived for a thousand years.’ The best minds make most of what
they have least. ‘One may know the world without stepping out of doors,’ as Lao Tzu says. ‘One
may see the way of heaven without looking through the window.’ Kafka vows that it will roll in
exultation in front of you.

One experience alone is needful for a thinker, and that is simply to think.
Intuition is wise before its time, experience learns to be provident only after the event. ‘How
much I’ve lived,’ Pessoa exclaimed, ‘without having lived.’

Who can trace grand thoughts back to the experiences from which they spring? Who can find
the source of the big cataracts?

Anecdote, as Heidegger said, is the adversary of rationality, and that’s enough to make us so
fond of it. Reason would unpleasantly clear our minds of the sludge and debris that they’ve
banked up. So we use anecdotes to keep replenishing them.

26 Details
Our minds are at once stolid and inattentive, vacant but humming, vague yet congested with
workaday details. We stop short at the accredited similitude, neither graphically exact nor
instructively abstract. Most of the things we believe are at once too nebulous and too specific to
deserve the name of ideas.

Most people feel that they have delved far enough into a topic when they have picked up a few
facile details or truisms which they can swap with knowing complacency.

Most of us would prefer to cling to particular falsehoods than find a general truth.

The laborious way is in fact the lazy way. The hard way is to work less and to think more.

We have to keep on compiling a painstaking kit of minute particulars and facts, since we lack
the patience to ascertain the few basic theses which would make sense of them and make our
study of them needless. Dismissive of principles, we are entranced by details and trivia. We
gnaw on the dry rind of fact, and fling away the juicy pulp of truth.

27 Thoughtless self-contradiction
We fall into inconsistency, whether we think a great deal, or fail to think at all. We think too
scantily to make our thoughts cohere, or else we think so much that they form a tangled knot of
contradictions. Others can’t help but contradict themselves, because they don’t think enough.
But if I contradict myself, it’s because I have so many thoughts that they can’t help jostling one
another. I glory in both my mulish consistency and my brainless self-contradictions.

Those who can’t hold two coherent truths in their head at the one time don’t find it hard to hold a
hundred brawling errors.

We don’t take the trouble to scrutinize our views, and so they stay the same through time but
are in conflict with each other.
There are Don Juans of the intellect, irremediably promiscuous, who have caught inconsistency
like syphilis, though most of them stay mental virgins through years of such whoring.

28 Thoughtless consistency
Some people can keep up the same slant on an issue only by continually shifting the grounds
on which it rests. Those who hanker to seem consistent are all the time controverting their own
opinions, since they have thought too sluggishly to grasp what they entail.

We change on a whim, yet we drone on with the same thoughts over and over. And though we
have such a small range of opinions, they still clash with one another.

We are serial dogmatists, immovable but unsteady, entrenched with the same stubbornness in
a dozen attitudes in turn. We are amenable to changing our mind, except when someone gives
us an incontrovertible argument to do so.

My ideas are as fixed as my moods are fitful, and they are as tractable as my drives are

29 The virtues of inconsistency
A strong will must be undivided, but a strong intellect is forked and mobile.

A writer or book garners its strength from the force and tension of its contradictions.

Thinking is an exercise not in self-expression but in self-alienation. A thinker can never be quite
sincere. Each is double and divided, split between the observer and the observed. If you want to
breed fresh thoughts, you have to make yourself quite unlike all actual selves, your own
included. Bold imaginers are as much out of harmony with themselves as they are with others.
They stimulate you by disagreeing with you or else by disagreeing with themselves.

30 Best in bits
We are too broad and too variegated to grow all of one piece. ‘The entire,’ wrote Adorno, ‘is the
false.’ We become whole at the cost of narrowing and limiting ourselves, and by excluding
influences which might have spurred our growth.

We are at our best only in stray exploits. ‘Our ability is chopped up in small chunks,’ as
Montaigne says. Human kind has done such great things, not by dint of its high level of average
capacities, but because of their range and variability.
It is the discords that make the music of humanity worth listening to. ‘There is nothing stable in
the world,’ as Keats wrote. ‘Uproar’s your only music.’

31 Paradox
As rhythm and imagery are to verse, so parallelism and paradox are to prose, a principle of
musical symmetry and a principle of conceptual difference, dissimilarity of meaning and
similarity of sound. Thus the Bible, Johnson or Wilde.

A witty paradox belies what it pretends to take for granted. A profound paradox belies what our
received views take for granted.

A strong thought must make war on its own presuppositions. But most paradoxes merely stage
mock combats.

Some paradoxes open your eyes to unsuspected panoramas, but don’t most of them just salt
your rancid platitudes as tart perversities?

32 Education
The education of children ought to aim at strengthening the faculties in which they naturally
excel, which is to say, their formal imagination and their capacity for memorizing. So they ought
to be taught languages, mathematics, music and arts. But we pretend that they can make
intelligent judgments on subjects which require wide experience and learning, such as
philosophy, history, literature and the social sciences.

When you are taught a fact by someone else, all you learn is that one fact. Find out a truth by
your own endeavours, and you guess ten more and maybe a hundred. Dullards have to be
taught, a quick mind learns, a deep one makes its own discoveries.

A few writers, such as Montaigne, Shakespeare, Nietzsche or Yeats, might provide you with a
complete education, but you need a complete education before you can reap much good from
them. Their books contain a model of style, patterns of form, examples of character, principles
of taste, a manual of how to think differently, and concepts to organize ideas.

The natural repugnance which most people feel for poetry lies dormant in their souls till it is
woken by their schooling.

Most people are force-fed a few plums of poetry at school, and the mere thought of it makes
them sick for the rest of their lives.
33 True and false education
False schooling moulds us for a life of well-paid and serviceable futility. True education unfits us
for the world. It brings in no return, is for leisure not for work, for the few not for the mass, for
self-cultivation not for the state. And so of course there is no longer any true education.

The aim of mass schooling is not to train people to think but to equip them to do their job without
the need to.

A religious education is invaluable in instructing you how to lie with a clear conscience.

The state trains up the young by corrupting them in the ways sanctioned by fashion.

Parents coach their sons and daughters not to lie about small things or to tell the truth about
large ones. We need irresponsible fictions to show us how to do the reverse.

Education is the activity which is designed to turn us into rational animals. But nothing is more
absurd than to design a system of education according to the dictates of reason.

34 Educating yourself for others
All education is sophistical, since it enables us to act as if we knew what we don’t know.

A teacher learns the wrong lesson twice, first as a docile and emulous pupil, then as a smug
performer. And some have no time to learn, because they are so impatient to instruct. Few of us
can bear to let pass an invitation to show off how little we know.

Teachers are eager to hand on the lessons that they’ve learnt, since they have no better use for

How stupid we become by educating ourselves for others.

Teachers are content to serve as a road to be trampled by the feet of their students. Yet they
presume that they know the goal to which to guide them.

35 Cultural senility
Our new alexandrian age is resourceful yet sapless, frenetic yet spiritless, puerile yet senile,
squeamish but selfish, lacking in wisdom but technically adept.

You can gauge the vigorousness of a culture from the dilapidation of its colleges. If they are
sound and thronged, it will be sclerotic and emaciated. You can be sure that it has lost its sap
and juice, if its schools and universities are rich and flourishing. Alexandria is the antipodes of
the imagination.

A university is no more fit to foster fresh ideas than a factory is to make art. Academics are the
bureaucrats of the intellect. They collate and curate and sort and marshal facts, but lack the
audacity to imagine large new truths.

Scholars are the undertakers and morticians of a culture, whose task it is to give it a decent

36 Scholars
The most delimited topic has room for enough puzzles to obsess the most dexterous mind and
to conceal that they are not worth deciphering. We are fixated on such meagre riddles, but we
shut our minds to signal truths.

News is trivia that everyone is interested in, scholarship is trivia that no one is interested in.

Scholarship is the premature senility of a sprightly mind, which has grown repetitive, myopic,
dried-up and hoarding.

Scholarship is one of the most diligent and laboursome forms of mental laziness.

A specialist has drab views on one subject, a polymath has drab views on several.

We now look up to scholars as if they had made real discoveries and to critics as if they had
found a deep wisdom. We take their desiccated and esoteric commentaries for a new

Scholars are parasitic but self-perpetuating. They hardly need their host anymore. They have
learned to feed off the excrement of their fellow parasites.

37 Pedants
Quibblers and purists insist on a misplaced precision, since they lack the finesse to see how
many sides a question might have. They grope for the key, but in their bat-eyed fumbling have
not yet found the door.

A pedant’s mind painstakingly sifts facts, and lets in none but the most minute.

To take things literally is not to take them in their most direct and vivid sense but in their most
vapid and conventional one.
Rigid people learn a few small points so well when they’re young, that they lose the flexibility to
learn much else thereafter. How many things you need to keep in mind, and how many things
you need to shut your eyes to or unlearn, if you aim to smell out more of the truth.

Some sticklers split hairs because they know so much about a small area, and some because
they know a mere smattering. Those who know nothing love to point out how little others know.

Both doggedness and dabbling come to the same thing in the end, namely a flat and dry

Smug pedants presume that they are sedulous perfectionists.

Some people become formalists because they have no sense of form. They note the
punctuation of a sentence, but are blind to its deep pattern.

38 Parasitic critics
Would literature now seem alive, if its carcass weren’t wriggling with so many industrious critical
maggots? But a worm in the guts of a lion feels as pleased with its lot as the king of beasts.

The scholarly strain their ingenuity to dig out in a piece of art those features that give conclusive
proof of their own ingenuity.

An unschooled reader feels far more reverence for laborious erudition than for mere original

Critics betray art with the Judas kiss of interpretation. The sole worth of a work of art is the
reception of its imaginative fire and the answering it with an equal flame. It is not the
decipherment of a message. That is the straw to which a pedagogue would dry it. Anything that
we say of a work of art is a waste of breath. It is not there to be explained, deciphered, classified
or contextualized. It is to be felt as a coup of imagination.

The only illuminating criticism is implicit in the form of great creative works. But we are far too
deep to be able to read that.

39 Reading
Words wait patiently in the living tomb of a book for a reader to dream them back to life.

You learn nothing from the best books until you’re ready for them. But it’s they that have to do
half the readying.
In each second-rank work I recognize my own best thoughts. They come back to me with a
certain alienated mediocrity.

Some authors seem to think that people read too much and too widely, and that they ought to
confine their reading to their own books and a few other classics, and spend the rest of their
time reflecting on these.

You no more grasp the meaning of a sentence by attending to the meaning of each word in it
than you grasp the meaning of a word by spelling out each of its letters.

40 Reading and thinking
You can’t read well if you have not thought. But how could you think well if you have not read
well? You learn to reflect by reading, and then you learn to read by reflecting.

Meditation advances far more ploddingly and far more rapidly than reading. It may take an age
to trace your way to a new idea. But once you have it, it will give you the key to unlock a vast
range of riddles, which no amount of reading would have done.

You add to your knowledge by what you read, but you multiply it by how you think. Read to gain
breadth, reflect to go deep.

You can grasp a new concept only if you have thought up to the brink of it on your own. It’s a
bridge that you have to beat your path to by your own efforts before you can traverse it. You
benefit from some books because you’re prepared for them, and from others because you never
will be.

41 Reading and not thinking
Some people get no ideas except when they hold a book in their hands, and some except when
they hold a pen in their hands. But most writers are so busy writing that they have no time to
think, as most readers are too busy reading to have time to think. We read to be spared the
exertion of thinking. The writer will think for us, or neither thinks at all.

It’s intelligent people, who might have been able to think, who read so that they won’t have to.
The observant read those writers whom they trust to think for them, and the dull read those
whom they can count on not to. Some people read in order to have their prejudices reinforced.
But most don’t read for any purpose as serious as that.

Mawkish critics presume to deliver art from its inhuman flawlessness, and graciously vest giant
writers with their own lilliputian virtues.
Reading won’t make you better, but read as well as you can, and it might at least make you
worse. A great book ought to leave you happier and more evil, more open to adventure in
mischief, and more mistrustful of your own fine feelings.

A book is a carefully constructed bomb, and reading is a controlled explosion, which critics
would defuse with their laboured exegesis.

How widely we read, and how narrowly we think. ‘We live,’ as Wilde said, ‘in an age that reads
too much to be wise.’ But we have now ceased to read, so why are we still as empty-headed as

42 Bad books
‘People in general do not willingly read,’ as Johnson points out, ‘if they can have anything else
to amuse them.’ Most would prefer any entertainment to reading a book. And if they must read,
they would far rather read a bad book than a good one and a good one than a great one. But a
book that’s easy reading is not worth the effort. And a book that is not worth reading at least
twice will not be worth reading at all, though these are the only books that anyone wants to

Some readers go to books in order to find their own hackneyed notions heightened into shoddy
eloquence and set out as a ramshackle programme. When they say that one is well written, they
just mean that it gives fluent vent to their own stodgy outlook.

How could we learn anything, when we read such bad books? And yet we are such bad
readers, how would we learn anything, even if we were to read good ones?

Bad books are hard to read because they are so turgid. Great books are hard to read because
they are so terse.

43 Bad reading
Who would not prefer to skim through a hundred big diffuse books than give all their attention to
a single succinct and exacting one? Most of us want to devote no more than half our mind to the
books that we read. And so we want to read only those books whose authors have devoted no
more than half their mind to write.

Some readers, like termites, swallow a stack of books, and shred them to a mere mound of
sawdust. ‘To read without reflecting,’ as Burke said, ‘is like eating without digesting.’ We like
books that we can bolt without chewing. We ask no more of them than that they should ask
nothing of us. Yet in the long run we give the most to those who demand the most of us.
44 Good reading is slow reading
A great book takes at least as long to read as it does to write, since you go on reading it for
years after you’ve put it down. Poor books take as little time and thought to read as they did to
write, which is no doubt why they are so popular.

There is no method to reading, except to read none but the best with unhurried and pensive
reverence. ‘Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.’ But we would rather scroll through second-
rate stuff in a careless and distracted hurry.

If we set all our mind to grasp a few lines of a great work, we would learn far more than from all
our hasty devouring of their copious volumes.

To write is a work of compression, to read is a work of expansion. Both require enormous

The writer must be concise, to coax the reader to go slow. The most compact writing takes the
longest time to read, since it compels us to pause and think. The composition that takes up the
least space takes up the most time both in writing and in reading.

1 Cynicism
Most cynicism cuts no deeper than the shabby pretences that it mocks, though the world is so
shallow that it cuts right through it.

Most of us know when we have found the truth, since it makes us feel more at ease. Cynics
know when they have found it, since they think it ought to make others feel less at ease. When
they lie, they trust that they are sparing us. And when they’re unkind, they trust that they are
repaying their debt to the truth. A simpleton confuses truth with illusion, a cynic confuses it with

The heart too has its reasons, as Pascal said. It’s too bad that few of us have any other. The
crooked heart in collusion with the world dreams more deviously than the head ever could. Our
hearts are so empty, that they can swallow this world at one gulp and have room for the next
one as well.

2 Among the Cannibals
‘Philosophers,’ as Rivarol said, ‘are anatomists and not doctors. They dissect, but do not heal.’
The thinker poses as an anatomist, is revered as a surgeon, but is in fact more like a cannibal.
Yet cannibals are more considerate than inquirers. They eat none but their enemies, and not till
they’re dead. We mistake the dagger of psychology for a scalpel, since revenge has sharpened
it to such a keen edge. Is there anything more unkind you could do to some people than lay
bare the motives that have led them to act as they do? ‘Vivisection,’ as Flaubert says, ‘is a form
of revenge.’

Raw minds make their truths out of their own woes, ripe ones make them out of the woes of
those they love or hate.

Thinking is as easy as fishing, particularly if you’re using gobbets of your fellow beings to bait
your rod. You need a small spark of native adroitness, a good deal of practice and then years of
waiting. But look out that you don’t eat what you hook. The streams run so foul.

A thinker hunts not like a lion but like a lone spider, which spins its web out of its own guts, and
then waits in the patient dark for thoughts to get tangled in it.
3 The spur of rivalry
Intellectual passion resembles rancour more than love. It lives by rivalry, contrariety and spite.
‘My fury,’ said Isaiah, ‘it upheld me.’ Even those who love truth to their own detriment may not
love it purely or selflessly.

It’s rivalry and not curiosity that finds its way to the richest lodes.

Selfishness may spur you on to seek out the truth, though it will hold you back from discovering
it. Impartiality may guide you in the right way to think. But it is rivalry that will launch you on the
path. How much I fail to see, because I’m not looking for it. And how little I find, since I stick to
the same predetermined track. How could you hope to make a great breakthrough, if you don’t
have a purpose for making it? But if you do have a purpose, you won’t depart from the narrow
passageway that it marks out for you.

Self acts like a magnet, disrupting the delicate compass of the intellect and attracting all our
thoughts to it.

4 Malice and revenge
To inspect your specimens of life, you have to stain them with malice and place them under
your glassy disengagement.

Spite may give the jolt to hot-wire cold intellects. ‘What we need is hatred,’ said Genet. ‘From it
are our ideas born.’

Malice is a volatile gas which you can use to bust out of the cramped corral of your polite
platitudes, though it may poison you first.

Deprivation makes us spiteful, and it’s our spite that keeps us on the watch. So the spur that
alerts us makes us unjust to what we see.

If we were not inflamed by vengeance, how would we have brought to light so much of the
truth? Revenge may lie to others, but it burns to learn all that might help it to fillet its victims.

Where there is no treachery, there will be no truth. Thinkers are turncoats who can’t be trusted
to acquiesce in the congenial lies by which we thrive. They work, as Blake says, by ‘the infernal
method, by corrosives.’ They aim to bring to fruition the work that the serpent began.

Only a bad angel, robbed of all but pride and spite, is free to spy out the truth.

Each poet is inspired by a secret muse. Each thinker is incited by a secret adversary.
Polemics are a waste of hate. Better to use it to fire a path to the truth than to set your enemies
ablaze. The only dragons worth slaying are those bred in our own entrails.

5 Great thoughts are great crimes
Great thoughts are the crimes that cravenly good people lacked the courage to commit. ‘Each
work of art,’ as Adorno points out, ‘is an uncommitted crime.’ A questing intellect is blest with a
boundless capacity not just for taking pains, as Buffon said, but for giving them as well.

‘He who desires but acts not breeds pestilence,’ as Blake said. But a grand idea may be the
most productive pestilence of all.

Truth is the choicest of the flowers of evil. It may be that all the books make up one satanic
bible, the testament of hell, a savage encyclopedia which logs each brutal truth that mortals
have got hold of since they thieved the apple.

6 The cynical world
The cynical world is scandalized by an unblinking statement of cynicism. Having steeped cynics
in its own cynicism, it cries out when they preach it. It wants them to mimic its own cynicism but
not to wear it on their sleeve. But they betray it by divulging its treacheries and desertions, and it
chastises them like a slighted deity when they do so. The world will make a fool of your cynicism
either by outdoing it or by allowing it to undo you.

You must be very shrewd to see through to the true value of things. But you must be very naive
if you dream that the world will put up with your exposing it.

Cynicism and despair may have truth on their side, but optimism has self-interest and
sentimentality. And the wily climber knows that these have far more currency in this world.
Enthusiasm is paid so much more than cynicism, that only a fool would dare to play the cynic.

You can tell the confidence man by his mealy-mouthed denunciations of cynicism, and by the
trust that he triggers in the ruthless and gullible.

Like a sitter for a portrait, the world gripes whether thinkers dare to paint it just as it is or as it is
7 The cunning of rectitude
Life is a dispiriting pilgrimage. Only the naive and devious reach the end with their faith
unscathed. These are the true believers, who are pricked on by their itch for gain to lodge their
trust in the most venal schemes and creeds.

What novice intriguer could not ‘send the murderous Machiavel to school’? The pure and upright
who feign to be affronted by his sleights and gambits make use of far more crafty ones every
day. ‘The cynicism of life can’t be outdone by literature,’ as Chekhov says. ‘One glass won’t get
someone drunk who has downed a whole barrel.’

The young can afford the luxury of ideals, since they have not yet learnt how much there is to
play for. They dream of dismantling the world and rebuilding it in a better form, but then they
grow up, and they just want to grab a piece of it for their own. We pawn our youthful cynicism to
pay for our adult hopes. We seldom make a more cynical bargain. How cheaply our desires buy
off our discontentment. And how quickly our habits and vanity oust our disillusion.

8 Suspicion
We descend through the hell of mistrust by three circles. First I keep on guard against my
enemies, and I grow self-righteous. Then I’m betrayed by the chillness of confidants, and I start
to doubt them. And at length I sense that I have connived with belief and roguery, and I view my
own heart with a jaundiced eye and squirm with shame. First I learn how fraudulently the world
behaves. And then, if I’m honest, I learn how fraudulently I do. I start to look askance at all
facades, once I see that I have gained or lost by some of them.

Mistrustfulness is an intellectual duty but a personal disgrace, and a moral flaw but a mandatory
excellence of mind. You live most comfortably by relying on the people round you. But how can
you think with stringency, if you don’t doubt their heart and your own and all the shows which
the false world takes for truth? In daily life credulity saves the most time, but in thinking
contempt does.

Contempt whets the intellect, admiration dilates the imagination. ‘Damn braces. Bless relaxes,’
as Blake notes. Suspicion sterilizes like an intellectual disinfectant.

If your aim is to grasp their true nature, you must have perpetrated all the abominations that you
indict, be preyed on by all the diseases that you diagnose, and dote on all the follies which
disgust you. ‘There are,’ Wilde says, ‘poisons so subtle that to know their properties one has to
sicken of them.’
9 The presumption of scepticism
Most of the things that people believe are not even worth doubting.

Most scepticism is an amalgam of ignorance and presumption. Some people boast that they are
sceptics, since they judge the truth of every idea that they meet by the test of how closely it
aligns with the listless opinions that they already hold. ‘With most of us,’ Lichtenberg says,
‘disbelief in a thing is based on blind belief in some other thing.’ Few of us know enough to have
the right to be sceptics. But we still take pride in challenging the notions which we lack the
acuity to grasp.

What is our scepticism but our smug common sense patrolling the boundaries of our
unchallenged convictions, to halt interloping facts from making a breach in our self-assurance?

A lot of people use scepticism as a rug to muffle truths that they don’t want to hear.

Most of us are readier to doubt an idea sooner than our own capacity to gauge its truth.

10 Unthinking freethinking
People now, as Colton said, are born freethinkers who have had no need to think freely. We
hold a miscellany of fashionable suppositions in lieu of our herd’s inherited ones. We are proud
that we have won our freedom from the tutelage that told us what we must think. But we still
have no wish to think for ourselves. Our glib pyrrhonism is as automatic as our antiquated faith,
and our new scepticism is as lazy as our old orthodoxy.

