Jacques Barzun on “envy and self-justification” way before social media (1969)

“If we could take an objective look at the amount of talk in our society which amounts merely to self-praise, we would be appalled. It begins with individuals and goes on to institutions, to colleges and universities particularly. Every little group, every momentary or permanent establishment, feels the need to continually say what good work it is doing and to show other groups (which scarcely pay attention) that they are indispensable to the welfare of the whole.

The combination of envy and self-justification have dire consequences. It leads first to what might be called a biased self-analysis. What am I doing here? Why am I doing it? Have I done more in the first six months of this year than the first six months of the year before? How is that other outfit doing? These questions generate a self-consciousness which is just as bad as the intolerable shyness of an adolescent standing on one foot and now on the other, putting his fingers in his mouth and not knowing whether he wants to be there or underground.

Self-consciousness, in turn, is at the root of our alienation -the knowledge that reality has withdrawn, for the obvious reason that we are always thinking about ourselves, our place in the room, our place in the world or in the whole line of endeavor that we happen to pursue. We are not living, we are spectators at our life. Notice how it comes out in our talk, in the self-depreciation that matches and becomes as bad and automatic as the self-praise. The two are the two halves of what would be a real life lived.”

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