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Sundry Reflections on Narcissism within Western Civilization
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2015-04-17 07:02:29
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“The noble soul has reverence for itself”

The classic version of the myth of Narcissus is by Ovid as found in book 3 of his Metamorphoses (8 AD), and it is basically the story of Narcissus and Echo. It goes like this: one day Narcissus was walking in the woods when Echo a mountain nymph, saw him, fell deeply in love, and followed him. Narcissus sensed he was being followed and shouted "Who's there?" Echo repeated "Who's there?" She eventually revealed her identity and attempted to embrace him. He stepped away and told her to leave him alone. She was heartbroken and spent the rest of her life in lonely glens until nothing but an echo sound remained of her. Nemesis, the goddess of revenge, learned of this story and decided to punish Narcissus. She lured him to a pool where he saw his own reflection. He didn't realize it was only an image and fell in love with it. He eventually realized that his love could not be addressed and committed suicide.

This myth is utilized by Nietzsche in his idea of the ubermensch, (the Superman or the Above Man) or the notion that a wholly new breed of humanity will emerge in the future which will be far superior to the old joyless Judeo-Christian ethic. For this to happen certain superior individuals have to emerge, a new strain of humanity, or an evolutionary mutation of sort who will step out of the conventional mass of hoi polloi, indifferent to the petty moral codes governing lesser mortals.

And so we come to modern narcissism which far from being the realm of superior heroes beyond good and evil seems to be the monopoly of mediocrities. We in the West have become a nation of narcissists preoccupied with our own needs, shopaholics and producing and consuming machines in love with our selves, indifferent to the plight of others. What is observable today is rudeness, crudeness, flakiness, bullying tactics, philistinism, possessed by an “elite”, which in turn tries to pander to the mass of mediocrities who choose them as their leaders in as much as they reflect their own values. One begins to suspect that those so called “leaders” far from exhibiting a better example of ethical behavior, are hiding an inferiority complex.

Surely this is not what Nietzsche was advocating! Rather, Nietzsche may have been thinking of the famous statement of Alexander the Great, the student of Aristotle, who famously said that “I would forfeit my entire empire to be Aristotle for a day.” Now, that comment is truly the mark of a superior man. That kind of man has reverence for his/her own self. The question then arises: is reverence for one’s self of which Nietzsche speaks equivalent to narcissism? Is adulation for one’s self the same as obsession with one’s own genius, great destiny,justifying any means available, wholly unconcerned for the welfare of one’s neighbor? Indeed, Nietzsche has at times been accused of those less than heroic personal traits.

The essence of the issue is this: What is true greatness? Is the self-indulgence of the average mundane individual just as narcissistic as that of the tyrant with great goals in mind? What about “self-respect” which seems to be what is needed to act rightly. Is reverence for one’s self equivalent to arrogance and narcissism? Is the Christian concept of “humility” equivalent to mediocrity as Nietzsche certainly believed. Or is it rather the realization that we are fallen, (Augustine’s concept of original sin), that we are not infallible, that we do not have the right as creatures to decide for ourselves what is “good” and what is “evil”; and that we must submit ourselves to external transcendent standards? If I write an essay I cannot decide for myself which rules of grammar and syntax I will use. I must submit to those rules or I will produce no superior essay and no superior idea.

To even begin to answer such problematic questions we need to further explore the theme of Narcissism by examining another famous author who utilized the myth of Narcissus vis a vis the Nietzschean idea of the Superman: I refer to Dostoevsky and his novel Crime and Punishment. George Bernard Shaw also dealt with the same theme in his Man and Superman. Also notable is Camus’ profile of de Sade in The Rebel, but we shall leave those aside for the moment to focus on Dostoyevsky’s novel.


Not unlike Nietzsche, in Dostoyevsky’ story the student Raskolnikov is arrogant, introverted and lonely. He spends hours shut up in his miserable garret rejecting any signs of friendship from others. He is always gazing on his beauty and superior intelligence. Ultimately he decides to murder the old pawnbroker in order to take her wealth and do untold good with it for the rest of his life. The end justifies the means as is the case, in his own mind, with all great men of destiny who are above the law and beyond good and evil, right and wrong. He is one of the elite supermen in love with themselves who begin acting non-conventionally and quite often go insane. Another crucial question arises here: was Dostoevsky uttering a prophecy with this novel? Was he announcing what our civilization would become in the 20th century? A civilization dedicated to utilitarian selfish reasons, ready to sacrifice others on the altar of self-promotion and parading under revolutionary banners which proclaim a brave new world? A civilization gone mad?


In this novel Dostoevsky presents us with the superman as above the law as a superior human. Paradoxically, as Aristotle had already pointed out, being above the law, may well mean that one is less, not more than a human being, or a beast, or it may means that one is a god. The only solution to this sort of invincible meglomania is sacrificial love but alas, that is the one thing the narcissist cannot understand and of which he seems incapable. Nietzsche in fact despised the Christian virtues of humility, service and self sacrifice as weakness. What he utterly failed to understand is that the true exercise of these virtues requires superhuman strength.

What Dostoevsky teaches us in his Crime and Punishment, however, is that the true superman is the humble and penitent man.  Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov is the character who manages to come down from his high pedestal and conquer his narcissism. In the final pages of Crime and Punishment the cowardly student parading as a superman rises to greatness. Sitting on the riverbank while serving his prison sentence his heart finally opens, and for the first time he turns away from love of self to the love of Sonia—the simple prostitute who has supported him in his terrible trial. In that simple humanity and humility devoid of vainglory Raskolnikov recovers his humanity. There may be a lesson there for the whole of Western Civilization in love with its false gods of economic prosperity and technological prowess, narcissistically in love with itself and on the bring of madness as expressed by the acronym MAD (mutual assured destruction).

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Nikos Laios2015-04-17 23:52:12
A very evocative yet poignant reflection on our human condition,and a beautiful usage of the timelessness and power of the psychological archetypes of Ancient Greek myths.Ancient myths have much to teach us I think;they are our ancestors' self-reflections into the human condition,and the same question they asked then,we ask now and to which we ignore at our peril.What separates us from them besides the span of Millenia?...ego I fear. ....thank you for a beautiful reflection...

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