When grey orthodoxies are dying a natural death, scorners bluster that they are giant-killers.

It’s easier to doubt a proposition than it is to examine it. And we would sooner believe an idea
than reflect on it. But we are ready to doubt any idea that might jar with our unreflective beliefs
or customs.

We don’t want to think, and we don’t want to be free to think, but we do want to be free to
choose who will think for us. Or more often we want to choose those who will choose who will
think for us. And whom do we choose? Those whom we trust. And why do we trust them?
Because their interest has in every case coincided so closely with our own, that they have
caused us few pains. Evidently we choose well.

11 The credulity of scepticism
Sceptics trust in their own doubts as proselytes trust in their own dogmas. They cling to their
suspicions with the same certainty that others cling to their convictions. They can’t so much as
doubt without dogmatizing. Like Montaigne, you should mistrust your misbelief too much to be a

A doubting philosopher such as Descartes fasts like a glutton before a feast of credulity. ‘If a
man will be content to begin with doubts,’ claimed Bacon, ‘he shall end in certainties.’ But how
could he be so sure? How do they skip from diffidently admitting that they don’t know a thing to
confidently propounding what can’t possibly be known, such as the soul’s immortality? They’ve
no sooner razed the rotten foundations than they’re at work rebuilding the same old castles in
the air to house the ghosts of their God, their free will and their moral prejudices. Most believers
believe much less than they think they do. And most doubters doubt much less than they think
they do.

Look out when someone bids you be sceptical. Most of them have a mind to diddle you.

We boast that we stand by science, till we find that science runs counter to our ideology or to
our interest.

Sly proponents of a dogma, such as Pascal, know that in order to woo us to their faith all they
need do is cast doubt on our doubts. So they lure us by a reasonable and temperate suspicion
to capitulate to a fanciful yet flat-footed naivety. As Bagehot showed, they alternate between ‘an
appeal to the coarsest prejudice and a subtle hint to a craving and insatiable scepticism.’

12 The wisdom of superstition
Superstitiousness itself, as Montaigne insinuates, may be a madcap scepticism which has a
shrewd feel for the limitations of mortal power and perceptiveness. Napoleon said that the most
valuable qualification a marshal could have was luck.

The theoretician scavenges like a jackal amidst the giant carcasses of myth and saga.
Philosophy, as Montaigne wrote, is ‘nothing else but a sophisticated poetry.’ Myths are infused
with an antique wisdom which is both greener and riper than gaunt philosophy. They keep fresh
and unfaded the old truths that it has lost the taste for.

The sole use of an established orthodoxy should be to incite the mind to restless heresy.

13 Too great to be true
Some thoughts are too great to be true, but far more are too true to be great.
Aren’t most of the great puzzles of philosophy, such as whether we exist or not, too fundamental
to be worth brooding on? ‘There are some questions,’ Hardy said, ‘that are made unimportant
by their very magnitude.’

Those who dream of fame may be inspired to seek out the truth. But it’s those who leave off the
quest for fame that have more scope to find it. You may get glory by stretching for a great hope.
But you reach truth by submitting to a great despair.

The most honest seekers win fame just where they turn false. We seize on their glossy fibs and
flummery, but are wary of their unembellished truths.

Pedestrian minds, who know that they can’t fly high enough to snatch an indelible renown, are
free to forswear the sonorous and ingratiating lies which the eminent are obliged to deal in. A
minor writer, such as Lichtenberg or Butler, Renard or Porchia, may introduce you to a few
unostentatious truths, which the illustrious must stand aloof from, who are too hungry for praise
to render faithfully the flatness of our lives.

Time yields up its most revealing clues to those staid enough to wait on it. And the years
disclose some of their most abstruse mysteries to the second-rate.

Thinkers thirst for the new, and gulp down gallons of the false to slake their craving for it.

14 The drabness of truth
Life is all the time tempting you to make large and false responses to its small and false

The last confession of one who lived to think. I aimed to astound you with new and strange
observations. So how could one line that I wrote be more than half true? Behind each glittering
word you could glimpse the dreariness of truth. But that was what I had to hide, though I didn’t
hide from it. And am I now moved to act as if it were all more dramatic than it was, to amaze
with one last flourish, and to savour the satisfaction of expiating a guilt which I did not quite feel?

A ghostly double haunts all thinkers. It flutters at their back and looks on, and is less susceptible
to style, and cares a shade more for truth and a shade less for glory. So it’s a good thing both
for them and us that it is no more than an apparition.

Even the truths that you grasp after the most gruelling struggles are not quite true. A moment’s
more thought would tell you this was so. But whose good would such a moment serve?

1 The economy of genius
A genius is one for whom more things mean more than they do to the rest of us, and all in a new
way. The more you know, the more you see in each fact or thought or thinker, as Pascal said.
But the more divergence you see to separate them too.

Teeming brains have trained themselves to have punctual inspirations, and have cultivated a
knack for scoring habitual lucky hits.

There is no kind of food that venturesome minds can’t make use of to grow to be what they are.
They are omnivorous yet monomaniac. They may take in a broad spread of stuff, but they
assimilate it all to feed their solitary fixation. There’s nothing that they can’t do without, yet
there’s nothing that they put to waste. They can profit from everything, while not requiring any
one thing. They need no external stimulus, yet they can use anything that comes to hand. All is
dispensable, but nothing is lost. Each thing serves, but none is necessary. When the mind’s on
fire, all facts fuel it. ‘To a poet,’ as Johnson says, ‘nothing can be useless.’ Their insights make
all things redundant and all more fertile.

A fecund mind can draw nourishment even from its own sterility.

2 Saving and spending
A prolific artist or hero or a whole epoch knows when to conserve their force and when to spend
it. They sagaciously save all their strength for the noble quests which they know will break them.
They draw on a mental thrift that lives beyond its means. Their squandering is the true

Ideas, like capital, aggregate in accordance with two laws, the law of self-reproduction and the
law of concentration. Ideas make ideas as money makes money. And to those who have more
will be vouchsafed. To think great thoughts, you need merely have thought a lot of great
thoughts beforehand, since it is the thoughts themselves that do most of the real thinking.

3 Originality
The task of the thinker is to conceive thoughts that are true, important and original. Anyone can
say something new about what’s trivial, or important things that are trite. Scholars do the first,
and moralists the second.
Concepts are like musical instruments, which most of us have learnt to play, but few know how
to compose with.

Thinkers have to toil so untiringly to reach a fresh idea, that you can’t blame them for not
reviewing all the obvious ones that might invalidate it. Next to conceiving a new thought, the
most difficult thing is to critically examine our old ones. ‘Can it be,’ asked Keats, ‘that the
greatest philosopher ever arrived at his goal without putting aside numerous objections?’ The
average professor could refute Descartes’s cogito in ten minutes.

Even for the most adventurous inquirer originality doesn’t shine like a continual sunbeam, but
may flash like a stray thunderbolt.

One of the few pains that life spares us is that of conceiving new thoughts.

The largest truths are hard to find but easy to grasp. And some are still more difficult to believe
than they are to discover. They mystify us less by their complexity than by their profuse

Your most original discoveries will in the end form a barrier to fence in your originality.

4 The solitude of the original
Bold searchers are enveloped in a soundless solitude, which our babble is too blunt to pierce. At
the outset they seem to us not mistaken or mad, but small and peripheral like distant stars. And
we pay no mind to them, since they twinkle so far from the constellation of our own inert views.
‘The higher we soar,’ Nietzsche says, ‘the smaller we look to those that cannot fly.’ Most of us
can’t make out a new truth till someone points to where it is and why it matters.

Pioneering minds are as many years in advance of their time as it takes the world to shrink their
fresh thoughts to its own soggy truisms. They seem as far in front of it as distant suns whose
light takes so long to reach us.

A great idea opens up at its back a silent canyon, into which you can hear all the old certitudes
lurch and crash.

5 Originality repels us
Originality and abstraction make too thin and chilly an air for our gross minds to breathe. So
we’re glad to get back down to the lowlands of our muggy platitudes and anecdotes.

A narrow mind grabs hold of the largest questions by the smallest handle.
A new truth repels us like a dishevelled and disreputable freak. We shun it till it’s been scrubbed
and spruced up as a respectable commonplace. It ceases to alarm us, once it has been
domesticated by the crowd. We come to dote on it on grounds as risible as those for which we
initially spurned it. We embrace it when it’s been translated into the debilitated discourse of our
empty platitudes. So we try to grasp the unknown by the known, but what we know is a few dry
formulas and smug truisms.

Most of us can’t understand a new truth till we have assimilated it to the old lies that we hold

Few people will take the trouble to understand a new idea, till they’re sure that it’s so well known
that there will be some cachet in understanding it.

We need to be led like the blind to an unfamiliar truth. Then we finger it with our smutty paws
which we keep thickly gloved with our ready-woven notions.

6 Thinkers renovate prejudices
Philosophers have forged the most inventive and quirky theories, which have served only to
bolster the archaic totems of their tribe, and to universalize its customs as a general system. In
christendom most of them, like Descartes, Leibniz, Berkeley or Hegel, spun their diverse fabrics
of speculative thought which by some miraculous congruence all proved that the christian faith
is the true one. And nowadays, though it’s clear that equality is a baseless fantasy, they all
found their rigorous reflections on this lazy and acceptable prejudice as if it were an
authenticated fact. Even the most original builders end by renovating the dilapidated tropes of
their time and place. And if they do more, that is still all that we want from them.

7 Novelty
We are skittish creatures who love what looks new as much as we fear and fight change. Yet
we pine for repetition as much as we pant for what’s cheap and new. We are bedazzled by
innovation in trifles, but we squint when it is shown in anything more sizable. We crave
ceaselessly recurring novelty and ceaselessly varied iteration. Both the new-fangled and the
old-fashioned take hold of our hearts. We want all things surprising, and all things recognizable.
Hypnotized by our low familiar dreams, we won’t lift our eyes to high imagination. We now, as
Colton wrote, ‘run after that which is new, but are prejudiced in favour of that which is old.’ We
itch to do new things as much as we hate to think new thoughts.

An age of hectic innovation such as ours won’t wait for real originality, which takes so long to
8 Obsession
The one sane method is mad obsession.

The best way to subdue a newly discovered idea is by stationing it with your obsessions.

A concept, like a territory, is the property not of the first person to explore it, or of the best to
occupy it, but of the one who has seized the most thorough hold of it, and here bulk may do
more than brilliance, as Proust or Dickens shows.

Aren’t most of our fixations as facile as they are consuming, and as empty as they are
tenacious? They are the obverse of our insouciance. Girls and boys flit from one toy or sport to
the next, since their green vagrant moods have not yet formed the hard skeleton of a career
which will hold up their full-grown hopes.

Dour obsession may yield the fruit of sweet reason.

The thoughts that fill our minds from one moment to the next make up the best and worst of us.
We can hope to grow just as large or small as they are. And since most people’s brains are
stuffed with plans for their own advancement, nothing great can be hoped for from them.

The same obsessiveness may make a great mind or else a captious pedant.

We are too distracted to reason consecutively or systematically, so we have to ruminate
compulsively. How could you create and edit the successive drafts of your thoughts, but by
revisiting them in relays of obsession?

9 Originality is a repeating
Originality is where we end. It is not where we set off from. We are not born fresh with a clean
slate but prone to be imposed on by coatings of suffocating custom. And we learn to create by
endless reiteration, each time exchanging a thin sliver of new for old, till at last we echo our way
to individuality.

Creators start off by mimicking a form’s exterior mannerisms, till they reach the core and they
pass out of imitation’s junior school. Those who fix their minds on a small square of thought
retrace the same ground so often that they may learn to look at it in a fresh way. Ideas evolve
not by abrupt convulsions but by slow geological accretion.

It may take you years to see some things. But having seen them once, you start to see them all
the time. ‘If you are possessed by an idea,’ Mann says, ‘you find it expressed everywhere, you
even smell it.’ Those who think new thoughts keep restating them. They’re rediscovering them
over and over for the first time, startled that anything so unlikely could be so true.

Even the most fearless minds distrust their freshest thoughts, since they can discern in them
neither their own self nor the comforting commonplaces of their drove. The theorist may be too
timid for the consequences of their own theory.

10 Originality is a late growth
You need a long ancestry of thinkers to draw on if you are to think new thoughts. Like Adam,
ancient authors had too few precursors to pioneer fresh ways of looking at the world. They
came too early to be able to write anything new. Originality is a late growth, which arrives at the
end of a tradition, not at its birth.

Dull writers, such as roman ones, have descendants. The best, like Shakespeare, have nothing
but forebears. They culminate what has gone before them but give no clue as to what will come
after. They are not planters or sowers but perfecters and reapers.

Most notions have long been platitudes by the time that they are first put in words.

11 Imitation
I fall short of my mentors and models, because I ape them so badly, or else because I ape them
too well.

Great artists are inimitable, not because they are so quirky and personal, but because their
stark impersonality gives us no idiosyncrasies to take after.

An independent mind matures by imitating. Artists grow to be who they are by emulating what
they are not. Genius, as Reynolds wrote, ‘is the child of imitation.’

Those who copy inadvertently jeer at those who copy intently. But what you learn when you set
your mind to imitate is that most of the time you do little else. When we think that we are
behaving spontaneously, we are usually just mimicking models that we’re not aware of, because
everyone else is mimicking them too. Choose to emulate what’s fresh, and you are freed from
following fads.

You surrender to influences like a surfer to a wave, to see to what height it will lift you and how
far it will take you.

We copy by nature, but grow original by art. We imitate by instinct. But the patterns that we
imitate are allocated to us by custom.
12 The sick are first to catch the diseases of the future
The innovations of great minds are further in advance of them than the great minds are of their
time. And the great minds lag behind their own ideas almost as far as we lag behind them.

Minor writers divine the age to come with more clairvoyance than a major one, since they stay
closer to the stale assumptions which are sporing it. Great insights are perennial rather than

Those who see farther into the future have caught its diseases a few years before the rest of us.
If great minds are harbingers of what’s to come, it’s because they are farther gone on the road
to decadence. The poet, as Rimbaud wrote, is ‘the sickest of the sick, the great felon, the great

A demagogue says the wrong thing at the right time, a genius says the right thing at the always
wrong one.

Reactionaries like Burke or Maistre are best qualified to read the present. And revolutionaries
like Marx are best qualified to read the past. Those who see farthest in front of their own epoch
may at the same time lag centuries behind it. They’re resurrectionists, who suture the joints of
their revelations from the exhumed assumptions of a prior age. Nietzsche’s thoughts were so
untimely because most of them were already hoary three thousand years before he thought

13 The present is the past’s ungrateful child
The present detects in the best minds of the past plenty of plausible grounds to commend its
own progress. It’s gratified by their advanced doctrines, since they smoothed the way for its own
truisms. And it’s gratified by their retrograde dogmas, since they give it an excuse to be smug.

We praise past masters for surmounting the pieties of their own age and foreshadowing the
pieties of ours. We pay them the fulsome compliment of acknowledging that they were
preparing the way for us.

The present looks on the past as a precocious child. It would not pay it much heed had it not
grown up to be itself.

The present is a ruthless darwinist. It always records that the right side won, since it was leading
up to it. As monks saw their parochial creed prefigured in every personage or happenstance in
books or history, so we read in a strong writer such as Shakespeare the first flickerings of our
bright egalitarian suppositions.
It’s those whose minds are in thrall to the idols of the age who assume that a genius must be
ahead of its time.

14 Genius and mediocrity
An adventurous mind delights in its own productions. But so does a dull and lustreless one.
Who feels so jubilant as Catullus’s or Borges’s self-deluded and scrawling poetaster? Mediocrity
is all that greatness is except great.

Genius has no heart, but neither does stupidity.

Though original minds may say the same thing as vapid ones, they mean incalculably more by
it. Their bald yes or no may give the clue to a whole table of values.

Goethe proves how ineluctably commonplace the mind of a superlative creator may be.
Johnson proves how strong an intentionally commonplace and conservative mind may be.
Voltaire shows how deep a superficial mind can penetrate if it’s sharp enough. Joyce shows
what an uninteresting mind a dazzling technician may have.

Montaigne was an undistinguished mind raised to genius by the accident of his vocation and
method. With not much talent Stendhal willed himself into greatness, whilst Dickens was born
with such staggering gifts, that for much of the time he forgot to be a genius, and shrank to a
pantomime Balzac, who winks and grins, weeps and leers, and makes sure that his vapid lambs
come off well and his vivid goats end in disaster and disgrace. Instead of unmasking ruthless
bourgeois self-advancement for what it is, he robes it as a chivalrous crusade on behalf of the
weak and voiceless.

15 Competence comes from mediocrity
It takes far more wit to be a mediocrity than to be a genius. And it takes a great deal more
ingenuity and erudition to be a critic than to be a creator.

A mediocrity is more quick-witted and versatile than a first rate mind.

To be competent and efficient, you need to have dull ideas or no ideas at all. Talent ables,
genius disables.

A deep mind is dim where the rest of us scintillate, and is stumped by the jobs that we get done
so adroitly. ‘Mine indeed is the mind of a very idiot,’ said Lao Tzu. Many first-rate geniuses have
had third-rate minds. So it may be I am a genius after all.
Narrow ideas make for broad competence. It takes a middling talent to do more than one thing

Who now is awed by great minds? I pity them, considering that, unlike me, they are so
inadequate to life, that they have to compensate for their deficiency by growing desperately
great. And we look with condescension on those turbulent germinal epochs which didn’t know
how to husband their force so as to shrink to our snug and lucrative barrenness.

16 Genius is not universal
A profound intellect can only do a single thing at a time, since so many things crowd in on its
imagination. ‘Beethoven can write music, but he can do nothing else on earth.’ A
comprehensive mind is comprehensive only in its own small preserve, as Shakespeare was in
poetry. Or if, like Leonardo, Goethe or Jefferson, they’re skilled in a suite of them, they are so in
just one compartment of each. ‘If you do one thing well,’ asked Thoreau, ‘what else are you
good for?’

Genius itself may be just one of mediocrity’s more infrequent specializations.

A genius in a drawing room has to work so hard to seem like one of us, that they’re hard put to it
to say anything smart. ‘When I am not original,’ Renard confessed, ‘I am stupid.’

The only certain way of becoming universal would be, like Shakespeare, to be as little of an
integrated being as is possible.

17 The great effects of small differences
What small differences make all the difference to us. The magnification of slim distinctions gives
rise to all substantial things. A forceful mind starts with a few lean advantages and stretches
them to large effects. Napoleon, a marginally more skilful general than his peers, overran the
whole of Europe. Buffet earned a huge fortune by extracting a somewhat higher rate on his
capital. Transpose one or two notes of a rude tune, and it makes the most delectable air. ‘Trifles
make perfection,’ as Michelangelo said.

What drab constituents may add up to a masterwork, yet how magically it will upraise them to
epiphanies. A thousand shuffling steps lead to the peak of achievement. A slight mutation may
through many forks in time throw up a fresh type.
18 Miraculous potential, mediocre actuality
We start out with miraculous potentialities, which we stunt by restricting them to such mean
uses. ‘The youth,’ Thoreau says, ‘gets together his material to build a bridge to the moon, and at
length the middle-aged man concludes to build a woodshed with them.’ The mind is an
astonishing and intricate utensil, which for the most part we employ for no more exalted end
than shelling peas.

The world is a dazzling contraption which consumes all our craft to run it. We develop our most
ingenious constructions, whether establishments, trade, science or statecraft, by elevating our
elementary gifts to a high degree of mediocrity. How much skill, diligence and teamwork it takes
to accomplish all second-rate things. Is it any wonder that so few of us succeed in becoming
even second-rate? You need as much dedication to do a mediocre work as you would to do a
marvellous one. We strain all our powers to carry out the most humdrum tasks, but how flabbily
we exert our imagination to do creative ones. Our highest achievements alone redeem the
pledge of our simplest gifts.

19 Genius, madness and exceptions
Genius and madness are closer to mediocrity than they are to each other. Genius nears insanity
only when it has ceased to be what it is.

Madness may be more an effect of the kind of life that genius needs to lead so as to do their
great work than the cause that makes them able to do it.

The poet may be like a lunatic, but the lunatic is not in the least like a poet. Bold minds may be
like the crazy, and yet the products of a bold mind are the antipodes of the tedious and
mechanical outpourings of craziness. Mad people, like sleepers, have erratic but dingy visions,
and, like slovenly poets, they keep recycling stereotypes from the common stock. In the west
they are all Jesus or Napoleon. Their fixations don’t open a door to wondrous truths. They’re as
predictable and repetitive as rats in a maze.

What is quintessential is often atypical. The most distinctive comes in time to be the most
representative. Greatness is singular in its very universality. The finest style is at once
exemplary and inimitable. And the best writers indicate the typical by revealing to us the
exceptional. Dickens’s characters are eccentric but not extraordinary, Shakespeare’s are
extraordinary but not eccentric. Mad people, like the dull, are freakish yet derivative. A mind
working at highest pitch is unconventional yet archetypal.
20 Lives of the artists
We love geniuses where they are most like us, in their lives, where they are least like geniuses.
Some of us can love art only by loving its fashioners, as the superstitious do homage to the
trinity only in its saints. Artists focus their force with such narrowness in their works, what do
they have to spare for life but their average drabness? ‘Great geniuses,’ as Emerson notes,
‘have the shortest biographies.’ A true artist leaves no memoirs. All that we need to know of
artists’ lives is housed in their work. And if they are real artists, that’s nothing at all. But we don’t
care much for their works, though we love to hear one or two salacious titbits from their life.

How could God be a credible artist, when he so far outshines his handiwork, and wants to be
honoured more than his productions, and was so vastly pleased with what he had made? Would
a human being not blush to have brought forth nothing more admirable than a jellyfish or a
snail? ‘If I had invented them,’ joked Twain, ‘I would go hide my head in a bag.’

21 The life and the work
‘The work is all,’ as Flaubert said, ‘the person is nothing.’ The life is the husk which the work has
no more need of. Life is for consumers, the creator cares for nothing but the work. The life was
just a long mistake which they had to make so that the work might get done and which will soon
be thankfully rubbed out by death. The book lives a better and truer life than its author, more
pure, quiet, proud and self-contained. The poem leads a more resonant and spacious life than
the cramped and insubstantial poet.

The runners’ running is worth more than their immortal souls. And a few perfect but perishable
sentences count for more than the writer’s immortal soul. Their bright achievements are washed
clean of the pollution of their life and spirit. The immortal part of us is not the small thing that we
are, but the great things that we make.

