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.