Monday, August 11, 2008

C.S.Lewis on the pursuit of happiness

Here's one of my favourite C.S.Lewis quotes. He puts so beautifully what I wrote in last Friday's post, is it ok to seek happiness? If you can't be bothered reading both paragraphs, skip to the second: it's a gem.

If you asked twenty men today 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 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 the 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 by the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

C.S.Lewis, The Weight of Glory


mattnbec said...

I love this quote. I haven't read it in context so I've only seen the second half, but it's just such a gem. Thanks for posting it.

I've been holding off commenting on this while I worked out what kind of felt funny about the first paragraph but I think I've worked it out. I wonder if the first paragraph is still true - would 20 people still say unselfishness is the highest virtue? I wonder if that's a bit unacceptable in our self-oriented world where personal fulfilment/happiness and being true to yourself are so important. I suspect those 19 people would now say love (not unselfishness) because it sounds more positive and like it involves less personal cost. My happiness and fulfilment shouldn't be compromised and if they are, then I'm not being true to myself.

What do you think?


Jean said...

I think you're absolutely right, the first paragraph is very out of date!! Being a bit of a history buff, I don't mind that. But it does make it a bit irrelevant. And yes, I think people would now say "love", not "unselfishness".

What's still helpful about the quote is that it highlights the reason we do things: we don't pursue self-denial for its own sake, but because we are promised something far greater - everlasting happiness.

Do modern people ever pursue self-denial for its own sake? I'm not sure. Maybe for the sake of slimness or health!!

And Christians can talk about "moderation" and "self-control" as if they're ends in themselves, not as if they serve the greater end of love and pursuing God wholeheartedly.

mattnbec said...

Sorry - I didn't mean to imply that the change in people's answer meant that it was no longer a valid point. I agree that CSL makes a very valid point about self-denial and love. And that dieting etc is probably the main place people think of self-denial.

Of course, those today who would choose love rather than unselfishness don't really understand love anyway, do they, if they choose it because it seems less hard than self-denial! And hence, love like that also leads to marriages which crumble as soon as happiness and fulfilment don't result. Which only goes to show that self-denial and love do indeed go hand in hand and are negative and positive counerparts - love being the positive reason for any self-denial and so resulting in the happiness of the other. Anyway, thinking and typing all at once. Will stop now!

Thanks again,


Jean said...

No need to say sorry, I didn't mind! :)