A work of art is worth a great deal more than any mere soul that it might channel. Artists mean
more than their lives but less than their works. And they grow as great as they are less than the
works that issue from them. ‘Good artists,’ Wilde says, ‘exist simply in what they make, and
consequently are perfectly uninteresting in what they are.’ They make better than they are. The
more fully they give form to their vision, the further they fall short of what they create. And what
they create surpasses them more than they surpass the rest of us. A writer is a miserable
contraption for turning out miraculous sentences. But in our overeducated age writers are now
more interesting and articulate than their books.

1 The ceaseless birth of illusion
We don’t start with truth and deviate from it. Illusion is our homeland, and truth makes a few
brief incursions within its borders, which we repulse with ease.

There is such an unquenchable thirst for illusions from age to age, that we have to keep
rephrasing them and furnishing them with new forms. But the love of truth burns so low, that it
can feed forever on the same fuel.

Lies may have shorter lives than truth, but they reproduce more rapidly.

Truth may have time on its side, but error has numbers. ‘Truth is the cry of all,’ as Berkeley
wrote, ‘but the game of the few.’

Truth is as easy to eradicate as lies are quick to infest us. Lies spread by contagion. But some
we are immune to, whereas others we need to be inoculated against by assenting to them for a

Though immune to ideas, we are susceptible to infectious opinions.

We lie as we breathe, instinctively, habitually and unawares. The heart and head lie as the
lungs take in air. We notice that we are lying not when we lie best but when we strain to do it, as
we don’t notice that we are breathing except when we gasp. We suck the exhilarating air of our
illusions, and we feel healthy and expansive just by inhaling it.

Don’t we prize a book, denomination, party or creed not for the one big lie that it means to tell
but for the swarms of small ones that it takes for granted?

2 We are steeped in illusion
We all wear motley, though the patches of truth and falsity differ for each of us. We are all either
fools or frauds, and many of us prove to be both. We should try to curb our folly, use no more
fraud than we need to get by, and know what we are.

I trust that I’m advancing in truth, when I swap a coarser fallacy for a more subtle one. ‘Dream
delivers us to dream,’ Emerson wrote, ‘and there is no end of illusion.’

We grow honest not by impulse but only after routing hard resistance.

We live by lies, till we die for real.
From year to year we get farther from real life but no nearer to our dreams.

Most of our ills are all in our mind. And so most of our remedies are in our mind too.

We must have some affinity for fraud, since we are glad to lie for such low pay.

I tell as many kind lies as cunning ones. So I square my reckoning, and can lay claim to a love
of the truth.

It’s easier to get a lie into a head than to dislodge it. But you hardly insert a truth before it starts
trickling out. Our fancies snag faster in our brains than the real thing, since we have tailored
them to suit our own wants.

3 The ugliness of truth
Truth is so dowdy, or else, like the goddess Diana, so refulgently lovely, that she is seldom
shown nude. Though we don’t believe in the truth, we are still disgusted to see it rudely bared in
front of our face.

If truth is, as Nietzsche said, a woman, why does she act like such a prude, and not deign to
undress even for her most respectful wooers?

All of us tell the truth if we have no choice. But why be gratuitously honest?

A lie is a truth that you don’t want to hear. But the lies that your side tells are a requisite tactic to
defeat the more insidious deceit. ‘Nothing has an uglier look to us than reason,’ Halifax wrote,
‘when it is not of our side.’ A falsehood that helps to confound our enemies counts as a fact for
us. As Nietzsche remarked, ‘how good bad music and bad reasons sound when we march
against an enemy.’ And when facts rebut our faith, we redouble it to show that we are not to be
cowed by mere evidence.

4 Human kind cannot bear very much reality
We try to heal our hearts with lies, not because we desire misinformation itself, but because
truth would do us no good.

Most of us know just enough of the truth to make us content with our plausible coinages. We
know our hearts too well to wish to know them better. We would rather be consistently and
decently deceived than scandalously and hurtfully disabused. Better a reputable dupe than a
ridiculous clear-eyed eccentric. We strain like puppies at the leash of error, but we lack the will
to snap it.
Truth is savagely abstract. But illusion is so beguiling because it’s safely conventional yet
complacently personal.

Life robs us of all the supports that hold up our make-believe, and so leaves us too poor to let
go of it.

‘Human kind cannot bear very much reality,’ as T. S. Eliot wrote. But neither can it bear very
much illusion. We can’t bear to face the truth. Yet we don’t quite believe the faith that we take
up to shield us from it. We can’t even rest in the lies which we have need of in order to live.

We rarely fix in words the illusions that we live by, and we may not even be quite aware of them.

5 Illusion is a fortress
Truth may make the windows of your house, but strong illusions make the walls that hold it up.
Yet these too will tumble down, if they are not shored up by the lies of others. And from
whatever material you seek to build your happiness, it will soon cave in, if you don’t ground it on
the unshakable dream of your importance.

Truth is no help in time of trouble, but our illusions are an ever-present guide and consolation.

Illusion is a fortress which truth would pull down on our heads to crush us.

How do we go on, but by dismissing from our mind from one moment to the next how much the
years have gouged from us and the dismal lessons that they have taught us? Our brains would
split, if we believed each day and hour the things that we know to be true.

In this world of deceit and discouragement, the best you can hope for is that the years will be
kind to your illusions.

Most of us would go mad, if we were stripped of our mad aberrations. You can’t even be wise, if
you’re not sheltered by a thatch of dry self-deception.

How could all the tender shoots of truth live on, if they weren’t shaded by the broad
overspreading tree of unreality?

You have to submit to be duped by faith, so that you can go on seeking a despairing wisdom.

6 The lie gives life
Our lives are saved by lies, and would be wrecked by the truth.
Nothing human can survive in truth’s lifeless lunar atmosphere. You can breathe no air but that
of your vital half-lies. Even the most lucid of us are kept vertical by our flimsy evasions.

A seeker woos truth like an unrequited lover. It’s the hapless ones who find their way to win her.
The fortunate get fantasy, her more kind-hearted sister.

Truth leaves us naked and exposed in a gale of affliction, when hospitable illusion would shelter
us. Your aberrations nerve you, where the truth would weaken and discourage you. What
deludes me makes me stronger. In the shipwreck of our hopes we have to cling to our buoyant
delusions to stay afloat.

Truth is as alien to our nature as illusion is necessary to our being.

That truth will shield us from woe is one of the illusions that we use to shield ourselves from the

We can live through the rest of our lacks, so long as we lack self-observation too. If we gave up
our hypocrisy, the world would wither to a wilderness. And if we gave up self-deception, solitude
would contract to a torture chamber. ‘The art of living,’ as Pavese wrote, ‘is the art of knowing
how to believe lies.’

Some of us suffer from our illusions like a plague, but most profit from them like a fund of

We thrive best in the rank air of our teeming illusions.

We need uplifting lies, to reconcile us to the poor trash that we have won, or else to rouse us to
attempt the high exploits of which we might be capable.

7 Dying for illusion
Some people may give up their peace of mind in order to seek out the truth, but far more give it
up to keep their illusions. They will glibly bet their souls on a creed which they have not gone to
the trouble of understanding. They’re prepared to die for their prejudices, but they won’t live for
their principles. Why are they so willing to kill or be killed for tenets which they were too lazy to
examine? ‘People,’ Russel remarked, ‘would sooner die than think. In fact, they do.’ Defoe said
that there were a hundred thousand englishmen poised to make war on popery, who were not
sure if it was a man or a horse.

Those who lay down their lives for a cause don’t prove a thing, not even that they believe in it or
know what it is. But a creed may not be untrue even if millions die for it, though its adherents
assume that they prove it true if they can make more of its adversaries die.
We have never cared to live for the truth. But we are quite ready to kill for our illusions.

8 The illusion of disillusion
We grow disillusioned with the world when it refuses to share the illusions that prop up our own

We don’t fear lies but the motives for which they are told. And we don’t fear truth but the effects
it might have on us. I’m disillusioned by those subterfuges that profit someone else more than
me, and I’m disgusted by the deceptions that have ceased to serve my own needs. Those who
are glad to give their assent to a lie from which they had hoped to gain are the first to squeal
when they find that they too might be hurt by it.

How disillusioned I may be by those things about which I was sure I had got rid of all my
illusions. And what enchanting illusions I keep up as to objects by which I have been heartily
disenchanted. Our lies are so durable because they are so elastic. And if they do snap, there is
always a new one near at hand to take their place.

9 The economy of prejudice
If we tried to use our reason, most of us would aggravate our initial slips into catastrophic
conclusions. By some happy chance we are more judicious, or at least more harmlessly
muddled, than our principles or our prejudices ought to make us. ‘The average man’s opinions,’
Russel wrote, ‘are much less foolish than they would be if he thought for himself.’

Reasoning would isolate us, and cut us off from our unreflecting herd, and leave us shivering in
the dark. But we want to huddle close in a bright warm fug of shared prejudices.

We may be too remiss to track down the truth, but how perseveringly we work to keep up our
indolent bunkum. Why do we tax our miraculous capacities to dream up ways of avoiding the
truth, when we could have used them to find it out with so much less toil?

10 Lies keep the peace
In social life truth is the first casualty of peace. How could we get on so harmoniously with one
another, if we didn’t find it politic to act as if we were fooled by each other? ‘If people knew what
others say of them,’ Pascal wrote, ‘there would not be four friends in the world.’ Truth is the
nuclear deterrent which keeps the truce between friends, since we know that no one will dare to
use it.
Anyone who dares to get off the gaudy merry-go-round of mutual flattery is not fit to live in

Our lies keep us tied to the world. They are what we share most intimately, since they frame the
rules of the game which we all hope to win. And we try to foist them on as many people as we
can, since we add to our own sum by imposing them on others.

In suffering for an illusion, we can at least be sure that we are not alone, as we would be if we
were suffering for the truth.

How tenderly the brute world treats our delusions. Yet how unforgivingly it treats those who woo
the truth. It indulges the dishonest more than kind people hope, or than stern moralists fear.

11 Hooped together by illusion
Society is held together by hypocrisy, and the individual is held together by self-deception.
Baseless lies are the sole solid foundation on which a state can be based.

Our lies unite us. Civilization, as Yeats said, is ‘hooped together by manifold illusion.’ Stable
states are ballasted by one vast underlying fallacy. Unstable states are bound by knots of frayed
mismatching ones. More resilient cultures don’t have the strength to bear the truth, but they do
have stronger and more trenchant errors. Civilization lives by lies and self-deception,
refashioning life as a parade of particoloured masks and facades. Yet it is the one intermediary
through which you can grasp the truth.

Our society is kept humming by its practical information and by its gratifying illusions, its new
contrivances and its old lies.

A cause proves its worth partly by the goods that we give up to serve it. And the first thing that
all of us are willing to give up is the truth. People are as ready to tell hopeful and unifying lies in
a good cause as in a bad one.

12 Social illusion
Most of us reckon that a thing becomes real when it makes its way into the world at large and
others take it up. But a few know that it becomes a sham as soon as it does so. Does anything
seem so crack-brained as a fallacy that no one else shares? Yet this is just one more piece of
collective trickery. What we put most of our faith in is the fallacies that a great number of others

Truth is the thing that seems least real in this world of cheap charades.
Real things, such as truth or beauty, make unreal ones, such as opinion, money or success,
appear unreal. But unreal things do the same to real ones. New truths lay bare the falsity of
authorized cant. But authorized cant mocks new truths as if they were mere oddities. For most
of us a truth is one of those superfluous things that means nothing to us if it doesn’t mean
something to others.

Why is it that a thing comes to seem credible, admirable or estimable for us because others
credit, admire or esteem it? ‘I feel all my opinions loosen and fall of themselves,’ as Hume
notes, ‘when unsupported by the approbation of others.’

13 Fake cause, real feeling
False convictions stoke in us real fervours, and the most truthless transport us with the most

It’s those ideas that are uncontaminated by fact that infect us with pure feeling.

Images and icons rouse in us more intense feelings than the real thing.

We feel a genuine enthusiasm for fake things. But we can muster only a lukewarm respect for
real ones.

A fake is in every case more convincing than the real thing. It’s the hokiest rigmarole that sparks
the most heartfelt thrills.

Most of us are too shrewd to be fobbed off with what’s real and precious, yet we are
mesmerized by shallow fakes.

Tinsel fakes thrill our hearts more than the real thing. They seem to have a buried life that they
know they don’t lead. What is used or borrowed sounds more plaintive, since it echoes all the
pasts that it once had and has now lost.

14 Revelation and repetition
We are struck by revelations, not when a notion first butts on our mind, but when we finally
accede to one that has long been rattling round in our heads. A revelation is not the beginning
of enlightenment but the culmination of an obsession. It is not an event but a process. It’s not
the first flash of an unforeseen illumination. It is the last parting of the darkness as the sun
peeps over the horizon.

A thought is like a tune, which has no chance of captivating you till you have heard it several
We are struck as if by a revelation when we hear our moral nostrums played on with an
anguished gravity.

1 World of appearances and imitation
In this world of imitation it’s false shows, frauds, puffery, masks, drapery, shuffles, charades and
hoaxes that have the real authority. Anything genuine has no place. Nothing is so real and
solidly-based that it can keep standing without the prop of empty pomp and ostentation.

We seem real in our own and others’ eyes only by participating in all the world’s unreal shows.

Don’t we always find some proxy that will cost us less and gain us more to do duty for the
arduous and precious goods that we claim to set such a high premium on? If we can call it by
the same name, we count it a bargain. And most of us are content to roost in this cheap and
undemanding double world. We prefer anecdotes to evidence, incidentals to the core,
presuppositions to principles, entertainment to enlightenment, news to permanent truths,
borrowed opinions to our own cogitations.

2 The priceless and the costly
I shun real and solid goods, but my greed drives me on to trawl for thin and inessential ones. I
cling ferociously to the trash that I don’t prize, yet I coldly let go of the precious things that I do

We waste no end of time doing what we would not do if we had to pay for it. And we pay large
sums of money to lay hands on what we’d not care for if it came free. We would be bored to
spend much time contemplating a piece of scenery which we would be glad to spend half our
life labouring to buy. How much of our life we fritter away to get such worthless junk, and how
little of it we give to tend such priceless treasures.

As we grow wealthier, we complicate our appetites and coarsen our minds. We crave more and
more costly refinements of plain necessities. But we still make shift with the old crude
substitutes for the most precious goods, such as art or intuition, which cost us so little in any

Aren’t most of our bargains more fatuous than faustian? We sell our birthright for a mess of
pottage. Some of our canniest deals go near to beggaring us. We trade our freedom for the
mean expedients that we trust will one day make us free. We submit to a permanent yoke to win
a precarious liberty.
3 The best and the cheapest
The best is never good enough for us. We want something more plush and velvety and
conspicuous. Rarely do we desire the best, and when we do, we prefer to have it varnished and

We want to lodge our senses in a sumptuous palace, which will soon fall into disrepair anyway.
But we leave our minds to cringe in a derelict hovel packed with shopworn pilfered fittings. We
furnish our homes with luxuries, and fill our minds with junk. So we demand the best of all the
things that are not worth possessing, delicacies, finery, furnishings, gewgaws, gimmicks,
frippery and blinking device, all the toys of our gimcrack affluence. We want the best of the
cheapest things and the cheapest form of the best things. We strive to excel in the lowest tasks.
What we covet is cheap trash expensively done.

4 Our substitute selves
I don’t doubt that the goal that lies just out of my reach is my better self. But this is what has
filled the place of the better self which I could become right now, if only I could quit struggling to
seize the cheap baubles that hang just out of my reach. As Pascal points out, ‘We unceasingly
strive to embellish and preserve our counterfeit being and neglect the real one.’

We seem most real to ourselves when we are with others. But we seem at our best when we
are alone. Those around me, whose lives are so unreal to me, make my own appear real to
myself. I seem genuine when I am most fake. And I can stay true to myself only by becoming
nothing to everyone else.

5 Never at home to the truth
We rush expensively round the world in search of the gaudy makeshifts for the plain rich goods
that we could have found at home. ‘Let us not rove,’ Emerson urged, ‘let us sit at home with the
cause. The soul is no traveller.’ We have all that we need right here in front of us. But can we sit
still long enough to see it? ‘Human unhappiness,’ as Pascal wrote, ‘springs from one thing
alone, our inability to stay quietly in our room.’

We don’t care where we’ve been, and we don’t know where we are. We fix our eyes on where
we’re on the way to. And when we get there, we still won’t know it, since we’ll be haring off to
some new destination. We are always travelling and never arriving. And yet we see no point in
the mere journey.
We live as we travel, and we travel as we shop and consume, distractedly sampling the flavours
of our plastic fantasies, and taking our own snaps of the landmarks that we have seen so many
times in films, postcards, guidebooks and posters. Why should we care if we have tasted life to
the full, so long as we’ve got the photographs? We jaunt round the world in the quest to
experience at first-hand the second-hand images of a place which have been printed on our
soul. Then we skew these too by experiencing such a cramped ambit of them.

The dreariest globetrotter has ranged and seen more than the most intrepid discoverer.

6 Immortal idols
We are a stiff-necked people, yet how low we kneel to the first fetish that we find. All of us rend
our flesh for the calf of gold, but we won’t give up trifles for the one true God. We may not need
a creed to put our trust in, but don’t we still crave an idol to crook the knee to? And yet most of
them are too unworldly to keep our loyalty for long. So our idolatry proves to be no less fickle
than our faith.

We bow down to idols, because we assent too soon, and crave too much, and think too little.

Though determined not to worship idols, we still make an idol of our worship.

Who could be so naive as to trust that all falsehood will fall to pieces as soon as they’ve
smashed its latest idol? If people don’t spend their credulity on one kind of bilge, they will spend
it on some other. Faith is just one of the forking tributaries of the broad river of delusion. Dam up
this channel, and the flood will surge with more force elsewhere.

7 Scant imagination
We are, as Bagehot said, governed not by the strength of our fancy but by its slackness and
languor. If we had more of it, it might not cheat us with such ease. I am mesmerized by images,
because I have so little imagination. Our illusions are so thin and limited, and yet we never
come to the end of them.

We are suggestible but not imaginative.

We have such overbearing illusions and such a timid imagination.

Our fantasies are just as dank and grimy as the low reality which we want to use them to tunnel
out of.
8 Our greedy fantasy
Our imagination is our ideal consumer feeding us the world. Our yawning fantasy cooks up
images for our greed to grub up and swallow. We have just enough imagination to pique our
greedy dreams, and just enough initiative almost to make them real. We confect senseless
wants, and then have to use up our lives cramming them with senseless satisfactions. We have
all the fancy we need to set us on to crave more of the same, but not to spur us to make
anything new.

I give my mind up to melodramatic dreams, and thereby pile on my head prosaic debacles. We
tell ourselves lies that we don’t believe, and then wreck our lives in the vain effort to live up to

9 We perceive with our prejudices
I begin to misconceive the world where it meets my skin. I misjudge the very air, warm or cool,
wet or dry. Most of us see with our prejudices, not with our eyes. We are thus spared first from
attending to what’s in front of our face, and then from the need to judge by our own lights.

Most of us can grasp only what we have seen, yet we still muddy it with our turbid fantasy.

If you want to see a thing afresh, you have to gaze at it long and long, till you start to see it for
the first time. A blur of custom blears our eyes from the cradle. And we don’t see a thing for
itself till we have learnt to look with unhasting intentiveness. When asked to draw what’s in front
of their eyes, children reproduce a facsimile of its stock icon.

It takes a great gift of imagination to see what is in front of your face.

10 Second-hand sentiments
Our thoughts sound so plausible to us because they echo the sentiments that we are so used to
hearing from others. We don’t reason. We merely respond. And we don’t respond to things as
they are, but to the responses that others have made to them. We don’t deal with actualities.
We tack together new editions of the old versions of them.

‘Our souls are moved at second-hand,’ as Montaigne says. We are touched by things because
others have been touched by them. We don’t know what we ought to feel till we learn from
others what they have felt.

How few of us take the trouble to find our own truths or even to forge our own illusions. It’s more
economical to get them on loan from others.
Even our lies lack inventiveness.

Convention manufactures our fallacies for us, so that we don’t have to draw on the handicraft of
imagination. We don’t think our own thoughts, but merely counterfeit an authorized currency.
And we don’t discern our artfulness and shamming, since we sham so instinctually.

We judge things not as they are, but as others judge them to be. We are fooled not so much by
appearances as by the views that the rest of the world holds of them. We live by imagination,
but mainly by the imaginations of others. ‘Mirror on mirror mirrored is all the show,’ as Yeats

We evaluate by comparing. But what we compare are not things as they are but the
predominant valuations of them. We judge the truth of an idea, as we judge everything else, by
its incidental effects and ascendancy, since we are too negligent to investigate its intrinsic

11 Judge for yourself
When people judge for themselves, they adopt the received opinion that sorts best with the rest
of their received opinions. They have eyes only for the sorts of things that they have seen in the
past, or for the things that others have seen. They can see to appraise only what others see,
and even then they use a borrowed yardstick. ‘We take unconsciously the opinion of others,’ as
Trollope says. ‘We drink our wine with other men’s palates, and look at our pictures with other
men’s eyes.’ We are able to see only what we have been trained to look at. And for most of us
that’s not much.

I stand by my own assessment of things, yet I praise whatever others praise and scorn what
they scorn. I cleave to my own opinions, though I don’t know what I think till the unthinking world
tells me. ‘The number of those who undergo the fatigue of judging for themselves,’ Sheridan
says, ‘is very small indeed.’ We form our judgments, as we do most things, egoistically but not

Are there any so indigent, that they can’t afford the luxury of assessing others? Are there any so
downcast or obscure, that they don’t have the right to judge the whole show by their own
bleared lights?

The proofs that appear to me the most cogent and undeniable are the ones that I have found by
my own efforts. And yet I don’t quite trust them till I know that a lot of other people do too. No
argument seems more unanswerable than one that dominant prejudice makes redundant. Why
else would we be so sure of our categories of right and wrong?
12 The unimaginable
Why do crimes like the shoah seem so unimaginable once they have happened, when they had
been imagined long before they were committed? We go on inflicting unthinkable atrocities
because we have thought them out so sensationally, till we will at last inflict on the world an end
that will be unthinkably thoughtless. Once the pious had inscribed over the gate of hell ‘Divine
power made me, wisdom supreme and final love,’ it was inevitable that monsters would one day
set up their obscene paradoxes over the gates of extermination camps. How little imagination
we must have, to hear of such horrors and not go mad.

Human kind has spent as little effort imagining its utopias as it has to make them real. They are
all as trite and predictable as they are doomed and impractical. We have too much obsessive
fantasy not to go on projecting them, and too many unruly cravings to be resigned to remain in

I can’t imagine not being here for the years to come, which I can’t imagine. Nothing is more
unremarkable than the death of others or more inconceivable than our own.

