Superiority as insecurity

In my second commentary on William Ferraiolo’s Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure I focus on Book XI, 10.

© Dave DuBay

He writes,

How often have you thought yourself superior in intellect, in physique, or in moral rectitude than some “poor wretch”? This is a compound perversity. Are these attitudes not, at root, directed at self-aggrandizement? Every time you contemplate your “superiority,” you verify your inadequacy. A genius does not need to make a show of…an obvious intellectual superiority, any more than a giant needs to convince others, or himself, of his vastly loftier height.

Posturing is something we’ve all done many times, and I think Ferraiolo cuts to the core of what this is about.

I’ve done my share of showing off a bit of knowledge—or more accurately, trivia—because I was worried that the people around me might not think I’m as smart as they are.

Of course, that’s based on my projections about their thoughts. How can I really know what they’re thinking?  And so what if they think I’m not as smart as them? Maybe they’re right. Even if they’re not I still have no control over their thoughts.

But posturing, it seems to me, is most often about jockeying for a higher spot in the social hierarchy because we feel like our status is lower than it should be.

Status, if we’re honest, is important to all of us. But from a Stoic perspective status is indifferent. Status might be something I prefer, but it won’t make me a better person. Status can be used for the good of others or it can be used to exploit others. Low status also is indifferent because it neither helps nor hinders an ethical lifestyle.

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R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me

Being civil doesn’t mean you have to hide your contempt for someone.

© Dave DuBay

The latest addition to the growing body of modern Stoic literature is William Ferraiolo’s Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure. A series of personal reflections, it’s a book in the tradition of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

I’ve just begun reading it, so in this and future posts I’ll highlight passages that catch my eye. In book one part six Ferraiolo writes,

Do not pretend to respect other persons either more or less than you actually do respect them. You owe no one a pretense of deference… You should have nothing to do with sham collegiality or faux civility. Some persons are worthy of your contempt… Do not allow yourself to be pressed, bullied, or cajoled into relations that strike you as unhealthy or pointless.

Ferraiolo isn’t advocating uncivil behavior. He’s against faux civility. It’s a call to sincerity. No one likes phonies. And we’ve all heard people say things like, “Well, he doesn’t like me but at least I know where I stand.”

Other people may create unhealthy dynamics, but that’s beyond your control. Whether you choose to allow yourself to be pressured into such relationships is within your control.

Reading this passage though, it occurred to me that respect can mean different things. “I respect you” could mean I hold you in high esteem. “Treat others with respect,” however, isn’t necessarily a demand to think highly of someone. It could simply be a more polite way of telling someone not to be rude—that is, to be civil.

Put differently, there’s respect in the active sense (conferring high regard on someone) and respect in the passive sense (refraining from uncivil behavior). Ferraiolo’s passage seems to refer to respect in the active sense.
It’s insincere to pretend to hold someone in high regard if you don’t. While contempt is the opposite of respect in the active, high esteem sense, contempt is not necessarily in conflict with respect in the passive sense of refraining from incivility.