Analects 5.12, Proust, and Snobbishness

A couple of recent events have got me thinking, as usual, of the Analects.  First, I’ve been reading Marcel Proust’s gargantuan multi-part novel “In Search of Lost Time”, in which he takes a great deal of time and care discussing the nature of snobbishness, what it is to be a snob, who is a snob, etc.  Then today, in deciding to have some business cards made through the university, I had to decide whether or not to use ‘Ph.D.’ after my name, or ‘Dr.’ before it, or simply just leave my name as ‘Alexus McLeod’, with no indication of the degree I hold.

At first, I was inclined simply to put ‘Alexus McLeod’ on my cards, with no reference to my PhD.  After all, I thought, it would be fairly clear to anyone receiving my card that I hold a PhD, given the title ‘Assistant Professor’ beneath my name.  And at any rate, I thought, I didn’t want to appear presumptuous or taken with titles to those to whom I give my card.  It will mainly be at conferences and to people in my field, and most of us have PhDs anyway, so what good does it do to point out that I have one as well?

Then, reflecting on these reasons, soon Analects 5.12 came to mind, and followed by a passage from Proust.  First, Analects 5.12:

子貢曰:“我不欲人之加諸我也,吾亦欲無加諸人。”子曰:“賜也,非爾所及也。”  Zigong said: “what I do not desire other people to do to me, I also desire not to do this to others.”  Confucius replied: “Ci [Zigong], you don’t measure up to this kind of thing.”

In connection with my dilemma over the cards, I began to think of 5.12 in a new way.  Throw in the Proust, and 5.12 (as well as my situation) was illuminated even further.  The passages I’m thinking of are in the first volume of Proust’s novel, “Swann’s Way” (in the Penguin Lydia Davis translation):

“he [Legrandin] often launched against the aristocracy, against fashionable life, against snobbery, ‘certainly the sin which Saint Paul has in mind when he speaks of the sin for which there is no forgiveness.'”(p.69)

Legrandin, according to the narrator, wore simple clothes and professed his love for simple things–he had this down to an art, cultivating the style of simplicity and “non-snobbishness”.  But the narrator discovers that this itself is due to Legrandin’s inherent snobbishness.  One who was not a snob, as Laozi might suggest, would never feel the need to rail so hard against snobbishness.  Legrandin is “discovered” as a snob later in the story:

“what I did understand was that Legrandin was not being completely truthful when he said he cared only for churches, moonlight, and youth; he cared very much for the people from the chateaux and in their presence was overcome by so great a fear of displeasing them that he did not dare let them see that some of his friends were bourgeois people…” (p. 131)

What Legrandin had been doing, in other words, was affectation.  All of the “simpleness”, the cultivated appearance of being unconcerned with how others see him–it is this itself that reveals his snobbishness.  Only a snob would try so hard to seem disaffected.  People actually devoid of snobbishness would be like the narrator’s grandmother–

“Worldly ambition was a sentiment that my grandmother was so incapable of feeling or even, almost, of understanding, that it seemed to her quite pointless to bring about so much ardor to stigmatizing it.” (p. 69)

Of course, something similar is going on with Zigong in Analects 5.12.  Perhaps with the best of motives, he is trying to make himself into an ideal person by convincing himself that he is someone who doesn’t desire to treat others in ways he wouldn’t want to be treated.  Maybe he even believes that he is this way, just as Proust suggests that Legrandin may actually believe that he is not a snob and really is only concerned with “simple” things.  In one of (to me) the most psychologically insightful passages in the book, Proust writes:

“And this certainly does not mean that M. Legrandin was not sincere when he ranted against snobs.  He could not be aware, at least from his own knowledge, that he was one, since we are familiar only with the passions of others, and what we come to know about our own, we have been able to learn only from them.  Upon ourselves they act only secondarily, by way of our imagination, which substitutes for our primary motives alternative motives that are more seemly.” (p. 132)

Likewise, Zigong’s boast might not have been intentionally devised to boost his ego, to make him look good in front of Confucius.  He probably had other reasons for saying it, or felt that he actually was that way, did “reach up to” the ideal Confucius prized.  Confucius, however, being this other whose observations of Zigong’s actions were purer than anything Zigong could bring on himself, knew better.  We as individuals can, through this “imagination” Proust speaks about, reduce cognitive dissonance between our actions and our beliefs about what is “seemly” by inventing all kinds of creative “motivations”.  So I purchase a new suit because “the old one is falling apart, and wool will keep me warmer in the winter,” etc., etc., rather than because “I look good in that suit and will impress my peers because it’s a very expensive suit.”