13 The image and its circumstances
‘We rarely view great objects in insulation,’ Montaigne says. ‘The small accoutrements, the
outer paraphernalia are what catch our eye. Caesar’s toga threw all Rome in turmoil, which his
death did not do.’ We are moved more by the occasion and all its attendant circumstances than
by the true cause. We prefer the frame to the sketch, the blurb to the book, the tale to its telling,
the shell to the kernel, the annotations to the text, the libretto to the music, the setting to the
play, the costumes to the script, the story to the style, the pay to the deed, the fame to the feat,
the church to the faith, the graven image to the god, the life to the work. We inspect the painter’s
signature more inquisitively than the painting’s design.

Kafka’s goblin face haunts us more than his devastating fables. Guevara’s defiant stare
galvanized a generation of tame eaters and feeders to hollow posturing and declamation. It is
the icon that we love and not the god, the pose and not the principle. And yet the lurid caricature
of an author like Machiavelli may show us more fruitful truths than the real thing.

14 Cheap imitation
A world doesn’t seem real for us till it has been represented. And we are convinced that it is
authentic by all its crass facsimiles.
We wish that there were someone observing our life. And when we view a play or read a book
or look at a sketch, don’t we hope that we are doing what others might somehow do for us,
witnessing our lives?

That truth is stranger than fiction is one of the tired fictions that are more familiar to us than the
truth. ‘Truth,’ as Twain said, ‘is more of a stranger than fiction.’ Life springs more surprises than
books, but all of the dreariest and nastiest kind.

Anecdotes thrill us, but art leaves us numb. We crave the infantile satisfactions of story, but we
have no patience for the adult exactions of art. We favour cheap melodrama over chaste

15 The imitation animal
Human nature, if it exists at all, can be defined only by negatives. It is not rational. It is not
unchanging or immortal. And it is not natural.

Human nature stays the same from age to age, since there is so little of it. It strives to get what
it wants, but what it wants and how it strives to get it are limitlessly adaptable. Its most marked
feature is its bent for proliferating bizarre conventions. Nature can vary as weirdly as custom,
and custom clings as tenaciously as nature. And yet a usage or taboo that has lived on for
hundreds or thousands of years may die out in a generation.

Drive custom out with a pitchfork, yet will it run straight back. ‘The unnatural,’ Goethe points out,
‘that too is natural.’ Though one might just as well say, the natural, that too is unnatural.
Whatever we like we call natural, and what we dislike we call unnatural.

We are by nature creatures of convention. ‘Nothing cannot be made natural,’ Pascal wrote.
‘Nothing natural cannot be lost.’ Artifice is our nature, and our nature is one of the unnatural’s
unnumbered variants. We don’t touch nature save through the prophylactic of custom. And we
don’t discern custom, as we have grown so used to taking it for nature. Many of the desires,
behaviours and institutions that have been thought most natural are in fact the most stubbornly
conventional. It takes a long course of nurture and formation to turn people into what they think
they are by nature.

16 The neurotic animal
We should strive to be the best animals that we can. But we are such sorry animals, that if that’s
all we are, then we are less than nothing.
From pole to pole our kind is a neurotic animal, and has at all times been perverted. ‘Man,’ as
Rousseau says, ‘is a sick animal,’ and we will butcher all the healthier ones in our vain search
for a cure. We are beasts that want to have everything both ways. We have maimed and
mutilated our primal instincts by thousands of years of training and civilization. Yet we push the
most elaborate schemes to give an outlet to our most childish drives.

We are all now so ill, what nobler ideal could we envision than a healer of the diseased human
animal? Why else would we have hired such sickly gods to tend us? Soon, as Goethe
prophesied, ‘the world will have turned into one huge hospital, where each is everybody else’s
humane nurse.’ Yet no one will be cured. We will all drag out our fever rather than make a clean

Our passions corrupt our reason, and our reason complicates our passions.

An animal is an ingenious piece of clockwork. But in us consciousness has sent the mechanism

17 Instinct
Of all things instinct is the least natural and spontaneous, the most robotic and mechanical. It is
the mere translation into habits of an encoded set of instructions.

The animals can make do with their instincts. We, with our more evolved form of consciousness,
need illusions. They live their ignorance through their sane instincts, we formulate ours as ideas.
Since we have the eyes to see the truth, we need to stun and blinker them with our
misconceptions. We are dressed-up animals, still stung by our lusts and alarms, but at odds
with our natural bent.

We have blighted our instincts but not killed them. We have merely depraved and deformed
them. They have grown hunched and shortsighted, but their teeth are as sharp as ever.

Ignorance is the best defender of sound instinct.

A sentient being needs to keep up the illusion of its meaning and purpose, so as to give its brute
insensate will a pretext to go on with its struggle.

18 Convention and conformity
We cling to convention because we are so listlessly artificial, but we can foil convention only by
becoming strenuously artificial. You can’t defeat it by spontaneity but only by forethought and
Some minds are so heavy and immoveable, that all they’re good for is to act as ballast for social

No name, no shame. You don’t learn to feel embarrassed by what is natural till it has been

Conformist competition assembles the labyrinthine machine of self-interest. We conform to
compete in what matters, such as work, and compete to conform in what does not, such as

Our views fluctuate like a weather made by the insistent climate of our time and place.

The herd is our habitat, and we camouflage ourselves in it by conforming.

I spend half my time trying to fit in, and the rest striving to stand out.

Would we be so impressed by those who flout convention in such commonplace ways, if we
didn’t submit so supinely to it ourselves?

We live so falsely, that you can win a name for bold wit by pronouncing a curt but obvious truth
now and then. We count on the sentinels of civic respectability, educators, lawgivers,
magistrates and pastors, not to do this. But in our cringing age we celebrate them when they
seem to.

19 Convention and conceit
Our illusions are kept up by our personal conceit and our social solidarity.

Most people are as conventional as they are conceited. But fortunately convention curbs their
conceit, and their self-conceit makes some of them delightfully unconventional.

Society, though careless of our private conceit, is admirably configured to give an outlet to our
endemic self-importance. It makes up a vast fretwork of mutually remunerative frauds.

How low I stoop to keep up my standing in the world. And how clever I feel when I acquiesce in
popularly held opinions.

Each of us takes pride in our singularity, but we thrive by our timid conformity. We like to feel
that we are unique, yet we grow anxious if we stray too far from our herd.

We all conform, yet we boast that we are mavericks, since we commit a few acts of abortive
defiance to flout our subjugation. Some of us try to work up our distinctiveness by cultivating a
small ensemble of affectations.
20 The banal is bizarre
We go extravagantly off course, because we have dreamed some weird new dream, or else
because we adhere to some tawdry creed which we have never gone to the trouble of
interrogating. We think lethargically yet theatrically. So we lapse into sensational tropes rather
than reach for chaste truths. We fall into such far-fetched misinterpretations, yet we fail to say
anything new.

We lie by nature, but an imaginative lie must be the work of patient art. ‘As universal a practice
as lying is,’ Swift said, ‘and as easy a one as it seems, I do not remember to have heard three
good lies in all my conversation.’ We veer off into the wrong paths because they’ve been
trodden so smooth by all the scuffed feet that have tramped them. We are whimsical but not
original, idiosyncratic but not individual, and obdurate but not independent.

Our dogmas are fantastic but not imaginative, and arcane but not rigorous.

Our superstitions are as banal as they are bizarre. And most of our common sense is as bizarre
as it is banal. The opinions that infatuate us are flamboyant yet flat, while the ones that we live
with are flavourless yet concocted.

Many people believe things whose absurdity would be clear to all, were it not for the fact that so
many people believe them.

The most outlandish creeds have gained acceptance as official teaching. They seem like
common sense once they capture common minds. But when they lose their hold, they start to
look as aberrant and perverse as they always were. Orthodoxy is deviancy and blasphemy
sanctified by time.

21 Experience
Some insights glimmer as the luminous sunset of a rare experience.

You can’t judge an idea that you have had, till you have forgotten the experience that gave rise
to it.

Your experiences may crystallize your thoughts, but they don’t create them. Some grant you a
glimpse of notions that you have not yet found bright terms for. And some at last suggest the
words for vistas of pure thought that you saw an age ago.

The most repressed and uneventful life has plenty of room for high raptures of reverie and
Artists render their experiences exemplary by misrepresenting them.

We can decently commend what we are by commending what we have lived through. Our
experiences have made us the people that we are, yet they are not so exclusively our own that
we can’t show them off. And we are so proud of them that we’re happy for them to lead us

If you wait for history or experience to teach you, then you will have learnt too late, like a
commander fighting the war just gone. ‘What a pity that in life we only get our lessons when
they are of no use to us,’ as Wilde said.

22 We don’t think, we experience
Most people are empiricists. They find it easier to take in facts than to find out reasons.

Do bookish and cloistered people differ much from travelled ones? Have both not quarried a
heap more raw material for thought than they will ever use to think with? ‘Each of us,’ Nietzsche
says, ‘now lives through too much and thinks through too little.’

We all desire to know, but few of us desire to know more than the rest of the world knows. Most
of us have no wish to learn anything fresh. We just want to hear more of the sorts of things with
which we have long been acquainted. ‘People don’t want to read anything except that with
which they are already familiar,’ as Goethe said. ‘What they want is what they know.’

The inexperienced are glad to be misled by their outlandish preconceptions, the experienced by
their drab and unenlightening experiences.

The flash of an event may disorient us and darken what it seems to light up, and the glare of
particular incidents may blind us to broad truths.

There are so many activities that might set us on to think, such as reading, research, travel or
conversation, but we keep busy with them so that we won’t have to think, while averring that
they prove how much we have done so.

23 We experience nothing raw
The facts that we take in are not the raw data that our senses supply but the accepted coin
minted by convention.

Our most vivid images and memories are transmitted to us not by our own experiences but by
the external machinery of film and photographs.
We live most of our life vicariously. We allow images and convention to script it for us, and then
we fail to grasp what they tell us. So we set great store on experience, but most of what we
experience are the fantasies that we get at second-hand, which assure us that we have lived
through things first-hand.

We feel sure that we have taken in raw the experiences that have in fact been synthesized
many times through other minds. We process fresh events to make fatuous chatter.

24 Experience teaches nothing
‘Experience,’ wrote Livy, ‘is the schoolmaster of fools.’ The world is still a brutish tutor, and still
we don’t learn. It enjoys flogging its pupils more than educating them. It robs them of the rich
percipience that their lack of experience gave them for nothing, and then exacts a
disproportionate fee for its tuition.

Before you have lived long, you are taught that living will teach you all that you need to know.
But what you learn from a long life is that it doesn’t have much to teach you, though most of us
learn so little from it that this is one more lesson that we fail to glean.

Our lives, which seem so rich and chequered, confirm time and again a small compendium of
thoughts formed by bloodless inquirers who had a sparse acquaintance with life. Those who
scorn mere book-learning verify by their untutored experience a narrow scatter of trite notions to
be read in books. All the good maxims exist by now, as Pascal said, but how monotonously we
keep on reconfirming their direst lessons.

Life scatters from your thoughts most of its teachings as soon as it’s passed them on to you. So
there are some things that you have to go through again and again, to fix in your mind what
going through them made you forget.

Those who know only what they have lived through will live through only what they already
know. Yet we assume that living will prove the commonplace that life confutes all

25 Experience teaches us only how to cope with
Few people want to learn more from their breadth of experience than how to cope with it. And all
they gain from their involvement in the world is the skill to use the cheap arts that will help them
to rise in it.
All that most people want to learn from their experience is how to squeeze it to yield them more
profit or amusement.

Most of us can bear to live reality, provided we aren’t forced to reflect on it. A few of us can bear
to reflect on it, so long as we aren’t forced to live it. Once you have learnt what is true, how
could you bear what is real? Some people can make their way through a torrent of experience
because they don’t feel it keenly, and the few who do feel it keenly can’t endure much of it.

26 Experience doesn’t change us
We come out of most events by the same doorway we went in. We love to boast that some
occurrence has changed our whole view of the world, though it’s rare that we can point to any
new views that we have drawn from it.

Our most unsettling experiences fail to make a dent in our pre-established opinions. An
upheaval may jolt your fixed ideas, but they soon spring back all the sturdier.

We shift and vary at the least cause, and yet the most momentous happenings leave us
blockishly unchanged. The gentlest breeze can blow us off course, though a blast won’t budge
us from our set ways or fixed point of view.

27 Imagination is worth more than experience
Our experience is surprised to learn what our inexperience has long guessed. ‘A moment’s
insight,’ says Oliver Holmes, ‘is sometimes worth a life’s experience.’ By the deployment of what
Wordsworth styled ‘feeling intellect,’ artists imagine the experiences that the rest of us have to
live through.

We plunge into experience, and find that it wets us just up to our ankles.

Life holds out such rich possibilities, yet we taste it in such a thin form. It can be so stinting, yet
we imagine it so prodigally. How penetratingly we feel the most casual occurrences, but what
sparse sense we glean from the most overwhelming marvels.

Those who have no imagination place a high value on wide experience.

People assume that they learn their ideas from experience because it supplies them with the
anecdotes which is what they have instead of ideas.

If we had learnt more from our past experiences, we might be free to spend our time now on
something more edifying than experience.
28 Prejudice guides us through experience
Our ideology guides us through our experiences, and then it tells us what they mean. Our most
wayward experiences serve to prove the truth of our most orthodox prejudices.

I would be lost in the world, if I were dispossessed of the chart and compass of my received
ideas. It’s a good thing for us that we have no more than a few trite thoughts and tropes to make
sense of our most profound experiences. Our fatuousness, which should befuddle us, comes to
our rescue by simplifying life and generating trusty nostrums to pilot us through it. When life’s
crises would force us to face up to what is most real, we take refuge in what is cheap and fake.

If we chance to stray into unmediated contact with the thing as it is, we are relieved to revert to
the phony notions that we have got so used to. Churchill remarked how men and women
‘occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if
nothing had ever happened.’

We don’t think, yet we allow our prejudices to garble all that we know or feel about the world.

29 We experience our prejudices
Most of the thoughts that we owe to personal experiences merely reprise trite theories.

All we need in order to thrive in the world is a few tattered platitudes. And this is just as well,
since we reap from all our thriving not much more than a few tattered platitudes.

We build a full and authentic life on the footing of a few flimsy truisms.

The years, which we trust will unfurl to us green truths, leave us with a pinched yield of musty
truisms. Why else would we think so highly of what they teach us? They gratify us first by
reinforcing our timeworn views, and then by dignifying them as revelations.

Our experiences run in the muddy ruts dug by common prejudice.

Experience beguiles us by supplying us with new sensations while entrenching our old ideas.

Our received opinions teach us a large part of what we think we live through. And then what we
live through verifies our received opinions. ‘As a child,’ Pavese wrote, ‘one learns to know the
world not, as it would seem, by immediate inaugural contact with things, but through the signs of
things, words, pictures, stories.’ We experience our prejudices, and prejudge our experiences.

Most of us stay home in the cosy fug of our own preformed views. We don’t venture out in the
bleak midwinter of new truth.
We crib most of our views from others, and so we depute to them the task of making sense of
the world for us. We read events in the drab code of our tags and catchwords.

30 Travel
A site comes to be picturesque because it has been pictured so many times. ‘When a thing is a
wonder to us,’ Twain says, ‘it is not because of what we see in it, but because of what others
have seen in it.’ Most of the beauty that we see comes to us through the eyes of other

A foreign country is a cliché waiting to be inhabited by our experience. We know other times and
lands through the stale images that we hold of them, which are conveniently contradictory. So
France is the emblem of both prose and passion, of clearness and mist, of classical restraint
and romantic decadence.

You broaden your mind by ranging widely through the cooped or unbounded expanse within
your own head. But most of us just shuttle from one stock view to the next. ‘It’s not only better,’
says Pessoa, ‘but truer to dream of Bordeaux than to go there.’ By longing to travel to a place
you learn all that it has to teach you. But by consummating your longing you sterilize your vision.
‘The farther one journeys,’ Lao Tzu writes, ‘the less one knows. So the sage gets there without

Tourists are in the position of children in the midst of adults. They have to watch how to act in
order to get what they want, and have to mimic ways of behaving that they don’t quite grasp the
point of.

The habit of travel makes us too distracted to find what we’re looking for even at home.

31 Merely players
We mimic how people act, because we hunger for acceptance. And we mimic what they
believe, because we don’t much care for the truth. We come to be careless copies of cheap
originals. ‘Most people,’ as Wilde says, ‘are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s
opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.’ We strive to make our lives real and
substantial by emulating phony and hollow models, like films, celebrities and photographs.

When left free to follow nature, we naturally copy our peers. ‘Man,’ as William James said, ‘is
essentially the imitative animal.’ To conform is one of the deepest of the heart’s needs.

There may be less disparity than there seems between our compulsion to play a part and our
determination to do just as we wish in spite of what the world may think. All the best and worst
things that we do have some smack of showmanship in them. ‘Man,’ as Hazlitt said, ‘is a make
believe animal. He is never so truly himself as when he is acting a part.’ Why do some people
prefer to act out a tiresome role, such as that of the wailing widow, than just be who they are?

All the world is not a stage. So why do all the men and women persist in behaving as if they
were players?

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.’

32 Gestures
We mistake impersonations for personality, assertions for convictions, slogans for creeds,
success for skill, the outcome for the essence, and praise from others for our own pride.

We are all the time declaring war on lies, and lying in our declarations. ‘The awe occasioned by
how things sound,’ as Multatuli says, ‘plays a large role in the history of delusions.’ We are not
the less besotted with lush gestures when they hurt us. And the most incongruous kind of
gestures may be our grand avowals of truth and transparency.

At times I reach for a real feeling, and find that all I have is a trite gesture. And even the most
impromptu of my gestures I have picked up from others. ‘A human being,’ says Adorno, ‘comes
to be human by imitating other human beings.’ We are living and responsive mirrors. We
change our shape, position and angle in reaction to the images that we reflect.

When I am on my own, I con the parts that I play for the world. I act all my most earnest moods
for an audience, though it may be just my own admiring eyes. Yet I may rehearse a scene so
many times, that when it at length comes, I’m too irked to stage it in the way that I had planned.

33 Authentic actors
Blessed are the actors, for they shall be called sincere. We feel sure that fact looks like bad
fiction, and that frankness looks like bad acting. We love to be true to ourselves, especially
when someone else is watching.

Our age dotes on forthrightness and authenticity, and hence makes a fetish of showmen and
Some people overact their parts, to prove that they are not acting. They turn their back on truth,
because they are so bent on appearing sincere. They swell their seemly pretences of feeling
into unseemly histrionics. Speak emphatically, and you will convince yourself and others that
you believe with all your soul.

Young people love striking effects, and so they are prone to mistake vehemence for intensity,
and intensity for profundity.

There is bad faith even in our exposure of bad faith.

34 We become the parts we play
I form my most authentic self by acting out the roles that my self-interest has made me take up.
I wear my disguises lightly because I am such a mystery to myself. Play an ensemble of parts,
and you may learn how much you are patched up from the parts that you play. Keep on one
seamless mask and you’ll seem candid to all, and you’ll be spared the ignominious
acquaintance with your own mixed motives.

When I have to associate with someone, I try to feel as if I liked them, so as not to seem false in
my own eyes. I pretend that I’ve been fooled, for fear of appearing insincere. And I coax myself
to admire, so that I won’t feel soiled when I toady to them.

Who is strong enough to resist becoming what the world lauds them for? Few of us have the
nerve to be hypocrites. We try to live up to the false views that people hold of us. So we come to
be more or less what others take us for.

A doctrinaire fanatic, such as Hitler, still has to work up his sincerity like a ham actor. Yet the
most guileful pretenders lend a limitless trust to their own candour. ‘The greatest and truest
zeal,’ Hume wrote, ‘gives us no security against hypocrisy.’

35 Honest hypocrisy
Most people are not hypocrites, since they don’t so much as know what it is that they really

Few of us are honest enough to be hypocrites. To be a hypocrite, you first have to own the truth
to yourself and then lie only to others. Conscious dissimulators have no choice but to confront
the truth about their own motives which the sincere can pass by.
You have to choose between sincere self-deception and honest hypocrisy. You have to bring off
a lot of evasive manoeuvres, if you hope to shield your embattled truth from the world’s intrusive

There are times when brazen egoism alone will dare to tell the bare improper truth.

‘Give a man a mask,’ Wilde says, ‘and he will tell you the truth.’ We may come closest to the
truth when we cast out a few flippant witticisms which we don’t in the least believe in. The rest of
the time we dwell in our world of earnest illusion.

We have a knack for arriving at the truth by the looped and zigzag avenues of obliquity.
‘Success,’ as Dickinson wrote, ‘in circuit lies.’ Our kind, which sets such a high value on the
truth, proves its worth by the artifice, inventions and fictions in which it excels and by which
alone it can trace its path to the truth. ‘Our journey is entirely imaginary,’ Céline wrote. ‘That is
its strength.’

We are so crooked, how could we draw near the truth save by acts of bad faith? Reach it, and
you will learn how great is your need of hypocrisy.

Most of us speak with sincerity but not with truth. A strong mind is truthful yet seldom

36 Self-deceiving sincerity
Most fervent devotees are commendably frank and yet disgracefully two-faced. ‘Convictions,’ as
Nietzsche said, ‘are more injurious foes of truth than lies.’

What is most false in our passions we turn into our convictions, and then we fight for these with
a genuine passion.

It’s only insincere people who can bear to know the truth. The candid feel no cause to search it
out, since their snug self-certainty keeps them safe and warm.

We speak without reflecting, and then we believe whatever we say, provided we can keep it in
our heads, which is that much easier once we have said it. We scarcely know what we believe
till we have said it. And we keep up our sincerity by saying it over and over.

It’s not hard to give your faith to a thing if you’ve not thought about it.

The devil is a deceiver. God is a self-deceiver.

Sincerity is the virtue of those who lack the self-awareness to see how much the most heartfelt
belief is made up of play-acting, self-interest, convenience, vanity and habit.
Those who scruple to tell a downright lie will submit to living a whole life of upright self-

37 Taken in by our own sincerity
Sincere people believe in their own belief, not in the truth.

How many base things we wish to be but not seem. And how many fine things we wish to seem
but not be. I don’t want to appear to act like a hypocrite. But I am quite willing to be a hypocrite
so as not to seem like one, just as, according to Pascal, one may behave like a coward in order
to win a name for courage. I blush to seem so fake, and so I forge zeal and an authentic self in
order to seem sincere.

