Looking Past the Petty to What Matters

Gem in hand
What Truly Matters

I cannot recall ever having an inferiority complex. By that I mean I don’t recall ever experiencing a sustained feeling that someone else’s greater natural or acquired status, intellect, talent, or abilities, in any way, diminished me—that because I was not so endowed, I must be made of lesser clay. That’s not to say I haven’t felt envy from time to time, or that I haven’t felt inadequate for some task. I certainly have. Knowing my limitations, and accepting them where I must, seems to me the better part of maturity and happiness.

On the flip side, I have experienced some people who have a developed superiority complex. I’m sure you know the type, they have the air of someone who wants you to think they’re naturally superior. Candidly speaking, while many people are, I’m usually not bothered by these people. I’m actually rather amused…and curious.

The snobbery of wealth is typically hollow and fake, there’s usually not much depth there. You find out quickly in conversation. There are no spiritual or mental qualities worth admiring in money snobs. And typically speaking, they’re terrible bores, because they’ve got big pockets but not big minds or souls. The snobbery of beauty is, well, skin deep only. We may find the snobbery unattractive and off-putting, even if we can’t help but admire the beauty. But there usually isn’t much beyond their looks. We’re immediately reminded of the meaning of the phrase “high maintenance.”

A truly cultured and refined intellect or artistic sense…now that’s something different. The snobbery is bad and, yes, off-putting. But unlike the rich or the beauty snob, the intellectual or artistic snob may have something to truly offer, beyond mere show, if their conversation is interesting and insightful. Their snobbery, in part, may actually in some ways be justified. Not in the class sense or “I’m superior than you” sense, but in the “I’m unique” sense. I have no problem recognizing and admiring superior minds. I’d like to think engaging these minds is good for my own. If you’re an avid reader, especially of the Great Books, you’re use to getting past the ephemeral and detritus of human folly and admiring the enduring gems of wisdom and art. If we seek a life of depth and meaning we cannot get “caught up in the thick of thin things.”* We must move past that to what truly matters.

I should note. I’m not saying that being a snob in any way is a good thing, because it’s not. I’m just saying that some self regard may be deserved, even if most of the time, I find, it usually isn’t. I’m saying that sometimes truly gifted people may be a snob, but I don’t let that distract me from enjoying and learning from an engagement with their mind—which is the only part of them you can truly learn anything of lasting value. I can look past the petty, even inwardly laugh at it sometimes, to recognize something unique and take from it those gems that edify my own mind and soul.

The Wisdom of Proportionality

Greek runners protecting the torch
Illustration by Ann Ronan pictures, print collector/Getty

One of the common themes in ancient Greek art and philosophy is proportionality. For the Greeks, proportionality was the idea that there was an optimal mix of qualities or virtues that, properly harmonized, promoted human flourishing. We see and experience this idea in the beautiful statues and architecture that have survived in Ancient Greece. The idea of proportionality is a theme throughout Plato’s dialogues, especially The Republic, and Aristotle’s virtue ethics is constructed around the idea of a golden mean or “middle state” between two extremes.

Meden Agan (“Nothing in excess”) is one of the surviving inscriptions on the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi. One of my favorite quotes in the ancient texts is from Tacitus. As a Roman patrician, Tacitus’s education consisted primarily of ancient Greek art, literature and philosophy. In writing about his father-in-law, Agricola, Tacitus says “he took from philosophy the greatest lesson of all: a sense of proportion.”

Another fine example of this idea is embedded in the ancient Olympic games. One of the competitions, know as the Lampadedromia, involved a relay race of runners carrying torches. The challenge was to win the race without extinguishing the torch. This meant it usually wasn’t the fastest runners that won, but those adept at running just fast enough (the right proportion) not to extinguish the torch in the wind while getting to the finish line first, before the torch oil ran out.

The idea handed down through the ages suggest that success, beauty, happiness and good judgment are very much the results of a wise proportionality.