Friday, August 17, 2012

The Negative Virtue of Unselfishness

Lewis starts right out hitting me between the eyes in his 1941 essay "The Weight of Glory".
If you asked twenty good men today what they thought the highest of the virtues, nineteen of them would reply, Unselfishness.  But if you asked almost any 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 idea of Unselfishness carries with it the suggestion not primarily of 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...If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith
Lurks?  Lurks?  Try overwhelms.  This root notion persists in me after decades of Christian belief.  I am enormously grateful that I read this essay early in my walk, before I had children, and was able to consciously work against it throughout their upbringing.  I believe I have had some, though not entire, success in teaching them that enjoyment can also be holy - that Fezziwig and King Smoit are worth imitating.

Yet the idea of drawing back from joy out of false modesty and politeness - waiting to be invited so as not to be thought grasping - remains.  I can make convincing cases who in my upbringing and instruction might be to blame for all this, but "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves..." Wm. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 1.

1 comment:

james said...

Unselfishness is easier than love. And we get to feel good about how unselfish we are. It doesn't take too much--just a little averting of the eyes--and you can give up only the things you didn't really care about all that much anyway. That way we get the best of both worlds: self-indulgence and feeling good about our unselfishness at the same time.