A self-believer is bound to be a self-deceiver. All faith comes at the cost of a great deal of
deception, be it of oneself or of others. But this is one cost that are all willing to pay.

Some people are happy to be fooled by anyone at all. And some are determined not to be
fooled by anyone but themselves.

All deception starts and ends in self-deception. ‘The most successful tempters and thus the
most injurious,’ as Lichtenberg said, ‘are the deluded deluders.’ We can’t take in our dupes if we
have not first sold ourselves on the lie.

38 The rewards of bad faith
So long as you consent to be a liar, the world won’t force you to tell many out and out lies,
though it will pay you well when you do. Bad faith is its own reward, but it reaps the world’s
reward too.

What intractable rectitude makes us too nice to lie to those whom we most need to, and too
squeamish to lie to the ones who can least detect it?

We believe in sincere people because we see how piously they believe in themselves. And we
have faith in them because we see how much faith the world has in them. They move and
convince us, while the truth would fatigue or nauseate us. Their displays of openness seduce
us, where plain veracity would repel us. But we are warmed by the fervour of people who blaze
with faith in their own candour. We put our trust in those who keep up an unquestioning trust in
their own integrity, who accordingly have least claim to our trust. ‘The world,’ Trollope wrote,
‘certainly gives the most credit to those who are able to give an unlimited credit to themselves.’
We withhold our faith from the truthful, and give it to those whom we can count on to lie to us as
they lie to their own hearts.

39 The duty of self-deception
Seasoned deceivers know nothing of the delights of mendacity. They perjure themselves as a
grave moral duty which they discharge with principled zeal. But unlike the rest of their good
deeds they are quite unaware of this one.

An honest hypocrite shocks a solemn self-deceiver. A sanctimonious cheat burns with
indignation when a rival is shown to have behaved duplicitously. And they take offence when
their dupes refuse to lend them their trust.

Sincere believers are offended by the cheap and blatant honesties which scoffers use to malign
their rich and superfine duplicities.

A sincere person is shocked by a bald statement of the truth.

Sincerity is a psychic thrift. We would blush to profess what we don’t believe, and so we believe
whatever we are obliged to profess. We take ourselves in, that we might seem open to others.
Most of us have too much decency not to be fooled by the lies that we need to tell. ‘The true
hypocrite,’ as Gide says, ‘is the one who has ceased to perceive his deception, the one who lies
with sincerity.’

Mendacious leaders feel sure of their own authenticity when their followers answer their glib
frauds with a commensurately glib faith.

40 Sincerity, self-regard and self-interest
I admire my own authenticity with smug self-consciousness, and my spontaneity with conscious

Our plain-speaking makes us conceited, and our conceit spurs us to speak plainly. Our self-
deceits levy an onerous tax of candour from our vanity, which we pay by maintaining a
complacent devotedness to our routine lies. What a batch of falsehoods we stuff our lying hearts
with, to feed our faith in our own truthfulness.

Grinning sincerity impudently flaunts itself, while truth skulks furtive and shamefaced.

There’s no pose that people won’t put on in an attempt to assert their honesty.
Honest people know that they are frauds. The sincere are proud of their good faith, which they
keep up by refusing to acknowledge how continuously they lie.

We are not aware of all the fraud and artifice we use to get by in the world. And if we were, we
might not be able to use it so naturally.

We have seen enough of the world to make us hate it. But we still want so much from the world,
that we have to act as if we loved it. And our belief soon falls into line with our act.

We sincerely believe whatever it suits us to believe. Our convictions are the obeisant lackeys of
our commanding ambitions.

We are too prudent to lie, and too earnestly self-seeking to know or tell the truth.

41 Words and things
Language is the wall partitioning our prison cells which we tap on to signal our loneliness.

Most thoughts, like lightning bolts, strike a few seconds before the thunder-clap of words.

We don’t notice what we don’t name. But what we do name soon melts beneath the thick cloak
of the names that we confer on it. ‘More hinges on what things are called,’ Nietzsche says, ‘than
on what they are.’ The name comes to signify more than the thing it refers to, since it forms the
focus of all the customary associations which take the place of the thing in our minds.

How few of the great fabled places live up to the romance of their names.

I cherish my name, since it forms the small foothold that my self-importance has in speech, as
my birthday is the date that sanctifies the whole calendar. The one spell that is guaranteed to
work on all of us is the magic of our own name.

Like a child, I have the knack of pattering coherently about large ideas, though I don’t quite
know what they mean. But I get by with seeming to make sense and mimicking the sense that
the people round me seem to make.

42 Truth is unspeakable
Truth is so unspeakable and indecent, that it has to be secreted in writing. It is what cannot be
said in table-talk. It had to wait till writing was invented to bare its nakedness.

Truth may at times rise to our lips like vomit, but we’ve learnt how to keep it down. We dare tell
it only to those whom we don’t know or don’t care for. Thus Stein said that she wrote for herself
and strangers.
Most people can’t speak the truth because they don’t know what it is, a few because they know
it all too well.

We say nothing of weight in day to day talk. And great authors don’t write a line that could be
said in day to day talk. They have to use the forms of casual conversation to convey the
thoughts that you can’t broach in casual conversation.

Hamlet’s small number of made-up and unnecessary words mean more than all the trillions of
breathing and urgent ones that are spoken or scrawled each day. The few that were never living
have the best chance of lasting through the ages.

‘We are truer to ourselves,’ notes Beausacq, ‘when we write than when we talk, because we
write alone.’ I make my words my own when I write. When I speak, I compromise with the words
of others. The speaker wants to be understood, but the writer expects to be misread, and
always will be.

43 We blame words
I am misled not by words but by the motives for which I use them. But then I blame words for
waylaying me.

We feel even more dishonestly than we speak. The lie goes deeper than the word. We don’t just
tell lies, we feel them. A hundred lies can pass from soul to soul in a flash, and not one word
spoken. If we lacked speech, we would have found some alternative way to dissimulate. A world
in which we told no lies would still be one riddled with fraud, though much more dim and wintry.

We overstate how much we feel and how much we have learnt from life. And then we curse
words for being too weak to tell what we feel and what we have learnt. But we find them
adequate for one task at least, to say how inadequate they are. We vie to work up fresh and
forceful tropes to voice how language can’t voice our passions. But the one thing too large and
terrifying for us to give voice to is our littleness. We profess to despair of language, while
employing it to play up our poignant despair.

44 Words are too strong for our weakness
We make a world of superlatives. We treat words like our children. Our souls may be shrivelled
and dislocated, but we still live expansively in language.

Those who have starved ideas carp that speech is too thin and bloodless to do justice to all their
When I write, I search for the most forcible terms to match the strength of my thoughts. But
when revising, I come to see that my thoughts don’t deserve to speak so loud. ‘Of two words,’
Valéry counselled, ‘always choose the lesser.’

My words prove to me that I do indeed feel what I know I ought to. And I know what I ought to
feel because I have heard the words that others never fail to intone on such occasions. I think
that I want my eloquence to match the intensity of my own grief or joy. But in fact I want it to
match the force of others’ eloquence. I strain to make my tropes equal not to the event but to
the tropes that I have heard used at such times.

We hollow out speech by inflating all our feelings and their expression.

Why do we claim that language wastes us like a disease, and that we would live so much more
richly if we were cured of it? We don’t weary our moods and convictions by expressing them, we
flex and feast them. They look less ashen when they have been out in the enlivening sunshine
of others’ gaze.

1 Culture, civilization, kitsch
First culture, then civilization, now kitsch. First myth, then poetry and prose, now cliché. At first
tradition, next reason and imagination, now ingenuity and images. First the tribe, then society
and the state, last the borderless and atomizing market. A culture is soon crushed by a
civilization, and a civilization is soon consumed by kitsch. For primitive peoples life drums a
beat, for the civilized it sounds a melody, but for us it makes mere noise, and all we want is to
make it more and more raucous. We have declined through the ages of gold, silver, bronze and
iron, and have at last reached the age of plastic, cheap, mass-made, characterless and toxic.
‘Egypt and Greece, good-bye, and good-bye, Rome.’

In a traditional culture society is a solid, in a civilization it is a liquid, but with us it is a gas,
volatile, unstable, ephemeral and thin.

In five hundred years the americas have hurtled through all the phases of history, commencing
with the rich cultures of its first peoples, then the civilization which beat them down, and now the
barren and mercenary kitsch which has hollowed it out.

2 Civilization is dead
Civilization is extinct. It was killed off in the middle of the twentieth century. But its corpse is still
laid out respectfully in museums and concert halls, and is gaudily rouged and lit up by mass
amusement. ‘It is,’ as Connolly wrote, ‘closing time in the gardens of the west.’ There has been
no great novel since Céline and Faulkner, no great poem since Yeats, nor painting since
Pollock, nor sculpture since Brancusi or Moore, nor building since Mies and Le Corbusier, nor
science since Einstein and Heisenberg. Having put an end to nature and to art, the one decent
thing we could do now is to put an end to ourselves.

We are gilded flies which buzz and blow on the offal of a necrotic organism. How cheerfully we
live on, having killed civilization. ‘Is it with such insects as this,’ Cioran asked, ‘that a civilization
so delicate and so complex must come to an end?’ Twelve thousand years of patient cultural
evolution will soon be sucked dry by twelve billion frantic parasites. So when the human race
soon wipes itself out, it will be finishing off a body which long ago lost its soul. The twentieth
century made an end of civilization. The twenty-first will make an end of nature.
3 Kitsch is how we experience everything
Kitsch is the aesthetic of juvenile consumer capitalism, both of what it makes and of how it takes
in all that is served up to it. We have ceased to touch the world save through a greasy synthetic
gauze. Even if what we experience is not kitsch, our experience of it is. Our looking turns art
itself into kitsch.

Kitsch is not a style of art, it is the one style in which everything presents itself to us now that art
is dead.

Kitsch, which promiscuously embraces all styles, is now the one style that all of us embrace.

4 The idols of kitsch
Kitsch is an imitation of an imitation. Every place on earth has now been imaged so many times,
that it has waned to a hollow image of what it once was.

We have emptied the world of real imagination, and clotted it with hyperreal images. The
saturation of likenesses has bleached both life and imagination, which are too thin to match the
bright but empty spectres projected by our devices. They have eaten up our dreams and
memories, desires and vision.

Mass society has turned art to a sham and the virginal earth to a wilderness of death. And we
are relieved to be rid of nature and art, since there is nothing in them to amuse us. We will swap
the earth and our dear-bought civilization to gain one hour more of mindless fun.

The world is now full to the brim with kitsch, as the seas will soon be overflowing with glutinous
blobs of fluorescent jellyfish. The superb predators, which once awed the forest and savannah,
will soon live on as mere trademarks to sell luxury junk.

5 The style of capitalism
In every society the economic base determines the cultural superstructure, but in capitalism it
swallows it whole and spews out kitsch.

Kitsch, like the capitalism that spawned it, is indestructible, since it can stay what it is while
incorporating the most irreconcilable tendencies, rural nostalgia or citified chic, the sincere and
the inauthentic, the morbid or the manic, levity or schmaltz, the homespun or the exotic, the
folksy or the bombastic. And what can’t be killed is sure to devour all that’s too good for it and
more frail.

Art was a vocation, kitsch is big business.
What we leave for our heirs will be not a lavish civilization but a meagre economy.

6 Consumer kitsch
Art gave us nothing that we wanted. Kitsch gives us all that we crave in order to goad us to keep
on craving.

We have lost the capacity to create. We can only consume, and what we consume are the
second-hand copies of second-rate originals. All of us are too voracious 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. ‘Farewell,
you infinitely slow works,’ as Valéry said in his adieu to the past. We now have the wherewithal
to gorge on the most costly things, but we have lost the will to make priceless ones.

Force is harder to attain but easier to forge than form. So we are left with the restless fever of
this outworn age. We run mad with our frenzy of consumption, and we feel that we are inspired
by the fire of creation. All that we are now capable of is a pacified levelling sterility or the
huckster’s frantic hurry, which buys and sells but can’t create.

An age of decadence is not an age of exhaustion and stagnation but of manic activity.

The spirit of the age is more to be seen in its advertisements than in its art. And foreign
countries are known more by their consumer brands than by their culture.

These days it’s not beauty but advertisements that are the promise of happiness.

An epoch makes nothing but kitsch, when consumers and not creators set its taste.

7 Global kitsch
In the world market all styles are available for use, and all are mutations of kitsch.

Art never grew to be universal or even cosmopolitan. But kitsch has fanned out all round the
globe. It has proved to be the one international style, the style of suburban happiness.

We are proud to be provincial replicas of spectral junk made in Los Angeles.

The cities that were once the cultural capitals of the world are now the mere centres of kitsch,
finance and advertising.

Most architecture is kitsch, since it can’t copy nature, and so it naturally copies its own past.
Most of the old world is not old enough, and most of the new world is not new enough. The old
world imitates an older world, and the young world imitates these imitations and its own
facsimiles of them. London or Paris strive to replicate old cities. New York or Shanghai strive to
replicate modern ones or themselves. Each place will soon look the same as all the rest, and
nothing like itself.

8 The institutions of kitsch
One of the chief tasks of galleries, orchestras and theatres is to give us permission to enjoy art
as if it were kitsch, and to venerate kitsch as if it were art. We love anyone who drags down the
high standards that have been set in some field.

People like going to see art more than the art itself.

High culture has ceased to spurn low culture. It now fawns on it and apes its winning ways and
begs some of its leavings.

You can now tell the taste of one stratum of society from the next by how dear they pay for their
kitsch. All that most of us aspire to is a more select gradation of it, be it the hushed urbanity of
the boutique, or the flashy tat of the mall. When it costs a lot, we call it stylishness and

When all are rich enough to get beauty, even the elite will make nothing but kitsch.

9 Kitsch and technology
Civilization compounded technology with culture. We have now subtracted civilization from
technology. Our appliances have electrocuted the muses. ‘The machine,’ as Rilke wrote, ‘is a
threat to all achievement.’ Our doltish fantasies and smart devices have devoured imagination.
As civilization’s sun goes down, an imbecile neon twinkle fills our sky with its dazzle.

We love the lucrative magic of technology but not the hard truths of science. And we wallow in
the sickly sentiments of kitsch but we spurn the exacting imagination of art.

We laud as civilization the mass affluence which has drowned it. ‘The telephone is his test of
civilization,’ Wilde wrote of the middle-class philistine, ‘and his wildest dreams of utopia do not
rise beyond elevated railways and electric bells.’

10 Political kitsch
The public realm has at all times been theatrics, but each age fears that it is uniquely stagy,
because it’s repelled by the tawdriness of its own histrionic style. Each kind of regime has
developed its own style of prancing kitsch. Fascism made it gargantuan and belligerent,
absolute kingship triumphal and ostentatious, and democracy syrupy and snivelling.

Flags are patriotic kitsch, hoisted everywhere when the old conception of a country has been
pulled down, while anthems sound a rousing requiem over its bones.

A country that has turned its back on its traditions is obliged to stage a constant round of noisy
commemorative extravaganzas, with brass bands, tolling bells and tear-jerking oratory.

Civilization was for the few and for the long age. Kitsch, like democracy, is for the many and the
jittering now. No wonder that it reaps such rich rewards.

Democracy, which we hail as the zenith of civilization, has in fact marked its demise. Our
unstoppable material and moral progress has put a stand to it.

Art daunts us with its cold demanding dullness. Kitsch indulges us with a cosy democratic

Kitsch is the sole contribution that democracy has made to art.

11 Hunger for stories
We read stories in the same way that we consume all the things that we hanker for. We are so
avid for the next thrill, that we miss the wonders that are unrolling right in front of us.

We are addicted to anecdotes, but we have lost the relish for art.

We nowadays consume the whole world through story, and stories urge us on to keep
consuming. If you want to spruik anything, you have to package it as a narrative. Story is the
form which is most characteristic of capitalism and bourgeois individualism.

We love stories, since they rush us on from one episode to the next with no need to think,
expecting to be surprised by some new twist, and we want to live in the same way.

12 Performance
Every work now must be staged as a performance. And every performance exists in order to
have its instantaneous effect.

Kitsch turns every event into a facetious or poignant story to be performed for mass
The audience corrupts everything. It clamours to be fed pap and then to be flattered for its fine
taste. And it bows down to those who know how to fawn on it most cloyingly.

Each age has its own style of spectating as well as of creating. The style of this age is at once
hysterically fawning and yet transparently self-flattering. We learn at second-hand how to
respond to performances from the responses that we have seen others make. The crowd must
be trained how to clap, yell, whoop and whistle on cue.

Performers have come to be stars now that makers have ceased to create. We have no more
great playwrights, composers or painters. So we lionize entertainers, mimics, piano-players,
divas, crooners, songsters, fiddlers, baton-twiddlers, directors, curators and impresarios as if
they were artists.

Celebrity is a plastic fame, inane, broadcast, lucrative and anecdotal. It is the triumph of the life
over the work, of media over art, and of commerce over creativity. Celebrity is a kind of
conspicuous insignificance.

13 Cool, elegance, sublimity
Real cool used to be the style of demotic nobility. But teenage kitsch has now displaced it, as
middle-aged kitsch has displaced elegance. A pop song epitomizes the fantasies of
adolescence, inventive but callow, up-to-date but outworn, frothy, arousing, disposable, faddish,
immediately seductive and narcissistic.

Elegance is kitsch in a lounge suit. Cool is kitsch in a tee-shirt.

Fashion has such influence because our tastes are so pliant and our vanity is so constant.

Young people confuse style with the latest fashion. Old people confuse style with the fashion
that held sway when they were young.

The sublime is now just the high style of kitsch. It is a sham which moves us far more than the
real thing. A speech can now hope to soar only by cadging a few gaudy feathers from the great
speechmakers of the past.

Sober and prosaic America, as Tocqueville showed, is drunk on its own grandiloquence and
tears. Its writers, though wedded to the colloquial, still lust for the sublime.

14 Art against beauty
The artist must dare to show us a beauty that we don’t yet have eyes for, and which we
therefore see as ugliness.
Picturesque scenes catch the eye of bad painters, as poetic emotions win the hearts of bad

Artists are now loath to go to bed with beauty, for fear that they’ll wake up with kitsch.

Kitsch is not ugliness but a sad aspiration to beauty. And the world is in love with kitsch, since it
tells the world how lovely it is. We colour the grey vapidity of life with the glamorous vapidity of
its depictions. Industry has made the world so hideous by overstuffing it with functional things,
that we try to beautify our lives by ornamenting them with fancy trash.

The real enemy of art is not ugliness but banality, as the real enemy of truth is not ignorance but
conviction and common sense.

In a merely good painting, such as one of Renoir’s, you have to squint to see the art for the

Kitsch has no deep form, and so it is free to find for itself a flawless surface.

Kitsch is formula without form, sentimentality empty of real emotion, and images void of

All of us love stories, but few of us care for literature. All of us love images, but few care for
paintings. And all of us love a tune, but few love music.

In kitsch story trumps thought, emotion trumps imagination, sentiment trumps form, personality
trumps tradition, sincerity trumps honesty, fantasy trumps reality, and reality trumps truth.

A rainbow is a sign of God’s lack of taste.

15 The immediacy of kitsch
Art works by a slow revelation, kitsch is met with instant recognition. And all that we now create
needs must have its immediate effect. People spot and fall in love with the blatant charms of
kitsch straight off. But they need to be taught to make out the rigorous beauty of a work of art.
And then they are as apt to resent it as they are to appreciate it.

The art that appeals to us straight off must be kitsch. We love what we can grasp or what grips
us at first sight.

Kitsch is naive in its form, but calculating in its effects. We take in art half-heartedly, but flock to
kitsch in fads and crazes. Art is for the long ages, kitsch is for the crowded now.
As Valéry remarked, all the world reads what all the world could write. We have Shakespeare,
and we just leaf through newspapers. But we’ll make do with gold if we have to, when we can’t
get our hands on dross. We have ceased to write holy books, but we churn out magazines and

16 Kitsch and the emotions
Art and irony disintegrate the personality, kitsch and sincerity make it whole. Kitsch is candid, art
is self-aware.

Kitsch is coherent, art is always at odds with itself, with its maker, and with the world. When
artists now try to make it whole, they make it kitsch, as Eliot did in Four Quartets.

Kitsch is emotionally callow but technically sophisticated.

Imagination wells up from the depths of hell. Kitsch springs straight from the soul, which craves
crass fun and diversion, but can flourish with no help from truth or beauty. When the heart was
freed to ask for what it yearned for, kitsch was born. ‘All bad poetry,’ Wilde wrote, ‘springs from
genuine feeling.’

By long cultivation we may learn to see the worth of what is real and excellent. But by some
natural affinity we still choose what is saccharine, synthetic, phony, garish, slick and

We need to have everything adulterated for us. Anything in its pure state has no effect on us at
all. We don’t need things diluted so that we can bear their potency. We need to have them
artificially flavoured so that we can taste them.

17 We love kitsch and are indifferent to art
Art is a luxury, kitsch is a necessity. Kitsch is irresistible and indispensable, art is unwanted and
superfluous. Kitsch gives us what we think we want, art gives us what it thinks we need.

Kitsch is on the side of life. Art, like truth, is on its own side.

Art is indifferent to us, and we are indifferent to it. But we are so pleased with kitsch, because it
makes us so pleased with ourselves.

The inmost stirrings of the heart speak in the honeyed kitsch of cheap religion, cheap
entertainment or cheap romance.
Kitsch yields us far more pleasure than art. Our famished hearts, which would be wearied by a
poem, lick up the syrup of a pop lyric, and are moved to unseal their deepest moods in crude
and trite scribblings. They brim with stale images, jellied sentimentalism and panting
phantasms. So how could they be touched by anything but kitsch? Like Madame Bovary, we
swoon at sensations more than art, from which we have to squeeze some private service. We
welcome only those works that thrill us or amuse us or tell us how fine we are.

Art is cold and affectless. Kitsch is eager to please. The songs that heal our hearts are sure to
be treacly, and the truths that warm them are sure to be lies.

How bland and unaffecting a piece of art looks, when set alongside the dazzle, blare and
sensationalism of kitsch.

18 Kitsch and modernism
Kitsch makes things that are alluring and familiar as representations but repulsive as art.
Modern artists made things that are brutal and unfaithful as representations but beautiful as art.

After the rigorous experiments of modern art, kitsch has restored story to literature,
representation to painting, tonality to music, and history to architecture. Is it any wonder then
that we love kitsch and hate modernism?

Art has at all times run more swiftly than beauty, as Cocteau said. But in the twentieth century it
had to speed up so much to keep in the fore of kitsch, that it came to look graceless and
unshapely, and left the public in the rear clutching its cute amusements.