Zigong in 5.12 is probably having a similar “reducing cognitive dissonance” moment.  Perhaps Zigong has done a number of virtuous actions, and may have even been praised for doing so.  But why has he acted in these ways?  Zigong’s natural response, as an individual who wants to see himself in the best light, as all individuals do (so reducing cognitive dissonance, or “saving face”), is that it is the lofty principle described in 5.12 that motivates him.  But Confucius, like the narrator in Proust’s novel, knows better.  Based on what he sees in Zigong’s actions, he can tell that it is something like praise or “a name for being virtuous” that truly motivates Zigong.  Thus, even though it would be excellent if Zigong did actually think in the way he claims to, the truth is that he “doesn’t measure up” to that.

So, back to my dilemma with the cards.  I was inclined to do away with any mention of my degree, but what if, I thought, like Zigong and Legrandin, I was simply being snobbish by insisting that I am unconcerned with titles and positions?  Do I really think of the cleaning staff in my building or the construction workers outside as equal to myself and my colleagues?  Do I really think that one’s degree is unimportant to their state of intellectual, so that one who has a Ph.D. is not necessarily any more knowledgeable or intelligent that one with only a bachelor’s degree?  Am I really that egalitarian?

I decided “probably not.”  And one of the messages of Confucius and Proust, when I think of it, may have been that it’s better to be a snob than to be a snob like Legrandin or Zigong, which involves a kind of self-deception and hypocrisy that is shameful in itself, to cover up one’s true snobbishness and thereby become an even more egregious snob.

So what was the way out?  I’ve always found that when confronted with insoluble difficulties, the motto “do as the Pyrrhonian Skeptics do” leads often to the best result (if not the ataraxia, or “peace of mind” they claimed):  follow what is customary.

…So I went with the ‘Ph.D.’ after my name.

10 responses to “Analects 5.12, Proust, and Snobbishness

  1. well, i’m not sure if i can go along with this; i’m suspicious of those who insist on being called “dr.”

    i tell my students of a colleague who insists on being called “dr. _____ _______, ph.d,” as if one might forget by the time one reads the name that this vaunted degree had been earned.

    it may be snobbery, which runs through academics like vinteuil’s leitmotif or baron de charlus’s affectations (etymologies and masochism). i suggest it is mere insecurity.

    but you can just call me “kurt.”

  2. Hi Kurt–
    I agree with what you say here–I think the key to whether it’s snobbery or not either way is the motivations. This is why I went with the PhD on my cards. I know people who use the “PhD” who are snobbish and use it in such a way, and who don’t use it and are snobbish in this way. Legrandin as mentioned above is like the snob who doesn’t use “PhD”, while Baron de Charlus is like the snob who does use it. My point was, in part, one can be a snob either way, depending on one’s motivations.

    Contrasting these two characters we might see other ones who are honest or natural as not snobs (it seems to me Proust is trying to stress, and I agree, that part of being a snob is dishonesty about what one is), like the Marquis de Saint Loup, who is like the person who doesn’t use “PhD” and is not a snob, or Mme de Villeparisis who is like the person who does use “PhD” and is not a snob (perhaps–not sure I totally understand her character, and my understanding is incomplete, as I’m only halfway through the whole work–I just started “Sodom and Gomorrah” last night).

    In my own case, I couldn’t justify not using the title, because this would have made me like Legrandin–a sign that I don’t care about the title, when I actually do. It’s the disingenuousness here, the affectation, that is the problem, just like in Analects 5.12. It is good to be a person who doesn’t care about titles (better than to be one who does), I’m suggesting, just like in the Analects passage Confucius holds that it is better to be one who does not desire to do to others what they don’t desire to have done to themselves. It’s just that we should not act as if we have attained that state when we’ve not. Although Zigong should strive to think that way, he hasn’t yet reached this ability, and so shouldn’t claim he has–although he should certainly continue to strive. So what would make Zigong a snob is the lie about accomplishment.

