Sorry for the delay in Sunday’s Good Book posts! A Song of Ice and Fire is at least partly to blame, but, now that I’m done with A Dance with Dragons, presumably that particular distraction won’t be a problem for–shall we guess–another eight years. I know this is technically going up Monday, but I was gone this weekend seeing my brother at the conclusion of his Shakespeare intensive and it seemed silly to hold the post for a week now that it’s written.
If you asked twenty good men to-day what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness. But if you asked almost any of the great Christians of old he would have replied, Love. You see what has happened? A negative term has been substituted for a positive, and this is of more than philological importance. The negative ideal of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of securing good things for others, but of going without them ourselves, as if our abstinence and not their happiness was the important point. I do not think this is the Christian virtue of Love. The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself
Given my previous Kantian sympathies, this criticism hit home. I still have a tendency to try to help other people in a selfish, unpleasant way. I might particularly relish a chance to do a good turn for someone who I know doesn’t like me because that way I get the chance to mortify my dislike while fulfilling my duty. Essentially, I end up reveling in their dislike or any other brokenness in the world as long as it gives me a chance to prove myself.
It’s almost an embodiment of the shallow critique of Kant: “In a Kantian framework, shouldn’t you wish to hate the Good, so that your fulfillment of your duty isn’t tainted by pleasure?”
Christians aren’t playing a zero-sum game; they deny themselves baser pleasures because they are pursuing higher ones (see this speech, h/t Eve). For an atheist like me, it’s different. I don’t believe myself eligible for any cosmic rebalancing where goodness and sacrifice is rewarded a hundredfold (and even if I did, I certainly disagree with some orderings in the Christian hierarchy of goods). But even in an unfair, God-free world, Lewis’s criticism of self-denial holds water.
Sacrifice should always be sacrifice for. And choosing to sacrifice means that we thought the price was worth it and have some reason to rejoice. Something is lost if we blur the lines between chosen sacrifice for some desired end and aimless self-denial or even happenstance misfortune. At best, we’re encouraging a kind of grim stoicism where one aims to sacrifice attachment to emotion/pain/etc and becomes unmoored from the physical and social world. At worst, we’re back to my bad Kantianism, where every human interaction is reduced to another pop quiz testing my ethics and will, a chance to score points.