Kitsch is candied romanticism. It’s made to please the sweet tooth of the masses.

The victorian age was the vanguard of encroaching kitsch, sappy, commercialized, smug and
nostalgic, against which the modernists fought a doomed rearguard campaign. Modernism was
not a crisis of representation, but a last efflorescence of autonomous imagination, before
consumerism turned the whole world to kitsch. Present day artists have made a league with it,
and are well paid for their collaboration.

Modernism gave art a shock treatment which killed the patient.

Some artists turn out the sleek kitsch of another’s style, as Cocteau did Picasso’s, and some,
such as Hemingway or T. S. Eliot, end by turning out the smug kitsch of their own.
19 Kitsch is up-to-date but not modern
Kitsch is all that the modern world makes that is not modern, which is by far the most of it. We
race to keep up-to-date, but no one knows how to be modern. Artists now have neither the
discipline to keep to the old ways nor the daring to shape what’s new.

Kitsch is the slick that was left coating the whole world when the wave of modernism went out.

Nostalgia is the style of a society that has to keep on reinventing everything and yet can’t make
anything new.

Kitsch is the lurid corpse light which is given off by the mouldering cadaver of dead forms.

20 Novelty and nostalgia
In the wonderland of kitsch we divide our time between the latest fads and the hollowest

Nostalgia now recalls us not to a richer and more authentic reality but to the artificial images of
technicolour kitsch.

We now dose ourselves with the stimulant of novelty and the soporific of nostalgia. We want to
ride into the future cushioned by our cosy reveries, while our mouths drool to feast on the next

We are mawkishly nostalgic in proportion to our rootless mobility.

Kitsch is restlessly innovating, ceaselessly obsolescing, yet never original.

We are captivated by a nostalgia leached of tradition. And we hunger for novelty devoid of
newness. We demand that our future be engineered by our sleek machines and upholstered
with a twee cottage handicraft. We want all things fresh and all familiar.

21 Kitsch memories
We are more stirred by truisms than by new concepts, and by revisiting one of our old haunts
than by visiting a spot for the first time. We are touched less by the thing as it is than by our own
prior reaction to it. So we weep when we picture how we wept before. ‘We are moved,’ Pavese
says, ‘because we were previously moved,’ or even because we were not, or because
somebody else was.

I melt at reminders of objects whose originals would leave me cold.
Kitsch knows how to play on all our childhood memories, and our memories of childhood make
up an anthology of kitsch, and the aroma of the same dead flowers intoxicates us for the rest of
our lives.

Our tastes are fixed for life in early youth when we are most attuned to the hackneyed
attractions of kitsch.

22 Consumerist nostalgia
Our consumerist nostalgia tells us that our memories are unique. But all we have now are the
commonplace memories of consumerist nostalgia. As Lampedusa said of his prince, he would
be the last to have any unusual memories.

Our nostalgia makes us feel that we must be immortal. What other bark could lug this cargo of
precious memories through till the end of time? Our past glories are the best guarantee of our
future continuance.

Even our nostalgia is now just a hunger for the junk of the day before yesterday. Its date grows
shorter and shorter in this accelerated and forgetful world, where everything is preserved and
nothing is remembered. Kitsch is personally nostalgic but culturally amnesic.

23 The death of tradition
In our senescent age of forgetting, the old ways persist as an undead kitsch, to flatter us that we
are preserving the past, while we’re at work constructing our rootless and ruthless future.
Having junked our age-old customs, we trump up fatuous replicas of our own and other cultures.
So we cherish antiques, ornament, christmas, dead ceremonies, reenactments, anniversaries,
souvenirs, museums, revivals, eclectic bric-a-brac, marzipan monarchies, heritage.

Kitsch is the sickly sweet odour given off by the corpse of a civilization that has been embalmed
in sugar.

Virgil was the prissy kitsch of Homer, as Rome was the pious kitsch of Greece, the New
Testament was a kitsch rewriting of the Old, and post-modernism was the belated kitsch of

Civilization lives by what it hands on, but ours will die by what it eats up. It is too exhausted to
create anything, but it is hungry enough to devour everything. ‘To carry on a tradition,’ D. H.
Lawrence points out, ‘you must add something to the tradition.’
24 Sentimentality
Sentimentalists don’t claim to feel a real emotion, they really do feel a confected one.

Sentimentalists tell us that we are all conjoined as one. The clear-sighted know that each of us
is on our own. Optimists trust that we can slip our isolation and affirm our connectedness. But
the disconsolate see that our connectedness won’t save us.

These days you can garner a lot of money or votes for your own use by assuring individualistic
customers and electors that we’re all in this together.

Human victims touch us most poignantly when they are presented like animals, speechless,
guiltless, bewildered, forgiving. But animals stir our tears most when they are shown to be like
us, with an identity, a story and a name.

We are disgusted by the stench of others’ mawkishness as much as we love to sniff the heady
bouquet of our own.

A sentimentalist, like a sycophant, is nauseated by any sentimentality that smells different from
their own. Each age must concoct a new style of mawkishness to set it off from its
predecessor’s, so that it won’t see it for what it is and recoil from it. Modern artists had to cook
up an egalitarian schmaltz to cleanse their palate of the cloying chivalrous schmaltz of the

It takes less skill to coax people to mimic what you feel than it does to move them by the real
cause that made you feel. We weep not because we see the victims aching, but because we
see the onlookers weeping. We are more touched by the tears of the bystanders than by the
pain of the sufferers.

25 Self-intoxicated sentimentality
Those who purpose to affect others must first act as their own audience, so stirred by their own
playing that they form a persuasive template for their real audience to follow. They intoxicate
them by their own self-intoxication. They gaze on the anguish of others as a show to arouse
their emotions. And then they are overcome by the spectacle of their own sensibility. They
consume sentimentality in producing it, and produce it in consuming it. ‘The orator,’ Montaigne
notes, ‘will be moved by the lilt of his own voice and by his feigned imagination. He will let
himself be drawn in by the mood he is personating.’ His own excitement inflames him, and this
brings his flow of words to the boil.
An audience is electrified more by its own applause than by the skill of the performance. The
roar of its own ovation bears it aloft.

We are fooled by our own feigned moods, and warmed by frigid images. ‘Nothing tempts my
tears like tears,’ Montaigne says, ‘not just real ones but tears of any kind, in feint or paint.’

‘Tears in the reader only if there are tears in the writer,’ as Frost wrote, but they are both fake

26 Loss
Sentimentalists swoon at the small and understated, at blanks and absences, erasures and their
sad traces, at fractured, maimed and unfinished things, the overlooked, exile and displacement,
at what they’ve lost and what they’ve dredged from the wreckage, the melancholy of failed
crossings and failed connections, intersections of hurt and splendour, brief respites of grace and
small redemptions, the grandeur of transcendence and the poignancy of not attaining it, frail
affirmations, gaps and silences, the forlorn poetry of dates, maps and lists, the sadness of fine
intentions, since they all miss their aim.

We are in love with loss. We’ve lost others or we’ve lost our own selves. We’ve lost
youthfulness and innocence. We have lost our roots. We’ve lost paradise. We’ve lost home or
our faith and all the days that we have let slip away. Modernity is an elegy of loss and longing,
and rupture is its pathos. Those who aim to seem modern try to pass off their nostalgia as a
yearning for the new.

27 Cynical sentiment
Sentimentality is the winner pretending to be a loser, the brutal pretending to be bruised by their
own fine feelings, the uncaring pretending to care, the actorly repressing itself as the reticent,
the dry-eyed squeezing out tears for their own and their viewers’ delectation.

Cold-blooded creatures are fond of basking in the genial sun of sentimentality. Frigid hearts love
to thaw out in tears, which veil their calculations and pit others to serve their behests. A callous
sharper can, like Carroll’s walrus, weep thankful millstones for the nobleness of some sorry
wretch whom he’s piously defrauding of half his life’s work. Hard hearts make their dinner on the
sloppiest mush. A nice man may be a man of nasty ideas, as Swift said, but a nasty man is sure
to be a man of mawkish ones.
We justify the harm that we do our foes by traducing them. And we hide the harm that we do our
friends by our praise of them. We act kindly towards some people, so that we can think cruelly
of them. And we think fondly of others, so as to hush our qualms while we’re cheating them.

We are hard-hearted and soft-headed.

Our maudlin and abject souls love underdogs, so long as they come out on top.

28 The swindle of sentimentality
Sentimentalists don’t have emotions that they don’t wish to pay for, as Wilde claimed, they have
emotions in the hope that they will be paid for them. They eke out a specious effect by
converting an apparent worldly defeat to an affecting moral victory. They gain power by feigning
weakness, and milk a lost cause for an unwarranted triumph of self-display. They are swindlers
who manipulate their dupes by pretending to be at the mercy of their own emotions.

Maudlin writers claim a reward of tears for their own by refusing to remunerate the characters
that their story has put through such trials. They make a show of conscripting art to fight for the
good, but they just use a sham goodness to mock up a heart-warming tableau. They win a
cheap aesthetic potency by pretending to be overcome by the moral.

29 Sentimentality and irony
Some writers use cynicism as a jet plush to set off the paste beads of their sentimentality. And
some build up a large balance of irony and scoffing so as to have a long line of tearful credit on
which to draw. Mawkishness thrives in dry and glacial climates, such as the blathering perplexity
of Beckett’s plays or Hemingway’s swaggering tough guy self-pity.

Self-mockers pretend to have mastered their emotions, sentimentalists pretend to have been
mastered by them. It’s hard to tell which of the two is the more deceived by their own pose.

Irony and sentimentality each work by indirection and disavowal. Beneath their guise of self-
effacement, both of them are arch and preening and crafty. Sentimentality is a sugared irony, or
irony is soured pathos. Sentimentalists amplify their sighs by battling to muffle them. The
sardonic deflate overblown fools with their sly hyperbole.

30 Restraint
Sentimentalists pretend to feel less than they pretend to feel. The neophytes of pathos revel in
excess, but its veterans revel in austerity and inarticulacy. They flaunt their tears most
touchingly by their brave efforts to stem them, as David does in his threnody for Absalom. Our
hearts melt at the sight of someone struggling courageously to get the better of a distress that
they hardly feel. They seem to refuse to yield to a mood which they don’t quite feel, as a ruse to
coax you to feel it in their stead.

Maudlin and garrulous authors and eras resound with the babbling praise of silence. As Morley
wrote of Carlyle’s clatter, ‘The whole of the golden Gospel of Silence is now effectively
compressed in thirty-five volumes.’ Most of those who laud quietness mean other people’s.

Actors have nothing to withhold, but have a trick of appearing to. They use a twofold chicanery.
They seem to feel moods by seeming to suppress them. They don’t borrow a real face, but
fashion a false depth.

31 Clichés
Words are a wilderness, which we make a home in with our clichés.

Some people’s stock opinions can be elicited as predictably as the saliva of Pavlov’s dogs.
Speak the right words, and their lips will dribble the reflex formulas that you have heard each
time before.

The trunk of language is now held up only by the clichés which are strangling it, and the sole
fruit that it yields are catchphrases.

We trust that we have mastered a theme or a style when we can fluently improvise the idioms of
its overworked parlance.

I hate others’ jargon and verbiage as much as I love my own. And I label their views as
platitudes if they sound foreign to my own, but I’m dazzled by any that deviates an inch from the
standard ones and that damns them as cant.

Men and women are not more commonplace on supreme occasions, as Butler claimed. The
supreme occasion just shows up how commonplace they were the whole time, as Eichmann
made clear at his execution.

People mention the brand names of the things they own with the same cosy sense of
accomplishment that they yap about their friends.

32 Political clichés
Men and women will always think and speak in stale phrases. And so each kind of regime has
to manufacture the artificial ambience of accepted claptrap which will sustain it. In a dictatorial
state the public talk in the cant of dictatorship. In a democracy they talk in the cant of
democracy. A depraved state is maintained by its murderous lies, a good state by its benign
ones. The propaganda of tyrants appals us because it is so vile, and the fables of egalitarianism
are so well-meaning that we take them to be true.

A regime tries to make up for the banality of its concerns by the pomposity of its rhetoric.

33 Sloganeering
Though we shut our hearts to principles, we keep up a passionate faithfulness to slogans. If we
let these go, how could we grasp or recall what it is that we are supposed to believe? ‘The
crowd,’ as Tocqueville wrote, ‘relinquishes the ideas it has been given more readily than the
words it has learned.’ We need them to remind us of ideals which we don’t much care for, and
to tidy a mangle of thoughts that fill our minds, so that we can digest the creamy and savoury
slop we make of them.

‘Man,’ as Stevenson said, ‘is a creature who lives not upon bread alone, but principally by
catchwords.’ We have our ideology to do our thinking for us, and our slogans to tell us what our
ideology means. And in our consumer democracies brand names mean more to us than

Kitsch keeps up our faith in all the beautiful ideals that we know not to be true, and, as
Dostoyevsky points out, ‘people can’t do without fine words.’

It’s those who have no feeling for language that are bewitched by brash slogans, pretentious
titles, nomenclature, hackneyed tags, brand names and doggerel. It’s those who scorn mere
words that turn out to be their most egregious dupes.

The most inspiriting orators, such as Lincoln, Kennedy or King, dealt from a thin pack of
majestic and vacuous platitudes. Their bastard inheritors now strive to match their sonority by
quoting a snatch or two from them.

34 Only craft can save us from the clichés of the heart
All the commonplaces on a theme as commonplace as love are true. And all the truths on a
theme as empty as death are commonplace. ‘All sensible talk about vitally important topics,’
Peirce says, ‘must be commonplace.’ A pop song will teach you as much about love as one of
Shakespeare’s sonnets, though the sonnet will teach you a great deal more about the

The heart speaks in the language of clichés. How snugly our roomiest emotions fit into the
threadbare suit of our starched opinions. Our liveliest sensations talk in the weariest tropes. But
the worked-up passions of poets find the most durable words to voice what we feel. Only those
who are not in love are free to craft a fresh discourse of desire.

35 Clichés old and new
A traditional state is ballasted by its time-tried prejudices. An innovative state is thrust on by its
new-fangled prejudices, which it has to keep refurbishing and restocking. The herd lives its
inherited truisms, but talks its new-minted ones. ‘Every generation,’ notes Thoreau, ‘laughs at
the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.’ We keep venerable wizened clichés in place of
wisdom, and voguish ones in place of wit. Conservatives and progressives differ primarily in the
vintage of their fixed views.

People love old clichés for their elegance, and new ones for their cleverness.

We love fashion because it is a collection of the most up-to-date clichés.

36 Accelerated clichés
In our age of accelerated banality we produce, distribute and discard our spicy clichés as rapidly
as fast food. They sparkle like pop songs, trite yet effervescent, modish, flashing and saleable.
They used to fetter our minds to the past. Now they fetter them to the forgetful present. We think
in tired platitudes, and speak and write in set phrases. Our motley dialect imparts to our
thoughts a variegation that they’ve not earned, and we try to revitalize their tiredness with a
hyperactive vocabulary. Our speech grows more miscellaneous as our vision shrinks and
shrivels. Our imagination is barren, but our language twitches promiscuously.

We all love to read the latest books, since they’re patched up from current clichés to appeal to
the platitudes of the hour.

37 The proof of repetition
We are more convinced by repetition than by reason. ‘Tell a lie once and it stays a lie,’
Goebbels said, ‘tell it a thousand times and it becomes a truth.’

We have so few ideas, what else can we do but go on recapitulating them. And if we repeat
them often enough we come to believe that they must be good ones. ‘By often repeating an
untruth,’ Jefferson notes, ‘men come to believe it themselves.’
38 The pride and pleasure of repetition
We stoop to pick up the opinions of others, and we take pride in reprising our own.

We keep descanting on our views, in the hope of convincing others or at least of convincing
ourselves. We are persuaded of a thesis by hearing it reiterated. And we are persuaded as well
by our own iterations as we would be by another’s. Who else could we trust so much? When I
trot out my readymade formulas, far from blushing at the destitution of my ideas, I gloat that I’ve
proved them right once more.

‘He that knows little,’ says the saw, ‘soon repeats it.’ Others have to keep restating their views,
because they have such a dearth of them. But I feel entitled to restate my own, since they make
such rich sense of the world. Who would not choose to reutter their own ragged fallacies rather
than learn a new truth? ‘The creeds are believed,’ Wilde said, ‘not because they are rational, but
because they are repeated.’ We take more pleasure in reaffirming our illusions than in
excavating the facts.

My own refrains soothe and amuse me as much as those of others anger and disgust me. My
dried-up phrases sound to me as wise as proverbs and as witty as jokes, and I’m sure that they
do so to others too.

People love to harp on their convictions, because they think so much of themselves and so little
about everything else. They can’t keep off their hobby horse, not because they think so
seriously about it, but because they think so trivially about anything.

We keep reasserting our ideas, not because they contain so much matter, but because our
heads contain so little.
We keep murmuring goodness, truth and beauty, as if they formed the motto of a country from
which we’ve been exiled, or the three last words of a dialect that we have ceased to speak. Our
beauty is accidental, our good is economical, and our truth is superficial.

We don’t want truth but the information that brings power. And we don’t want beauty but the
luxury which we use to flaunt our success.

We have lost our capacity for the two best adventures, noble action and noble thought. We gave
them up, when we found that they don’t pay.

Every day the world proves how determined it is to spoil any beauty that it finds and to shut its
ears to any truth that it is told.

Truth and beauty coexist like man and woman, now in peace and now at strife. They may
become one flesh, but they still don’t give up their own selfhood.

Codes of good and evil are concerned with souls and individuals. But what is important is
systems and things with no soul, forms, traditions, ecologies, works, ideas and styles.

The cosmos is many not one, dynamic not static, corporeal and not a spirit, contingent not
necessary, discontinuous not unitary, amoral and numb to what is just, godless but numinous.
The world is ceaselessly becoming. Not one thing stands still. All is flux, change, strife and

1 Virtue corrupts
By dedicating ourselves to an categorical code of right and wrong, we will debase humanity and
despoil the virginal earth. Moral ideals warp the type, but are too weak to rehabilitate the
individual. ‘As mankind perfects itself,’ said Flaubert, ‘man degrades himself.’ By struggling to
set up a pure justice we will tread down all that is delicate and estimable, yet we still won’t make
anyone happier or more virtuous. And then we will tear up the world to bring about not this
pinched purity but its shoddy counterfeit of pushing worldwide narcissism and mediocrity.

Ideals of virtue pervert us as much as examples of vice. ‘When the great way degenerated,’ Lao
Tzu says, ‘human kindness and morality ensued.’

Some people’s hearts are turned to iron by carrying on a slow struggle for a just cause. ‘That
which is crooked cannot be made straight.’
2 Justice is a means, not the meaning
The operations of life may be moral, but its meaning is not. Right and wrong make up a small
component of life, of how we ought to live, of how we ought to judge and be judged, of what will
pain or please us. The pressing daily question, how am I to live, rarely has a moral answer.

Few of us act for the reason that we want to do good, and yet most of us can’t act without
assuming that we are doing good.

Moral laws are regulations which guide how we ought to act. They are not propositions which
are true or false. They are like the rules of any game, such as tennis, croquet or cricket, which
we must abide by, or there would be no living in society. But they have no existence or validity
outside it. The rules of the game are not the purpose of the game. And though all good players
must obey them, the best are not the ones who stick to them most conscientiously.

The state was not set up to establish equity. It makes use of it as a mere expedient to preserve
its own being. We don’t live in groups so that we can act justly. We act justly so that we can live
in groups. Justice is a means, not an end, however much moralists may say otherwise. It serves
as traffic control for our wants. It is not the destination that we set out for.

3 Moral amateurs
The first task of the moral law is to fool us that we are moral beings. And so its first article of
faith is a lie.

We are moral beings by bare chance. We are intrinsically creatures who will, strive, desire and
compete, who crave fulfilment and never find it.

Few of us are devoted either to good or to bad. ‘Great vices and great virtues are exceptions
among mankind,’ said Napoleon. We are reluctant conscripts of virtue and cheap amateurs of
vice. These are like any one object, and we have ten thousand such objects on which we’ve set
our hearts. ‘Most evil,’ Arendt says, ‘is done by those who never make up their minds to be good
or evil.’ Specialists in getting on, how could we be more than dilettantes of integrity or iniquity?
These are instruments that we use. They are not the end to which we pledge our lives. ‘I for my
part,’ Confucius said, ‘have not yet seen one who had a real love of goodness, nor one who
abhorred wickedness.’

4 Circumstance is king
My moral nature runs so shallow, that the least churn resulting from a fresh fancy or a change of
luck will be enough to muddy it.
We are not simply generous or gentle or honest, we are generous or gentle or honest to this
person and not to that, in this way and not in that, at this time but not at that. Our virtues are
partial, specialized, arbitrary, conditional, malleable and circumstantial.

Virtue itself must consent to be corrupted before it can do any good in this world. The saints
don’t know how much they owe the devil for the completion of their work.

Acute necessity may make an honest man a knave, as Defoe said, but the day to day need to
live in peace with others keeps many a knave honest.

We feel so hard pressed by our own compulsions, that we presume we have a right to press
hard on everything else in our frenzy to pander to them.

We don’t doubt that we are free yet necessary beings, the controllers of our own desires and
self-aware. But we are in fact conditioned, contingent, the dupes of our own compulsions and
ignorant of ourselves. We are assortments of contingencies, who are convinced that our path is
destined and that our will is free.

5 Moral mediocrities
If a great number of people practise a virtue, we scorn it for its cheapness. And if few do, we
scorn humanity for possessing such a paucity of it.

We do such scant mischief and such scant good, and we intend still less, yet we are judged by
what we never aimed at. Very few of our acts are done with a moral end in view. And most of
our virtue consists in prudently refraining from wrongdoing. It is cautious, parsimonious and
negative. We are empty-headed and self-interested, not criminal or saintly. Right and wrong are
late-born and sickly.

Ambition and self-interest persevere. Virtue and vice faint and falter. There are far more moral
mediocrities than moral monsters. ‘A dwarf in evil, a dwarf in good,’ as Ibsen styled it. Our
conduct is couched in a thin and crude ethical idiom.

When I act for my own ends, I project the profit. But when I act for the sake of others, I count the
cost. So I’m as brisk and busy in my own interest as I am sluggish in theirs.

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.”’
Our technical expertise has not outrun our moral insight. Knowledge of all kinds has outrun our
care. But did it not do that a long time ago?

