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David Hume on Human Nature, the Myth of Selfishness, and Why Vanity Is Proof of Virtue Rather Than Vice

“To love the fame of laudable actions approaches so near the love of laudable actions for their own sake [that] it is almost impossible to have the latter without some degree of the former.”

We live in a culture where cynicism has become fashionable, and one favorite myth perpetuated by cynics is that all acts of altruism are at heart acts of selfishness — that we only do good because it feels good to do good. But even Adam Smith, reviled — despite evidence to the contrary — for his bleak view of human nature, asserted in the very treatise that laid the foundation of consumer culture: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”

A generation earlier, the Scottish philosopher, historian, and essayist David Hume (May 7, 1711–August 25, 1776) — one of the greatest humanists of all time — made a timeless and urgently timely case against this myth of human selfishness.

David Hume by Allan Ramsay, 1754

In a superb essay titled “Of the Dignity or Meanness of Human Nature,” found in his Selected Essays (public library | free ebook), Hume considers the commonly held belief that selfishness is our basic condition:

All is self-love. Your children are loved only because they are yours: your friend for a like reason; and your country engages you only so far as it has a connection with yourself. Were the idea of self removed, nothing would affect you: you would be altogether unactive and insensible: or, if you ever give yourself any movement, it would only be from vanity, and a desire of fame and reputation to this same self.

But Hume then turns this master-myth around by making the counterintuitive and wonderfully ennobling point that vanity is proof of virtue rather than vice — a natural expression of how highly we value the qualities that make a person lovable, admirable, and a worthy member of society. He writes:

There are two things which have led astray those philosophers that have insisted so much on the selfishness of man. In the first place, they found that every act of virtue or friendship was attended with a secret pleasure; whence they concluded, that friendship and virtue could not be disinterested. But the fallacy of this is obvious. The virtuous sentiment or passion produces the pleasure, and does not arise from it. I feel a pleasure in doing good to my friend, because I love him; but do not love him for the sake of that pleasure.

In the second place, it has always been found, that the virtuous are far from being indifferent to praise; and therefore they have been represented as a set of vainglorious men, who had nothing in view but the applauses of others. But this also is a fallacy. It is very unjust in the world, when they find any tincture of vanity in a laudable action, to depreciate it upon that account, or ascribe it entirely to that motive. The case is not the same with vanity, as with other passions. Where avarice or revenge enters into any seemingly virtuous action, it is difficult for us to determine how far it enters, and it is natural to suppose it the sole actuating principle. But vanity is so closely allied to virtue, and to love the fame of laudable actions approaches so near the love of laudable actions for their own sake, that these passions are more capable of mixture, than any other kinds of affection; and it is almost impossible to have the latter without some degree of the former. Accordingly we find, that this passion for glory is always warped and varied according to the particular taste or disposition of the mind on which it falls. Nero had the same vanity in driving a chariot, that Trajan had in governing the empire with justice and ability. To love the glory of virtuous deeds is a sure proof of the love of virtue.

Hume’s Selected Essays is a trove of abiding wisdom in its totality. Complement this particular lens with some thoughts on cynicism and hope, then revisit Carl Jung on human nature.

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How Sitting Is Harming Your Body and What You Can Do to Counter Its Perils

“Bodies are built for motion — not for stillness.”

More than a century after Thoreau’s magnificent manifesto for the rewards of walking and the evils of sitting, we have finally put data around the all too obvious fact that the human body, a marvelous machine animated by motion, is not meant for extended stillness. As someone deeply partial to verticality and a longtime standing desk user, I was delighted by this animated PSA from TED-Ed, which delves into the science of all the atrocities that sitting inflicts upon our bodies and what we can do — right now — to alleviate them:

Bodies are built for motion — not for stillness.

Should you find yourself wanting to raise the bar on non-sitting, this wooden wobble board has been my choice of standing surface for years. Balancing on it is surprisingly easy as soon as you have even a single touchpoint with a stable surface, such as your fingers on the keyboard — but it does keep your spine aligned and prevents you from contorting your pelvis by putting more weight on one leg, which we tend to do when standing on the floor.

For more stimulating TED-Ed animations, see why some people are left-handed, how melancholy enhances creativity, what makes a hero, how you know you exist, and why playing music benefits your brain more than any other activity.

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Philosopher Alain Badiou on How We Fall and Stay in Love

“Love is a tenacious adventure… Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.”

