Contempt Is Not a Cure: C.S. Lewis on Owning the Elites

It’s become common on the Right to hear people talk about “the elites” in a very peculiar way. Not only are the elites people we must loathe and refuse to imitate, but they are inverse moral examples. What they do and believe is the opposite of what we ought to do and believe. If a particular idea or behavior or line of reasoning is one that is used by an “elite,” that fact alone is an argument against it. Large swaths of contemporary conservatives seem to organize their entire political and ethical life around the goal of sticking a finger in the eyes of elites.

I think C.S. Lewis would have some strong things to say about this. Listen to the way he describes the sin of pride as being less bad in the stage of vanity (caring too much what others think of us) and much worse in the state of contempt. Lewis’s description of contempt in Mere Christianity suits the conservative attitude toward “elites” almost perfectly:

The more you delight in yourself and the less you delight in the praise, the worse you are becoming. When you delight wholly in yourself and do not care about the praise at all, you have reached the bottom. That is why vanity, though it is the sort of Pride which shows most on the surface, is really the least bad and most pardonable sort. The vain person wants praise, applause, admiration, too much and is always angling for it. It is a fault, but a child-like and even (in an odd way) a humble fault. It shows that you are not yet completely contented with your own admiration. You value other people enough to want them to look at you. You are, in fact, still human. The real black, diabolical Pride, comes when you look down on others so much that you do not care what they think of you.

Of course, it is very right, and often our duty, not to care what people think of us, if we do so for the right reason; namely, because we care so incomparably more what God thinks. But the Proud man has a different reason for not caring. He says ‘Why should I care for the applause of that rabble as if their opinion were worth anything? And even if their opinions were of value, am I the sort of man to blush with pleasure at a compliment like some chit of a girl at her first dance? No, I am an integrated, adult personality. All I have done has been done to satisfy my own ideals—or my artistic conscience—or the traditions of my family—or, in a word, because I’m That Kind of Chap. If the mob like it, let them. They’re nothing to me.’ In this way real thorough-going pride may act as a check on vanity; for, as I said a moment ago, the devil loves ‘curing’ a small fault by giving you a great one. We must try not to be vain, but we must never call in our Pride to cure our vanity.

Of course, contempt is what many working class Americans believe the elite feel toward them, and they’re often right. Lewis was not naive about class. He was deeply skeptical especially about the intellectual establishment of his time, believing it to largely be (especially in university) a morally and spiritually bankrupt “inner ring.” Lewis understood the power that wealthy, influential people wield over the lives of others, and he challenged this power as forcefully as any Christian writer I’ve read.

Nonetheless, Lewis eschewed the kind of reverse identity-formation that soaks through much Western life. Note how Lewis includes “the traditions of my family” as a motivation for contempt. Even “blue-collar” goods like family tradition and community sensibility can be co-opted as license to resent. Whereas the popular notion is that being looked down upon by someone with wealth and privilege is an infinitely worse evil than our resentment of them, Lewis thinks (correctly) that pride is an equal opportunity destroyer. Our place in the social strata does not determine how well our souls can tolerate the devil’s work.

Contempt is not a cure. Conservative Christians who love “owning” the elites, and who are willing to sacrifice their moral compass in order to do so, should remember that.

2 thoughts on “Contempt Is Not a Cure: C.S. Lewis on Owning the Elites

  1. “Even “blue-collar” goods like family tradition and community sensibility can be co-opted as license to resent. Whereas the popular notion is that being looked down upon by someone with wealth and privilege is an infinitely worse evil than our resentment of them, Lewis thinks (correctly) that pride is an equal opportunity destroyer. Our place in the social strata does not determine how well our souls can tolerate the devil’s work.”
    That’s some good preaching (and great writing), right there! This whole concept, particularly the blue collar mention, makes me think of Ruby Payne’s “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” written primarily to help middle-class teachers understand their students coming from lower-class backgrounds. It is fascinating research on how each class (at least in America) has its own code, and how those codes often clash with each other. It definitely sheds light on how animosity can so easily develop when we aren’t aware of what codes people are operating in and the often generational values that they’re rooted in. You might enjoy looking into it, if you haven’t heard of her work before!

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  2. You acknowledge (barely) that the elites also have contempt for conservatives–the Right. But why first take the conservative blue-collar demographic to task primarily? Retaliation is not a good idea in politics, culture, or personal relationships, but the Right does not have a corner on narrow-mindedness and contempt. Does anyone remember First Lady Hillary Clinton saying that she was not going to stay home and bake cookies? What about the bumper sticker that said “I think — I vote Democrat”? And the best of all, our 44th President saying “It’s not surprising then, they get bitter, they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy to people not like them…” They? Contempt is not right, but it’s not just Right! And an aside–Lewis may have had a bit of animus toward academia himself since, as I understand it, he was never promoted to our equivalent of Full Professor. Not enough gravitas in The Chronicles of Narnia I suppose!

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