He was a monster of conceit. Never for one minute did he look at the world or at people, except in relation to himself. He was not only the most important person in the world, to himself; in his own eyes he was the only person who existed. He believed himself to be one of the greatest dramatists in the world, one of the greatest thinkers, and one of the greatest composers. To hear him talk he was Shakespeare, and Beethoven, and Plato, rolled into one. And you would have had no difficulty in hearing him talk. He was one of the most exhausting conversationalists that ever lived. An evening with him was an evening spent in listening to a monologue. Sometimes he was brilliant; sometimes he was maddeningly tiresome. But whether he was being brilliant or dull, he had one sole topic of conversation: himself. What he thought and what he did.

Deems Taylor[1]

[Phil’s back; he’s been reading again and, as usual, he’s delved where most of us don’t. This time he says he’s going to discuss Richard Wagner, the German composer; Jeremy Bentham’s political fallacies, especially the one used by guilty politicians; and the phenomenological approach to sociology. Sounds pretty abstract, doesn’t it? Why would anybody care about these things? Well, read on and see; and if you lose some of your illusions in the process, you didn’t need them anyway.]

Thanks for the introduction, G. I like the short ones best. There’s a lot of material to cover, so let’s start right away with the quote from Deems Taylor. He set the theme for this piece, i.e., “monsters of conceit,” how they operate and where we find them.

Taylor, of course, was talking about Richard Wagner, the famous German composer. By all accounts Wagner was very self-centered. He looked at the world as if only Wagner existed; he talked a lot, had lots of opinions [some of them well-founded, others not so much], monopolized conversations, and wouldn’t stop. Whether you were a disciple of his, or a critic, you wouldn’t get a word in edgewise. Today we might call him a narcissist, and some psychiatrist might diagnose him as having one or more personality disorders.[2] [Of course, he would need that diagnosis in order to convince a health insurer to pay his doctor.]

But the thing about Wagner was that, at the end of the day, he was a great composer. In Taylor’s view that more than made up for the fact that Wagner also was a bit of a nut case. But what about the narcissists who aren’t similarly gifted? There are lots of them around, and some of them might live right near you. And, of course, you see and hear them in the media every day, commenting on this or that, or something else. Are these people really worth the space they take up in our lives?

Extreme narcissists aren’t your average, run-of-the-mill citizens who are trying to make their way in a difficult economy. Ordinary citizens have to look out for themselves because, guess why? Nobody else will!  We’re focusing instead on a subset of narcissists: the toxic ones, so self-absorbed that other people really don’t exist for them, except possibly as an audience.

But before we go to the basic question – are toxic narcissists worth the space they take up in our lives? – let’s take a quick look at narcissism as a tool in politics. Here’s where Jeremy Bentham comes into the picture. Way back in the early 19th Century he noticed that many of the politicians were authorities in their respective fields simply because they told folks they were. [3] Now, he wasn’t talking about people who over-rated their own intelligence or experience. If they did that – he called it raising altars to themselves – their competition would speedily do the same. “Against the self-love of the man whose altar to himself is raised on this ground, rival altars, from every one of which he is sure of discouragement, raise themselves all around.”[4] Apparently politicians were really competitive back then; if one inflated his credentials, Bentham expected the rest to follow right along.

No, Bentham saw narcissism as a better shield than a sword. Suppose a politician – let’s call him Politician A – has a proposal before the legislature, and it’s a really bad one; or has sponsored a public works program that’s really messed up; or a military expedition that’s failed. Well, Politician A could be in hot water if people focus on that kind of stuff. So what should a politician do? Answer: Distract the public by giving them something else to talk about. Preferably something totally irrelevant to the political disaster he’s trying to cover up.

You see, in Bentham’s view that’s what a political fallacy really is: a stratagem, or ploy, designed to distract the public from the real issues, whatever they are, by giving them something juicy and irrelevant. Bentham lists dozens of these in his book, but the one that might especially appeal to a toxic narcissist is, of course, the Self-trumpeter’s fallacy. [5] All the beleaguered narcissist has to do is get up there, before the cameras, and tell the people he’s the most moral person in the room, virtuous and beyond corruption, and they must trust him.

… there are certain men in office who, in discharge of their functions, arrogate to themselves a degree of probity, which is to exclude all imputations and all inquiry: their assertions are to be deemed the equivalent of proof; their virtues are guarantees for the faithful discharge of their duties; and the most implicit confidence is to be reposed in them on all occasions. If you expose any abuse, propose any reform, call for securities, inquiry or measures to promote publicity, they set up a cry of surprise, amounting almost to indignation, as if their integrity were questioned, or their honour [in the U.S., honor] wounded.[6]

The form of the argument is … “You all know me, and I’m good. Obviously there’s no truth to the rumor that …, etc.” This may sound ridiculous, but it can work with the public, or at least help rally Politician A’s Followers for whatever conflicts lie ahead.[7]

Now let’s talk about phenomenology and reality. I’m not a sociologist, but I know some; and I have read the book we’ll discuss. If you want to know more – and you should – take a course.

