Few contrasts in character traits are as sharp as the difference between petty pride and true usefulness. The former elevates vanity as a virtue, while the latter represents the practical skills required for life’s unending challenges.
When we employ our usefulness or our utility, we seek to be the architects of our own fates, however crudely-fashioned that power may be. Even if the higher power of Fortune has the ultimate say in things, we still can make something of our utility. As Shakespeare says,
[L]et us know
Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.
We should acknowledge that our actions—our useful actions—may serve us well when our plans begin to falter, even though some higher power “shapes our ends/Rough-hew them how we will.”
There is an anecdote found in the writing of the Roman writer Aelian that has some bearing on this. Aelian (Varia Historia VII.20) says that there was once a man from the Greek island of Chios who arrived in Sparta. This was a vain, elderly man, someone who was plainly “ashamed of his age,” as Aelian puts it. He had naturally white hair; but as this reminded him of his seniority, he chose to dye it. The old man then began to circulate among the Spartans, explaining that he had come there to pursue some business. Eventually he was even able to secure an audience with the Spartan king, Archidamus. The king heard him; and, after listening to the old man and scrutinizing him carefully, he said:
How could this man have anything sensible to say when he carries around falsehood not only in his soul, but also on his head?
The king then “rejected the proposals [of the man from Chios] with a denunciation of the Chiot’s character based on his appearance.” The king was able to perceive that the old man valued his petty pride over his utility. Some may say that the king was unfair to the man for judging him by this one seemingly small detail. But I do not think King Archidamus was being unfair. He quite sensibly made use of the information available to him, and used his knowledge of human character to form reasonable conclusions. A great deal may be learned from observation of one’s personal appearance, and not all of it may be flattering. The same mentality is displayed by the type of person who would erect a gravestone for a pet, a type described by Theophrastus in his Characters (XXII.9). Vanity and petty pride triumph over all:
He is apt, also, to buy a little ladder for his domestic jackdaw, and to make a little brass shield, wherewith the jackdaw shall hop upon the ladder. Or if his little Melitean dog has died, he will put up a little memorial slab, with the inscription, “A Scion Of Melita.”
Aelian notes that truly great men are not afraid to set aside their vanity when the greater good demands it:
Caesar was not too proud to attend the school of [the philosopher] Aristo, and Pompey that of Cratippus. Their great power did not cause them to despise men capable of conferring the greatest benefits on them. Instead, despite their standing, they came with a request. Their wish evidently was not to govern, but to govern well. [Var. Hist. VII.21; Trans. by N.G. Wilson]
Compare the ethic of petty pride to that of usefulness. In the Odyssey (XXIV.226-227), Laertes is found by his son doing some useful work in his garden, even though he was very old:
But he found his father alone in the well-ordered vineyard, digging about a plant; and he was clothed in a foul tunic, patched and wretched, and about his shins he had bound stitched greaves of ox-hide to guard against scratches, and he wore gloves upon his hands because of the thorns, and on his head a goatskin cap. [Trans. by R.C. Jebb]
And while we are on the subject of the Odyssey, we should be reminded that Odysseus was the most practical and utilitarian kind of man. He himself tells us, without a shred of shame:
By the favor of Hermes, the messenger, who lends grace and glory to all men’s work, in the business of serving no man beside can vie with me, in piling well a fire, in splitting dry wood, in carving and roasting meat, and in pouring wine—in all things in which meaner men serve the noble. [Odyssey XV.321-322]
“No man is better than I when it comes to useful service”: this in fact is what Odysseus is telling us, and he certainly meant it. I doubt Odysseus would have been the type to dye his hair, unless, of course, he was intending to pull off some ruse or trick. In the Iliad (IX.206-220), even Achilles felt obliged to perform some useful work: he carved the meat himself at a dinner held for some associates. In all things, and at all times, we should seek to cultivate usefulness and utility, and banish all forms of petty pride and vanity, that do nothing but weaken our better traits. These things weaken us because they distract from what is important, and cause us to fixate on addictive self-gratification; and nothing good can ever come from this.
Now of course this is easier said than done. Nearly everything in our society is designed to encourage vanity and pride, and diminish our usefulness. So it takes a tremendous effort to avoid these corrosive enticements. And just as there are often stern measures a good commander must take with his men in times of danger, so there are times when we, the commanders of our souls, must take stern measures to suppress our own petty pride, to prevent it from endangering our moral constitutions.
In this connection I like very much an anecdote about the Greek commander Clearchus, which is found in Polyaenus’s Stratagems (II.10). The historian says that Clearchus was once in Thrace, and his army was being groundlessly troubled by the threat of night attack. His camp was constantly being thrown into confusion and apprehension. In order to reimpose peace and quietude among his men, Clearchus realized that he needed to take ruthless action. He issued the following orders. He said that if any disturbance or commotion should arise at night, no man should leave his tent; any man found outside of his tent at night, he said, could be treated as an enemy, and slain on sight. These orders immediately quelled the confusion and apprehension in Clearchus’s camp.
Read about the lives and exploits of some great generals of antiquity in the new translation of Lives of the Great Commanders: