Dr. Mardy's Quotes of the Week
September 24-30, 2023 | THIS WEEK'S THEME: “Arrogance”
Opening Line of the Week
This is the first sentence of the book’s first chapter, which was titled: “Disguised as a Normal Person.” The book’s opening paragraph is good, but the title of the first chapter is even better—and reveals much about how Steinberg views his life. If he ever decides to write a memoir or autobiography, I would suggest the following as an opening line: “I have led my entire life disguised as a normal person.”
In the opening words of Inside Comedy, Steinberg pulls readers further into the book as he continued:
“If you’ve had a great life and a wonderful bar mitzvah and you’ve been given a lot of money, you’d make a lousy comedian. You’re better off being the comedian’s lawyer.”
From the outset, Steinberg offers what is essentially a truism in the world of show business—the key ingredients in the formation of comedic talent lie on the other end of the spectrum from joy and happiness. If I had to express it chiastically, I’d say it this way: comedians produce humor, but it is not humor that produces comedians.
This Week’s Puzzler
On September 26, 1952, this man died at age 88 in Rome, Italy. At his death, he’d been out of the spotlight for some time, but earlier in the century, he was one of America’s leading intellectuals. Born into a life of privilege in Madrid, Spain in 1863, he was educated from age nine in New England, attending Boston Latin and Harvard University, where he received a B.A. in 1886 and a Ph.D. a few years later (in philosophy, under the tutelage of William James).
In 1889, almost immediately after obtaining his doctorate, he joined the Harvard faculty and taught philosophy there until 1912. While he was enormously popular with students (T. S. Eliot and Walter Lippmann both described him as one of their favorite teachers), he was a contentious figure who sparred frequently with his colleagues. Just prior to his departure, his relationship with William James had deteriorated to the point that his former mentor described him as “The perfection of rottenness.”
While he is almost always regarded as an American intellectual, he considered himself thoroughly European. He retained Spanish citizenship his entire life, spending his summers in Spain and various European cities. While he was a respected philosopher, poet, novelist, literary critic, and essayist, his greatest talent may well have been his ability to craft unforgettable aphorisms. The first volume of The Life of Reason (1905) contains his most famous observation—one that has attained quotation immortality:
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In the second volume of The Life of Reason, he offered one of the best things ever said on the topic of arrogance:
Who is this person? (Answer below)
What Does Arrogance Mean to You?
Neither of these familiar biblical passages mentions the word arrogance, but taken together, they capture the way arrogance is viewed in the Judeo-Christian tradition: arrogant people may believe their haughty and self-aggrandizing behavior is serving them well, but it will only be a matter of time before it comes back to haunt them. What the two biblical passages don’t mention is the delight felt by others when arrogant people finally get their just desserts.
Many years ago, a particularly arrogant colleague of mine suffered an ignominious setback, in large part because of a swollen sense of self-regard and an annoying tendency to pontificate about every subject under the sun. As I now recall the incident, it’s still a little embarrassing for me to admit that, instead of feeling bad for him, I felt a definite sense of delight about his fall from grace. At first, I was greatly bothered about feeling good over his bad fortune, but I quickly discovered that almost everyone who worked with him felt the same way. While the whole episode played out, I discovered the quotation in this week’s Puzzler, and it helped to explain—and perhaps even justify—my reaction.
It was also around this same time that I was introduced to a German word that was totally unfamiliar to me: schadenfreude (pronounced SHAW-den-FROYD-eh). The word combines the nouns schaden, meaning “damage” or “harm,” and freude, meaning “joy,” and refers to the pleasure people feel at another person’s misfortune. For more on this fascinating phenomenon, go here.
Why do people feel good when arrogant people are served a helping of humble pie? The answer is fairly simple: arrogant people tend to be obnoxious. Among other things, they are self-absorbed, have an inflated sense of self-importance, minimize (or completely overlook) their own flaws, and generally regard other people as their inferiors. In the American Heritage Dictionary, the editors described arrogance this way:
“A manifest feeling of personal superiority in rank, power, dignity, or estimation; the exalting of one’s own worth or importance to an undue degree.”
