Archives For Selfishness

Autobiographical Lies

March 10, 2015 — 12 Comments

cardsWatching the series House of Cards is not a “guilty pleasure.” It is often a painful exercise in examining just how corrupting, dehumanizing and (ultimately) damning political power can be. The depth of the viewers’ discomfort is a tribute to the perfectly pitched acting and writing.

It’s set in Washington D.C., and I am afraid it is more accurate portrait of that dark political environ than anyone but Mephistopheles could imagine.

Political corruption is not an American problem. It’s a human condition. Sadly, the perversions of power are replicated in capitals around the globe.

House of Cards examines the rise of a particularly evil pair, President Francis Underwood and his wife Claire.* They will stop at nothing—literally, nothing—to sate their shared hunger for power.

President Underwood is so self-consumed that few viewers will identify with his dead soul. On the other hand, he is in many ways an attractive, witty and “charismatic” man. This, of course, is the whitewash over the sepulcher that has allowed his rise to the heights of human dominance.

Despite his moral decay, there are elements of his behavior with which many can relate. I am not referring to his devotion to his wife, which appears noble but is actually a twisted symbiosis.

One way we see how a human being with the potential for true greatness has fallen to such depths comes in small sins. The ones that many of us commit without wasting a “second thought.” Such compromises often lead, as we know from personal experience, to greater transgressions.

Too often, our fall begins with a lie. We see a glimmer of this in the following scene.** The president has enlisted a popular writer to pen his “autobiography.” The author chooses to open the book with a dramatic story about Underwood’s courage and willingness to risk all for a cause.

He relates a story from the president’s youth in South Carolina. He stunned his peers by his commitment to swim all the way out to the famous Fort Sumter, at the mouth of Charleston Harbor. He did not make it the first time, and needed to be rescued by the Coast Guard. However, he tried and tried again, until he defeated the tides and waves, and rose triumphant on the island’s shore.

After the writer reads the stirring account to the president, in a dramatic aside,*** Underwood says to the audience:

I never tried to swim to Fort Sumter. Thomas probably knows I made it up. But he wrote it anyway because he understands the greater truth. Imagination is its own form of courage.

This passage is powerful. It not only displays the impulse for self-aggrandizement to which many powerful people are disposed. It also seeks to justify that compromise with integrity, by transforming the very flaw into a virtue! “Imagination is its own form of courage.” True, but given the context, repugnant.

And that sort of perversion, which had to have seemed a discordant rationale when he originally voiced it, becomes a rule for his life.

I can make up any lie that serves my purpose, because the very act of creating that new “truth” is heroic in itself. In essence, the ends (my accumulation of power), will forever justify the means.

C.S. Lewis on the Lies We Make Our Truths

One of Lewis’ lesser read theological books is The Problem of Pain. The book offers Lewis’ insights into why a loving God would allow suffering. One intriguing feature of the text is its chapter on the suffering of animals, which reveals the breadth of Lewis’ concern as well as his affection for what we now call “other species.”

The following passages suggest that when we tell ourselves the lie—that existence is ultimately about us—we are destined for disappointment. This is the tragedy being staged before our lives in the television series we have been discussing. It can be summarized in the scriptural maxim familiar even to those who never read a Bible: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26, ESV).

[Humanity] fell. Someone or something whispered that they could become as gods—that they could cease directing their lives to their Creator and taking all their delights as uncovenanted mercies, as ‘accidents’ (in the logical sense) which arose in the course of a life directed not to those delights but to the adoration of God.

As a young man wants a regular allowance from his father which he can count on as his own, within which he makes his own plans (and rightly, for his father is after all a fellow creature), so they desired to be on their own, to take care for their own future, to plan for pleasure and for security, to have a meum [personal possession] from which, no doubt, they would pay some reasonable tribute to God in the way of time, attention, and love, but which, nevertheless, was theirs not His. They wanted, as we say, to ‘call their souls their own.’

