Friday, April 25, 2008
No or Yes to Self?
Since I’ve finished a book in the “self-help” genre… Did I mention that before and that it’s being published by Doubleday on January 6, 2009? But I digress…. I’ve been thinking about the “self” and whether it’s a good idea to feed it or to deny it.
The particular topic here is whether we should do things because we enjoy them or because they’re simply right. C.S. Lewis (have I mentioned his name before in this blog?) engages two titans of ethics, Aristotle and Immanuel Kant, in his profound book, The Problem of Pain. Lewis writes this,
“Kant thought that no action had moral value unless it were done out of pure reverence for the moral law, that is, without inclination, and he has been accused of a ‘morbid frame of mind’ which measures the value of al act by its unpleasantness. All popular opinion is, indeed, on Kant’s side. The people never admire a man for doing something he likes: the very words ‘But he likes it’ imply the corollary ‘And therefore it has no merit.’ Yet against Kant stands the obvious truth, noted by Aristotle, that the more virtuous a man becomes the more he enjoys virtuous actions.”
And generally, I, with Lewis, stand with Aristotle. God’s desire for our lives—and therefore what we ought to do—is what we are created for. It is where we find joy and beauty. To do what God loves is the highest pleasure possible. As we grow in the spiritual life, we enjoy more and more what God wants, which is simultaneously what we truly enjoy.
At least, when we’re growing spiritually. But there are those other times, we, when we act out of the rebellion that lurks deep within us, the twisted self that the Bible terms “sin.” Here Aristotle, who had no real understanding of the distortions that lie within the self, comes to his limits as a guide. Similarly, Lewis finds a rapprochement between Kant and Aristotle:
“We therefore agree with Aristotle that what is intrinsically right may well be agreeable, and the better a man is the more he will like it; but we agree with Kant so far as to say that there is one right act—that of self surrender—which cannot be willed to the height by fallen creatures unless it is unpleasant. And we must add that this one right act includes all other righteousness, and that the supreme canceling of Adam’s fall, the movement ‘full speed astern’ by which we retrace our long journey from Paradise, the untying of the old, hard knot, must be when the creature, with no desire to aid it, stripped naked to the bare willing of obedience, embraces what is contrary to its nature, and does that for which only one motive is possible. Such an act may be described as a ‘test’ of the creature’s return to God….”
And so it is. We return to the Center of our lives, to God. In doing so, we need to learn to say No to the self that lives from a twisted, defiant will and says “No thanks God,” the self the atheist so triumphantly thrusts forward. But this No leads to the greater Yes of what we are created to be and to do. It is the deepest self, the one that God created in everyone. And the Yes to that self, to be sure, leads to life itself.