The AHD editors went on to add: “Arrogance is, at its simplest, pride with contempt of others, and is essentially the same as disdain. In action, arrogance is the assertion of exorbitant claims to rank, dignity, estimation, homage, power, etc.”
It is commonly believed that arrogant people act superior because they feel superior, and it is true that many people at the top of their professions do feel that way. But not all successful people are arrogant. Success and arrogance only come together in an important way when there is a common underlying factor: insecurity.
When secure people achieve success, they regard it as the predictable result of talent, hard work, and perhaps a few lucky breaks along the way. But when success comes to insecure people, they commonly fear that it is undeserved, or even has a taint of illegitimacy. To counter this feeling, they often feel compelled to prove how successful they are by engaging in the arrogant behaviors described above. This conception of arrogance is so well accepted by psychologists that, whenever I see a person engaged in an arrogant display, I remind myself that I’m simply witnessing an insecure person’s somewhat infantile way of saying, “Look at how great I am.” In his 2004 book God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, the South African Bishop Desmond Tutu summarized it nicely:
“Arrogance really comes from insecurity, and in the end our feeling that we are bigger than others is really the flip side of our feeling that we are smaller than others.”
In his 1988 book Healing the Shame That Binds You, John Bradshaw described arrogance as “offensively exaggerating one’s own importance,” and gave the phenomenon a slightly different spin:
“Arrogance is a way for a person to cover up shame. After years of arrogance, the arrogant person is so out of touch, she truly doesn’t know who she is. This is one of the greatest tragedies of shame cover-ups: not only does the person hide from others, she also hides from herself.” [italics in original]
So far, we’ve explored the negative role that arrogance has played in human life, but throughout history one group in particular—artists and entertainers—have talked about how essential a touch of arrogance has been in fueling their efforts to keep going when things get rough (recall from The Opening Line of the Week above how David Steinberg linked it to his success as a comedian). Over the years, many great artists have described the phenomenon, but none better than Harlan Ellison, who wrote the following about it when discussing his 1968 short story “Django.”
This week, think about the role that arrogance and arrogant people have played in your life. As you do, let your thinking be stimulated by this week’s selection of quotations:
All politicians are humble, and seldom let you forget it. They go around the country boasting about their humility. They are proud of their humility. Many are downright arrogant about their humility and insist that it qualifies them to be President. — Russell Baker
Arrogance occurs in people who have achieved something and believe that they independently caused their own success with no assistance, support, or input from others. — Chérie Carter-Scott
Sometimes a neighbor whom we have disliked a lifetime for his arrogance and conceit lets fall a single commonplace remark that shows us another side, another man, really; a man uncertain, and puzzled, and in the dark like ourselves. — Willa Cather
The arrogance of some Christians would close heaven to them if, to their misfortune, it existed. — Simone de Beauvoir
I regret nothing, says arrogance. — Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
He was like a cock, who thought the sun had risen to hear him crow. — George Eliot
The most important scientific revolutions all include, as their only common feature, the dethronement of human arrogance from one pedestal after another of previous convictions about our centrality in the cosmos. — Stephen Jay Gould
We view arrogance as a set of behaviors that communicates a person’s exaggerated sense of superiority, which is often accomplished by disparaging others. — R. E. Johnson
One can become as intellectually arrogant about spirituality as about empirical science. — Shirley MacLaine
Arrogant and domineering people can’t stand the least, lightest, faintest breath of criticism. It just kills them. — Booth Tarkington
For source information on these quotations, and many other quotations on the topic of ARROGANCE, go to Dr. Mardy's Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations.
Cartoon of the Week
Answer to This Week’s Puzzler:
Santayana was one of intellectual history’s most quotable philosophers. In addition to the two observations from earlier, here are several more that I have long loved:
The wisest mind hath something yet to learn.
There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.
Chaos is a name for any order that produces confusion in our minds.
The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who have loved it.
Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.
Dr. Mardy’s Observation of the Week
Thanks for joining me again this week. See you next Sunday morning, when the theme will be “Passion.”
Regarding My Lifelong Love of Quotations: A Personal Note
Dr. Mardy's Substack is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.