    Of course, in my own case, I ended up going the Pyrrhonian route and using the title to simply avoid the whole difficulty. I wasn’t *sure* if I had the right motivations, so I defaulted to custom, as the Pyrrhonians suggest we do. This is to not own one’s own actions, in a sense, I think–it removes the issue of motivation in a way similar to the Bhagavad Gita; the way out of the difficulty of performing any particular act, Krishna instructs Arjuna, is to let go of attachment to the fruits of the action and perform it for a different reason–because it’s one’s “sacred duty” (dharma). I guess the Pyrrhonian “suspension of judgment” and action adhering to custom is something like this–because we can’t work out the right answer to something, we can simply follow custom, or what appears to be the case. Of course, it could be (or become) the custom that none of us use the degree “PhD” on documents or the title “Dr.” in conversation, but I felt like on a document it might be customary. I don’t use “Dr.” in conversation, for similar reasons–it seems to me the custom.

    Also–snobbery in general, it seems to me, is closely connected to insecurity. As I read Proust, and also from what I see in the world, it seems curious to me that we set up these strange hierarchies, but the ultimate reason seems to be to distinguish ourselves from others–as more powerful, more beautiful, more intelligent, or just in general as better. The root of this whole thing seems to be to me in some sense insecurity, or at least delusion. The only reason to insist on such value distinctions is probably because there is no real difference between humans, and we have to construct these artificial systems. Part of the reason then the aristocratic characters in Proust spend so much effort in “society” and on reinforcing their images is because they have to, lest the illusion of difference fall apart. A kind of insecurity seems to rest at the base of this–an inability to accept oneself as one is, and a need to create fictions to boost one’s ego. We can certainly believe the fictions–there are definitely people (as many of the characters in Proust) who believe that they are indeed people of higher value, far above others, but it seems that the very reason the fiction is created and maintained at all is insecurity stemming from our fragility, the meaninglessness of our lives, the inevitability of both death and total oblivion (none of our works will ultimately be remembered, all traces of us will eventually be erased by time and change in the universe; when our planet and our sun no longer even exist, certainly the name “Guermantes”, or even “Plato” or “Confucius” or “Jesus Christ” will have no significance anywhere and will be nothing. It seems to me like almost everything we do is an attempt to avoid this inevitable annihilation.

    Anyway–I’ve rambled long enough. Main point: I agree with you. And even though I use “Alexus McLeod, PhD” on the card (and Dr. with the students in my class-because of the custom, and also because anything that can help give me authority in the classroom, which seems pretty hard to come by in my case, is good), but in every other context, I’m just “Alexus”.

  3. another academic custom: read my paper on what nietzsche has to say about pyrhhonic custom.

    and, to bring it full circle: he regards their attitude as “buddhistic.”

  4. I’ll definitely check that out. I completely agree with Nietzsche that the Pyrrhonian “suspension of judgment” (on metaphysical matters, at least) is “buddhistic”–not the custom bit, though. They suggest the eightfold path, which may or may not be customary (depending on how Buddhist one’s culture is, I guess). The Buddhists (especially the Theravada) would not accept following custom due to suspension of belief–they think we *can* know how to end suffering, and it’s just following the eightfold path which does this–not a matter of custom, but rather of “dhamma” (same as the Sanskrit “dharma”–a notoriously difficult term to translate–here probably something like “law”, but it can also mean “duty” or even “thing”).

    I suspect Nietzsche doesn’t see Pyrrhonian custom-following in a very good light then, given what he thinks about Buddhism. I imagine “buddhistic” for him is probably a synonym for “horrible”.

  5. And don’t forget his nickname for Kant: “the Chinaman of Königsberg.”

  6. Interesting post. Of course I am not sure I agree with your reasoning for going with the Ph.D. although I agree with the decision. I agree with the decision because I don’t think it really matters one way or another. But your reasoning is that you don’t want to be perceived like a snob of the second order (I guess a regular snob is a first order snob and a snob who tries so hard to cover up his snob-ness is a second order snob) but here, besides the fact that I know you very well, there is also the matter of intention which differs you from Legrandin, and perhaps Zigong (I don’t agree with your intepretation of this verse here). Legrandin realizes he’s a snob and is trying to cover up his tracks. But that is not what you’re doing at all. Whereas Legrandin wants to appear as someone who’s holier than thou as an affectation, you on the other hand have a totally different motivation. So, I think you really out-psyched yourself.

    It is funny though because there was a time when I noticed that everyone tries to dress as if their clothes were haphazardly put together, as if they just got out of bed. But of course the whole thing was choreographed from the bed-head hair down to the Converse Chuck Taylor. I still see hair products which advertise that whole just-got-out-of-bed look for your hair.

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