Greedy Self-Denial

Greedy Self-Denial August 15, 2011


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.

A little while ago, Eve lent me a copy of C.S. Lewis’s The Weight of Glory, and I found the opening of the title essay very affecting.

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.



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  • Nice analysis, Leah.

  • Wonderful. Whenever I'm talking about silly atheists, you'd better know I'm not talking about you. Love is an end. Heaven may be the goal, but we will not get there by aiming there for our own sake. Remember the Act of Contrition, the most honest prayer I've ever heard aside from, say, Matthew 8:8 or Mark 9:24."O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee and I detest all my sins, because I fear the loss of Heaven and the pains of Hell, but most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love."I'd say the emphasis was mine, but that would be base pride. From the meter of the prayer we hear that the emphasis is not on fearing the loss of Heaven or the pains of Hell but on offending God.

  • Right on. I can actually large chunks of Lewis, which I suspect is because he's -British not American-Anglican not evangelical-Essentially an intellectual product of the 19th not 20th or 21st century-Enjoyed fun rather than hating itTo that end, I actually enjoy The Screwtape Letters, the Four Loves, Surprised by Joy and Narnia*.Lewis remains readable to me mostly because he contrasted himself so much with the essential joylessness of temperance-movement-tinged Christianity, which had much more power in America than Britain (yeah, convincing Brits to give up pub culture, there's a winnable battle proposition if ever I heard one . . .)Lewis was smart enough to notice the things in his own religion that were strictly bound by time and place and which would not last beyond the current age (i.e. temperance).Now there's a downside to Lewis to: His overwhelming focus on psychology. I.e. that tiny habits of mind are somehow cosmically important. He always defended this, saying that "action and thought are not as distinct as they're made out to be" but frankly he was just wrong. Yeah, the mind and the body go together, but there really *is* a pretty massive gap betweeen I Had an Evil Thought and I Did an Evil Deed. *Particularly in film. I consider the extant 3 Narnia films to be many orders of magnitude more watchable than the Lord of the Rings films. Maybe because the Narnia films feature COLOR whereas LotR borrows the downer-browner visual palette of umpteen-bazillion post-apocalyptic and 'dark fantasy' films in a relentless, aggravating push to be 'edgy'.** Plus, LotR has the grinding push to be An Epic, and frankly I am sequelled out right now. I like that the Narnia stories have the aerodynamic brevity to be self-contained: Lewis was willing to end stories when they should end, rather than try to spool them out so as to make more sequels or even just to cram in more mythos for his own enjoyment like Tolkien did. **Sorry Leah but Harry Potter is guilty of this too.

  • *I can actually large chunks of Lewis*Argh. Should've been a "tolerate" after the "actually" there.

  • Kogo, did you really not cry when Frodo responds to Sam's wondering about future tails with "Frodo wouldn't have gotten far without Sam" or when Sam carries Frodo? I always start bawling, and no Narnia movie ever did that for me.

  • All true, but thinking the sacrifice worthwhile and thus having reason to rejoice doesn't necessarily mean we are capable of actually rejoicing.For a morally perfect being doing something and rejoicing in it is the same thing. The problem is, I'm not a morally perfect being, I'm fallen.For example, there are some people I don't love or don't love enough. And even when I choose to start loving someone more it can take a long time to actually execute that desision. Love just isn't immediately affected by single acts of the will. That condition is sinful and I must work to overcome it. But I am not there yet. And, realistically speaking, I will not get there unless and until I get into Heaven. Some saints may have gotten that far even in this world, but at least the overwhelming majority of even good people doesn't.So sometimes it is my moral obligation to do something good for someone that I won't do because of my actual love. In that case I have to do it because of the love I should feel and hopefully eventually will feel and as a means of eventually feeling it. But at the moment I'm doing it, it feels like point-scoring. It would feel less so if I was actually rejoicing in the heavenly reward, but that, too, is something I can't always pull off.So in summary and even for Christians point-scoring will be a necessary evil unless and until we attain perfection.

  • Joe

    Leah I have to agree LoR's tops Narnia. The I thought the half human half horse people a little corny. LoR did the best job of portraying the true value of friendship. What really did it for me was when Fordo and Sam were rescued by the eagle. Truly a film of Epic proportions.

  • Joe

    KogoI have to agree with you also. While I enjoyed Harry Potter it was a little longish.

  • *Kogo, did you really not cry when Frodo responds to Sam's wondering about future tails with "Frodo wouldn't have gotten far without Sam" or when Sam carries Frodo? I always start bawling, and no Narnia movie ever did that for me.*Honestly, no. Mostly because that scene happens after SIX HOURS of film all told, and at that point I'm just too bruised from all the endlessly-up-the-ante-ing battle scenes and Henry V-ripoff "We Happy Few"-speecifying*.And yeah, you can criticize Walden Media's specific treatment of Narnia, but I stand by what I said were the strengths of the films/stories compared to LotR or HP:1.) A visual palette that consists of things other than grey, brown and black. 2.) Stories that *include* fantasy battles, but which are not absolutely dominated by hours and hours of them.3.) As I said, stories that are reasonably self-contained and have a traditional beginning, middle and end. I agree with Philip Pullman that the Narnia books are real stories, whereas LotR is more of a middle-school Dungeons and Dragons club** exercise in playing games with codes and maps and made-up languages and a huge, unnecessary history. Many people who say they're "into" Tolkien are actually more accurately into *Middle Earth*.4.) Again, I'm sick of sequellization. Yeah, Narnia is kind of a sequel-series, but way less so than LotR or HP or lots of others.*I am so very sick of That Scene that's now obligatory for every film that has a pre-modern battle in it where the hero rides back and forth in front of the troops shouting inspirational things. It's in Braveheart, it's in multiple times in LotR, it's in Pirates of the Caribbean, on and on . . .**And I say this as someone who PLAYS D&D;.

  • Brendan Kolb

    This is an interesting analysis. At some point in the future, could you review the book "Not the Religious Type: Confessions of a Turncoat Atheist" by Dave Schmelzer? I found it to be really interesting, and I would love to hear what a really thoughtful atheist has to say about it. Thanks!

  • A Lewis I have not read. Now I want to. Wonderful post.