Thursday, October 04, 2007

Lewis on desire

"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. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ; and nearly every description of what we shall ultimately find if we do so contains an appeal to desire. 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. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

"We must not be troubled by unbelievers when they say that this promise of reward makes the Christian life a mercenary affair. There are different kinds of reward. There is the reward which has no natural connexion with the things you do to earn it, and is quite foreign to the desires that ought to accompany those things. Money is not the natural reward of love; that is why we call a man mercenary if he marries a woman for the sake of her money. But marriage is the proper reward for a real lover, and he is not mercenary for desiring it. A general who fights well in order to get a peerage is mercenary; a general who fights for victory is not, victory being the proper reward of battle as marriage is the proper reward of love. The proper rewards are not simply tacked on to the activity for which they are given, but are the activity itself in consummation. There is also a third case, which is more complicated. An enjoyment of Greek poetry is certainly a proper, and not a mercenary, reward for learning Greek; but only those who have reached the stage of enjoying Greek poetry can tell from their own experience that this is so. The schoolboy beginning Greek grammar cannot look forward to his adult enjoyment of Sophocles as a lover looks forward to marriage or a general to victory. He has to begin by working for marks, or to escape punishment, or to please his parents, or, at best, in the hope of a future good which he cannot at present imagine or desire. His position, therefore, bears a certain resemblance to that of the mercenary; the reward he is going to get will, in actual fact, be a natural or proper reward, but he will not know that till he has got it. Of course, he gets it gradually; enjoyment creeps in upon the mere drudgery, and nobody could point to a day or an hour when the one ceased and the other began. But it is just in so far as he approaches the reward that he becomes able to desire it for its own sake; indeed, the power of so desiring it is itself a preliminary reward."

- C. S. Lewis, opening lines of The Weight of Glory, a sermon.

I posted this in response to this post by Michael Jensen. Eight points for guessing the country in the image.

20 comments:

michael jensen said...

don't you wish you would have this kind of sermon of a sunday?

byron smith said...

Yeah, I think we need to get over stealing sermons (with acknowledgement). If it's a good sermon, why not repeat it? I tried this once. I gave (a slightly abridged version of) The Weight of Glory as a talk to a group of 50 uni students. Then we discussed it. It was one of the best talks I've ever given (!).

Annette said...

great quote, he makes his point so effortlessly and puts his finger right on the pulse of issues which continue to plague contemporary ethical discourse (in theol & phil), esp. the egoism vs altruism kind of debates (or exchange vs. gift). I guess dbhart (against levinas) and mibank against others try to advance this kind of critique of ethics which are all 'expenditure' and complete self-sacrifice. THe altruism thing looks good at first glance from christian point of view, but one ought to be suspicious as Lewis hints whenever it starts to smack of self-denial for its own sake (Milbank also harshly critiques the use of the economic contract model for critiquing christian notions of reward).
Seems the big challenge may be how to develop a noiton of 'proper self-love' - most 'Levinasian style ethics' can only condone self-love to the extent that it helps you better look after the other. But could there be a 'proper' self-love, i.e. its ok to love self- fullstop. (or maybe you can't untie the two? & maybe this is what Levinas is saying)
Have you read o'donovan's book on self-love or something like that in Augustine? good?
I do like Lewis': 'More desire!, want more, the emphasis on the positive and plenty (gift)

Justin said...

The whole sermon is, of course, great. Preached in a Catholic Church in the middle of the war. From your Uni talk, how long do you reckon it would have took Lewis to preach?

michael jensen said...

In a Catholic church? You don't mean St Mary the Virgin, Oxford? That's C of E, buddy!

Annette said...

oh i just realised you posted this in response to michael's posts on Quietism. i guess there's a common theme b/w their disinterested love of God and altruistic ethics' disinterested love of neighbour in both wanting to avoid looking like one was just loving for self-'interested' reasons (rewards).
I wonder whether the Quietists had some kind of notion of a 'proper self-love'? ...though perhaps not since michael concludes: "the Quietist alternative foundered on the rocks of its own logic, not least because, in making a nothing of the self, it made the value of self-sacrifice questionable."
I guess though they still would of thought they had some kind of obligation to look after their nothing-self?

Justin said...

I'm talking about the One True Catholic Church, MPJ.

(My mistake -- misinformation from years ago. Hmm.)

byron smith said...

Annette - I haven't read O'D's book on Aug and self-love, but would like to.

Justin - how long? You can find full text on the web. It's 5,300 words, so you should be able to work out how that would take you. Maybe somewhere between 40 and 50 minutes, depending on how fast you speak. When I did it at Connect, I cut it down to about 4,500 words, and also stopped at four or five points for some discussion. I think it worked really well. I could send you my edited version if you like.

byron smith said...

And yes, St Mary's = C of E, though it was preached in the war (1941).

Moffitt the Prophet said...

Greece?

Just picked up Weight of Glory yesterday...loking forward to reading it.

byron smith said...

Not Greece. You're rapidly closing in on Anthony for the title of "most persistent guesser". For your efforts, I'll confirm that it is a Mediterranean nation.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

"...most persistent guesser", i.e. most persistently wrong.

byron smith said...

Sure, but look where it got Anthony.

Jonathan said...

That hint is about as helpful as the "city with water" one. I guess Italy.

byron smith said...

White houses, Mediterranean. Yes, I suppose I didn't give too much away. Not Italy.

Moffitt the Prophet said...

France?

byron smith said...

Non.

Anthony Douglas said...

This most persistent guesser figures it's probably Spain...

(just cleaning up those outstanding points!)

byron smith said...

Well done. Eight points.

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