But that means to live a lie, for our souls are not, in fact, our own.

They wanted some corner in the universe of which they could say to God, ‘This is our business, not yours.’ But there is no such corner. They wanted to be nouns, but they were, and eternally must be, mere adjectives.

. . .

I have begun with the conception of Hell as a positive retributive punishment inflicted by God because that is the form in which the doctrine is most repellent, and I wished to tackle the strongest objection. But, of course, though Our Lord often speaks of Hell as a sentence inflicted by a tribunal, He also says elsewhere that the judgement consists in the very fact that men prefer darkness to light, and that not He, but His ‘word,’ judges men.

We are therefore at liberty—since the two conceptions, in the long run, mean the same thing—to think of this bad man’s perdition not as a sentence imposed on him but as the mere fact of being what he is. The characteristic of lost souls is ‘their rejection of everything that is not simply themselves.’

Our imaginary egoist has tried to turn everything he meets into a province or appendage of the self. The taste for the other, that is, the very capacity for enjoying good, is quenched in him except in so far as his body still draws him into some rudimentary contact with an outer world. Death removes this last contact. He has his wish—to lie wholly in the self and to make the best of what he finds there. And what he finds there is Hell.

Lewis’ description of his “imaginary egoist” ably fits the fictional President Underwood and his First Lady. Their lives are consumed by self. The fiction derives its power from the reality. The Underwoods are not simple cartoons. They reveal the life choices of real people in our world.

Men and women who have clawed their way onto the throne in their lives, find in the end, that it crumbles beneath them. Only a miracle can rescue them from their terrible chosen destinies . . . and gloriously, that redeeming miracle awaits their cry for mercy, so long as they have breath.

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* Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright play their tragic characters so well that both have won Golden Globe awards and a variety of other accolades.

** From “Chapter 34,” season three, episode four.

*** An “aside” is a device where a character speaks directly to the audience, revealing some private thought or knowledge. It can easily be overused, but is quite finely tuned in this series. The writers of House of Cards are definitely talented.

punctuation personalitiesWordsmiths love wordplay.

In fact, they love to toy with everything related to language, including punctuation. The entertaining illustration to the left was created by Carrie Keplinger and inspired me to produce my own supplement to her study.

The idea behind the graphic is to play on the meaning of different punctuation symbols and describe the type of personality they represent.

I took the notion a step further, and based some of my psychological diagnoses on the appearance of the images themselves. I also fudged a bit and included a couple that are common symbols, albeit not punctuation.

In the past I’ve shared here my fascination with fonts. This extends to pictographic languages like Egypt’s hieroglyphs. Consider this example:

horus

One may not know this particular image is associated with the Egyptian god Horus, but it’s immediately apparent it represents a familiar part of human anatomy.*

If you find the subject of hieroglyphics interesting, you may enjoy reading this article I recently discovered. The author briefly compares the thought of C.S. Lewis with that of the ancient philosopher Plotinus. He writes:

The Hieroglyphs are visible mirrors of the invisible, to use Jean-Luc Marion’s language, the recognition of which brings immediate awareness and experience of meaning rather than strict syllogistic definition. For Lewis, “thinking along” cannot be reduced to concepts.

For Plotinus, Nature cannot be reduced to analysis. As Marion says, when faced with the visible mirror of the invisible one must look beyond the physical and experience the infinite gaze. Although the sunbeam is a physical reality I think it is a great example of “looking along” because it stirs us up to contemplate Beauty itself. Indeed God is Beauty for Lewis and for Plotinus (though not the Christian God for the latter).

Returning to the Subject of Punctuation

Punctuation is a fundamental tool of writers. And, like the broader subject of grammar, it is incumbent on us to do our best to use it properly.

