I Regard With Compassion, Therefore I Am: Descartes on How We Acquire Nobility of Soul and the Crucial Difference Between Confidence and Pride
By Maria Popova
“Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs,” Joan Didion wrote in her abiding meditation on self-respect. But how do we master that vital, immensely difficult willingness?
That’s what the great French philosopher, scientist, and mathematician René Descartes (March 31, 1596–February 11, 1650) considered three centuries earlier in contemplating the wellspring of character — or what he called “nobility of soul” — in his final published work, The Passions of the Soul (public library), penned in 1649 and dedicated to Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia, regarded by Descartes as a woman “whose intelligence is so far above the common run that she grasps with ease what our scholars find most difficult.”
A quarter century after he devised his twelve timeless tenets for critical thinking, Descartes considers the most important quality of spirit, which supersedes mere reason as the defining feature of human goodness:
True nobility of soul, in virtue of which a man esteems himself as highly as he may legitimately do, consist in two things and two only: first, he recognizes that there is nothing that legitimately belongs to him, save this freedom to direct his acts of will, and that there is no reason why he should be praised or blamed except for his good or bad use of it; secondly, he feels in himself a firm and constant resolution to make good use of it, that is, never to lack the willpower to undertake and execute whatever he judges to be best.
In a sentiment which psychologist-turned-artist Anne Truitt would come to echo three centuries later in her beautiful reflections on compassion, humility, and the cure for our chronic self-righteousness, Descartes argues that such introspective awareness deconditions this self-righteousness and renders us compassionate to those who slip morally because they’ve used their own acts of will poorly. He calls this quality of character “virtuous humility” and writes:
Those who have this knowledge and awareness of themselves convince themselves readily that all other human beings can have the same knowledge and awareness of themselves: because there is nothing in all this that depends on anybody other than oneself. This is why they never despise anybody; and although they often see other people committing wrongful acts that betray their weakness, they are, nonetheless, more inclined to excuse than to blame them, and to believe that these acts are due more to lack of knowledge than to lack of good will. And since they do not think themselves much inferior to those who have more wealth and honours, or even more intelligence, more learning, or more beauty than themselves, or who in general surpass them in respect of some other perfections, so, likewise, they do not think themselves much superior to those whom they themselves surpass, since all these things seem to them of very little importance, compared to good will, in respect of which alone they esteem themselves, and which they suppose is possessed, or at least could be possessed, by all other human beings.
So it is that the most noble of soul are customarily the most humble; and virtuous humility consists purely in this: in the light of our reflection on the infirmity of our nature, and on the wrongful acts we may have committed in the past, or which we are capable of committing, which are no less serious than those that may be committed by other people, we do not rate ourselves higher than anyone else, and we suppose that, since other people have free will no less than we do, they can make as good use of it as we.
In a sense, Descartes, at the end of his life, revises his famous dictum “I think, therefore I am” into “I regard with compassion, therefore I am.”
Such nobility of soul, he argues, imbues its possessor with true confidence — a quality decidedly different from its spiritually corrosive impostor, pride. Three centuries before Bruce Lee drew his sage distinction between pride and self-esteem, Descartes considers the seedbed of authentic confidence:
Those who are noble in this way are naturally inclined to do great things, and yet to undertake nothing of which they do not feel themselves capable. And because they value nothing more highly than doing good to other human beings, for the sake of which they regard their own interests as unimportant, they are always perfectly courteous, affable, and helpful towards one and all. Moreover, they are entirely in control of their passions: especially of desires, jealousy, and envy, since there is nothing the acquisition of which is not in their control that they think of sufficient value to warrant being greatly desired; and of hatred, since they esteem all human beings; and of terror, because they are fortified by confidence in their own virtue; and, finally, of anger, since, valuing, as they do, very little whatever is in the control of others, they never give their enemies the satisfaction of acknowledging that they are put out by such things.
He contrasts this with the counterfeit of confidence, pride:
All those who form a good opinion of themselves on some other grounds, whatever it may be, have no true nobility of soul, but only pride, which is always a serious fault, the seriousness of which is greater in proportion as the justification for one’s self-esteem is less. Self-esteem is least justified when a person has no specific grounds for pride; that is to say, when he does not think he has some merit in himself for which he should be valued by others, but, setting no store by merit, imagines that glory is something to which one simply lays claim, so that those who credit themselves with it most actually possess it most.
What deludes us into mistaking pride for confidence, Descartes admonishes, is a spiritual substance on which all of us are apt to get drunk easily and gladly: flattery. When we take our fill of it, we tend to find ourselves “esteemed for things that are not at all praiseworthy, and are even blameworthy.” The more ignorant the person, Descartes argues, the more susceptible to the poison of flattery; the more noble of soul, the more capable of deriving confidence from the true value of their own actions, particularly from their magnanimity toward others.
Whereas pride is predicated on making oneself feel big by making another feel small, Descartes insists that the confidence derived from nobility of soul is predicated on enlarging the wellbeing of others through kindness and magnanimous action. He writes:
Whatever the reason for one’s self-esteem, if it is other than the intention one feels in oneself always to make good use of one’s free will, which is … the source of nobility of soul, it always produces a very blameworthy pride, so different from true nobility of soul that it has entirely opposite effects. For since all other goods, such as intelligence, beauty, wealth, honour, etc., are generally more highly valued the fewer people possess them, and are such, indeed, for the most part that they cannot be shared by many people, it follows that the proud seek to degrade all other human beings, and that, being slaves to their desires, their soul is continually troubled by hatred, envy, jealousy, or anger.
Descartes considers the root of low self-esteem, or what he calls “baseness or bad humility”:
It consists chiefly in feeling that one is weak or lacking in resolution, and that — as if one did not have full use of one’s free will — one cannot help doing things that one knows one will subsequently regret; and also in the belief that one cannot be self-sufficient or do without several things one’s acquisition of which is in other people’s control. It is thus directly opposed to nobility of soul.
Two millennia after the great Chinese sage Lao Tzu’s astute observation about how the see-saw of hubris and humility reveals one’s depth of character — “Who knows doesn’t talk. Who talks doesn’t know.” — Descartes adds:
It often happens that those whose mind is basest are the most arrogant and haughty of people, just as the most noble of soul are the most modest and humble. But, whereas those with the strongest and noblest minds do not allow prosperity or adversity to affect their mood, those whose minds are weak and abject are governed entirely by fortune, and no less conceited in prosperity than humbled by adversity.
He considers the key to acquiring nobility of soul, which is “the key to all the other virtues, and a universal remedy for all the disorders of the passions”:
If one regularly sets oneself to consider what free will is, and what great advantages follow from abiding by a firm resolution to make the best use of it, and likewise, on the other side, how futile and pointless are all the cares by which the ambitious are beset, one can arouse in oneself the passion and in due course the virtue of nobility of soul.
Complement this particular fragment of the wholly ennobling The Passions of the Soul with the great Stoic philosophers’ timeless wisdom on character and the art of living, then revisit Susan Sontag on how to be a moral human being.
Published October 31, 2016