One of the centerpiece speeches of Diderot’s masterpiece Rameau’s Nephew, from the tragic, pathetic, hilarious, vexing, vexed nephew, who presents a brilliant facade at social occasions in order to be the perfect social parasite:
For my part, I find in writers a digest of everything one ought to do, and everything one ought not to say. Thus, when I read L’Avare, I tell myself: be miserly, if you wish, but take care not to talk like the miser. When I read Tartuffe, I tell myself: be a hypocrite, if you wish, but don’t talk like a hypocrite. Keep those vices which serve you well, but beware of the tone and the air that go with them, and would make you appear ridiculous. To be sure of avoiding that tone and air, one must know what they are; now, those authors have portrayed them superbly.
I am myself, and that is what I shall remain; but I behave and talk in a socially acceptable manner. I’m not one of those men who despise the moralists. One can profit greatly from them, particularly from those who depict morals in action. Vice itself is only intermittently shocking. The appearance of vice is shocking at all times.
Perhaps it would be better to be an arrogant fellow than to look like one; the man with the arrogant character offends only from time to time; the man with the arrogant face offends all the time.
And by the way, you shouldn’t suppose that I’m the only reader of this kind. The sole merit I claim here is having accomplished systematically, through clear thinking and rational, accurate observation, what the majority of others do by instinct. That’s why their reading doesn’t make them better than me, but instead, they go on being ridiculous, whereas I am so only when I mean to be, and then I leave them far behind me; for the same art that shows me how to avoid ridicule in certain situations, shows me also, in other situations, how to achieve it at a superior level.
Then I bring to mind everything others have said, everything I’ve read, and I add everything of my own invention, which in this domain is surprisingly abundant.