“Improper” usage is not necessarily wrong, however. On numerous occasions we may intentionally make an “error” to achieve a specific purpose. Or, we may object to certain conventions and challenge the ever-evolving status quo. For example, I avoided unnecessarily capitalizing “internet” long before it became acceptable. I also dropped the hyphen from email, etc. prior to that becoming fashionable.**

Naturally, when we are seeking publication of our work, we need to conform to whatever stylistic standards the venue follows. However, in our “personal” writing, I long ago learned there is no value in being enslaved to “official” literary conventions. After all, these seemingly rigid rules themselves are fluid, shifting with ever more frequent speed.

I began with the declaration that lovers of words inherently enjoy wordplay. I certainly do. One evidence of that is found below, in my supplemental list to the chart at the top of this column.

Immediately upon reading “punctuation social personalities,” my own mind, unbidden, began to consider additions. A moment later I had pen in hand, and the rest is history.

Belated Warning: You may experience a similar irresistible response. 

punctuation personalities 2

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* A variation of the eye of Horus is actually found on American currency . . . at the peak of the pyramid that adorns the one dollar bill. (It’s officially called the “Eye of Providence,” but its association with the pyramid makes that title rather unconvincing.) It is actually reproduced on America’s money because it is found on the reverse of Great Seal of the United States. Yes, it’s portrayed on the hidden side of the extremely familiar eagle clutching an olive branch and arrows that we see all of the time.

** I’m not suggesting I am a trendsetter . . . merely that I anticipated the eventual elimination of these superfluous elements early on. Well, it’s due to that prediction combined with my own typographical prejudices, such as disliking the over-hyphenation of the English language.

C.S. Lewis Shrugged

August 19, 2013 — 25 Comments

csl & randI just watched another documentary about the controversial Ayn Rand, who wrote Atlas Shrugged. The program, “Ayn Rand & the Prophecy of Atlas Shrugged,” claimed that book is the number one selling hardcover in history (following the Bible, of course).

Although I haven’t read it, I witness it’s growing influence as it becomes more frequently referenced in political discussions. It is a favorite (sometimes even referred to as the “gospel”) of Libertarians.

Rand was a Soviet refugee, and much of what she anticipated, has come to pass. Unbridled government regulations, she predicted, would strangle creativity and production. The welfare state would collapse upon itself as it eroded the incentive to work. In her call for less government interference and oversight, she echoes the concerns of growing numbers of Americans on both the left and the right.

This reflects a reversal of her argument’s reception when it was published. In 1957, the dystopian novel apparently did not receive a single positive review. After William F. Buckley published a scathingly negative review, she never spoke to him again.*

And that raises one of the problems with Rand’s work. In actuality, this flaw is a failing common to all literature. It is difficult to separate what is written from its author. This is especially true when the person who wields the pen possesses a unique or outlandish personality. This was certainly the case with Rand. One of her primary goals was to be provocative.

The title of this column was inspired by a recent post I read entitled, “Ayn Rand Really, Really hated C.S. Lewis.” You can read it at First Things.

In the article, Matthew Schmitz provides excerpts of Rand’s underlining and marginalia (notes) in her copy of Lewis’ Abolition of Man. His opening paragraph says it all, though. [Warning: Those offended by rude language should skip the next paragraph.]

Ayn Rand was no fan of C.S. Lewis. She called the famous apologist an “abysmal bastard,” a “monstrosity,” a “cheap, awful, miserable, touchy, social-meta­physical mediocrity,” a “pickpocket of concepts,” and a “God-damn, beaten mystic.” (I suspect Lewis would have particularly relished the last of these.)

Lewis’ indomitable spirit, as hinted at in Schmitz’ parenthetical comment, is precisely what inspired the title of my post.

So, why am I discussing Rand’s work at all, if she so despised Lewis? Well, because I want to explore just why she was so offended by his philosophy.

There is great irony present here. While Rand devotees and serious Christians would share many fears about oppressive governments . . . they are ill-suited allies.

Despite this commonality, the basic reasons for distrusting secular institutions, and more expressly, their solutions to the problem are diametrically opposed.

