Opinion & Thought

Narcissi

In times like these, when we cannot be sure what even the practicalities of life will be like twelve months’ from now, it’s not surprising that there is much debate about what life more generally might be like in future. Writing in the latest edition of Prospect Magazine, the Archbishop of Canterbury calls for a renewed appreciation of the interdependence of people everywhere. More or less what you might expect the nation’s senior cleric to be saying – but Justin Welby is a rather more grounded individual than some of his predecessors, having worked in industry before moving into the Cloth.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that he quotes from a recent book by Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England. Carney mentions an encounter with Pope Francis, who told him, “Your job is to turn the market back into humanity”. Carney develops this theme and discusses how the ‘market economy’ has increasingly become a ‘market society’ in which things essential to a fulfilled life, such as beauty, happiness, joy and relationships have been either marginalised or commodified. For many, life has become the functional exercise in economic rationality that classical economics always pretended it is; anywhere where life is lived solely for its financial efficiency or expediency, this is in effect the case. Anywhere where non-earning life is spent in ‘recreational’ expenditure, the same force has taken hold. Imagination, culture and creativity do not often put food on the table.

I suppose that Sprezzatura blog was started to express my instinctive recoil from this. I have always found that the things that make life worth living, as opposed to tolerating, are far more diverse than those which figure in a purely economic sense. I have always been at a loss to comprehend the many who seem to find agency and self-fulfilment only in employment. Certainly, the wider experience of purposeful work can contribute many things to our lives beyond the simple meeting of economic necessity – but is that all there is to it? Over the years, I have been left with the impression that such people put so much of their time, effort and attention into their work that they inevitably neglect the rest of their lives, the things that might make them “rounded human beings”, equally competent in all aspects of their being. Even their earnings (and what they can be used for) seem of little consequence compared with the act of acquiring them. But what, fundamentally, is the point of living to work?

Bertrand Russell observed that ‘work’ is a construct devised in order to occupy people; there is truth (and probably necessity) in this. He also suggested that its effect has been to quash the necessity of devising more constructive and enjoyable ways of spending our time. He was not precious about this, emphasising the importance of play as well as highbrow activities. He argued that the constructive use of leisure is one of humanity’s last big challenges – but avoiding the issue simply leaves us facing a life of relatively meaningless toil. True, the rewards of work can be wider than this, but for many, the reality is that they spend more of their lives enriching others (not only materially) than they do themselves.

I wonder why this is acceptable. Perhaps the national mindset has something to do with it – and in recent decades, that has indeed placed Work on the high altar of life’s purposes. The expected decrease in workload that was to derive from modern technology has not happened; the work has simply changed in nature. What’s more, cutbacks may have imposed greater loads on those who remain. But I fail to understand those who, it seems, will sacrifice almost any other aspect of their lives for their work.

My mind is still troubled by the notion that so much of that effort has often gone into the furtherance of people other than ourselves, many of whom show no intention of neglecting their own lives, even as they expect that of us. I don’t see it as selfish or narcissistic to assert our own value as human beings, or to ensure that our own lives flourish too: “Attend to your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs”.

In economic terms, the capital we accrue for others yields far greater returns that the labour that we provide does for us; even in the public sector, executive pay in health and education has pulled away from that of the mainstream workforce, to the extent that I conclude that this is a functional consequence of the quasi-privatisation process. An equitable deal it is not, without our having to give them our souls as well.

All of which led to a certain reaction recently, when it was suggested that the concept of ‘the Good Life’ which Sprezzatura promotes, is self-indulgent; even rather narcissistic.

I’m not quite sure what is so wrong with the idea of a good life. I wonder if the suspicion is a hangover of the Protestant Ethic that still seems to drive our attitude to work – perhaps coupled with the class-memory of a long-hierarchical society: Life is not meant for enjoying; not if you are Us, anyhow.

I would be the first to agree that defining life only in material terms is likely to be unsatisfying and shallow. There has been enough observation of status anxiety to suggest that people who pursue fulfilment via this route rarely find it. Human psychology dictates that material possessions lose their early allure, and the only chance of rediscovering the buzz of ownership comes from buying more, of being perpetually dissatisfied. What’s more, it is all too easy to confuse the motives: where ownership of desirable possessions is perceived as the measure of both personal credibility and social standing, it is all too easy to be swept up into the cycle of mindless, competitive consumption.

I don’t think that scenario really meets the definition of a fulfilled life. But I should add, I don’t think we should feel unduly guilty about material possessions either – provided they are owned knowingly, and for the ‘right’ reasons. While they cannot bring us limitless reward, ownership of genuinely-treasured things can still make an appreciable difference to our lives.

William Morris captured it when he wrote, “Have nothing in your house which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. Substitute “house” for “life” and we might have something to guide us here. The important thing is not the status that possessions (whether material or not) may bring, but the joy they can (with limitations) add to our lives, when defined purely by our own criteria. This is not narcissism, but an honest appreciation of that which enhances us.

I lack sympathy equally with those who go out to work in order to stuff their lives with status symbols, those who are too busy working to notice or care what occupies the rest of their lives – and those who deny that any kind of personal comfort or other active choice is anything other than the work of the devil.

It is true, material possessions alone do not do the job. A useful concept here comes from Aristotle:  Eudaimonia, or the concept of flourishing. That word helpfully encapsulates all those things that can lead to human development and growth, including both material enjoyment, but also the non-material values mentioned by Carney. Denying the validity of any of those things only risks diminishing our lives from what they could be in one aspect or another – and for me, Sprezzatura is the vaccine against such risks.

