The myth of the selfless philosopher

By Enrico Galvagni

There is a myth that spans the history of western thought: the myth of the selfless philosopher. True philosophers, the myth says, are ethereal creatures who dropped every trace of pride, egoism, and vainglory to devote their lives to the pure pursuit of the truth.

It is not difficult to trace back the myth of the selfless philosopher to the Christian condemnation of vanity. Pride has been a capital sin for almost 2000 years and some of the most quoted passages of the Bible identify vanity as the source of many (if not all) of our troubles. Yet, the aversion to self-conceit fares well behind the limits of religious thought. Even some of the most radical Enlightenment thinkers did not hesitate to proclaim the harshest words against the passions of the self and to deprecate the desire for prestige in all its forms.

According to French Enlightenment philosopher Baron d’Holbach (1723–89), one of the fiercest critics of religion, vanity and pride generate a feedback loop that pushes human beings towards illusions and false beliefs. The only way for an individual to achieve philosophical knowledge is through renouncing their selfishness. A true philosopher, Holbach says, recognises their errors and, moved by the love of truth, is always ready to condemn their previous mistakes. But since every confession is always humiliating to vanity, Holbach’s conclusion is that one must give up on their self to be able to really embrace the truth. Vanity is a passion that tends to arise and foster our pride. Doing so, it generates a bias in favor of our own convictions and prevents us from achieving true objective knowledge. The solution? Eradicate vanity and become a selfless individual who is better suited than anyone else to be a true philosophe, Holbach says.    

Scottish philosopher David Hume (1711–1776), who used to dine at Baron d’Holbach’s table during his trips to Paris, had a different standpoint on the matter. A very innovative one, indeed, if we read it on the background of the history of Western philosophy. On the one hand, Hume did not deny that vanity can bring one to ‘vulgar lying’, hence causing one to value social appearance more than real status. In this sense, Hume agrees with the traditional view that vanity hinders progress towards the truth and limit one’s capability to change for the better. On the other hand, vanity also plays a propulsive role in one’s self-development and foster their social interactions. Hume famously acknowledged that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” If so, vanity as a desire of pride can motivate us to be highly regarded by our peers and, therefore, to become the best version of ourselves.  

In a well-shaped society, acknowledging one’s errors and doubts should not be a source of humiliation as Holbach thought. Honesty and transparency are virtues that make one’s admission of ignorance a valuable thing, something one should be proud of. Socrates’ motto “I know that I know nothing” may sound a bit too extreme, but shows clearly that philosophy was born as a form of self-doubt. Such a practice, Hume seems to say, is compatible with vanity and self-love. 

Enrico Galvagni is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of St. Andrews. He works on David Hume and his contemporaries with a particular focus on the philosophical debate on emotion and virtue.

Enrico’s article, “Hume on Pride, Vanity and Society” was published in The Journal of Scottish Philosophy 18 no. 2 (2020) and won the Gordon Graham Prize for Scottish Philosophy. One of his papers on Baron d’Holbach is devoted to his conception of vanity and is forthcoming in an edited volume for Brill.

Teri Williams
Teri Williams
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One comment

  1. The long before solution is that the SELF ought to be the SELF of TRUTH the TRUE SELF; As phisophser have sense for truth by profession much more than usual – they make te concepts of morals in rivalirty to church morals, so that they “humble pie” by always “repenting their sins”.

    Indded theconceotioin of Spinoza of that TRUE SELF is even dived into two steps. ovecimung human salvery by te affects (money greed, to much sens paleassure adiction addiction tio “aopplause” called honour and teh revers shame”9. THe secon step is the real desire and locve for eternal truth, whre teh reason of real common notiond ought to ovrvome teh internala ciaase, unversals, anthpomolhism first. I mean HUme an dHolbacj had known this afr beter an ealborated theoy!

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