Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Selfishness and humility

I'm reading C.S.Lewis's 'Mere Christianity'. The book consists of reworked transcripts of radio talks he gave in the early 1940s, so the historical context is World War 2. The series of talks was commissioned by the BBC to bring comfort to the people of Britain and those in the armed forces during wartime.

Lewis kicks off by establishing evidence for a Law of Human Nature, which he states is present in all of us and always had been, despite cultural and ethnic differences. It is a fundamental moral code that gives us a framework for knowing the difference between right and wrong. He acknowledges that the details may vary between cultures (monogamy vs polygamy for example), but the overall framework doesn't (by the same example, promiscuity is wrong).

But his next example about selfishness is interesting.

'Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to ... But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first. Selfishness has never been admired'.

That leaves me wondering - is that still true today? I see examples every day in our celebrity culture that suggest that selfishness is a trait that we increasingly do admire. Reality TV programmes can only be 'won' by those willing to climb over the other downtrodden contestants to get to the top. Producers engineer conflict that can only be resolved by selfishness - and consistently high ratings and newspaper column inches show that this is what we want to watch.

A thirst for success is something to be admired, but I believe that today we've forgotten that success should go hand-in-hand with humility. Whatever we achieve in life, we do so with the gifts God gave us, and the glory belongs to him, not us. 
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. 
-- Philippians 2:3-4 NIV

I wonder what C.S. Lewis would have made of Big Brother or The X Factor.


  1. Selfishness is rewarded materially in many societies. Humility is a virtue of community. If living within a larger group is not considered a value, community is disrupted. It seems "modern" living has little to do with humility and a lot to do with blowing one's own horn, as the Pharisees did on the streets.

  2. People are probably admiring the Nietzschean quality of the contestant in those reality programs rather than the vice per se. I don't think any of those viewers would prefer to have a selfish family members.