Archives For Virtue

csl-humorHumor is an essential element of human existence. C.S. Lewis recognized that our very nature was molded to incorporate joy and laughter.

In a great article on the subject, “The Role of Laughter in the Christian Life,” Terry Lindvall introduces the subject with the story of an early Christian monk who wrote this truth.

In the fourth century, a monk named Evagrius identified key temptations against living the Christian life. He named eight of them, and they became the eight deadly sins. Now we know that Pope Gregory the Great reduced them to seven to fit them in with the symbolic biblical number.

But unfortunately the sin that Gregory conflated into sloth was the sin of sadness. Sadness in the face of God’s grace and mercy was a denial of faith and hope.

But it isn’t the vice that concerns me. It is its corresponding virtue, what Evagrius identified as the blessing of hilaritas as essential to Christian living, even if you were an ascetic monk and especially if you are a lawyer or accountant.

Amen. We can all, whatever our vocation, do with an extra dose of hilaritas. After all, it’s good for your health.

I highly commend Lindvall’s entertaining article, which you can read online here or download as a pdf here.

It is filled with references to C.S. Lewis, as one would expect from the author of Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C.S. Lewis.

One particularly beneficial section of the article is his discussion of the four types of laughter mentioned by Screwtape in his epistles.

If you don’t have access to your copy of The Screwtape Letters, the following quotation will provide the context for Lindvall’s remarks.

Because Screwtape is a devil, viewing God as the “Enemy,” his viewpoint is reversed. Keep that in mind as you read.

I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know.

Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven—a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell . . .

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny.

Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter.

It is a thousand miles away from joy: it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practise it,

So, a wise person will savor joy and fun, along with jokes proper that are offered in good taste. But they will remain wary of flippancy, from which more ill than good usually flows.

Have a joy-filled life.

Imitating Animals

March 31, 2015 — 4 Comments

bearsHave you ever imitated a bear? Perhaps not intentionally. Still, if you are typical, you may do so routinely.

And it’s all because of your acnestis.

When I first saw the word, I thought it might be some recently coined term to address a semi-serious subject. But, the word is neither new, nor is the dilemma it describes exaggerated.

From the 1828 edition of Webster’s Dictionary.

ACNESTIS, n.

That part of the spine in quadrupeds which extends from the metaphrenon, between the shoulder blades, to the loins; which the animal cannot reach to scratch.*

While most human beings may not replicate bears’ behavior with trees, it is not uncommon to seek relief from a handy doorjamb.

Scratching that unreachable epicenter of that infernal itch has motivated the creation of a variety of tools. Yet none of these instruments can match the sheer relief offered by a sturdy doorway. I doubt I am alone, or excessively ursine, for believing that.

It could be worse, of course. At least people (most of them) don’t follow the example of dogs. We’ve all seen how they use the excuse of scratching their backs, to justify picking up unsavory scents while they wriggle around on the ground.

Descending to Subhuman Levels

Emulating animals has implications extending far beyond physical considerations. It is one thing to share a mutual appreciation for scratching one’s acnestis. Quite another to echo their baser natures.

In one of his letters, the Apostle Peter considers the fate of false prophets. After describing the damnation of fallen angels, he writes about those who teach deceitful doctrines. “But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed . . .” (2 Peter 2:12, ESV).

The following passage from the Psalms reveals how even the righteous are not immune to behaving like animals. “When my soul was embittered, when I was pricked in heart, I was brutish and ignorant; I was like a beast toward you [God]. Nevertheless, I am continually with you; you hold my right hand. . . . My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:21-23, 26, ESV).

God’s word is filled with allusions to bestial behaviors. One of the most literal is found in the example of the humiliation of the great King Nebuchadnezzar. You can read it here, from the fourth chapter of the Book of Daniel.

What Distinguishes Us from the Beasts?

C.S. Lewis describes how being a true human being differentiates us from animals. We share physical natures and numerous biological similarities. But we are far more. Lewis explores this in The Abolition of Man, which begins with the chapter “Men Without Chests.”

This image of lacking a “chest” actually refers to a classical reference for the part of a person where our character or virtue resides.

The excerpt below addresses how the enlightened or morally educated individual is capable of transcending the slavery of animals to their fleshly nature.

Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that ‘a gentleman does not cheat,’ than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers.

In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment. The crudest sentimentalism . . . about a flag or a country or a regiment will be of more use.

We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’

The head rules the belly through the chest—the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments.

The Chest-Magnanimity-Sentiment—these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal.

It is wise, I believe, for every man and woman to devote themselves to the health and of their own heart and purpose—that which makes us human.

In doing so, we will still share some of the basic behaviors of the animal world about us, such as being plagued by our acnestis . . . but the choices that direct the course of our lives will no longer be dictated solely by carnal instincts.

And such growth, my friends, will make us each day, a little bit more human.

_____

* I realize Noah Webster limited his definition to quadrupeds, but today it has been expanded to aptly apply to all of us who suffer from this curse.

Inkling Chivalry

February 3, 2015 — 15 Comments

praying knightJ.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis practiced what they preached.

While most people are content to sit back while others battle for just causes. Sadly, cowardice appears to outweigh bravery in our modern age. We have, Lewis says, “having grown up among the ruins of the chivalrous tradition . . .” (“The Necessity of Chivalry”).