6 Reluctant virtue
‘Man,’ as Leopardi wrote, ‘is almost always as wicked as he needs to be,’ though most of us act
honourably where we must. We are as good as we have to be, and as bad as we can get away
with. We have the means to do more good than we wish to, and we wish to do more mischief
than we dare to. We are willing to be as vile as we need to be, but most of the time we need to
be less vile than we are willing to be. So expedience reduces us to a reluctant rectitude. We are
too timid to dare all the wrong that we would like to do, and we don’t want to do all the
pedestrian good that our own advantage might entice us to do.

7 The banality of evil
An evil genius, such as Hitler or Stalin, though quite nondescript himself, may be the cause of
stupendous effects.

It is not evil that is banal, but people, the saved no less than the sinful. Evil becomes as banal
as the state makes it. The third reich made devilry utterly routine, and so society grew utterly
devilish. And a just regime, if it aimed to do as much good as Germany did harm, would need to
enlist its Eichmanns of plodding virtue.

A great abomination such as a world war seems to purge the age of its banality like a blood
offering. But the crimes against humanity, which we deplore, tempt us to deplore the whole of
humanity and deduce that it may deserve the crimes that have been done to it.

We make holocausts, not when a few of us choose to behave with inhuman brutality, but
because most of us are humanly unmoved by all but our own advantage.

Those who childishly crave approval cravenly idolize transgressors. Timid and ailing people, like
Nietzsche, make fools of themselves by celebrating the crimes of the strong and hearty.

8 The banality of goodness
Good is no less banal than evil. If either of them rises above ordinariness, it is only by engaging
in a fight with an overwhelming enemy. It is the struggle and not the cause that lends the lustre.

The saints no less than the sinners are sustained by their slogans and catchphrases, not by the
truth. These remind them of their duty, or at least ease their mind when they omit to do it.
There are numberless vain and irritable pedants of virtue, but no geniuses, though there are
plenty of adepts of instinctive self-sacrificing affection.

The motives that prompt miscreants to do evil are often as trivial as its effects are prodigious.
But both the motives and effects of the good that the just do are equally trivial.

9 Moral conformity
We conform even in our transgressions. ‘Men are as the time is,’ as Shakespeare showed. We
covet what our neighbours covet, and lie as they lie. We murder in murderous times. In time of
war cowards are the first to take up arms. ‘The virtue in most request,’ as Emerson wrote, ‘is
conformity.’ My self-interest and my stupidity lead me to comply in my moral acts as they do in
all the rest. Few of us turn out to be much better or much worse than the world that imprisons
us. All our traits, both straight and skewed, bend to wheeling chance. ‘Circumstance,’ as Twain
notes, ‘is man’s master.’ We are chameleons, who take our moral tinge from our surrounds.

The most refined prescriptions of right and wrong reproduce the first precepts that were
implanted in the nursery. Thus, as Dryden wrote, ‘the child imposes on the man.’

10 The sterility of virtue
Morality is a necessary hygiene, a drilling in what is clean and unclean. But this would in its turn
grow to be a baleful distemper if we gave it too much leeway. ‘Be not righteous overmuch.’
Everyday virtues are disseminated almost as contagiously as everyday greeds. The air swarms
with a horde of righteous viruses of fine feelings and angelic intentions, which your coldness
alone can save you from catching.

We are God’s songbirds. He cares nothing for our flat virtues and clanging sorrows, but only for
how sweetly we sing.

This magnificent civilization which has been built up by bloodshed and grim exploitation will
soon be pulled down by happiness, good works and freedom.

Civilization does not consist, as Baudelaire contended, in the curtailment of the vestiges of
original sin, but in their enlargement and upraising into towering arrays of sense and glory.

11 Redeemed by evil
The mischief that we do may not be worth much, but we would be worth nothing at all were it
not for the mischief that we do. Why make yourself a eunuch just to be stupidly good? Purify the
will, and you sterilize the imagination. But if you can craft a rarity by becoming corrupt, won’t it
be worth the cost? In the kingdom of the imagination salvation is through sin. We ought to do as
Blake urged, and put off holiness to put on intellect.

It’s hard to know which is Adam’s more precious and fruitful legacy to us, sin or death.

Artists use their pulsing desires as decoys to fix their attentiveness. By making art they don’t
sublimate their sexual energy but keep it on the boil, so that they can make more art. ‘The lust
of the goat,’ as Blake states, ‘is the bounty of God.’

You discipline your heart by resisting temptation. But you widen your mind by giving way to it.

The stance of the thinker ought to be a decent outward obedience and a licentious inner

12 Virtue makes us small
To make too much of right and wrong would be to stunt the myriad wondrous achievements that
we might excel in. Justice, like money, cuts everything down to barren quantity and
measurement. It would dry up all our lusher endowments, and drown our minds in empathic
trifles. Seek to be scrupulously just in small things, and you grow unjust to large ones. Purity
violates all our more exalted aims. It is the chauvinism of morality.

We don’t turn into devils by straining to act like do-gooding archangels, as Montaigne claimed.
We merely grow mediocre in all other spheres.

13 Morality paralyzes thought
We have mandated greed to drive us on to act, and moral preening to fence in how we think.
Thought erodes virtue, and virtue arrests thought. ‘Every virtue inclines toward stupidity,’ as
Nietzsche wrote, ‘and every stupidity toward virtue.’ The law sows the imagination with salt.
Thought liquefies moral codes, and they ossify intelligence. The sole reason to think about them
is to prove that they are not worth expending any thought on.

As soon as we start to think morally, we become stupid, commonplace and self-justifying. A
sound mind is allergic to moralizing, and yet moral and political gossip are the closest that most
people get to thought. Virtue makes living safe but thinking small.

First the gods stupefied us by their limp miracles in a world that was so much more miraculous.
Now they do so by their stern and restrictive codes of righteousness in a world where they have
let in so much mischief.
Why expel your dark angels? Learn from them. They have more to teach you than your wan
rectitude does. ‘The world,’ says William James, ‘is all the richer for having a devil in it.’

Truth lies hidden in the depths of hell. The saints get to keep all their illusions.

14 The rewards of virtue are fixed by the state
People are neither good nor evil. They simply seek their own ends. But the state decrees which
kinds of acts they will profit by, and so it’s not nature but social arrangements that make your
happiness depend on how just you are. A government can’t make its citizens just. All it can do is
bar them from being rewarded when they act unjustly.

The inhabitants of a just state do right from the same motives of habit and self-interest that
impel those of an unjust one to do wrong. In order to be virtuous, all they need do is calculate
and conform. You can be sure that you have dropped into a fiendish world, if in resolving to act
with rightness you have to do more than compute what will best serve your own ends. In a
depraved society the just are forced to act like heroes.

When the state turns society to hell, men and women will act like devils to fit in or get on.

15 We don’t love truth
We claim to think so much, we in fact think so little, yet we prize thinking so dear. Why do we
shy from what we claim to do so zealously. Why do we set such a high value on what we are so
loath to do? And why do we prize so dear what yields us such sparse pay?

We so love truth, as Augustine said, that whatsoever else we love we have to dub it truth.

Speak your truth defiantly, since no one will have ears for it anyway. Their insensibility is what
sets you free. Don’t worry that you’ve laid bare to them your inmost self. They’re so caught up in
their own cravings, that they won’t have noticed or cared much. They might be willing to give
you a hearing, so long as you talk the same amusing gibberish as everyone else.

16 Unthinking reed
If our glory lies in reasoning, as Pascal said, then what is our life but a long disgrace?

For most of us the unexamined life is the sole one worth living, and undoubtedly the sole one
worth dying for. Yet philosophers tell us that life bereft of the search for truth does not befit a
human being. So who is mad? We unheeding sleepers, deaf to the dignity of truth? Or they who
prescribe a duty that most of us shirk, and who do so in order to sponsor the latest daft system
of their own, which lands them farther than ever from the truth?

Think for yourself, urge philosophers such as Schopenhauer, since they don’t doubt that the few
who dare to do so will no doubt think like them, and that they have thought so well that no one
who comes after them should need to think at all.

17 We think only to serve our own advantage
We think only as much as we need to get what we want.

We have no wish to hear the truth, so by what miracle does it so often win out in spite of our
unwillingness? Our illusions gain us so much, that it takes some magnanimity to pay truth any
mind at all.

We may be willing to hear or tell the truth about the things that matter, since they are the ones
that matter least to us.

We can tell the truth about the things that don’t touch us. But we don’t doubt that most things
do, and so it’s rare that we are free to tell the truth at all. We circle round the truth, but swoop
straight for our gain.

Some of us are not shrewd enough to gauge which lies will best serve our advantage, but none
of us is so naive as to think that it will be served by the truth.

The knowledge that adds to our power is now the sole kind of knowledge that we care for.

18 We love amusement not truth
The valiant fight and die so that cowards might live in peace. The wise search for the truth so
that dabblers and time-killers might snack on it as a titbit once in a while.

We don’t care for truth. But we do love trivia, news, gossip and useful information.

The most penetrating truths just graze the skin of our shallow souls, whilst the dullest blots and
errors sink deep in and dye them.

We tipple such polite sips of truth, but swig down deep draughts of intoxicating lies.

We clutter our hearts with so much other sludge, how could they have room to love the truth?
19 Lies are shameless
The world garlands truth, and then cuts out her tongue. Lies strut up and down in the open, but
truth must be smuggled in like contraband. Lies swank and swagger, truth sneaks and scuttles.
‘Superstition, sacrilege and hypocrisy have ample pay,’ Luther wrote, ‘but truth goes a-begging.’
What need have we of truth, when our generous deceits give us all that we want? In this world
lies are gold and truth is lead.

Honest people have not learnt the arts of self-deception by which the sincere win everyone’s
trust. We are left cold by the truth. And we withhold our loyalty from the few who have had the
honesty to doubt themselves.

20 Truth makes us ashamed
Our lies make us loquacious. Truth strikes us dumb. What gives an air of authority is sincerity
and certainty, and liars have far more of these than the honest. Shame goads us to seek out the
truth, and then truth makes us blush to utter it. It makes us feel unclean and dooms us to
isolation. Tell the lies that you need to speak and that your listeners want to hear, and you’ll feel
at peace in playing your part and you will win the love and trust of those for whom you play it.
‘Dishonesty,’ wrote Dickens, ‘will stare honesty out of countenance any day of the week.’

Good moralists, such as La Rochefoucauld or Pascal, chill all that they touch. They set off
epiphanies of embarrassment and disaffection, to ‘make mad the guilty, and appal the free.’
They hope to freeze the world’s heart with shame as it has frozen theirs with revulsion. But the
world is too shameless to be much stung by their acidulous truths. They work with a pitiless
lucidity, and would be glad if they could wipe out the whole of reality with a single rigorous book.
They would make us more abashed and more worthy of our best selves. So they free us to
think, and shame us for failing to. Such an inquirer of desponding honesty would be a jansenist
with no faith in God, a doubter with no faith in reason or in doubt, a humanist with no faith in

21 The world hates the truth
A daring mind can’t hold out against the world’s vast imbecility, and taste and beauty can’t hold
back the tide of its vulgarity. Art can’t compete with kitsch, and truth is shoved aside for thrills
and distractions. The more delicate goes down to the more coarse and loutish. The essential
has no chance in its clash with the urgent and frivolous, the earth has no chance in its duel with
the world. ‘Against witlessness,’ Schiller wrote, ‘the veriest gods feud in vain.’
The real world is too brutal to be pierced by the truth. But truth can easily be crushed by brute

One sure way to bore or depress or offend people is to tell them the plain truth. You don’t know
the world very well, if you think that you can speak it and get off scot free. Where everything can
be spoken, we all grasp that truth is the one thing that no one wants to hear. Those who know
how to use their eyes must learn to shut their mouths.

The world gives a home to your duplicitous creed, but will leave you houseless if you dare to
stay loyal to your treacherous truths.

22 Truth and conceit
Is it truth that we cherish, or the conviction that we alone have got it in our clasp, and the sweet
spectacle of the rest lost in their darkness? ‘No pleasure,’ Bacon says, ‘is comparable to the
standing on the vantage ground of truth, and to see the errors and wanderings and mists and
tempests in the vale below.’ But we want more than that. We want them to acknowledge that we
know more than they.

Would we care for truth itself, if it gave us no outlet to hold forth on it? ‘Wisdom and the good
things of the mind,’ Montaigne says, ‘seem of no account to us if they are not paraded before
the approving eyes of the world.’ Seneca said that he would give up the grant of good sense if
he had to keep it sequestered. ‘Is all your knowledge nothing,’ asked Persius, ‘if someone else
does not know that you know it?’

People gird their certitudes not with shaky corroboration but with unconquerable conceit. And
they take pride in their illogic, as if they have bent reason to their own strong will. They hold
uncompromising ideas on a point, not because they’ve formed their own view of it, but so that
they won’t have to.

We prefer evasions which flatter but diminish us to an honesty which would harrow but enrich
us. ‘The lie that exalts us,’ Pushkin wrote, ‘is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.’ Truth
makes the sores and welts for which our lies must find the cure.

23 The revenge of truth
Those who are cursed to think seek their devious redress by discovering the desolating truth,
because they know that no one will pay them the least heed. They scourge them with sharp
truths, while exposing how they are too thick-skinned to be touched by it. Cassandras of
uncaring, their truths don’t help, since they don’t take the trouble to seek out the truths that

If truth has ravaged you, what cruel relief do you have but to infect others with it in turn? A
thinker can’t forbear passing on the execrable blight of truth, as parents can’t forbear passing on
the heinous contagion of life. ‘I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.’

The one comfort that thinkers have for the hard and dry life that thinking thrusts on them is to

24 We love our dogmas, not the truth
We hug our dogmas, not because we long for surety, but because we hate to think. We don’t
crave the taxing certitude of proof but the factitious assurance of our own congealed opinions.
So we love certainty more than truth, and self-confidence more than certainty.

What I venerate is my own dogmas, and what I abominate are those dogmas that I don’t share.
I don’t treasure truth but my truths. I don’t prize wealth but my own wealth. And I don’t love God
but my own god. The true God is my god. Others’ gods must be false gods. We don’t love an
idea because we know it to be true, we take it to be true because we have made it our own. I
care for truth no more than a general cares for the regions that he has crushed.

Like a jealous suitor, each thinker wants to be both the first and last possessor of this adored
thought. And a truth that yields to anyone else’s wooing must be a whore.

I prefer my own deviations to others’ truths. And my own truths I prefer because they are mine
and not because they are truths. ‘Each theorist,’ Rousseau said, ‘knows that his own scheme of
thought rests on no firmer underpinnings than the rest, but he upholds it because it is his. Not
one of them would not choose his own lie before the truth that someone else had found.’ They
are Pygmalions who, revolted by the fakeries modelled by their rivals, fashion and fall in love
with their own.

25 Truth is made by conformity and conflict
Most of us take up our creed out of conformity, and keep it alive by our hostility. It’s only the
shared heat of our herd conformity or the factitious heat of a contest that gives ideas any
warmth at all for us. Like our sympathies, we suckle them with our animus. ‘When a thing
ceases to be a subject of controversy,’ Hazlitt wrote, ‘it ceases to be a subject of interest.’
Extremists would lose half their fervour and stridency, if their foes ceased to assail and deride
them. How torpidly we love truth, yet how fanatically we loathe what we class as error. I have
my adversary to thank for reassuring me that I have right on my side.

How would we know what verities to love, if our antagonists did not teach us what lies we hate?
I know that truth delights me, because I feel that lies disgust me. ‘To be a real philosopher,’
William James tells us, ‘all that is necessary is to hate someone else’s type of thinking.’

All opposition makes us more obstinate in our beliefs by irritating our self-regard to defend them.
‘How seldom is any man convinced by another man’s argument,’ exclaimed Johnson. ‘Passion
and pride rise against it.’ We know how fervently we love a cause from how fiercely we hate its

26 Truth is cruel
Truth is fragile but implacable. Illusion is elastic and forgiving. Truth fractures you. Your
pretences make you whole. Truth won’t relent, and death is the sole thing that you can rely on to
release you from its grip. ‘Truth has very few friends,’ as Porchia says, ‘and those few friends it
has are suicides.’ Like straining eunuchs at the close of a lifetime of arid devotion, they die as
unregarded offerings to an indifferent god. Truth cares for us even less than we care for it.

One person may be cheated by a barefaced lie, but we all feel diminished by a bald statement
of the truth.

Truth is the most sickening dish that can be served up to a human being.

Truth is salt in the wounds. It may not cure, but it cleans.

27 Truth kills the ones who love it
It’s the deep souls, like strong swimmers, who drown, since they venture out too far. Truth kills
the finer specimens, the few who love it. The rest are resistant to it. Its virus has two strains.
The prevalent one, our everyday plain-speaking, is harmless and may inoculate you against
more hurtful truths, so that you can live and thrive. The second, scarce as leprosy, will cut you
off from the living and devour you. In this enlightened age truths still infest us like lice, but we
have learnt to tame the insidious germs that they spread.

Truth is a poison, but most of us ingest it in such small doses that it does us no harm.

Truth consumes those who seek it as a flame consumes a candle, leaving nothing but snuff,
and then guttering.
We are sure that we know what truth is like long before we have found it. We trust that it will
make us free or blest or good, and that if it fails to do so, then it can’t be true. But since we hold
this, how could we reach the truth and why would we need to? We feel no impulse to find it,
since we’re so sure that we’ve already got it.

28 The exterminating angel
Truth is an exterminating angel. Truth, as Wilde says, ‘is often pitiless to her worshippers.’ It
would have wiped out all life long ago, were it not that it visits the earth so sporadically. ‘Beware
when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet,’ Emerson warned.

Truth is too insubstantial to touch us. But it is heavy enough to sink us.

If you don’t find the truth, you still have to fight for your illusions. If you do find it, you’ll have to
fight for your life. We would do well to take to heart Shelley’s warning not to lift ‘the painted veil
which those who live call life.’ The facts of our sad lot are easy to trace but hard to bear. The
sole life worth living would be one spent in the hunt for truth. And yet truth, when found, will
inform you that life is not worth living. You seek for truth as a refuge from life’s
discouragements, and then, if you catch it, you need to seek for a refuge from its desolations.

Truth steals in haggard and unwelcome as death in the midst of the frantic masque of our
desires. We avert our gaze and act as if it were invisible. How frightening to look in the hollow
eyes of one who has looked on the truth. Thinkers need to put on a visor, to spare the world the
sight of the grisly cripples that truth has made of them.

The flash of truth is apt to irradiate what it illuminates.

29 No escape
What could be more awful than to speak and think the ruinous truth for so long, that you at last
come to believe it for real? When it has caught up with you, what haven could you hope to find?
‘In much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.’

Life is a brute beast that’s devouring you. You can’t stop it, but you can stick in its craw by
understanding it.

Truth blinds you, first with its brightness, then with its gloom.

It’s not we who make our way to great truths. They hunt us down and find us out.

Truth doesn’t care for us or wish us well. It scalds and skins us, and strips us of all that we have,
and leaves us battered and humiliated.
30 The damage of ideas
The world, though so brute and unreasoning, can be turned on its head by an idea, but only by
one like christianity or communism which is as banal and fraudulent as itself. An ideology in the
real world spills as much blood as splintered glass in a kindergarten. Ideas are pitiless. Even
those who give them no thought may still be snared as their prey and prisoners. Whole
countries, such as Russia, while remaining unenlightened, have been brutalized by the most
fantastic creeds. ‘Ideas are dangerous,’ Chesterton wrote, ‘but the man to whom they are most
dangerous is the man of no ideas.’

31 The truth will not make you free
Honesty follows a devious calling. It is indifferent, but wants to make you different. It holds out to
you the promise of freedom, but it binds you to a stern obedience. Honesty tempts you to doubt
yourself, and yet stirs you to think for yourself. It lives in answers, but appears in questions. It
might make you happy, yet it shames and perplexes you.

The truth won’t make you free. It will only mock your bondage, which your falsehoods alone give
you the steadiness to bear. Ideologues, pent in the den of their cooped dogma, don’t doubt that
the truth will unshackle you, since they know that it has done so for them. And they deem it their
mission to build real gaols for the impious who don’t share in their light.

Zealots are so sure that they hold the inerrant truth in their hands, that they presume they have
a mandate to juggle with it. Having brought it down from heaven, they must use all the wiles of
the serpent to set it up here on earth. Their faith is the only thing that justifies them, and so they
think only so much as might serve to justify their faith.

32 The blessings of form
Art is not beauty. It is the redemption of chance by form and of familiarity by imagination.

‘Poetry,’ wrote Novalis, ‘heals the wounds inflicted by reason.’ 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.

‘We have art,’ Nietzsche says, ‘lest we perish from the truth.’ Truth is a gorgon, which won’t hurt
you, so long as you eye it sideways through the lens of art.
The artists who seem to belittle life by portraying it so meanly still enlarge you by enlarging your
vision. Howsoever sadly they describe the world, their music and mastery still exalts us. The
poet may curse the world, but the poem is still a blessing.

Style is half the significance of a work of art. It is the bright ideal that shines through in the most
sombre piece. It is the one irreducible value which is left when cold thought has done its work of

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. The highest artists take in the full glare of life’s
ghastliness, but have a binocular vision which is able to fix and focus it as a beam of supernal
beauty. ‘We stroll on the roof of hell,’ as Issa wrote, ‘gazing at flowers.’

33 Beauty makes us sad
How sad to think of what this unlovely world will make of beauty. Its ‘dearest veriest vein is
tears,’ as Hopkins wrote.

How strangely we or the world are made, that even beauty makes us sad. ‘The beautiful,’ Valéry
said, ‘is that which fills us with despair.’ Does it pierce us more by its vulnerability or by its self-
possession, by how close it comes to our hearts or because it is always already so far out of

Could anything be so desolating as perfection, or so poignant as imperfection? Unable to
discharge the overflowing joy that they move you to feel, you feel instead all things dissolving.

Beauty rakes us with a sad rapture and a wounded elation, reminding us of all that we have lost
or are soon to lose. It tells us that we are strangers in this world. Rilke described it as ‘onset of
terror we still have just the strength to bear.’ The silkiest grace hurts us, and the truth delights us
even as its spikes puncture our flesh. How could you relish all the world’s fragility and
loveliness, if you have not felt all its damage?

That truth is beauty is one of the beautiful untruths that we love to mouth because we know so
little of either.

Beauty demolishes us deliciously on the spot by means of the senses. Truth demolishes us
painfully and gradually by means of the intellect.
34 Art will fail us
The cult of beauty, like the cult of truth, is as false as all the rest, not because beauty is an idol,
but because it is an idol of which we are not worthy. Life disappoints us because it’s not good
enough for us. Art disappoints us because we are not good enough for it. And yet art belongs to
the world, and so it too will fail our worldly hearts.

Art won’t save you, but it may be the one divinity that is worth the loss of your soul. It is
powerless to help us, which is why it’s so precious, and why it takes such a large heart to love it.

