Socrates, Aristotle, Galen, were men full of ostentation: certainly, vainglory helpeth to perpetuate a mans memory; and virtue was never so beholden to human nature, as it received its due at the second hand. Neither had the fame of Cicero, Seneca, Plinius Secundus, borne her age so well if it had not been joined with some vanity in themselves; like unto varnish, that makes ceilings not only shine, but last . Glorious men are the scorn of wise men, the admiration of fools, the idols of parasites, and the slaves of their own vaunts.
In a small degree, and conversant in little things, vanity is of little moment. When full-grown, it is the worst of vices, and the occasional mimic of them all. It makes the whole man false. It leaves nothing sincere or trustworthy about him. His best qualities are poisoned and perverted by it, and operate exactly as the worst. When your lords had many writers as immoral as the object of their statue (such as Voltaire and others), they chose Rousseau, because in him that peculiar vice which they wished to erect into ruling virtue was by far the most conspicuous.
Edmund Burke: Letter to a Member of the National Assembly, 1791.
He has not observed on the nature of vanity who does not know that it is omnivorous,that it has no choice in its food,that it is fond to talk even of its own faults and vices, as what will excite surprise and draw attention, and what will pass at worst for openness and candour.
How much I regret to see so generally abandoned to the weeds of vanity that fertile and vigorous space of life in which might be planted the oaks and fruit-trees of enlightened principle and virtuous habit, which growing up, would yield to old age an enjoyment, a glory, and a shade!
In the pursuit of wealth men are led by an attention to their own interest to promote the welfare of each other; their advantages are reciprocal; the benefits which each is anxious to acquire for himself he reaps in the greatest abundance from the union and conjunction of society. The pursuits of vanity are quite contrary. The portion of time and attention mankind are willing to spare from their avocations and pleasures to devote to the admiration of each other is so small that every successful adventurer is felt to have impaired the common stock. The success of one is the disappointment of multitudes. For though there he many rich, many virtuous, many wise men, fame must necessarily be the portion of but few. Hence every vain man in whom is the ruling passion, regarding his rival as his enemy, is strongly tempted to rejoice in his miscarriage, and repine at his success.
The greatest human virtue bears no proportion to human vanity. We always think ourselves better than we are, and are generally desirous that others should think us still better than we think ourselves. To praise us for actions or dispositions which deserve praise is not to confer a benefit, but to pay a tribute. We have always pretensions to fame which, in our own hearts, we know to be disputable, and which we are desirous to strengthen by a new suffrage; we have always hopes which we suspect to be fallacious, and of which we eagerly snatch at every confirmation.
When you are disposed to be vain of your mental acquirements, look up to those who are more accomplished than yourself, that you may be fired with emulation; but when you feel dissatisfied with your circumstances, look down on those beneath you, that you may learn contentment.
There is no passion so universal, however diversified or disguised under different forms and appearances, as the vanity of being known to the rest of mankind, and communicating a mans parts, virtues, or qualifications, to the world: this is so strong upon men of great genius that they have a restless fondness for satisfying the world in the mistakes they might possibly be under with relation even to their physiognomy.
To be vain is rather a mark of humility than pride. Vain men delight in telling what honours have been done them, what great company they have kept, and the like; by which they plainly confess that these honours were more than their due, and such as their friends would not believe if they had not been told: whereas a man truly proud thinks the honours below his merit, and scorns to boast.