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THE SOURCE OF VANITY.
ONCE entertained the happy thought, that I had
made an observation on human nature which would throw new light on one of its most perplexing characteristics; and for some months I ruminated upon what seemed to me an original discovery — the fact that all human beings desire and attempt to take effect upon each other, and that their social happiness is in proportion to their success in this endeavour.
I ceased to think myself a discoverer, on finding my notion anticipated, and perfectly expressed, by one whose opinions have not only the originality of genius, but the weight of caution and extreme solicitude for truth: Mr. Bain says, in one of his papers upon phrenology, 'It is a great and characteristic pleasure of our nature to exert influence, and produce telling effects upon our fellows, by ordering them about, pleasing them, paining them, terrifying them, or drawing out their admiration and esteem. The strong delight in the company of the weaker, on whom they can exercise their might. A talker wants to have listeners, a jester must have his butt.' *
* Bain on the Propensities.-- Fraser's Magazine, 1860.
In trying to place this truth in fuller light, and bringing it to bear upon various problems which have hitherto wanted a key, I no longer lay claim to any novelty of idea, and I only hope to prove the invariableness of a beneficent law.
An instinctive desire to take effect has been continually noticed as a phenomenon of frequent occurrence; but, to the best of my knowledge, it has not been sufficiently examined as the mainspring of human action. No part of our nature has given so much trouble to thinkers and moralists as vanity. Philosophers hardly know what to make of it — how to account for the inexhaustible, multiform follies of the impulse which bears the dubious name of vanity; and teachers cannot attack it with any certain aim, because of its inconvenient relationship to some of the most amiable virtues; vanity being, as Dr. A. Carlyle has said, ' a passion that is easy to be entreated, and that unites freely with the best affections.
We can safely declaim against the ball-room manifestations of this passion, but when we find it luxuriating in the guarded retreats of piety, and combining easily with the noblest efforts of benevolence, we are at a loss; and unless we admit some taint of falsehood into our strictures and admonitions, I doubt if we can call vanity wholly a sin. The parent of many it certainly is, but what is its own source ? Is it anything worse than this a wish to take effect upon other minds? Why, that is just what the teacher wishes, too; only his ultimate aim is to do good. It may be a heresy to say so, yet I firmly believe that the poor heart fluttering with vanity would be equally desirous to do good, if it had learned to think it as possible to be of use every day, as to be admired now and then.
It will be worth while to look as closely as we can into the sources of vanity. Proteus-like in habit, in origin it is always the same; and perhaps, if we better understood its first prompting motive, we should be more able to reduce the fantastic outgrowth which wastes so many lives. We need not be afraid of facing the inward foe; human nature always gains respect from a profound research into its windings — contempt, if we stop short at generalizations upon what lies on its surface. In this enquiry, “to reach the law within the law' is our only chance of discovering the outlines of the Divine image in the defaced ruin of human nature.
The utmost fearlessness of research and honesty of confession will not endanger its dignity-half admissions and partial investigation cannot fail to do so; and those who fear to see the lens of thought applied to anything so corrupt, so obscure, and self-deceiving as man's heart, may be assured, that if they can endure a slight shock at the first glance into its hidden depths, a steady gaze will discern good in much which before appeared inscrutably evil, and will reconcile many of its most astonishing contradictions.
With such insight we shall find ourselves unable to deny that the heart is desperately wicked, and that none but the Omniscient can know it truly; but, at the same time, we shall be met with overwhelming proof of our divine origin and exalted destiny. We shall confess that we are indeed the children of the Most High, though acknowledging with renewed conviction that in us dwelleth no good thing.
If I was not persuaded that all frank and fair investigation of human nature, in its least workings, led to these wholesome results, I would not add to the public stock my small but careful observations. I must
apologise in advance for any straining of my theory, if such a charge can be justly made against me, although nothing will be here stated which does not appear to me undeniably true.
A few common examples of the wish to take effect will suggest a variety of proof. Everyone has felt anger or seen it in others, and many, I suppose, have observed, that as soon as the angry person has provoked another into an ill temper, his own irritation begins to subside; the sense of having taken effect soothes the temper. It is not that we long, like mad dogs, to communicate the virus that torments us, but that the chagrin which some temporary loss of power occasioned, is relieved by this trifling proof of influence. On the other hand, nothing more aggravates an ill temper than being met with coolness or indifference of manner; for
; it proves that our agitation takes no effect upon our companions.
Children soon find this out, and, without reason or theory to guide them, will employ sullenness or silence, when blamed, to show how little they are impressed ; and when this is the case, to continue to rebuke, remonstrate, or implore, is only to prolong their pleasurable consciousness of the strong effect wilfulness takes upon those who are trying to influence them; and even without the sanction of Solomon's wisdom, it is clear that the rod has the advantage of prompt and certain efficacy, and will take effect just at a crisis when a child rejoices in its own perverse strength, and defies every other argument. I speak of little children, and to those only who would never make punishment an outlet for their own ill tempers.
What is more universal and seemingly causeless than the falsehoods which children indulge in? Almost
as they can speak, they will say the most daring untruths, and apparently see no harm in them. It is easy to say that this is a lamentable sign of the depravity of human nature, but that does not explain the fact to my mind; nor do I believe in any wickedness flowing from within us, without a determining motive. The child has seen emotion caused by this or that announcement; he has observed surprise, anger, or pleasure to follow upon certain statements of fact; he can now exercise the faculty of speech, and would fain try his own power in the same way. He will therefore unblushingly tell you that the dog got upon the table and ate three mutton-chops; and though he sees that the dish is untouched, and might know, if he could put the ideas together, that the fib would soon be made manifest, he enjoys the temporary excitement of seeing an older person hurry to the table, blame the servant for leaving a dish uncovered, and sift his prattling story for evidence : — and the after-reproof for falsehood, and, too often, the misapplication of the example of Ananias and Sapphira, only then avail to convince the little fellow that the consequences of that kind of effectiveness are undesirable. By degrees, he learns to observe more carefully, in order that he may report more truly, and take effect without future forfeit.
It is much the same with grown-up men and women: a tendency to exaggeration infects all conversation. Very few escape it by conscientious attention to their words ; and this universal tendency arises not only from heedlessness, but, unless I am much mistaken, from the natural wish to make a stronger impression than with unvarnished truth we can. Quite unconsciously, the heightening colour is added. Sometimes this seems