Friday, October 13, 2006

The Virtue of Vanity

Now you might be inclined to think that an essay claiming to upholding vanity as a positive good is akin to Erasmus' "In Praise of Folly," but you would be mistaken. I mean seriously to point out the oft-neglected good side to what is often called vanity.

(This essay takes its inspiration in part from Alan Ehrenhalt's essay "Hypocrisy Has Its Virtues" from the waning days of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal; the piece explained how hypocrisy really is the tribute vice pays to virtue.1)

We Americans pride ourselves on being practical, results-oriented people. We don't go in for the foppery that preoccupies other cultures (what Tocqueville called "forms"). We don't care as much for how a thing looks as for what it does. Ceremony should be minimized Furnishings and clothing should be functional, not fancy.

There is of course a great amount of goodness in this view, which is one thing that makes this a great country. However, there are two sides to everything. o as usual, I'm assuming the devil's advocate role, first of all to point out that any behavior taken to an extreme is no longer a virtue, but a vice. As Aristotle observed, true virtue is the medium between two extremes, and it must be admitted that we Americans, as with any other people in this fallen world, sometimes take our virtues beyond their proper limits.

The truth is that often what we call vanity is just being thoughtful of others. This realization first dawned on me when I noticed the dress of one of my fellow grad students, whom I'll call "Joe." He always wore "comfortable" clothes: birkenstocks, shorts and a t-shirt. I probably dressed only marginally better myself at the time, but whereas I didn't have to look at myself much, I did have to look at him: his hairy legs, long hair, and poorly shaven face were an eyesore. On reflection, I realized that "dressing up" was really a form of consideration for the people around us.

Women are often accused of being vain and the charge is not always just, but a reflection of their being much more "relational" creatures who take joy in pleasing others. As a current colleague of mine says, whereas men define themselves by what they do, women define themselves by their relationships. Of course, pleasing others can become self-serving—the vicious side of the virtue. Women just as easily as men use others, and usually by manipulation.2 Our "vanity" or consciousness of the importance of others' perceptions is the glue that holds society together and keeps us from fragmenting into cultural solipsists.

Last time I saw Joe, he had become engaged and his mode of self-presentation had shaped up substantially. He'd clipped his hair, and wore much more respectable clothing. His fiancee had obviously inspired him with some of her feminine "vanity." And the world is a better place for it.


1. The only quality immoral moderns like Bill Clinton regard as a virtue is consistency. "At least I'm not a hypocrite," they say in an effort to excuse themselves. But really they indict themselves of being "little minds"—ala Ralph Waldo Emerson.

2. Karol Wojtyla writes very well about the reciprocal unfortunate way each sex often uses the other in Love and Responsibility.

Alan Ehrenhalt, "Hypocrisy Has Its Virtues," The New York Times[!], February 6, 2001.


Todd said...

Seems to me you're defending the virtue of style...

Lawrence Gage said...

Maybe "style" in the broadest possible sense, but as I understand the word in normal use, style is more rarefied and more subject to the tide of fashion than the virtue I'm talking about. One can dress modestly and reasonably without being "stylish."


Todd said...

I agree, however modest and reasonable dress is a style, a modest and reasonable one...

Anonymous said...

As a hispanic, I'm often shocked at the way Americans make a fetish out of "comfort", by this meaning of course one's own comfort. I tell my children that our appearance is sign of respect for others, a sign that we value our invitation to their home, for instance, enough to make ourselves uncomfortable. Of course, I've been accused of being vain.

David M. Smith said...


Great post and very well said.

Perhaps this virtue of vanity is a difference between being civilized and being uncivilized.

There are many selfish acts that lead to public good. There are also many selfish acts that lead to personal destruction. I prefer looking at people who are concerned about their own appearance. However, I pity those who are obsessed with their own appearance. I think you got it right; the virtue is between the extremes.

Lawrence Gage said...

Thanks, David. Thanks also anonymous; social consciousness is one wonderful contribution that Hispanics make to our society.

David, I don't think that selfish acts insofar as selfish are helpful to society, but only insofar as they accidentally provide a benefit to others. For example, making a profit by selling groceries, in contrast to simple theft.

Being obsessed with appearance is selfish (and a vice) as much as completely disregarding appearance. Selfless love (charity) is not perfected in moderation.