Self-Improvement as Selfishness

Many times in my life I have tried to make an improvement to myself only to fail miserably — or rather only to give up. “Failure” would imply that I had tried my utmost, which almost never was the case. Instead I make a solemn determination to do something different, stick to it for a while, then give up. This might be a health issue (like quitting smoking; or lifting weights), a intellectual endeavor (improving my French; studying ancient history), or even a moral endeavor (being chaste; being kinder to people).

But always — or almost always, perhaps — these resolutions were undertaken for precisely the reason stated at the beginning: making an improvement to myself. That is, I wanted to be better: brighter, smarter, greater. It was self-seeking. I was doing it solely for myself, and not for others.

This is often difficult to see, because we do things in the name of other people. I might consider quitting smoking something I should do for my sake and for the sake of those around me. “After all, who enjoys the smell of stale smoke?” But really, I just wanted to quit smoking because then my teeth would be whiter, my skin healthier, and my energy more. I wanted to be a more brightly-shining me.

Similarly intellectual improvements, like studying ancient history, can be couched in misleadingly humble terms: “I want to learn from the wisdom of the ancients. I want to understand where my civilization comes from and how I fit into it. Who are we moderns to assume we have it right and our ancestor’s all had it wrong?” This is the language of humility, but not the attitude of humility.

The real reason I wanted the wisdom of the ancients was to be wiser than those around me. I was clever enough (I believed) to see that moderns constantly make huge, categorical intellectual errors that lead to all kinds of muddleheaded practical mistakes. By “humbling” myself before the ancients, I was getting a leg up on my contemporaries.

Even moral improvements… how easy it is to fool myself! I wanted to be kinder to people so people would like me more, not so that they would be happier. I wanted to be chaste because I thought it would give me greater intellectual and spiritual powers, that I would become a more glorious and shining me.

Now I believe that such endeavors, at least for myself and many others like me, are doomed to failure. For two reasons: First, psychologically, self-improvement for the self’s sake becomes contradictory the moment the endeavor becomes difficult. The self wants to be chaste — but then when that same self decides it wants to be unchaste, there is nothing higher to appeal to (except vague precepts, which rarely have the power to convince when one is in the moment of temptation).

Second, less provably but more seriously, such endeavors are doomed because they stem from improper motivation. The right thing done for the wrong reasons will, in the end, become the wrong thing. We receive either outright failure, or if we succeed we reap the fruits of our improper motivation in some other way. This is murky to the mind, but the heart understands very well. We know this in our hearts, we simply choose not to listen.

Can Bertrand Russell Really Have Been That Stupid?

I just read for the first time Bertrand Russell’s famous essay, “Why I Am Not a Christian.” He offers a number of arguments, but one of his first ploys is to attempt to disarm the First Cause argument for God’s existence.

Perhaps the simplest and easiest to understand is the argument of the First Cause. (It is maintained that everything we see in this world has a cause, and as you go back in the chain of causes further and further you must come to a First Cause, and to that First Cause you give the name of God.) That argument, I suppose, does not carry very much weight nowadays, because, in the first place, cause is not quite what it used to be. The philosophers and the men of science have got going on cause, and it has not anything like the vitality it used to have; but, apart from that, you can see that the argument that there must be a First Cause is one that cannot have any validity. I may say that when I was a young man and was debating these questions very seriously in my mind, I for a long time accepted the argument of the First Cause, until one day, at the age of eighteen, I read John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, and I there found this sentence: “My father taught me that the question ‘Who made me?’ cannot be answered, since it immediately suggests the further question `Who made god?'” That very simple sentence showed me, as I still think, the fallacy in the argument of the First Cause. If everything must have a cause, then God must have a cause. If there can be anything without a cause, it may just as well be the world as God, so that there cannot be any validity in that argument. It is exactly of the same nature as the Hindu’s view, that the world rested upon an elephant and the elephant rested upon a tortoise; and when they said, “How about the tortoise?” the Indian said, “Suppose we change the subject.” The argument is really no better than that. There is no reason why the world could not have come into being without a cause; nor, on the other hand, is there any reason why it should not have always existed. There is no reason to suppose that the world had a beginning at all. The idea that things must have a beginning is really due to the poverty of our imagination. Therefore, perhaps, I need not waste any more time upon the argument about the First Cause.

I can’t figure out if this is willful stupidity or just plain, everyday stupidity. Presumably it’s willful. At the very least it’s supremely stupid.

I’ve heard, and invented on my own time, plenty of arguments against the existence of God. The “problem of pain,” for instance, is a doozy (not irrefutable, mind you, but thorny nonetheless). And Russell himself has some other, more well-reasoned arguments in his essay. But I can’t understand how someone could make an argument that is so prima facie mindless. There are only two answers that I see: Russell really felt this was a solid argument and therefore has no concept of what God means, and therefore has disqualified himself as someone to be listened to on this topic by reason of complete ignorance; or Russell knew this was a dubious argument and asserted it anyway, in which case he has disqualified himself by reason of dishonorable tactics. He’s either a moron or a deceiver.

