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

Why C.S. Lewis would have rebuked a common conservative attitude as the work of the devil.

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.

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What is the “First Fact” of Christianity?

“To preach Christianity meant primarily to preach the resurrection.”

As this qualification suggests, to preach Christianity meant primarily to preach the Resurrection. Thus people who had heard only fragments of St. Paul’s teaching at Athens got the impression that he was talking about two new gods, Jesus and Anastasis (ie, Resurrection) (Acts 17:18). The Resurrection is the central theme in every Christian sermon reported in the Acts. The Resurrection, and its consequences, were the ‘gospel’ or good news which the Christians brought: what we call the ‘gospels,’ the narratives of Our Lord’s life and death, were composed later for the benefit of those who had already accepted the gospel. They were in no sense the basis of Christianity: they were written for those already converted. The miracle of the Resurrection, and the theology of that miracle, comes first: the biography comes later as a comment on it.

Nothing could be more unhistorical than to pick out selected sayings of Christ from the gospels and to regard those as the datum and the rest of the New Testament as a construction upon it. The first fact in the history of Christendom is a number of people who say they have seen the Resurrection. If they had died without making anyone else believe this ‘gospel’ no gospels would ever have been written.

-C.S. Lewis, Miracles.

A blessed and joyful Easter to all.

Safe, Legal, and Everywhere

Photo of the day:

Here’s what I wrote last year about the slow, underhanded, but very real disappearance of the center in the pro-choice camp.

What’s happening for the abortion lobby is that its political myths are falling apart. “Safe, legal, and rare” was a carefully crafted slogan, built to elicit both protective instincts from activists and empathy from those unsure about it all. But a fault line ran through the very heart of this kind of rhetoric: If abortion should be legal and safe, why should we want it to be rare? It sounded as if abortion were being compared to alcoholism and divorce—regrettable ailments of a society that nonetheless cannot be legislated out of it.

But this “lesser of two evils” ethic is not what the architects of legal abortion had in mind. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, certainly had more ambitious aims for her legacy when she said that her followers were “seeking to assist the race toward the elimination of the unfit.” More recently, abortion activists like Katha Pollitt are acknowledging this, and calling their peers to drop a hypocritical façade of regret and proclaim that abortion is a “positive social good.”

Pro-abortion or pro-choice? The answer looks progressively clearer each day.

Flattery Politics

What’s the value of a populist policy platform if the campaign is obsessed with celebrity glitz and glamour? Why was the Democratic convention a parade of celebrities? Why are you turning over your social media accounts to Lena Dunham, to post things about how white men are finished, when you desperately need to shore up your “blue wall” in Michigan and Wisconsin? Why play to college educated liberals, in November, in that way? What do you want – a message that can motivate a large group of the undecided, or one that flatters the egos of people who would never vote Republican in the first place?

Freddie Deboer, who I’d very much like to hear give a speech at the Golden Globes.

C.S. Lewis on Christmas Gifts

From “What Christmas Means to Me”

…the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards, is quite modern and has been forced upon us by the shopkeepers. Neither of these circumstances is in itself a reason for condemning it. I condemn it on the following grounds.

1. It gives on the whole much more pain than pleasure. You have only to stay over Christmas with a family who seriously try to ‘keep’ it (in its third, or commercial, aspect) in order to see that the thing is a nightmare. Long before December 25th everyone is worn out — physically worn out by weeks of daily struggle in overcrowded shops, mentally worn out by the effort to remember all the right recipients and to think out suitable gifts for them. They are in no trim for merry-making; much less (if they should want to) to take part in a religious act. They look far more as if there had been a long illness in the house.

2. Most of it is involuntary. The modern rule is that anyone can force you to give him a present by sending you a quite unprovoked present of his own. It is almost a blackmail. Who has not heard the wail of despair, and indeed of resentment, when, at the last moment, just as everyone hoped that the nuisance was over for one more year, the unwanted gift from Mrs. Busy (whom we hardly remember) flops unwelcomed through the letter-box, and back to the dreadful shops one of us has to go?

3. Things are given as presents which no mortal every bought for himself–gaudy and useless gadgets, ‘novelties’ because no one was ever fool enough to make their like before. Have we really no better use for materials and for human skill and time than to spend them on all this rubbish?

