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One of my favourite moments in my favourite film comes halfway through The Third Man (1949) when Holly Martins, the writer of pulp westerns played by Joseph Cotten, finds himself facing an audience of central European intellectuals at a literary lecture that he has unwisely agreed to deliver.

This is war-ravaged Vienna just after 1945, when there is not much to eat and less to buy (except on the black market, awash with Harry Lime’s adulterated drugs) but the hunger for ideas is as strong as ever. He is introduced by Crabbin, Wilfrid Hyde-White’s bumbling cultural re-education officer, as a leading contemporary novelist “from the other side”. After a few rambling remarks, Martins attempts to answer questions from the floor. “Do you believe”, asks an especially intense woman, “in the stream of consciousness?” “Stream of what?” mutters Martins, who clearly has never heard of the modernist literary technique pioneered by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

As I have gone around Britain (at a fairly leisurely pace) giving talks about my recent book Horace and Me, I have secretly dreaded the “stream of consciousness” question. I thought it might come when I spoke at a classics festival in Cambridge, but it didn’t. The professors stayed away. A slightly awkward moment arrived at the Blenheim Palace Literary Festival when a very polite but obviously knowledgeable Italian asked me what Horace had meant by “ut pictura poesis” (the literal translation is “as is painting, so is poetry”) from the Ars Poetica.

The Ars Poetica happens to be one of the Horatian productions I know least about and I had to cobble together a rather vague answer, referring to the flowering of painting in early imperial Rome. What I felt at that moment has a name: impostor phenomenon, a psychological condition identified in 1978 by two researchers at Georgia State University, Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes. Their study focused on 150 high-achieving women who, nevertheless, believed they were not really intelligent and some day would be unmasked as frauds. One woman professor said: “I’m not good enough to be on the faculty here. Some mistake was made in the selection process.”

Clance and Imes believed the syndrome was far more common among women than men. Clance, while working as a lecturer and clinician at Oberlin College in Ohio, had noticed that “there was a consciousness about the second-class citizenship of women, even at Oberlin.” However, a 1985 survey of academics by the researchers Mary Topping and Ellen Kimmel found higher scores of “imposterism” among male lecturers.

Male actors are certainly not immune from it, including those of exceptional talent. For example, Sir Anthony Hopkins, a genius of an actor, revealed that playing Alfred Hitchcock in the eponymous 2012 film had made him feel “so paranoid about the movie [that] after it was finished I thought, ‘Oh, I’d better go live in the Antarctic.’”

The impostor phenomenon is not confined to actors and academics. The art historian Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), who became director of the National Gallery in London aged 30, believed he was a fraud and should never have been appointed. He went on to become one of the most brilliant and influential directors in the gallery’s history. More recently, the Swiss tennis player Stanislas Wawrinka, who surprised everybody by winning the 2014 Australian Open, admitted that he had never expected to win a grand slam tournament; he simply did not think he was good enough to beat the top players. So ingrained was this belief that Wawrinka had a quotation from Samuel Beckett’s novella Worstward Ho (1983) tattooed on his arm: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Arguments rage about the causes of impostor phenomenon – are they psychological (overprotective, controlling parents), social (particular expectations about gender roles), or, most likely, both?

Some have questioned whether the phenomenon is real at all, or whether it might be a presentational strategy designed to deflect criticism and envy. Since most people secretly have rather inflated opinions of their own abilities and talents, are people who suffer from impostor syndrome merely pretending to be impostors?

I can’t help thinking it goes even deeper. This may not be primarily a psychological or social phenomenon but an ontological one. That was the view of the great philosopher Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) in his astonishing essay “On Some Verses of Virgil”. Picturing the “absurd, witless, and giddy motions” of philosophers in the act of making love, he wrote that “the most contemplative and wisest of men, when I imagine him in that position, seems to me an impostor . . . here are the peacock’s feet that humble his pride.”

We are fluctuating, changeable, weak beings who, nevertheless, sometimes achieve great things. But looking down at our feet, we can see they are made of clay.

harry.eyres@ft.com; @sloweyres

More columns at ft.com/eyres

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