I imagine Bertrand Russell was an order of magnitude more intelligent that I am, and I’m sure he could run circles around me forever and a day when it comes to logic and learning. And yet I can see quite clearly that he is comically mistaken, at least on this question.

Of course, Bertrand Russell being stupid doesn’t prove the existence of God. That’s not my point. But Russell is often held up as one of the paragons of early 20th Century rationality and logical atheism. I’m not well read enough. Surely not all of them were this willfully dense?

Tolkien the Atheist

Only twice have I had a live discussion with someone about Tolkien’s religion, and in both cases my interlocutor was convinced that Tolkien was an atheist. Each time, he said it with such casual conviction that I am led to believe this must be a common mistake, something in the air.

The first such discussion was with a committed atheist — a dogged atheist. (The very doggedness of his atheism, the way he trudges forward with grim determination to disbelieve God, makes me think he is perhaps on his way to theism… persisting in folly can end in wisdom … but who am I to say such a thing?) This conversation happened before I read much about Tolkien as a man. I had read his three major works, including a few times through the Lord of the Rings, and considered myself very much a fan. But I had not read in-depth, nor studied Tolkien’s own commentaries, nor read about his life and work. I had managed to pick up somewhere that Tolkien was a Christian, but it was just something I had heard vaguely, not something I knew.

In the course of a discussion with the dogged atheist, then, I happened to mention that Tolkien was a Christian. “Yeah, I know he was born Christian,” said he, “but he died an atheist.”

This didn’t sound right, but he said it with such flat finality that I was stymied. All I offered was, “I’m not so sure about that,” and we moved the discussion elsewhere.

I had brought it up in the first place because this man was a huge fan of Tolkien. He loved the Lord of the Rings and had shared my same nervousness that the films would be a betrayal of the books, and my same general relief that the films were actually quite good despite some flaws. I wanted to know what he thought of one of his favorite authors being a Christian. (Perhaps it sounds like I was trying to convert him. Certainly, I was not. I am in no position to convert anyone to anything. But I was fascinated by cognitive dissonance and was wondering how it reflected on my own, often equally-dissonant thoughts and beliefs.) I still never got an answer on that one.

[This discussion prompted me to look up the truth about Tolkien, and learning the truth prompted me to read much more about him, to re-read his books, to read some of his minor works, to pay the Silmarillion the attention it deserves for the first time (my first reading had been very desultory), to listen to Tolkien lectures, etc. I am now much better informed about, and indeed better illuminated by, Tolkien’s life and work.]

The second discussion was one I had more recently with a bartender. I had with me on the bar Tom Shippey’s book about Tolkien and also CS Lewis’s Perelandra. In the course of friendly bar-banter, he asked me what I was reading. He seemed to know that Lewis was a Christian (who does not know this?) and then added, “But Tolkien was an atheist, right?”

I corrected the bartender, who was affable enough to allow himself to be gently corrected. I even told him that Tolkien was instrumental in the conversion of Lewis, which seemed to impress him. He explained that he had known that Tolkien had been “in the bad stuff” in World War I, and that he had just assumed that the latter’s experience of horrible violence and death had made him an atheist. We didn’t talk about it much more — he had other customers to tend to, and a chummy manner to maintain — but what struck me again was the casual conviction he had first shown of Tolkien’s supposed atheism. As if it were a common fact that everybody knew.

(And now that I think about it, how curious that he would know that Tolkien was a combat veteran, but not that he was a Christian. I did not know about Tolkien’s WWI experiences until much later.)

The Lord of the Rings is unique and beautiful. It inspires intense love and devotion in its fans, the kind of devotion that more academically popular 20th Century writers like Joyce or Beckett rarely inspire. People will say, “Oh, I love Joyce!” but they don’t mean it in quite the same way. The don’t love Joyce; they feel edified by Joyce. They don’t curl up at home with Ulysses when no one is watching the way they do curl up with The Hobbit.

If one’s conviction is that all Christians (even just all theists) are silly — or malign — then it’s important to ignore or downplay or outright deny the beliefs of the objects of one’s love. With some artists it is easier to separate out their beliefs from their works, either because their beliefs seem to change and waver (like Bob Dylan), or because their works seem to be created in a religion-less vacuum (like in Shakespeare, where religion is everywhere and yet nowhere).

Other great works are impossible to separate from the convictions of their creators. There can be no non-Christian Bach, nor a non-Christian Mahler, nor a non-Christian Tolkien. My bartender friend and my atheist friend don’t care much for Mahler, but they do love Tolkien. So perhaps the only way out is for them to simply deny reality with unthinking conviction.