Lewis and Tolkien, by contrast, were genuine heroes. Peaceful academics by nature, each of them responded to their nation’s call to defend their homeland against the Huns.

In the world of the modern university—inhospitable to those who would defend the veracity of the Scriptures—each man counted the cost, and willingly bore the ridicule of skeptics and secularists.

Not only were these two Inklings paragons of courage, they engaged in their battles with a code of chivalry. Neither desired the destruction of their foes. Instead, they sought the preservation of truth, justice, peace and mercy.

Chivalry is a concept alien to the modern era. In an age when there is so little mercy and forgiveness, it seems a more and more archaic notion each day.

Yet, chivalry is not dead.

Both of these men not only modeled the virtue, they imbued their works with its spirit. The heroes of Middle Earth and Narnia are chivalrous almost to a fault. And the spiritual heirs of both fictional domains, still yearn to be chivalrous in their own lives.

So, precisely what is it? As Lewis begins his essay on the subject, he writes, “The word chivalry has meant at different times a good many different things—from heavy cavalry to giving a woman a seat in a train.”

Lewis considers the “double demand it makes on human nature” through an exploration of the Middle Ages.

The knight is a man of blood and iron, a man familiar with the sight of smashed faces and the ragged stumps of lopped-off limbs; he is also a demure, almost a maidenlike, guest in hall, a gentle, modest, unobtrusive man. He is not a compromise or happy mean between ferocity and meekness; he is fierce to the nth and meek to the nth.

Gentle toward the innocent and vulnerable. Relentless versus evil.

What, you may ask, is the relevance of this ideal to the modern world? It is terribly relevant. It may or may not be practicable—the Middle Ages notoriously failed to obey it—but it is certainly practical; practical as the fact that men in a desert must find water or die.

We live in a violent world, and the beheading of even children suggest things are growing worse. So, more than ever, Lewis tells us, we need chivalrous people like Lancelot, who combined these conflicting qualities. We need gentle men, like Lewis and Tolkien, who are willing to lay aside their books to face the specter of war on the front lines.

Lewis forcefully describes the three divisions of humanity bereft of chivalry.

If we cannot produce Launcelots, humanity falls into two sections—those who can deal in blood and iron but cannot be “meek in hall”, and those who are “meek in hall” but useless in battle—for the third class, who are both brutal in peace and cowardly in war, need not here be discussed. When this dissociation of the two halves of Launcelot occurs, history becomes a horribly simple affair.

Lewis wrote the essay during the Second World War. He and others among the Inklings had stood in the gap during the “war to end all wars.” Now he was observing a glimmer of hope in the witness of a successive generation doing its part.

Launcelot is not yet irrecoverable. To some of us this war brought a glorious surprise in the discovery that after twenty years of cynicism and cocktails the heroic virtues were still unimpaired in the younger generation and ready for exercise the moment they were called upon.

In the face of the contemporary ferocity of global terrorism, we see many young men and women following their example. Surely, they are a minority among the population, but we are all deeply fortunate they exist.

Our prayers should accompany those of all nationalities who are courageous enough to face the blade of modern barbarians. And our prayer should be that they are not merely brave, but also meek.

Choosing Patience

March 7, 2014 — 13 Comments

patient bearI got up very early this morning to attend a meeting that had been rescheduled from its regular monthly date. I was happy with myself for remembering the change in date, as I drove to the sunrise gathering of a group of fellow chaplains.

I felt great—until I learned after arriving that our rescheduled meeting had been rescheduled. There I was, all alone . . . and primed for a bit of unseemly disappointment with having risen more than two hours earlier my normal routine, for an aborted purpose.

Because that sort of reaction is not foreign to my nature, I was pleasantly surprised when I didn’t feel that way. Oh, for the briefest of moments (literally, less than a half a minute) I experienced what some might consider a mild case of “upset,” but it immediately gave way to my thoughts of how I could most constructively use the “extra hours” I had received.

The most amazing part of all is that I did not even have to consciously think, how can I put the best construction on this? It just happened.

Now, I’m uncertain whether this positive response was due to my increasing age, or to my growing sanctification. I suspect it’s a combination of the two. It’s such a calm and healthy way to respond to unwelcome events that I wish everyone was able to enjoy it as their norm. Thank you, Lord, for gracing me with this gift for the fall and winter decades of my life.

Being able to see the good in a seeming disappointment, is akin to possessing the virtue of patience. I once made the mistake of praying for “patience.” It was during my college days, and learning to be more patient proved quite painful; it was primarily taught to me by being deluged with a near-infinite number of things which demanded my patience. Quite painful.

In a letter C.S. Lewis wrote to Don Giovanni Calabria in 1948, he says, “We ought to give thanks for all fortune: if it is ‘good,’ because it is good, if ‘bad’ because it works in us patience, humility and the contempt of this world and the hope of our eternal country.”

This is precisely the attitude I wish to experience in my own life.

And, sometimes its fruit is easy to recognize. For example, the cancellation of today’s meeting gifted me with the time required to compose this post itself. And, for that, I am genuinely grateful.

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.

_____

* “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.