Virtue: Unselfishness vs Love
“If you asked twenty good 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… 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… [to be continued below]” -C.S Lewis
What is the Christian virtue of Love? What is Love? To love is to value. When you say that you love someone, you mean that you value that person; that he or she is of value to you. “Wait” you cry, “that sounds so selfish! What about self-less love?”
There can be no such thing as “self-less” love because there is no such thing as a self-less value. The attempt to concoct “self-less” love would be hideous, as described in the following quote by Ayn Rand:
Selfless love would have to mean that you derive no personal pleasure or happiness from the company and the existence of the person you love, and that you are motivated only by self-sacrificial pity for that person’s need of you. I don’t have to point out to you that no one would be flattered by, nor would accept, a concept of that kind.
“Self-less love” would say, in essence, “I haven’t the slightest care in the world for you, or for your well-being. I am simply doing this because you need me, and it is my duty to fill that need.” This is because to “have a care” is to value. To care for a person is to value that person — and to value that person is to say that he or she is of value to you; to your self. The alternative is to look down your nose at others, as though they are helpless creatures in need of your service, corrupting the nature of love by turning it from a delight into a duty.
Seeking Value for Your Self
Therefore, not only do Christians need to replace Unselfishness with Love as the primary virtue, but they also need to discard from their heads (and their hearts) the idea of an ultimately “self-less” love. But in order to do that, Christians must first overcome their fear of desiring anything of value to themselves at all. The rest of the Lewis quote (continuing from the one above) will help to point in that direction:
“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 Christians 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 the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
Lewis seems to think (and I agree) that this whole obsession with self-denial, unselfishness, and “self-less” love which runs rampant in modern Christianity is actually no part of “the Christian faith”, but rather, that it has crept in from “Kant and the Stoics”. In other words, vain and insidious philosophical assumptions have crept into the modern Church (which ironically and foolishly thinks itself to be free from all philosophical assumptions) and poisoned Christian morality, flipping it on its head.
The modern Christian decries strong desires, but Lewis argues that our desires are actually too weak. Our problem is not that we value too many things, but rather that we don’t value those things that are most valuable; that we don’t have strong enough values. If we valued as we ought to value; if we valued most those things that were most valuable, we would find that our actions almost automatically matched the virtuous actions outlined in New Testament teaching.
Love Thy Neighbor
“Love your neighbor” means value your neighbor. You don’t value someone by superficially forcing yourself to go through the motions of what it might look like if you did value that person. You value someone by seeing (in your mind and in your heart) those things that are actually valuable about him — and you can only do that if you value those things; if those things are valuable to you.
If you can’t see anything valuable about an immortal being, created in the image of God, designed to rule and have dominion over the universe, endowed with a mind capable of transforming history with the spark of genius (when used appropriately), fashioned to be the crown jewel of God’s creation, then you’ve got a problem with your value system: you do not have strong enough values — likely because your values are consumed with the moral equivalent of mud-pies.
Have you ever asked yourself why modern Christians have turned the virtue of love into the very dry and unloving superficial duty to perform certain actions? This is why. They are incapable of actual love for other people because they are incapable of actually valuing that which is valuable in other people. They can’t value what they can’t see; and they can’t see, because their actual values (not the ones they claim to hold, but the ones that actually move them) are a junk-heap of trite and banal contradictions. And why is that? Because they are completely unconscious about their actual values. You cannot oversee, evaluate, correct and direct your values if you are not conscious of what you value. And you cannot be conscious of that about which you refuse to think. And you will not consciously think about your values if you count your values to be worthless — or evil. You will not rightly order your values if you do not value your own values.
Love Thy Self
To love is to value. Only a rationally selfish man, a man of self-esteem, is capable of love — because he is the only man capable of holding firm, consistent, uncompromising, unbetrayed values. The man who does not value himself, cannot value anything or anyone.
If you do not value your own life, you will not care about its trajectory or its achievements (to care is to value). Likewise, if you do not value your values, you will not take any care regarding your values, and therefore your values will never be strong, deep, and consistent; you will never be capable of valuing that which is most valuable — whether in other people, or — more importantly — in God. Yes, you must love other people — and you absolutely must love God, but it must be love; it must be value. You must value. And you will never be capable of it until you value that thing in you which values; until you value your self.
Originally published at www.thechristianegoist.com on July 29, 2013.
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