Well, it’s not the only way out…

Daily Events Don’t Matter

Today the news is that the Dow Jones dropped a bunch. There are some riots in England. A couple days ago a helicopter full of Americans was shot down in Afghanistan. The Yankees are in first place.

None of this matters. But all of it matters. How can both these statements be true? Let’s start with why it does matter.

The economy matters because people need bread. The riots matter because people need peace and security. The war matters because different tribes have different goals. The standings matter because I hate the Yankees.

Eating, having security, winning wars, and winning pennants: all these are wonderful and good. But they are not why we are here on earth. They are merely the trappings of life.

The economy is probably on the verge of collapsing. We may be in for very dark times ahead. Indeed, times are dark already, but the dark times on the near horizon may involve things we have not seen yet: middle-class people thrust into penury, general hunger, gang wars in the suburbs. This is terrible and to be resisted.

But let us pretend that tomorrow morning, when we woke up, the earth would be covered in prosperity and peace. Then what? Those people that have families would certainly feel immense relief. They already know that their reason to be alive is to love their spouses, to protect and nurture and love their children. But assuming such a state could go on forever, what then? And what of the childless, the drunk, and the mendicant?

Collapse is not a bad thing, though it is assuredly a very bad thing. All that matters is that a human becomes holy. How do we become holy? Through the economy? Through conquering Afghanistan? Through winning the pennant? No. We become holy by humbling ourselves before God, and through glorifying God, and through penance and prayer.

One must never wish for mundane evil. Mundane evil is evil. The Devil himself set the trap wherein people who would be holy hope for ugliness and despair. Because, though it might lead to greater holiness, it also leads to spiritual pride for the one who hoped for it. “I told you so” is a vomitous thing to say.

But we must never fear economic collapse, nor race wars, nor the Taliban, nor the prospect of yet another last place finish. Trials are beautiful. They make us noble, if only we can see the bigger picture.

Three Wise Heretics

Barfield, Watts, and Blake:

(I wonder did they follow their own advice?)

* * *

The best way of escape from deep-rooted error has often proved to be, to pursue it to its logical conclusion, that is, to go on taking it seriously and see what follows. Only we must be consistent. We must take it really seriously. We must give up double-think. For inconsistent and slovenly thought can abide indefinitely in error without any feeling of discomfort. —Owen Barfield; History in English Words

* * *

So what will you do with a person who is convinced that the earth is flat? There is no way of reasoning with him. If it is for some reason important that he discover that the earth is round, you have got to play a game or trick on him. You tell him, “Great. The earth is flat. Let’s go and look over the edge; wouldn’t that be fun? Of course, if we are going to look over the edge of the earth, we must be very careful that we do not go around in circles or we will never get to the edge. So we must go along consistently westward, along a certain line of latitude. Then we will come to the edge of the earth.” In other words, in order to convince a flat-earther that the world is round, you have to make him act consistently on his own proposition by making him go consistently westward in search of the edge of the world. When at last, by going consistently westward, he comes back to the place where he started, he will have been convinced that the earth is at least cylindrical … What you must do is make him persist in his folly. That is the whole method of Zen: to make people become consistent, perfect egotists, and so explode the illusion of the separate ego.    —Alan Watts; Buddhism the Religion of No-Religion

* * *

If the fool would persist in his folly he would become wise.    —William Blake; The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

* * *

The World is Constantly Receding Before Our Grasp

When the internet first became very widespread, there was a great deal of excitement over how it was going to bring the entire world to our fingertips. And this is still how it is talked about and advertised today (in smart-phone commercials, for example). To a certain degree, the internet has indeed brought the world to our fingertips. It is very easy nowadays to buy just about anything you can imagine.

But the acquisition of things is never what satisfies. It is not what we are here in this life to do. Humans as a group have always been able to get food and shelter one way or another. Modern affluence and convenience only bring more and more comforts to more and more people. To what end?

Think about the search for knowledge on the internet. It is an endless maze. Each time we click from one link to another, we follow the thread of a mad Ariadne. The filament is not gold but cheap thread and it’s attached nowhere, fluttering in the wind. The further you follow it, the less you know, the more lost you are.

Even when following what feels to be a vein of golden truth, it’s hard to know what;s going on. Sometimes I marvel at all the good sites I find (I am no longer astonished by all the bad ones, they are like dust motes floating in the air by the millions, easily ignored). I read that an author I admire has apparently been following the site of someone I have never heard of, and has been doing so for years. So I investigate that blog, and find that second writer has even more recommendations. And on it goes.

But even this kind of search — investigations in the name of truth — is almost too bewildering to be of use. The pit seems to descend forever, does descend forever. The world is constantly receding before our grasp. The internet does not bring us wisdom but only pushes it farther away. It’s like trying to grasp a floating reed underwater. The more eagerly you grasp, the more it slips away, and you must pursue it ever further.

In the end, the only thing to do is to be still.