Snobbishness: What It Is & What’s Against It
Dear Unknown Friends:
Snobbishness and Self-Conflict is a great lecture that Eli Siegel gave in March 1947, at Steinway Hall. We’re proud to publish it here, based on notes taken at the time. Snobbishness is something people resent (“What an awful snob she is!”), yet also envy (“I wish I were in that set”—with the implication “and could look down on everyone the way they do”). Mr. Siegel explains that we’re all more snobbish than we know. He shows the ubiquity of snobbishness. And he has humor about it. But also, not long after the end of World War II, he is showing that snobbishness is related to Nazism: a way of seeing that “nice” people have every day is related to the fascism that enslaved and brutalized so much of Europe.
In this lecture Mr. Siegel calls snobbishness “the elegant phase of contempt.” He is the philosopher who has made clear that contempt, “the addition to self through the lessening of something else,” is that in us which weakens our minds, though we can think we’re smart to have it. Aesthetic Realism explains this tremendous thing: snobbishness and mental depression always go together. A crucial aspect of why is presented in the 1947 talk. I’ll mention some other aspects:
a) Within all snobbishness is the feeling that things and people are not good enough for us. But in having this feeling, we come to have also a deep, miserable sense of emptiness and dullness. The reason is, the one way to feel there are fullness, meaning, non-loneliness in our lives is to feel we’re related to what’s not ourselves. So the more of reality we scornfully reject, the more of a desolating void we feel.
b) Few people would say that a baby, just arrived, came to the world in order to turn up her nose at her fellow humans. No: we were born to see value in things and people. Therefore, in going after contempt for them, we dislike, even loathe, ourselves—because we’re being untrue to the purpose of our lives.
Every snob is depressed. He or she may hide it, cover it over, act chipper, but to be a snob is to feel often miserable, to have stretches of dejection and a pervasive sense of hollowness. It is also true that:
c) In all depression there is a snobbishness. A depressed person is unconsciously determined that the world is not good enough to please him. “Those flowers, which people make such a fuss about—they don’t do a thing for me! Music—big deal; it can’t make me feel better. Books?—hah, they can’t hold my interest. I don’t care about colors (except to dislike them), sounds (except to be bothered by them), people (except to despise them).”
Snobbishness & Economics
What is the relation of our subject to that matter affecting America so much—the economy? We know that there has been economic snobbishness: people with money have looked down on those who don’t have it. Yet there’s a relation that’s even more fundamental: snobbishness is the very basis of profit economics. Something that would be clear to everyone, were it not for snobbishness, is in this sentence by Eli Siegel, from an essay published in the Modern Quarterly in 1923, when he was twenty: “Now if nobody made the land, it is evident, to a really normal human, that everybody living has a right to own it and should own it.” To feel some few people should own much more of the earth’s wealth than others is sheer snobbishness.
To see other human beings in terms of how much labor you can get out of them while paying them as little as possible, how much profit you wring from them, is central to the profit motive. It’s seeing people as existing to aggrandize you; and that is snobbishness. With snobbishness, too, is the terrible fact of poverty. I remember Mr. Siegel saying in the 1970s that contempt is the only reason poverty is permitted to exist: people like feeling others are inferior.
The present tumult about healthcare involves our subject deeply. Various politicians and radio personalities have ferociously appealed to people’s snobbishness, cloaking it as something more noble-looking. In TRO 1754 I said of healthcare reform (and this is not about any particular legislation):
There is a fierce desire to make any attempt at justice to everyone look evil. One won’t come out and say, even to oneself, “I don’t like people being made more equal in terms of healthcare. I have to feel some people are inferior to me. I may have trouble paying for healthcare myself—but others should have more trouble.” Instead, [one says] with pious indignation, “I don’t want a government death panel deciding if grandma should live!!” Contempt often covers itself with a lie like that and disguises itself as moral outrage.
Some particular questions concerning economics and snobbishness are these: Would you, Mr. X, who own an expensive car, like it if everyone had as good a car as you do? Would you, Ms. Y, like it if everyone had as stunningly decorated an apartment as you have? Would you like it if all women walked down the street with elegant handbags? A person should have nice things, lovely things, even dazzling things. But so often a person wants to own something fine not just because it’s good in itself, but because many other people can’t have it—and therefore we show we’re superior.
It’s clear that today profit economics isn’t working so well. Eli Siegel gave the reason in the 1970s. And I have written much on the subject in recent years. For this occasion, we can say that economics based on snobbishness isn’t working well because snobbishness is an untrue basis for an economy as it’s an untrue basis for a life.
At the end of the 1947 lecture, Mr. Siegel speaks about the real opponent to snobbishness. It’s a beautiful fact that this opponent is not some dull, dutiful self-effacement. The opponent is the most truly thrilling, glamorous thing in the world: it is to be like art, in keeping with this principle—“All beauty is a making one of opposites, and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.”