“An honorable human relationship … in which two people have the right to use the word ‘love,’” Adrienne Rich memorably wrote, “is a process, delicate, violent, often terrifying to both persons involved, a process of refining the truths they can tell each other.” That transcendent turbulence of mutual truth-refinement is a centerpiece of the altogether fantastic In Praise of Love (public library) by French philosopher Alain Badiou (b. January 17, 1937) — an impassioned and immensely insightful defense of both love as a human faculty and love as a worthwhile philosophical pursuit.

“Air de Capri” by Gerda Wegener, 1923
“Air de Capri” by Gerda Wegener, 1923

A century after Tolstoy wrote to Gandhi that “love is the only way to rescue humanity from all ills,” Badiou argues that love is the most potent antidote to the self-interest that dominates the modern world and our greatest hope for bridging the gaping divide between self and other:

Provided it isn’t conceived only as an exchange of mutual favours, or isn’t calculated way in advance as a profitable investment, love really is a unique trust placed in chance. It takes us into key areas of the experience of what is difference and, essentially, leads to the idea that you can experience the world from the perspective of difference.

But unlike Tolstoy and Gandhi, who advocated for cultivating an expansive platonic love of one another, and unlike Martin Luther King, Jr., who pointed to the Ancient Greek notion of agape as the kind of love that would cut off the chain of hate between human beings, Badiou advocates for the truth-enlarging value of the most intimate kind of love — the eros of romance:

Love… is a quest for truth… truth in relation to something quite precise: what kind of world does one see when one experiences it from the point of view of two and not one? What is the world like when it is experienced, developed and lived from the point of view of difference and not identity? That is what I believe love to be.

He considers the evolution of love, from its beginning reminiscent of cosmic inflation to its gradual and ongoing entwining of separate truth-particles into an expansive shared universe of truth:

We shouldn’t underestimate the power love possesses to slice diagonally through the most powerful oppositions and radical separations. The encounter between two differences is an event, is contingent and disconcerting… On the basis of this event, love can start and flourish. It is the first, absolutely essential point. This surprise unleashes a process that is basically an experience of getting to know the world. Love isn’t simply about two people meeting and their inward-looking relationship: it is a construction, a life that is being made, no longer from the perspective of One but from the perspective of Two.

'Lee Miller and Friend' by Man Ray. Paris, 1930.
‘Lee Miller and Friend’ by Man Ray. Paris, 1930.

Badiou cautions against our culture’s tendency to fetishize the encounter itself at the expense of the collaborative ongoingness that follows, which is the true substance of love:

Love cannot be reduced to the first encounter, because it is a construction. The enigma in thinking about love is the duration of time necessary for it to flourish. In fact, it isn’t the ecstasy of those beginnings that is remarkable. The latter are clearly ecstatic, but love is above all a construction that lasts. We could say that love is a tenacious adventure. The adventurous side is necessary, but equally so is the need for tenacity. To give up at the first hurdle, the first serious disagreement, the first quarrel, is only to distort love. Real love is one that triumphs lastingly, sometimes painfully, over the hurdles erected by time, space and the world.

This necessary temporal dimension is what moves the experience of love from the plane of chance to the plane of choice — or, rather, of being chosen; chosen, in Mary Oliver’s words, “by something invisible and powerful and uncontrollable and beautiful and possibly even unsuitable.” Badiou writes:

To make a declaration of love is to move on from the event-encounter to embark on a construction of truth. The chance nature of the encounter morphs into the assumption of a beginning. And often what starts there lasts so long, is so charged with novelty and experience of the world that in retrospect it doesn’t seem at all random and contingent, as it appeared initially, but almost a necessity. That is how chance is curbed: the absolute contingency of the encounter with someone I didn’t know finally takes on the appearance of destiny. The declaration of love marks the transition from chance to destiny, and that’s why it is so perilous and so burdened with a kind of horrifying stage fright.

[…]

The locking in of chance is an anticipation of eternity… The problem then resides in inscribing this eternity within time. Because, basically, that is what love is: a declaration of eternity to be fulfilled or unfurled as best it can be within time: eternity descending into time.

[…]

Happiness in love is the proof that time can accommodate eternity. And you can also find proof … in the pleasure given by works of art and the almost supernatural joy you experience when you at last grasp in depth the meaning of a scientific theory.

Complement the enormously enlivening In Praise of Love with psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on the paradoxical psychology of why we fall in love, Stendhal on the seven stages of romance, and Mary Oliver on love’s necessary wildness.

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