Back in 1966 [yes, I know that was almost 50 years ago] two professors, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman, published The Social Construction of Reality. [8] It’s since been rated one of the 5 most influential sociology texts of the 20th Century.[9] For our purposes the book makes two key points.

  • Phenomenological Analysis. When studying a society, one must not make value judgments about or offer interpretations of what transpires in the group. The group, and their interactions, should be studied on their own terms. The sociologist should attempt to describe what is going on, and what the participants think is happening; not force events into some pre-existing, theoretical mold. “The method we consider to clarify the foundations of knowledge in everyday life is that of phenomenological analysis, a purely descriptive method and, as such, “empirical” but not “scientific,”- as we understand the nature of the empirical sciences.”[10]
  • Social Construction of Reality. Berger and Luckman were concerned with how people interact in a social system. Their basic idea was that, over time, people in the system interact with one another, and develop preconceptions about the roles each must play for the group to operate. Once these are learned, and others accept them, the roles are institutionalized, and meaning is embedded in the society [or the culture, if you will]. In that sense, the reality the society faces is “socially constructed.” If one wants to understand the society, and how it operates, one must understand that. “The sociology of knowledge, therefore, must concern itself with the social construction of reality.”[11]

Assuming you the reader understand all that, you might well ask, “What’s Phil’s point?” Well, for that we have to go back to our theme, the monsters of conceit amongst us. Berger and Luckman proposed a non-judgmental method for studying and analyzing societies. Using it one might develop a picture of how people in a group see one another, the roles they play, and how they react to various stimuli. How they socially construct reality. That’s all very fine and probably isn’t intrusive, at least by today’s rather low standards. [We live in an intrusive age. Just ask the NSA.]

But what happens if someone using these tools happens to be a toxic narcissist? Could he [or she] weaponize them, i.e., develop techniques directly aimed at other societies and their cultures? Would the toxic narcissist attack by telling the truth [as we see it], or lies, or both, or does it matter? After all, all is fair in love and war. Is our Government even now working on weaponization in some obscure think tank? If so, what do they call their program? The New Propaganda, perhaps? Are other Governments planning the same for us? Do we have any evidence of that? Do they play politics in our country?

And what about your neighbors, and your neighborhood? Is there some rogue sociologist nearby attempting to wrest control of your HOA from the owners? What does he [or she] say about you? What is that toxic narcissist planning? What if …

[All right, Phil. We had better end this right here, before you start naming names. I agree there’s ample reason for paranoia, especially about our international affairs; and some of the idiots on the Hill do seem to be losing what’s left of their minds. Let’s pick this up later, once you’ve calmed down. And remember, many things are possible, but around here we don’t adopt an explanation of events just because it’s the most paranoid.  We prefer explanations that are best supported by the available facts.

So calm down, take a break and I’ll get back to you later.]

[1] This is from The Monster, an article the author wrote back in 1937 about Richard Wagner, the composer. The article is reprinted in Hoopes & Peck, Edge of Awareness (Dell, 1966, 1967) at p. 121 – 125. We do have an interesting library here, don’t we?

[2] See American Psychiatric Association, Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-IV-TR (APA, 2000) at p. 294, 301.81 Narcissistic Personality Disorder. See also American Psychiatric Association, Desk Reference to the Diagnostic Criteria from DSM-IV-TR (APA, 2000) at p. 293, 301.50 Histrionic Personality Disorder.

[3] See Bentham & Bingham, The Book of Fallacies: From Unfinished Papers of Jeremy Bentham (Hunt, 1824, Nabu Public Domain Reprint, 2010) at Chapter V, Self-assumed Authority, p. 116 – 122. In this blog the book will be cited as Bentham’s Fallacies at p. __.

[4] Bentham’s Fallacies at p. 120.

[5] Id.

[6] Id. Sorry for the long quote, but I like to show people what it’s like to read Bentham in the original. Imagine page after page of this stuff. Nevertheless, there’s a lot there for students who are willing to take the time to read and interpret it.

[7] See Bentham’s Fallacies at 122: “These assertions of authority, therefore, by men in office, who would have us estimate their conduct by their character, and not their character by their conduct, must be classed among political fallacies.” Again, the argument is fallacious because (i) it’s irrelevant to the subject in discussion, (ii) typically the self-trumpeter overstates his case; nobody is as good as he says; and (iii) in any case, everybody, good and bad, claims to be good, and it’s hard to separate out the liars. See Bentham’s Fallacies at 121: “…the sort of testimony thus given affords no legitimate reason for regarding eh assertion [of virtue] to be true; for it is no less completely in the power of the most profligate than in that of the most virtuous of mankind: nor is it in a less degree the interest of the profligate man to make such assertions.”

[8] See Berger & Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality, A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge (1966, Anchor 1967). Hereafter we’ll cite this as Berger & Luckman at __. There’s also a Wikipedia discussion of the book. To find it just go to the Wikipedia website and search “Social Construction of Reality,” or click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Social_Construction_of_Reality

[9] See the Wikipedia entry referenced in n. 8.

[10] See Berger & Luckman at p. 20.

[11] See Berger & Luckman at p. 15.