Joan Didion, "On Self-Respect"

I want self-respect to claim its rightful place as an eminently useful concept.

Joan Didion, "On Self-Respect"

We real cool. We   
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We   
Thin gin. We 

Jazz June. We   
Die soon.

-- Gwendolyn Brooks, "We Real Cool"

It's like being lectured. I just say the words "self-respect" and I can hear it. "Why are you like this? Do you have any respect for others? For yourself?" Immediately, there's the brightness of empty school hallways and the wood paneling of courtrooms. "Self-respect" conjures a specter that is a mother, preacher, and judge all at once.

I want self-respect to claim its rightful place as an eminently useful concept. It is more than that, of course. You could say my work on Xenophon and Plato is about embracing the self-knowledge which leads to self-respect. It turns out that this very practical thing–I mean, without self-respect, how do you show young people the way forward?–is wrapped up in theoretical minutiae you ignore at your peril. You've got to be able to address the various frameworks you've approached life with and understand the matrix of your choices. People really don't want to do this. They want red pills and blue pills and who they were at 12 years old to be correct about everything. The notion that doing the right thing, such as paying it forward, can have limits is anathema to them.

Our guide will be Joan Didion's essay "On Self Respect." Maria Popova's The Marginalian introduced me to some key quotes from it, but the whole essay is worth chewing on. Didion begins by recounting the slightest of slights, i.e. not being invited to join Phi Beta Kappa. This brings her to an issue closely related to self-respect: self-delusion. What made her think "that lights would always turn green [for her]?" Why did she have a "pleasant certainty" that "passive virtues" which won "approval as a child" would not only get her "Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honor, and the love of a good man?"

It's easy to scoff at this and not realize how much we expect from society simply because we are who we are. We don't investigate our expectations and we certainly don't let that investigation, if it must happen, slide into a larger discussion of whether we even want what we strive for. Hence, one of Didion's most biting remarks: "self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others — who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation, which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something people with courage can do without."

If Didion is correct, we lack self-respect every time we take our expectations for granted. Passively, the approval of others conditions everything we do. There are good reasons to push back against this picture. Many of us develop respect for ourselves by seeing what others approve of, what constitutes a serious reputation, and building from there. We develop independence by doing a little bit of imitation. Is that so wrong? As of now, this world is filled with bigots of every stripe who consider themselves free-thinkers. These bigots completely lack self-respect, but they do believe they are pushing back against the power of the majority.

I believe it worth considering that for the most moral among us, self-respect involves a sharp rejection of the approval of others, especially those who only see mirrors everywhere. However, I don't know that true courage completely rejects reputation. Some of the most cowardly people I know, those who hurt others because of an addiction to panic, are perfectly comfortable having a horrible reputation. They strive for excuses.


Didion's essay proves a philosophical masterclass. In Brooks' "We Real Cool," are the "real cool" who leave school exemplars of self-respect? Self-knowledge is not the same as knowledge; carpe diem is a perfectly acceptable response to a number of tough situations. Along these lines, Didion refuses to equate self-respect with moral behavior. Her defense of "the careless, incurably dishonest Jordan Baker... [from] The Great Gatsby" has probably raised more than a few eyebrows. The heart of that defense:

...people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named corespondent.

I think most of us will say that self-respect can lead to deviation from moral norms, but it does so for the sake of a greater good. Or a kind of personal authenticity others find admirable. See, for example, the existentialist notion that ethics is what you are willing to be responsible for. In contrast, Didion is willing to say someone can be purely, destructively selfish as long as they show no regard for hurt or shame. I myself don't believe this is self-respect, but I appreciate how far Didion pushes the question. If self-respect is to be considered its own individual entity, apart from all other considerations, can it stand apart from our conventional notions of good and evil?

Her questioning runs up against two fruitful contradictions. First, as you'll note above, she says that those "with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes." This does not have to mean that an adulterer who never says they're sorry has self-respect. We usually understand it to mean that people who are worthy of respect can own up to the harms they've done and make reparation. We use it to understand how people who committed grave wrongs can become moral exemplars. Second, later in the essay she claims that those like her grandparents had character, which shaped their self-respect. She claims character is "toughness, a kind of moral nerve." But this is an attempt to divorce character from conventional morality, and I don't know the two can be so cleanly separated. Her examples of character are wildly imperial: she speaks of Britons doing their duty in holding Khartoum and Americans settling in the heart of Native land. Gabrielle Bellot in LitHub has remarked on how startling it is that she uses "brown people as a metaphor for violence." Character, in Didion's rendering, serves as a defense of the exclusionary, power-seeking tendencies of conventional morality.


Didion wavers between grounding self-respect either through "deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before" or its power "to give us back to ourselves." I emphasize a sharp distinction between the values of the past and ourselves in the present for more than rhetorical purposes. My life has been very different from Joan Didion's. Academic distinction, for me, was a matter of survival. I had to know that I was worth more than some who were close to me asserted. I can't imagine defending adultery because to have an opportunity for a relationship is rare enough. And, for some strange reason, I don't really endorse thoughtless systems of morality or the sacrifices for the sake of empire they entertain. I need self-respect to make it in this world. Didion's more existential formulation, where self-respect fights against an "alienation from self," is the only game in town. Didion: "To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect."

The outstanding question is how to reconcile the legacy we have been given with who we are becoming. Some want to say that is simply a matter of acknowledging an inheritance, with parts we can take or leave, or parts we can romanticize and trust too much. I believe we need to think hard about "acknowledgement." What does it mean to truly acknowledge another person? It can't be as simple as a "thank you" if they've given up portions of their lives for us. But it can't just ignore the pain and trauma that is all too often thrown at us, as if our job is to remake the past. Self-respect, from this angle, is a starting point to which we must return. It is the denial the self can be erased. It is remarkable that those who left school to Sing sin, Thin gin, and Jazz June have more than an echo in their memory.


Didion, Joan. "On Self Respect." Vogue, August 1, 1961.