If you follow the news, you’ve probably noticed that the term “narcissist” gets thrown around quite a lot.
Today, experts seem to think narcissists are everywhere. Anthony Wiener, for example, the New York politician with a history of sexting at inopportune times, is almost certainly a narcissist. Steve Jobs, as depicted in that recent Jobs biopic starring Ashton Kutcher, comes across as one, too. Heck, what better way to describe the entire Millennial Generation than a bunch of hard-line, self-absorbed narcissists who gaze transfixed at their own likenesses as reflected by the glow of their Facebook account?
Although the term narcissism first appeared just over a century ago, this conceited viewpoint of me and the word itself now appear so regularly that it’s hard to imagine society functioning without it.
“Your youthful beauty is not going to be there forever. However much you might want to look at it and hold it and contemplate it, it’s going to waste away.”
THIS RELATIVELY RECENT COINING was no doubt catapulted into the contemporary vernacular with the help of Sigmund Freud’s 1914 essay On Narcissism, in which he argued that self-love is a natural stage of an infant’s development intended to safeguard one’s survival. Freud thought this healthy process turned pathological only if and when a toddler was unable to outgrow it. While a certain amount of self-worth is required to cultivate a balanced individual, too much can be destructive.
In the following years, various psychoanalysts continued to tweak and tinker with the concept, at times comparing narcissism to “megalomania.” In his book The Conquest of Happiness, published in 1930, philosopher Bertrand Russell famously quipped that the “megalomaniac differs from the narcissist by the fact that he wishes to be powerful rather than charming, and seeks to be feared rather than loved. To this type belong many lunatics and most of the great men of history.”
Eventually, in 1980, narcissistic personality disorder found its way into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III. Experts introduced the malady to denote those with a pattern of high self-importance, coupled with a low level of empathy for others.
Now, in 2013, we have academics such as Dr. Thomas Plante stating that narcissists are so ubiquitous it’s perhaps “harder to spot a non-narcissist than a narcissist” since “non-narcissists seem to be more of the exception rather than the rule.”
With assessments like these and some of those mentioned above, however, comes great loss. What utility does the label still possess if it’s being stretched to cover such a wide range of American behavior? Are we even talking about ethics and pathology anymore, or just that some people abstain from putting their spare change in the tip box at Starbucks and sometimes enjoy contemplating what they’re going to wear to work tomorrow? If so, it appears the word “narcissism” has become as diluted as a pitcher of Kool-Aid comprised of one part sugar and 400 parts water.
WHAT DID THE PEOPLE of antiquity think? The Greek myth of Narcissus—from which the current buzzword springs—has been used to elucidate the deeper nature of life and living for a very long time, and if we’re still in the business of trying to better understand ourselves, perhaps a look into the past can help reveal something about our present.
Although the Roman poet Ovid’s first-century account of Narcissus, as found in Book 3 of his Metamorphoses, is arguably the most popular telling, other fragments and summaries also exist. As these things tend to go, there are a number of different versions told by different authors at different times to different audiences for different purposes. The core storyline, however, is that Narcissus, a beautiful young boy with a history of spurning the advances of both men and women alike, one day comes across his own reflection in a pool of water. He becomes completely enamored with his image, and, unable to pull his eyes away, lies on the water’s banks until death, ultimately turning into the flower that bears his name.
“What we’ve lost is the term’s connection with death,” said Peter Meineck, Classics professor at New York University. “Your youthful beauty is not going to be there forever. However much you might want to look at it and hold it and contemplate it, it’s going to waste away.”
As Meineck explained, Narcissus’ self-absorption led to paralysis and wasted potential. His great beauty, in a sense, was all for naught. Indeed, the Greek word narke, meaning “numbness” or “stupor,” is where we get the words narcotic and narcolepsy. All these things are related—they all connote what Meineck calls a kind of “living death.”
Meineck also noted that, in general, the Greeks were probably one of the first cultures in the world to begin embracing individuality—and this development would have most certainly shaped how people interpreted the myth.
“I think they were dealing with these issues that we might now call Western issues; they kind of invented them,” Meineck said. “You can actually see culture shifting from being a collective culture, the kind we might experience now in China, to being a culture of individuality. You constantly see, even in Greek tragedy, the stress between the individual and the collective, and how we’re going to deal with that.”
Viewing the myth of Narcissus as portrayed on Roman wall paintings, Micaela W. Janan, a professor of Classical Studies at Duke University, argued that the rich and powerful men who could afford to decorate their homes with such extravagant art would do so to remind themselves that not even they were invincible.
“Roman wall paintings seem to collect subjects in which vulnerability is rehearsed,” said Janan. “There are lots of scenes of rape, there are a fair number of scenes of dismemberment, and Narcissus is one of those instances in which, though he’s not specifically violently threatened, he is surprised and captured by desire that’s visually simulated.”
ACCORDING TO RECENT RESEARCH, those with higher incomes and social class also contain higher levels of both narcissism and entitlement. Maybe that’s not surprising—but it’d be interesting to know how they remind themselves of their vulnerability, if at all. Narcissus had youth, good looks, and much attention from many potential lovers, but it was his unholy yearning for his own divine beauty that eventually led to his downfall.
“I am not a clinical psychologist, but I can certainly see that the current idea of narcissism is a troubling and complex one,” Timothy Boyd, a professor of Classics from the University of Buffalo, wrote in an email. “To my mind, some of the figures in the news would appear to be, by their actions, more than simple narcissists because those actions go beyond what we expect from the very young. The worst grown-ups appear to extend this childish belief into the idea that (1) other people are no more than instruments of their all-important desires, and (2) these instruments, therefore, have no ultimate importance or reality of their own and can be abused endlessly (and disposed of—at least metaphorically—when no longer convenient).”
So, by using narcissism as a means of understanding the decisions of figures such as Lance Armstrong, are we letting him off easy? Is calling him “vain” going far enough in comprehending the impetus behind his years of lies and deceit? Perhaps when comparing Armstrong to Narcissus, it’s Narcissus who’s being defamed.
If us moderns are serious about tackling the apparent narcissism epidemic, why ignore centuries of wisdom built up by people who have come before us? Then again, maybe a narcissistic society would be expected to do exactly that.