Literature is a wound which has found the words to utter all our wounds. It is Dickinson’s bird,
‘singing unto the stone of which it died.’ It dramatizes the downfall of all the dear things that we
shut our hearts to in life. Kierkegaard wrote that the poet’s ‘lips are so formed that when the sigh
and cry pass through them, it sounds like sweet music.’

35 Art is not imitation
Art is not imitation but imagination.

Life imitates life, art just pretends to.

A drama is not a representation of an action, as Aristotle claimed. It is a representation of
characters thinking and discoursing on it as no one would in life. The one salient action that
takes place on stage is speaking. But it is a style of speaking in no way like the one that we use
in life. ‘The people in Shakespeare,’ Hardy notes, ‘act as if they were not quite closely thinking
of what they were doing, but were great philosophers giving the main of their minds to the
general human situation.’ And he contrives the events of the tale just to give them the scope to
exercise their imagination. Shakespeare is always generalizing and always metaphoric, greek
drama is particularizing and literal.

Life might look like a drama or fiction, were it not that it lacks plot, character, thought and style.
These are the flawless circles of art which form no part of our formless existence. Life is made
of accident, engagement, affect and ambition. Art is made of choice, detachment, poise and
vision. Life is arithmetic, particular and actual. Art is algebra, abstract and illimited. Life is thrust
on by desire and regulated by routine. Art is animated by imagination and shaped by order. Life
emptily repeats at the behest of its stagnant habits. Art repeats designedly to build up grand
signifying patterns. It reclaims repetition by permeating it with shape and meaning.
36 Art is not like real life
Art is more true than life, because it is less real than life. And when it strains to be as real, it
becomes as false. Fiction is stranger than reality, because it lays bare more of the truth. The
dumb world has no way to reveal to us its own depth. And so artists can do this only by refusing
to share the inarticulacy of life. They use the trappings of the day to day life that we lead, to
disclose the true life which we don’t lead. Art borrows from life its body, and life steals from art
its soul. Life has too coarse a taste to copy art, and art has too fine a taste to copy life.

Life itself is a second-hand fiction. And when art follows it, the best it can make is third-hand
melodrama. ‘Art does not imitate life,’ Brodsky wrote, ‘if only for fear of clichés,’ and it does not
copy real people for fear of caricature, though most of us are too vapid and forgettable even to
be that. And though life may not shadow art, it does arrive later. Picasso was outlining Guernica
before a bomb had been dropped.

Artists raid life like buccaneers to plunder it and enrich their visions. Art resembles life as
embezzling from a bank resembles negotiating a loan.

Life sprawls like an aggregation of suburbs, cosy though flat and featureless. Art is a methodical
yet bewildering city like St Petersburg. Life from afar may look picturesque. But the closer you
get, all you see is its dour utility. As Van Gogh found to his dismay, it ‘has the tinge of
dishwater.’ Why else would he have had to colour it in such iridescent blues and yellows?

37 Art holds the mirror up to convention
Most people assume that a piece of art must be like life if it is reminiscent of the rest of the
works of art that they have seen. They say that a portrait has plumbed the soul if they can read
into it their own trite preconceptions of a type of character. So they’re keen to find that a pope or
cardinal looks worldly and world-weary, that a baron must be smug and supercilious, fonder of
his hounds or horse than of his wife and offspring, that a thinker is voyaging through strange
seas of thought alone. They mistake what is natural for the conventional forms that they are
most used to seeing.

Most of our so-called instincts about art are little more than learned errors.

Why do we assume that if a canvas or a story seems vivid then it must picture life realistically,
and that if it looks more graphic than reality then it must be more real than reality?

Crude books gratify us by holding the mirror up to the pretty lies by which we live.
Literature is our common confession, heartfelt and unsparing. But, like all confessions, it is at
the same time artful and self-exculpating. ‘An artist chooses when he confesses,’ as Valéry
wrote, ‘perhaps above all when he confesses.’

38 Art is not a human need
‘It needs a complex social machinery,’ Henry James said, ‘to set a writer into motion,’ and it
takes an apparatus of class, syllabuses, snobbery and institutes to set a reader on to read great
books. But they need no prompt to read bad ones. ‘For even the most trifling revelations of art
need preparation and study,’ as Nietzsche points out. ‘There is no immediate effect of art.’

We need forms and institutions, to force us to curb our worst appetites and to aspire to our best

Real things, such as art or truth, are so foreign to us and unloved, that they need an elaborate
scaffolding of snobbery, prestige and institutions to hold them up.

If art couldn’t bank on the good will and patronage of people who don’t much care for it, it
wouldn’t last from one year to the next.

If there were no serious readers, there would be no serious writers. And so great authors can
write up to the top of their talent only by overestimating their readers.

A book has no hope of lasting through the centuries, till we have been trained to read it as if it
will. Had we not been lessoned to revere Shakespeare as the most sublime of poets, we would
laugh at him as a pompous windbag. As Thoreau wrote, ‘We do not enjoy poetry unless we
know it to be poetry.’

Nature will hatch the egg of genius, but culture must fertilize it. Penury may not keep a Milton
mute and inglorious, but it and any number of pitfalls may stall him from becoming a Milton.

39 Art alone gives meaning
Art is one of the few things that is worth living for. But art reveals to us that life is not worth
living, and that it gains its value only by being recast as a work of art.

An artist should strive to enrich life without affirming it, to esteem it without falsifying it, not to
claim that it’s worth living, but to make it a touch more worth living. Honest art ought to
transfigure the instant, but not presume to transfigure the world.
Artists make art, not by culling the fat and waste from life, but by packing it with more marrow.
They supply the world with the sense which God forgot to put in. Art distils what life leaves out.
It makes it rich and breaks it down. It brings out its significance by paring it to its pith.

40 Meaning is a fiction
A play of three hours gets nearer to the heart of life than life itself does in seventy long years.
Don’t you live more significantly in Troy or Elsinore than you do in your real locality on earth?

Life hurtles with a flaring urgency. Art stands still in cool significance. An artist keeps at bay the
world’s importunate futility by fashioning works of superfluous lustre.

Art is like neither life, in which everything is real but not one thing is significant, nor religion, in
which nothing is real yet all is made to seem significant. Artists make our lives mean by making
meaningful lives which are not ours. It’s only by creating fictions that we make life mean
anything at all.

The world trades on the accepted coin of illusion. We recognize truth solely in the game of
fiction or in the rarefied realm of philosophy. It is only in art, where nothing is at stake, that you
can afford to wager and win what’s priceless.

Why do those who are glad to be cheated by life berate art for being mere fiction?

41 Art redeems suffering
What is art but a contrivance for converting misery to meaning? The sorrows of art solace you,
since they are not real and yet they still signify. The sorrows of life are so desolating, because
for all their deep feeling they mean nothing. Art glows with lambent anguish. Life is fraught with
a jaunty dimness. A poet senses the immense sadness behind each joy, and joyfully foresees
the fearful loveliness of each heartbreak transfigured by form.

42 We put art to the meanest use
‘The aesthetic,’ as Borges points out, ‘is inaccessible to most people.’ What appeals to them
least in a work of art is what is most integral to it, that is, its form and imagination. What
captivates them is what is most adventitious, its entertainment and impact, its vividness and
verisimilitude, or its platitudinous moralizing. A great work of art is a lightning show put on for
the blind. They may feel the house rumble, but they can’t see the brightness.

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’re called to 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 lives. It’s only those who have no
imagination that respond to fictions as if they were recitations of real life.

Just as we dote on a great mind such as Einstein for the quaint traits that denote a trashy
celebrity, their peculiarities, dress and gestures, so we applaud the best books for doing what
unexceptional books do much better, for contriving suspenseful plots, pronounced effects,
characters with whom we identify, a vivid portrayal of a time or place, and slick sermons which
confirm our own virtuous prejudices or subvert the herd’s.

43 We want art to flatter us
Life, like Narcissus, gazes into the pool of art in order to admire its own face. Literature is a
great glass which shows us more substantial than we are.

What we want from art is flattery and half-lies that we can take for truth. We expect it to tell us
that we are ample and anguished, that we are afflicted because we are grand and grand by the
grace with which we endure our afflictions.

We want fictions 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.

44 Nothing matters but style
For true artists there’s nothing serious in mortality but style. ‘To those who are preoccupied with
the beauty of form,’ Wilde points out, ‘nothing else seems of so much importance.’ They take
such pains to carve out a style, that they grow stone-hearted to all else. A misplaced comma
would scandalize them more than an act of cruelty. ‘For God’s sake don’t talk politics,’ Joyce
pleaded. ‘The only thing that interests me is style.’

What exhilarating torment writers must feel at the dizzying contingency of every choice of shape
or texture, word or phrase, chord or cadence, and at how it will ramify out and out through their
work and readjust and reconstitute the whole of it. The drama of moral choice is a trivial
analogue for the serious business of aesthetic discrimination.

Good style is a bare cool justice. Fine prose, like Austen’s, works by its own code of right. It is
serene, since it wants nothing, cheerful, as it feels no need to impose, and kind, as it doesn’t
disdain to please. But only someone who has been seared by the mad vehemence of poetry
would trust in the frail justice of prose.
45 Artists love only art
A painter would cordially set the world on fire, to light the least of their daubings more

Musicians hold that if there is a high way to God it must be through their own music. The deity
that they worship must love music more than anything else. And the reverence that they feel for
him is a dull after-echo of the awe that they feel at their own art.

Artists are proud souls who would lick the lowest dust in the service of their art.

For true artists, living is a mere sleep which intermits their ardent dreams of creation.

46 Art for the artist’s sake
All that artists love they love for the sake of their art. And they love their art for their own sake.
They cherish fame more than art, as capitalists love their merchandise for the financial gain that
it yields.

The sole thing that a work of art affirms is the wayward imagination of the artist who made it.

An artist or a god is superabundant but not self-sufficient. Their needs are as extravagant as
their capacities.

47 The work is all
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 drifts like a ghost amongst the ghosts of the living, to bring them news of a world more

The high things which prove life’s worth were brought forth by the few who were sure that it has
none. The makers make life worthwhile, but they place no value on it themselves. To them it is
mere tripe and scrapings.

Those who make art are least able to weigh life’s value, but best able to represent it. So it’s a
good thing for us that they feel obliged to make it out to be far dearer than they prize it. And it’s
a good thing for them that their artists’ instincts make them prize it as dear as they’re obliged to
make it out to be. They are spurred to make something worthwhile of life, because they know
that life itself is so worthless. ‘They seem to be fighting for the sake of the dignity and
significance of mankind,’ Nietzsche says, ‘but in fact they refuse to give up the presuppositions
that are most efficacious for their art.’

Some authors use writing as a means to put off dying, and some use it as a means to put off

Art is a way of grasping and embracing life, while still holding it at bay.

48 Artists love the world for the sake of their art
Artists care for the world as it gives them the scope to show off their art. And if they wish to save
the world it’s only to preserve beholders for their own works. And they think that their own
compositions are the one thing that could save it. When they seem to be exalting life, it is their
own poetic might and mastery that they are exalting, which brims over and blesses the
unhearing world with its bounty. Artists love the world as God does, ‘the glad creator,’ to redeem
its unmeaning squalor by their own abounding grace.

Artists don’t paint the world because they love it. They love the world because they paint it.

A writer lives to write, and feels sure that the rest live to read, and that the world is here to be
written. ‘Everything in the world,’ Mallarmé said, ‘exists to end up in a book.’ And in our age of
hyperreality it all exists to be filmed and photographed. Perhaps the Lord put on the whole show
just so that he could dictate his scriptures.

Artists don’t doubt that the world was made for art and not art for the world. They look on the
world as mere metaphor or material for their work. If the first, they rejoice to see it seated as an
imperishable artefact of shapely calm. And if the second, they love to watch it rock with riotous
mischief. ‘All under heaven is in unmitigated disarray,’ Mao said. ‘The situation is excellent.’ The
artist must play the world false in order to stay true to the art that lends the world its one frail

49 Art is the meaning of life
Art does not unfold to us the meaning of life. Art is the meaning of life.

What have we to set against life’s infinite littleness but the little infinity of art? It hurls a rapturous
vitality in the face of demeaning absurdity or pounding affliction, and so makes them seem
worth bearing.

Artists, when asked for a loaf, would not give a real stone. They cheat you, and make good their
frauds by conferring untold wealth.
A sickly aesthete, such as Pater, makes a toy of art by treating it as a mere trimming with which
to deck life. A strong artist knows that life is a foul dung that must be ploughed to fructify art. To
read in order to live, as all bookish advisers tell us to do, seems a poor use of good literature.

50 Live to read
Writer to reader, ‘Why do you bother to live? You are here to read my books. We both live for
writing, but you can’t write. What could be more pointless than to be forever reading, never to be
read?’ Reader to writer, ‘Why do you bother to live? You are here to make books for me to
munch on, as the silk-worm is kept in the dark to spin silk. We both live for reading, but you
deem reading vain.’ They form one joint ring of uselessness. Writers live to be read, though they
set no value on reading. And they toil to enjoy an afterlife of misquotation, to win the brief
continuance of a name.

A writer is a tireless scribe who keeps meticulous records for oblivion.

1 Herd purpose
Other people, who are not quite real to us, are the source of all our reality. I do my utmost to
make my own life mean more than that of others, by endeavouring to make it mean more to
others. I am sure that their lives have worth only if they add to the worth of my own. And yet my
own life has purpose only if it means something to them. So high and so low do I rank my own
standing and that of my fellow beings.

Anything, however purposeless, seems worth doing so long as someone else is watching. And
nothing, however purposeful, seems worth doing if no one is. And each of us knows what is
worth watching, since it’s whatever everyone else is watching.

We need meaning because we are gregarious or pack animals. Dogs have a very strong need
for it. That’s why they are so dependent on their keeper.

We are self-willed but not self-reliant. We are self-conscious but not self-aware. I don’t know
what matters, but what matters to others is good enough for me.

2 Rivalry
Our meaning is competitive. We don’t need a meaning. We need a goal to strive for, and a rival
to vie with. Life has all the importance of a futile but ferociously contentious game.

I don’t much care what the purpose of life may be. But I do care if my own life appears to have
less purpose than others’.

We don’t want to get what we esteem. We esteem what others want to get, and then we try to
get that.

3 The ego is the measure of meaning
I feel infinitely more diminished by the insignificant margin by which some close-by insignificant
person might surpass me than I do by the infinite disparity between my own dim nothingness
and the vast universe spangled with all its suns. We measure our size and worth not by the
scale of vast nebulae and constellations, but by the small huddle of people round us who will die
so soon.
Our horizons of time and space are fixed by our egoism and not by our awareness. We may
think like philosophers whose souls float serenely above the fray. But we must feel and act like
men and women, embroiled in a fierce daily tussle to keep our head up in this world. Copernicus
and Darwin revealed to us how small we are, but to make us feel it was beyond them. We have
not shrunk one inch in our own eyes since we found out that the cosmos is made up of billions
of galaxies, and that we are just one transient and fortuitous form of life among millions.

Most of us are terrified not by the enormity of space, as Pascal said he was, but by the
imperceptible interval by which others overtake us. We gaze up at the stars and feel that we are
nothing. But they are silent and far away, and everything that is close at hand shouts to us that
we are all in all. It’s not my own triviality that torments me, but the trivial comparisons I make
with the trivial people who chance to be next to me.

4 The lives of others
We see how vain the lives of others are, but we can’t feel their anguish. And so we fail to grant
their significance or to sympathize with them. We feel our own griefs piercingly, but we can’t see
how vain our life is. And so we deem that we are fraught but important. I’m certain that my own
life streams with deep pain and rich sense, while others beam with joy but don’t mean a thing. I
care too languidly for them to wince at their pangs or to grasp how much their concerns count
for them. I have no idea what elation or unease they might feel, not because I lack self-
forgetting imagination, but because I don’t share their hungry perspective.

How could I see that such small nuisances or satisfactions look so large to them from up close,
since my own sight is narrowed by the small nuisances and satisfactions that press so close
round me? We can’t guess how such a trivial cause could make others so happy or unhappy,
and they can’t see how trivial it is.

5 The sham of our success
For most of us the meaning of life is the career of our egoism. And the sham of our success is
the sole truth that we live for.

Few people feel any strong need to give a meaning to their lives beyond their own careers and
amusements. But the creeds tell them that they do and then supply them with a shallow stopgap
to fill it. Religion is a patched-up answer to a question which most of us fail to ask.

The gods were born to serve not some grand metaphysical need for meaning but our gross
physical fears and greed.
We know full well that the things that people seek are a sham. But we still hate to see others get
more of them than we do. The sole goods that we prize are those that we can compete to win
more of than our rivals. We waste our lives hustling to get hold of the expensive fakes that
everyone else has their eye on. However empty we find the world, we still know it to be the one
thing that can fill our aching hearts.

We use up our lives in brutal rivalry and self-serving illusion. We find peace and wisdom
nowhere but in the grave. There we at last cease to care for all the phantoms that we chased
through life. Wisdom, as Job said, is not found in the land of the living.

6 The game matters because we are playing it
When we win the game, most of us judge that the game must be worth playing. And many of us
judge the same just by playing it. We don’t do things because we know why they are worth
doing. We know that they must be worth doing because we do them. Life jams our satchel with
junk, and we don’t shuck it off, since we feel it weigh so heavily on us that it must be laden with
gold. We make our meaning by exaggerating how indispensable we are.

We spend every effort to bring our schemes to realization, since we refuse to spend the one
slight effort of assaying their true value. ‘It is humanity’s worst flaw,’ Hebbel averred, ‘to strive
passionately for things before it finds out what they are worth.’ But don’t we reckon them so
precious only because we strive so avidly for them? A purpose does not fill my eyes because
it’s so vast, it looks so vast because it fills my eyes. And it fills my eyes because it stands so
close to me. We don’t set our heart on a thing because we judge it good. We judge a thing good
because we have set our heart on it.

For most of us the purpose of life, which we never lose our faith in, is whatever we plan to do
next. It’s always just in front of us, and it’s still just out of our reach.

7 Our self is our meaning
We fancy that we are gravely disillusioned by the world. But we are just disheartened that we
have gained such a low place in it. My soul is wrung not by my doubt that life in the main might
have no value, but by my fear that it may have less value for me than it does for everyone else.
Would it cause me such anguish, if I played a more prominent part in it? Yet we prize goods
proportionate to the stake that we have in them. So if we are engaged less and effect less, it’s
not we who seem to count for less but the world.
Though many of us query if life has a meaning, no one doubts that their own does. And the less
life as a whole means, the more you have to cling to the one thing that seems to give it a
meaning for you.

How the whole world is changed, when I add the small pronouns I and me to it. Nothing that
happens to us would matter, if it were happening to someone else. Fiction tells of what matters
immensely though it has happened to no one.

We are patched up from a morass of fortuities, set ways, happenstance, dry lusts and
diminutive ardours, strange twists and kinks, vacancy. ‘According to our meriting,’ as Montaigne
shows, ‘we can never be despised enough.’

8 Our own vocation gives all life its meaning
If it is the case that we make our own meaning, then a murderer makes meaning by murdering,
and a torturer by torturing. A race commits genocide not as an outburst of unprompted barbarity,
but to impose sense on the world by affirming its own kind.

We don’t make our own meaning. We let others make it for us.

Most of us are sure that whatever lends meaning to our own life must be what lends meaning to
the whole world. By some professional vanity we take it that everyone else aspires to the very
thing that our own vocation vows to provide. So the philosopher feels sure that all the rest of us
long for wisdom, and the priest that we thirst for faith, and the poet that we would starve from
lack of poetry sooner than from lack of meat and drink. But we all grow more and more obese in
this prosaic world. If we really died for want of truth or beauty, the world would have been
depopulated an age ago. We are more likely to die from their possession.

How jealous we are of the honour of our own profession, most of whose other practitioners we
feel an unqualified scorn for. And though we may not think much of the rest of the human race,
we think a great deal of ourselves for belonging to it.

9 We are nothing
What could be so easy as to be nothing, but what could be more insupportable than to know it?
To see that you are nothing may cost you all that you have. Once you’ve come to see that you
are nobody, what can you do but long for the day when you turn back to a sod? We have one
hope left us, which is the end of all hope. I’m ground to powder under the cold stone of my

How could we see that we are so empty? We are all so full of our own projects and importance.
It must be so easy for others to live or to die, but it’s so hard for me to do either. My road is
rugged but necessary, theirs is smooth but leads to a dead end.

My insignificance is the one significant fact in the universe for me, and my own nothingness is
everything to me. I have no doubt that it’s easy for others to be nothing, since they mean
nothing to me. But it’s so hard for me to be nothing, since I am all in all to myself. On good days
I know that I’m a failure. On bad days I think that my failure matters.

10 Trying to be somebody
We make life a touch worse than the nothing that it might be, since we have to spend it in the
frantic striving to make ourselves a bit more than the nothing that we are.

What sad nobodies we are, and what a flat nothing we will make of the earth, in our vain quest
to prove that we are not. We will do anything to try to make something of our nothingness, and
we don’t doubt that everything does. We squander our vain existence to cram it with enviable
vanities. And so we will crunch up the broad earth to add a gram to the weight of our own
bustling importance. Those who have nothing will fight like tigers to keep hold of it.

Nothing is harder to conquer than the nothing that we are. We fight it all our lives, but it always
wins in the end.

How do we bear the stress and strain of being nothing? By labouring at such a press of duties
and desires, that we dream that we must be all in all.

We are stranded between the truth that we are nothing and the faith that we are everything. And
the ingratiating faith duly drives out the desolating truth.

11 Being nobody is harder than being nothing
Most of us are sure that we are somebody, and that we are like no one else. But in fact we are
nobodies, and we are just like everyone else.

If the thought of my nonentity solaces me, it’s because I know that those who seem to be more
than me are nonentities too. We are resigned to be nobodies, so long as we seem to be worth a
bit more than the nobodies who vie with us. All of us can bear the knowledge that we are
nothing, so long as we are something to someone. We don’t mind that we might be objectively
nothing, so long as we are not social nobodies. Though we may not care to be immortal, we still
hope to be a jot less mortal than the rest of our sad clay.
12 Finite to fail but infinite to venture
Always seek that end which, if won, suffices, if unattained, ennobles. ‘The aim,’ wrote Browning,
‘if reached not, makes great the life.’ Most of us have failed before we’ve made a start, since we
don’t dare to dream of the high undertakings that might justify our unsuccess. If you can’t win,
dedicate your days and hours to the one thing you know to be worth failing at. ‘Try again. Fail
again. Fail better.’ It will waste your life, but what of that? It was not worth much in the first
place. Yo