4. The nuisance. for after all, during the racket we still have all our ordinary and necessary shopping to do, and the racket trebles the labour of it.

Lewis’s distinction here between the “merry-making” of Christmas (which he endorses) and the actual commercial enterprise of Christmas cards and gift exchanges (which he disdains) is a good one. It’s worth reminding ourselves that “Christmas spirit” is not, contra the advertising, synonymous with spending money.

The Threat to Reading

One of the most widely quoted sentences of Sir Francis Bacon–it comes from his essay “Of Studies”–concerns the reading of books: “Some books are to be tasted, others are to be swallowed and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some books are to be read only in parts; others to be read, not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.” This is usually taken as a wise or sententious general comment about the worthiness of various texts, but Ann Blair shows that Bacon was making a very practical recommendation to people who were overwhelmed by the availability of books and couldn’t imagine how they were going to read them all. Bacon tells such worried folks that they can’t read them all, and so should develop strategies of discernment that enable them to make wise decisions about how to invest their time. I think Bacon would have applauded Clay Shirky’s comment that we suffer not from “information overload” but from “filter failure.” Bacon’s famous sentence is really a strategy for filtering.

Alan Jacobs, The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, p. 110-111.

This is such an important, and liberating, point. You can’t read it all, and almost certainly shouldn’t try. Indiscriminate buying of books to fill out one’s “personal library” looks great on Instagram, but in practically every circumstance, it undermines the very intellectual pursuit it mimics. We instinctively guard the reading life against the threats of internet, TV, et al. But for some of us, the bigger threat to our intellectual formation may be our own vanity. Reading 1 book a month won’t buy many retweets. But between someone who digests 12 pleasurable, meaningful books a year, and someone who reads 1/6 of 50 different books, is there really a question which one is the actual “reader”?

Quote of the Day

A plea to J.K. Rowling.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is no such work. As other countless fans have pointed out, the writing of the work is mediocre, at best—full of clichés and halfhearted character development, with a plot that is absolutely riddled with holes. Many of the original characters (especially Hermione) are not true to their original selves, serving as two-dimensional copycats.

So what does the book do? Well, it keeps the Harry Potter series alive and in the limelight. It serves to inspire new fans to return to the original books. And it definitively makes money—lots of it. But that’s the extent of its virtues.

I caution you, because I think there’s a point at which truly excellent authors know how to say “enough.” Their fans can content themselves with the simplicity and beauty of a finite offering (be it one book or seven). Limiting the scope of a fictional creation enables it to stay mysterious, enchanting, and delightful. Limiting the scope of Harry Potter serves to inspire and foster the imagination of its fans more than coughing up another 20 volumes ever would.

-Gracy Olmstead, in an “open letter” to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling that also doubles as a disappointed review of the published play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.”

Olmstead gets to something important here: Churning out low-quality work, merely for the sake of keeping a franchise in the news, is not just bad for the franchise, it’s bad for the reader. No matter how many superfans will wait in line at Barnes and Noble for your newest offering, there is something in this kind of hyper-nostalgic, never-say-die mentality that robs future generations of the literary richness that comes from having some of the story untold.

Quote of the Day

From a remarkable Wall Street Journal op-ed.

All people are unique individuals and we can be sure that Mr. Weiner’s problems are at least in part a matter of his personal psycho-pathologies. Yet his behavior squares with what we have observed with all too many men, especially in the U.S. or other Western countries that enjoy liberal values and material prosperity. These are men who, by any objective measure, have succeeded yet regard themselves as failures. These are men who feel marooned in lassitude because they enjoy physical security, who feel bereft and bored even if they are blessed to have the committed love of a wife or girlfriend. These are men who believe that cruising the internet for explicit footage of other women or sharing such images of themselves over the remote communication offered by smartphones are risqué but risk-free distractions from the tedium.

The march of technology is irreversible and we aren’t so naive as to believe that any kind of imposed regulation could ever reseal the Pandora’s box of pornography. What is required is an honest dialogue about what we are witnessing—the true nature and danger of porn—and an honor code to tamp it down in the collective interests of our well-being as individuals, as families and as communities.

-From this remarkable joint op-ed by rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and actress and former centerfold Pamela Anderson. Bet you didn’t expect to see those two together.