In Saul Bellow’s Ravelstein, the title character is an American academic, fond of Paris, and prone to using French expressions. In one scene, he dismissively mentions some neighbours as self-satisfied bores, full of amour propre. Ravelstein was founded on Bellow’s friend Allan Bloom. Bloom after having studied and taught in Paris, was a life-long francophile. Amour propre was an idiomatic expression in Western Europe when Bloom taught in Paris. The English term would probably be snob, although dictionaries translate and define amour propre as conceit or excessive pride.
Bloom was a student and teacher of the works of Rousseau. Bloom favoured the cautious liberalism of Montesquieu over the Romantic liberalism of Rousseau, but he admired Rousseau’s passion. Rousseau understood, as Bellow has put it in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, that
The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.”
Rousseau’s description of amour propre, in his Discourse on Inequality, and his novels, accounts for amour propre as a sense of identity caused by socialization. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Rousseau says:
Amour de soi is a natural form of self-love in that it does not depend on others. Rousseau claims that by our nature, each of us has this natural feeling of love toward ourselves. By contrast, amour-propre is an unnatural self-love and is a negative product of the socialization process. Unlike amour de soi, amour-propre is a love of self that depends on comparing oneself with others. Essentially it consists in someone basing his or her self-worth on a perceived superiority to another. It breeds contempt, hostility, and frivolous competition. In fact, it is precisely these negative consequences that are under attack in the Discourse on the Sciences and Arts.
Rousseau’s philosophy of education, therefore, is not geared simply at particular techniques that best ensure that the pupil will absorb information and concepts. It is better understood as a way of ensuring that the pupil’s character be developed in such a way as to have a healthy sense of self-worth and morality. This will allow the pupil to be virtuous even in the unnatural and imperfect society in which he lives. The character of Emile begins learning important moral lessons from his infancy, thorough childhood, and into early adulthood.
Rousseau was developing and promoting his ideas about the innate dignity and equality of individuals. His argument was political – partly philosophical, and partly psychological. He was challenging the power of the European aristocracy and the religious hierarchy by challenging their claim to be worthy of exercising power by virtue of their innate superiority to the rest of society. The story of the Emperor’s New Clothes is the perfect parable of aristocratic amour propre. His terminology was extended as a criticism of the bourgeoisie as the power of the bourgeoisie rose. Bourgeois amour propre is pretentious. From the perspective of the old aristocracy, the bourgeois claimed equality of culture and status. From the perspective of the working class and the poor, the bourgeois claimed superiority and privilege.
Rousseau’s ideas haven’t worked out. He seems to have envisaged a society in which everyone respected the natural dignity of everyone else. We have, instead, a society in which everyone asserts the superiority of his own authentic ideas, tastes and desires. His ideas about human nature are, of course, flawed.
We have – and we need to have – a basic degree of confidence about what is supposed to happen as we encounter things and people. Our confidence is based on an instinctive belief our perceptions about space, movement, light, dark, heat and cold – and human action. There is a constant and nearly instinctive weighing of what we might expect from the people we see – is this person going to walk into us, ask for money, or suddenly attack? We move about as if we have things to do. We ignore most of the people we encounter. We see them, we don’t walk into them, but we don’t engage unless we want or need something. We expect to be seen and we expect people to see us and give us space. We have the same sense of entitlement in social and economic relationships.
We make an instinctive evaluation of another person’s visible attributes. It is important, for a social animal, to recognize the strength and status of another individual, to avoid harm and to find rewards. We react to the way the person projects comfort, security, confidence, status, and power through culturally conditioned signals – posture, grooming, clothing, fashion.
Our evaluations are rather selfish however. They depend on what the person wants from us, and whether the person pays attention to us and treats us with what we refer to as respect. If we like the person, we accept or tolerate their attitude. If we don’t like the person or the situation, we condemn the attitude and the person. People instinctively resent people who act as if they have status and power, or are perceived to be indifferent, unkind or disrespectful or arrogant.
We refer to people who encroach on our sense of worth as conceited, arrogant, pretentious, snobs, oblivious, posers — the list goes on. Describing someone in those terms implies that the person’s projected confidence is excessive and their sense of entitlement is unearned. It relates to everyone’s sense of comfort and confidence in dealing with other people – our comfort in taking the initiative, our discomfort in dealing with people we encounter. Our instinctive emotional assessments are combined with some degree of fabrication as we become conscious of our reaction and come up with a story about what that person has done to deserve our disgust, fear, anger, admiration or desire.