For Lewis, the atheist turned Christian apologist, hope comes only from God, not from a laissez faire government. While most Christians do not believe in the “coerced compassion” of unlimited taxation to support people unwilling** to work, we utterly disagree with Rand’s elevation of selfishness as virtue.

And that last phrase is not hyperbole. Rand actually wrote a book entitled The Virtue of Selfishness. She viewed altruism as inherently illogical, and thus, essentially immoral.

So, it’s no surprise she disliked Lewis. He had been delivered from a self-centered worldview, and recognized that we have been created by a loving Father for a grand, and eternal purpose.

In the Christian worldview, selfishness provides evidence of our corruption by the Fall. Our disobedience—our selfish desire to have things our way—is at the root of humanity’s problems.

Altruism, giving of oneself for the welfare of another without anticipation of benefit, is—for the disciple of Jesus—a genuine virtue.

We’ll end this brief discussion of a complex subject with a passage from C.S. Lewis. It is a discussion of altruism (in the context of Moral Law) drawn from Mere Christianity. One can only imagine what Ayn Rand would write in the margins, but I’ll take my stand with Lewis.

Some of the letters I have had show that a good many people find it difficult to understand just what this Law of Human Nature, or Moral Law, or Rule of Decent Behaviour is. For example, some people wrote to me saying, “Isn’t what you call the Moral Law simply our herd instinct and hasn’t it been developed just like all our other instincts?”

Now I do not deny that we may have a herd instinct: but that is not what I mean by the Moral Law. We all know what it feels like to be prompted by instinct—by mother love, or sexual instinct, or the instinct for food. It means that you feel a strong want or desire to act in a certain way. And, of course, we sometimes do feel just that sort of desire to help another person: and no doubt that desire is due to the herd instinct. But feeling a desire to help is quite different from feeling that you ought to help whether you want to or not.

Supposing you hear a cry for help from a man in danger. You will probably feel two desires—one a desire to give help (due to your herd instinct), the other a desire to keep out of danger (due to the instinct for self-preservation).

But you will find inside you, in addition to these two impulses, a third thing which tells you that you ought to follow the impulse to help, and suppress the impulse to run away.

Now this thing that judges between two instincts, that decides which should be encouraged, cannot itself be either of them. You might as well say that the sheet of music which tells you, at a given moment, to play one note on the piano and not another, is itself one of the notes on the keyboard. The Moral Law tells us the tune we have to play: our instincts are merely the keys.

Another way of seeing that the Moral Law is not simply one of our instincts is this. If two instincts are in conflict, and there is nothing in a creature’s mind except those two instincts, obviously the stronger of the two must win. But at those moments when we are most conscious of the Moral Law, it usually seems to be telling us to side with the weaker of the two impulses. You probably want to be safe much more than you want to help the man who is drowning: but the Moral Law tells you to help him all the same.

And surely it often tells us to try to make the right impulse stronger than it naturally is? I mean, we often feel it our duty to stimulate the herd instinct, by waking up our imaginations and arousing our pity and so on, so as to get up enough steam for doing the right thing. But clearly we are not acting from instinct when we set about making an instinct stronger than it is. The thing that says to you, “Your herd instinct is asleep. Wake it up,” cannot itself be the herd instinct. The thing that tells you which note on the piano needs to be played louder cannot itself be that note.

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* “Big Sister is Watching You,” written by a former atheist Soviet spy turned Quaker capitalist, is available online here.

** By “unwilling,” I am referring to people capable of supporting themselves, but consciously choosing to live off of the produce of others. While some Christians feel morally compelled to support even these, most would follow the guidance found in II Thessalonians 3:

As for other matters, brothers and sisters, pray for us that the message of the Lord may spread rapidly and be honored, just as it was with you. And pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil people, for not everyone has faith. . . . May the Lord direct your hearts into God’s love and Christ’s perseverance. . . .

In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command you, brothers and sisters, to keep away from every believer who is idle and disruptive and does not live according to the teaching you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it.

On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to offer ourselves as a model for you to imitate.

For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat.