Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
 
The Desire of Esteem
By Dugald Stewart (1753–1828)
 
From Philosophy of the Active and Moral Powers
THIS principle, as well as those we have now been considering, discovers itself at a very early period in infants, who, long before they are able to reflect on the advantages resulting from the good opinion of others, and even before they acquire the use of speech, are sensibly mortified by any expression of neglect or contempt. It seems, therefore, to be an original principle of our nature, that is, it does not appear to be resolvable into reason and experience, or into any other principle more general than itself. An additional proof of this is the very powerful influence it has over the mind,—an influence more striking than that of any other active principle whatsoever. Even the love of life daily gives way to the desire of esteem, and of an esteem which, as it is only to affect our memories, cannot be supposed to interest our self-love. In what manner the association of ideas should manufacture, out of the other principles of our constitution, a new principle stronger than them all, it is difficult to conceive.
  1
  In these observations I have had an eye to the theories of those modern philosophers who represent self-love, or the desire of happiness, as the only original principle of action in man, and who attempt to account for the origin of all our other active principles from habit or the association of ideas.  2
  That this theory is just in some instances cannot be disputed. Thus, in the case of avarice it is manifest that it is from habit alone it derives its influence over the mind; for no man surely was ever brought into the world with an innate love of money. Money is at first desired, merely as the means of obtaining other objects; but, in consequence of being long and constantly accustomed to direct our efforts to its attainment on account of its apprehended utility, we come at last to pursue it as an ultimate end, and frequently retain our attachment to it long after we have lost all relish for the enjoyments it enables us to command. In like manner it has been supposed that the esteem of our fellow-creatures is at first desired on account of its apprehended utility, and that it comes in time to be pursued as an ultimate end, without any reference on our part to the advantages it bestows. In opposition to this doctrine it seems to me to be clear, that as the object of hunger is not happiness but food; as the object of curiosity is not happiness but knowledge; so the object of this principle of action is not happiness, but the esteem and respect of other men. That this is not inconsistent with the analogy of our nature appears from the observations already made on our appetites and desires; and that it really is the fact may be proved by various arguments. Before touching, however, on these, I must remark that I consider this as merely a question of speculative curiosity; for, upon either supposition, the desire of esteem is equally the work of nature, and, consequently, upon either supposition, it is equally unphilosophical to attempt, by metaphysical subtleties, to counteract her wise and beneficent purposes.  3
  Among the different arguments which concur to prove that the desire of esteem is not wholly resolvable into the association of ideas, one of the strongest has been already hinted at; the early period of life at which this principle of life discovers itself—long before we are able to form the idea of happiness, far less to judge of the circumstances which have a tendency to promote it. The difference in this respect between avarice and the desire of esteem is remarkable. The former is the vice of old age, and is, comparatively speaking, confined to a few. The latter is one of the most powerful engines in the education of children, and is not less universal in its influence than the principle of curiosity.  4
  The desire, too, of posthumous fame, of which no man can entirely divest himself, furnishes an insurmountable objection to the theories already mentioned. It is indeed an objection so obvious to the common sense of mankind, that all the philosophers who have leaned to these theories have employed their ingenuity in attempting to resolve this desire into an illusion of the imagination produced by habit….  5
  … But why have recourse to an illusion of the imagination to account for a principle which the wisest of men find it impossible to extinguish in themselves, or even sensibly to weaken; and none more remarkably than some of those who have employed their ingenuity in attempting to turn it into ridicule? Is it possible that men should imagine themselves present and enjoying their fame at the reading of their story after death, without being conscious of this operation of the imagination themselves? Is not this to depart from the plain and obvious appearance of the fact, and to adopt refinements similar to those by which the selfish philosophers explain away all our disinterested affections? We might as well suppose that a man’s regard for the welfare of his posterity and friends after his death does not arise from natural affection, but from an illusion of the imagination, leading him to suppose himself still present with them, and a witness of their prosperity. If we have confessedly various other propensities directed to specific objects as ultimate ends, where is the difficulty of conceiving that a desire directed to the good opinion of our fellow-creatures, without any reference to the advantages it is to yield us either now or hereafter may be among the number?  6
  It would not indeed (as I have already hinted) materially affect the argument, although we should suppose with Wollaston, that the desire of posthumous fame was resolvable into an illusion of the imagination. For, whatever be its origin, it was plainly the intention of nature that all men should be in some measure under its influence; and it is perhaps of little consequence whether we regard it as a principle originally implanted by nature, or suppose that she has laid a foundation for it in other principles which belong universally to the species.  7
  How very powerfully it operates, appears not only from the heroical sacrifices to which it has led in every age of the world, but from the conduct of the meanest and most worthless of mankind, who, when they are brought to the scaffold in consequence of the clearest and most decisive evidence of their guilt, frequently persevere to the last, with the terrors of futurity full in their view, in the most solemn protestations of their innocence; and that merely in the hope of leaving behind them not a fair but an equivocal or problematical reputation.  8
  With respect to the other parts of Wollaston’s reasoning, that it is only the letters which compose our names that we can transmit to posterity, it is worthy of observation, that, if the argument be good for anything, it applies equally against the desire of esteem from our contemporaries, excepting in those cases in which we ourselves are personally known by those whose praise we covet, and of whose applause we happen ourselves to be ear-witnesses: And yet undoubtedly, according to the common judgment of mankind, the love of praise is more peculiarly the mark of a liberal and elevated spirit in cases where the gratification it seeks has nothing to recommend it to those whose ruling passions are interest or the love of flattery. It is precisely for the same reason that the love of posthumous fame is strongest in the noblest and most exalted characters. If self-love were really the sole motive in all our actions, Wollaston’s reasoning would prove clearly the absurdity of any concern about our memory. “Such a concern” (as Dr. Hutcheson observes) “no selfish being, who had the modelling of his own nature, would choose to implant in himself. But, since we have not this power, we must be contented to be thus outwitted by nature into a public interest against our will.”  9
 
 
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