While the word originally refers to an approach to (male) fashion, it has wider implications for the care we devote to our lives, without becoming hidebound by externally-dictated practices. It is also notable that sprezzatura does not define a specific style, so much as the bending of the rules according to unique personal interpretation, in order to please ourselves.

It is true that sprezzatura can become narcissism, as the Peacocks of the Pitti fashion fairs show – but this is because they have lost sight of the spirit of the thing: they are out only to attract attention.

True sprezzatura, I would argue, is better balanced; it is certainly concerned with the effect that one has on the world around us – but its real motive is self-expression. Why else would it have that rebellious streak?

Recent psychological research has suggested that there are in fact two kinds of narcissism: that which really is the expression of people who love themselves just too much – and a (perhaps more common) type, which is in reality the over-compensation of those who suffer from low self-worth. I think this is a critical distinction when it comes to reading and even judging those who appear to suffer from narcissism.

All of which might leave us wondering where a reasonable balance might be found, between self-indulgence and self-denial.

There are, no doubt, as many ideas of what makes a fulfilled life as there are human beings. For all that this blog advances certain preferences, it is not its place to criticise those who have different tastes or ideas. The real problem is not those who have a different idea of fulfilment, so much as those who have none. Lives that appear empty, where external validations such as work are the only reason to live them.

Yet who am I to judge whose they might be, or what they might do about it?

The opposite of Eudaimonia is presumably some kind of emptiness, lassitude or decline: the sort of experience that has seemed common during the Pandemic lockdowns. For all our diversity, homo sapiens seems to have some fairly universal basic needs. Amongst those might be social contact and a sense of purpose, and recent times have widely challenged these things. I would go further and suggest that there is something approaching an objective measure of these things’ impact – namely our state of mental (and to some extent physical) health: more things that seem to have suffered during the past year. I also suggest that those who have a richer internal sense of self may have been better equipped to deal with such challenges. Their ‘purpose’ is their own, ongoing lives in all their facets – and those have never deserted us.

Those fundamental needs represent both a challenge and a threat. The latter because their neglect can lead us down the rabbit-holes of poor wellbeing, and the former because it may well be their constructive, autonomous cultivation that provides the sense of eudaimonia that we need to be fully well.

In simple terms, we have to eat – so we might as well make it something to be actively relished as a joyous part of life: food not just fuel. We need shelter, so we might as well make our homes places where we can feel safe, comfortable and rested. We need to dress, so we might as well do so with imagination and style, that both expresses our personalities and tastes and hopefully brighten the day of those we meet. We need to placate our restless minds – so we might as well make it fulfilling.

And so it goes on. If life is worth living, it is worth living well – both for the moment-by-moment satisfaction of doing things to our satisfaction, and for the personal growth that developing such competence and (self-) knowledge brings. That requires active reflection and discernment – things that take the time that work all too often precludes. We can make of our internal lives as much or as little as we choose, no matter what our outward circumstances. That does include their material dimension – for we cannot attend to those inner needs without attending to their outward expressions.

Neither need we pretend that it is easy; life is never smooth for long. My own recent experience shows that the possession of a ‘good life’ is not always sufficient to prevent difficult times; but I am still absolutely convinced that the same good life is part of the antidote to those difficulties. Without holding on tight to the things in life that I truly value, I would have struggled much more with the challenges of recent months and years; I would have had no Pole Star on which to focus while the currents of poor mental health pushed me hither and thither.

I cannot claim, therefore, that sprezzatura is a failsafe vaccine against adversity; but its apparent absence from people’s lives is, I suggest, indicative of something. The neglect of the basic aspects and needs of one’s life speak of individuals and society that ultimately places a low priority on its own eudaimonia. That they often splurge on meaningless consumerism, externalising their search for happiness in the act of Purchasing, is just the other side of that inner void. That, to me, is akin to having lost any sense of the meaning of life – and poor health can sometimes be the all-too-real confirmation of that. It is easy to make the fundamental mistake of thinking that both eudaimonia and sprezzatura can only have material manifestations, whereas in reality all the non-material aspects of life are at least as important, just not as visible. My understanding of sprezzatura incudes the mind as well as the body, hence many of the topics covered in this blog.

Those who look on with a protestant sense of denial or disapproval are ultimately making their own choices. But it’s worth remembering that perceptions vary around the world: there is no absolute standard for either fulfilment or narcissism. So too does the joy with which different cultures live; I am not only thinking of the original Italian version here (Latin (ex-)Catholicism comes with its own hefty dollops of sorrow) – but it is perhaps about effects which various attitudes can bring to our lives. To what extent are people following different routes really happy? At least in a secular sense, that is the only criterion that matters. I accept that true narcissism is perhaps not really a route to happiness – but I am not sure that the self-denying, empty functionalism of other lives is really any better.

I suspect that inferiority-narcissism is indeed more prevalent than the truly self-aggrandising type. And I don’t think it is harmful. Our eudaimonia might even benefit from rather more of it. The consequence not letting it loose is the prospect of undervaluing our own lives simply because of received or imposed expectations of meaning and appropriateness, and living them less than fully, simply through fear or guilt of having higher expectations of what they might be.

Hopefully, the empty, consumerist rat-race of recent decades has now been shown for what it was: in the end, other things mattered more. That better future cannot only refer to material consumption, and not to work-as-life either. It needs to refer to a more holistic and balanced understanding of what makes a good life, of living every aspect of it to the full. The important thing is that people think for themselves about what that might mean. But unappreciative denial of the good things in life – wherever they come from – is surely not part of it.

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