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What social psychologists call “the principle of superficiality versus depth” has pervaded Western culture since at least the time of Plato.




  • Now those who take a superficial and unreflecting view of things observe the outward appearance of anything they meet, e.g. of a man, and then trouble themselves no more about him. The view they have taken of the bulk of his body is enough to make them think that they know all about him. But the penetrating and scientific mind will not trust to the eyes alone the task of taking the measure of reality; it will not stop at appearances, nor count that which is not seen among unrealities. It inquires into the qualities of the man's soul.
  • Everyone who flees from what is superficially good and follows what is reckoned hard and foolish finds happiness awaiting him. For Vice, veiling her actions in the beauties which properly belong to Virtue and are genuine, enslaves groveling people.
    • Justin Martyr, Second Apology, in Readings in World Christian History (2013), p. 42
  • Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: ... The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.
  • The vicious lover is the follower of earthly Love who desires the body rather than the soul; his heart is set on what is mutable and must therefore be inconstant. And as soon as the body he loves begins to pass the first flower of its beauty, he "spreads his wings and flies away," giving the lie to all his pretty speeches and dishonoring his vows, whereas the lover whose heart is touched by moral beauties is constant all his life, for he has become one with what will never fade.
    • Plato, Pausanius in Symposium, 183e, M. Joyce, trans, Collected Dialogues of Plato (1961), p. 537.
  • The learning of the gentleman enters through his ears, fastens to his heart, spreads through his four limbs, and manifests itself in his actions. ... The learning of the petty person enters through his ears and passes out his mouth. From mouth to ears is only four inches—how could it be enough to improve a whole body much larger than that?
    • Xun Zi, “An Exhortation to Learning,” E. Hutton, trans., Readings in Classical Chinese Philosophy (2001), p. 259.

Eighteenth century

  • It is certainly not a matter of indifference whether I learn something without effort or finally arrive at it myself through my system of thought. In the latter case everything has roots, in the former it is merely superficial.
  • It is certainly better not to have studied a subject at all than to have studied it superficially. For when the unaided healthy common sense seeks to form an opinion of something it does not go so far wrong as semi-erudition does.

Nineteenth century

  • Anna was not embarrassed now. She was perfectly composed and at ease. Dolly saw that she had now completely recovered from the impression her arrival had made on her, and had assumed that superficial, careless tone which, as it were, closed the door on that compartment in which her deeper feelings and ideas were kept.
    • Lev Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, C. Garnett, trans. (New York: 2003), Part 6, Chapter 19, p. 570.
  • Man … thinks continually without knowing it. The thinking that rises to consciousness is only the smallest part of this—the most superficial and worst part.

Twentieth century and beyond

  • My grandparents found reasons for the existence of their family and the fulfillment of their duties in serious writings, and they interpreted their special sufferings with respect to a great and ennobling past. … There was a respect for real learning, because it had a felt connection with their lives. … I do not believe that my generation, my cousins who have been educated in the American way, all of whom are M.D.s or Ph.D.s, have any comparable learning. When they talk about heaven and earth, the relations between men and women, parents and children, the human condition, I hear nothing but clichés, superficialities, the material of satire.
    • Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York: 1988), p. 60.
  • I was no longer superficial—I had stopped thinking.
    • Peter Handke, The Weight of the World, R. Manheim, trans. (New York: 1984), p. 5.
  • You are surprised that I should be unhappy when I can dance and am so sure of myself in the superficial things of life. And I, my friend, am surprised that you are so disillusioned with life when you are at home with the very things in it that are the deepest and most beautiful, spirit, art, and thought! That is why we were drawn to one another.
    • Herman Hesse, Hermine in Steppenwolf, B. Creighton, trans., (New York: 1990), pp. 125-126.
  • The superficiality of the American is the result of his hustling. It needs leisure to think things out; it needs leisure to mature. People in a hurry cannot think, cannot grow, nor can they decay. They are preserved in a state of perpetual puerility.
    • Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind (New York: 1954), #172.
  • Among the superficial, if you are not one of them, one of them has to lead you by the hand.
  • Generally, we are more concerned with handling and using things than with knowing them in their true nature. Thus we usually grasp in haste the very first few signals conveyed to us by a perception. Then, through deeply ingrained habit, those signals evoke a standard response by way of judgements such as good-bad, pleasant-unpleasant, useful-harmful, right-wrong. ... A world perceived in this superficial way will consist of shapeless little lumps of experiences marked by a few subjectively selected signs or symbols. The symbols chosen are determined mainly by the individual’s self-interest; sometimes they are even misapplied. The shadow-like world that results includes not only the outer environment and other persons, but also a good part of one’s own bodily and mental processes. These, too, become subjected to the same superficial manner of conceptualization.
  • It is time to acknowledge that light-hearted superficiality has done us no good.
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