Vanity is among the things which are perhaps hardest for a noble man to understand: he will be tempted even to deny its existence where another kind of man thinks he has grasped it with both hands. For him the problem is imagining to himself beings who seek to arouse a good opinion of themselves, an opinion of themselves which they do not have - and which, as a result, they also have not “earned” - people who, nonetheless, themselves later believe in this good opinion.
Half of this seems to the noble man so tasteless and disrespectful of oneself and the other half so unreasonably Baroque, that he would be happy to understand vanity as an exception and has doubts about it in most cases when people talk of it. For example, he’ll say: “I can make a mistake about my own value and yet still demand that my value, precisely as I determine it, is recognized by others - but that is not vanity (but arrogance or, in the more frequent cases, something called “humility” and “modesty”). Or again, “For many reasons I can take pleasure in the good opinion of others, perhaps because I honour and love them and enjoy all of their pleasures, perhaps also because their good opinion underscores and strengthens the faith I have in my own good opinion of myself, perhaps because the good opinion of others, even in cases where I do not share it, is still useful to me or promises to be useful - but all that is not vanity.” The noble man must first compel himself, particularly with the help of history, to see that since time immemorial, in all the levels of people dependent in some way or other, the common man was only what people thought of him: - not being at all accustomed to set values himself, he measured himself by no value other than by how his masters assessed him (that is the essential right of masters, to create values).
We should understand that, as the consequence of an immense atavism, the common man even today still always waits first for an opinion about himself and then instinctively submits himself to it: however, that is by no means merely a “good” opinion, but also a bad and unreasonable one (think, for example, of the greatest part of the self-assessment and self-devaluing which devout women absorb from their father confessors and the devout Christian in general absorbs from his church). Now, in accordance with the slow arrival of the democratic order of things (and its cause, the blood mixing between masters and slaves), the originally noble and rare impulse to ascribe to oneself a value on one’s own and “to think well” of oneself will really become more and more encouraged and widespread. But in every moment it has working against it an older, more extensive, and more deeply incorporated tendency - and where the phenomenon of “vanity” is concerned, this older tendency will become master over the more recent one.
The vain man takes pleasure in every good opinion which he hears about himself (quite apart from all considerations of its utility and equally apart from its truth or falsity), just as he suffers from every bad opinion. For he submits to both; he feels himself subjected to them on the basis of that oldest of instincts for submission which breaks out in him. It is “the slave” in the blood of the vain man, a trace of the slave’s roguishness - and how much of the “slave” still remains nowadays in woman, for example! - that tries to tempt him into good opinions of himself; in the same way it’s the slave who later prostrates himself immediately in front of these opinions, as if he had not summoned them up. - To state the matter once again: vanity is an atavism.
Nietzsche’s aphorism serves as an invitation to introspection. It prompts us to reflect on our own intellectual pursuits, questioning the motivations that drive our thirst for knowledge. Do we seek truth for its own sake, or is it merely a tool to bolster our egoic narratives? Nietzsche’s challenge is to strip away the layers of vanity, laying bare the raw and unfiltered pursuit of truth. In doing so, we embark on a journey beyond vanity, towards a richer, more profound understanding of the world and our place within it.