The path to self-knowledge is long and hard. And who is to say whether apparent progress is more than illusion or self-delusion. But I do become increasingly irritated by narcissism. Forgivable, indeed to some extent inevitable in children, why does it persist so in adults?

Of course we are all to some degree self-obsessed. We live alone inside our own thick skulls. But once you’ve been around a few decades you really should know better. As I felt like saying to a number of people this week: “It’s not all about you.”

Apparently, psychopathic behaviour persists in society at a low level, because, if you’re the only psychopath in the village you’re onto a winner – the amoral cat among law-abiding pigeons.

Perhaps that’s why narcissism persists in the workplace too. But we’re supposed to be at work for some form of common good, not to stroke narcissists’ egos. And I’m not just having a pop at bosses, it’s everywhere.

Here’s a handy checklist I stumbled upon today which sets out the warning signs:

Reacts to reasonable criticism with rage, shame or humiliation

Takes advantage of other people to achieve his or her own goals

Has feelings of self-importance

Exaggerates achievements and talents

Is preoccupied with fantasies of success, power, beauty, intelligence, or ideal love

Has unreasonable expectations of favorable treatment

Requires constant attention and admiration

Disregards the feelings of others, lacks empathy

Has obsessive self-interest

Pursues mainly selfish goals

I pass the test on most of this lot. Maybe I need to watch myself occasionally on ‘expectations of favourable treatment’ – bizarrely and genuinely I still believe I’ll win the lottery one day.

But at least I can occasionally raise my head from admiring my own reflection to look myself honestly in the mirror. Narcissists, take a proper look at yourselves.

Montaigne on Virtue

20120410-112035.jpgThree hundred and one episodes of Essays in and Michel de Montaigne serves up another view I 100% agree with, five centuries on. When it comes to ethics the the answer is staring you in the face – in the bathroom mirror.

To ground the recompense of virtuous actions upon the approbation of others is too uncertain and unsafe a foundation, especially in so corrupt and ignorant an age as this.

“What before had been vices are now manners.” – Seneca

You yourself only know if you are cowardly and cruel, loyal and devout: others see you not, and only guess at you by uncertain conjectures, and do not so much see your nature as your art; rely not therefore upon their opinions, but stick to your own:

“Thou must employ thy own judgment upon thyself; great is the weight of thy own conscience in the discovery of virtues and vices: which taken away, all things are lost.” – Cicero

Or as my son’s preferred sage Master Yoda might say: the keeper of your own conscience are you.


I quoted Dietrich Bonhoeffer to a friend the other day. Bonhoeffer stood up to the Nazis and perished for it in a concentration camp. He is celebrated (pictured on the right) as a 20th Century martyr in Westmister Abbey.

A Christian theologian and a man of obvious moral courage, Bonhoeffer argued – like Kierkegaard before him – for a more direct spiritual connection with God. One mediated by fewer trappings of religion.

He believed we have a deep moral sense, beyond the reach of rational thought which is both our guide and goad. He said our conscience comes from a “depth which lies beyond a man’s own will and his own reason and it makes itself heard as the call of human existence to unity with itself.”

For Bonhoeffer, guilt is a warning about our ‘doings’ conflicting with our ‘being’. A guilty conscience arises when we lose the unity – what some people call ‘congruence’. Our conscience is, thus, like an alarm bell, warning us of the risk of damage to ourselves.

I’m not sure I agree with Bonhoeffer that conscience lies beyond the ‘event horizon’ of thought and will. I’m more with Aristotle that we simply ‘are what we repeatedly do’. For me, reason, will, our actions and character all come together in an intertwined person. But the Bonhoeffer quote I read out today is still a powerful one:

The man with a conscience fights a lonely battle against the overwhelming forces of inescapable situations which demand moral decisions despite the likelihood of adverse consequences.

Bonhoeffer found himself up against truly overwhelming forces and a tragically inescapable situation – it cost him his life. He took moral decisions despite the likelihood, entirely realised, of very adverse consequences. Whether he found it in faith or forged it through reason, that is moral courage.

For Aristotle, courage is the ‘mean’ between confidence and fear. To respond to ‘overwhelming forces of inescapable situations’ with the courage of Bonhoeffer requires a strength built within – the confidence in the importance of ‘unity with oneself’ overcoming the fear of ‘adverse consequences’ and considering them a price worth paying.

But what’s the practical day to day application here? Like the other 20th century martyrs in Westminster Abbey, Bonhoeffer faced extraordinary challenges. History has judged him simply and kindly. Most of us live with less extreme, more attritional moral challenges and choices – do I say something or keep quiet, do I stand up for something or let it go, do I join in talking someone down or keep my mouth shut. And implicit in Bonhoeffer’s words are the fact that others won’t always understand and won’t always judge you kindly.

The thought that conscience is a warning that expedient ‘doings’ might undermine my ‘being’ is a valuable one. It’s less about carrying guilt and more about making choices. It achieves some of what Bonhoeffer would no doubt have wished for us; a simple internaliseable test of our actions.

For me, I think it may be this simple: if I can look others in the eye and myself in the mirror – even amidst the adverse consequences of inescapable situations – I know my ‘self’ is in ok shape. If not my ‘doings’ are damaging my ‘being’.