Both the religiously inclined and secular types strive to acquire a splendid false self. Between the two groups, the terminology may differ, but the game remains the same.
English author and academic C. S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia) experienced a sudden religious conversion while still a young man. He went on to become one of the 20th century’s best-known religious writers at a time when faith – in Europe, at least – was decidedly on the wane. Whatever one might say about his beliefs, Lewis is a superb example of how a skilled writer can win a following and find substantial success by going against the dominant trend. Conservative writers take note.
In his revealing essay, “Three Kinds of Men,” Lewis lays out his ideas on how to achieve “salvation.” He advises us to “[get] rid of the tiresome business of adjusting the rival claims of self and God by the simple expedient of rejecting the claims of self altogether.” While religion has collapsed in much of the West, this “simple expedient” of self-rejection remains as popular as ever. However, we no longer conceptualize the ploy as a way to gain salvation for the soul and win a place in heaven. Being more sophisticated, we plan the replacement of a despised humble self with a much finer (but falser) idealized self-image. It is not God we wish to impress but our peers.
The acquisition of a fine false self has long been central to the psychology of humanity. In Christian terms, that finer idealized self is Christ-like. In modern secular terms, the set of virtues differs, but the idea of being morally virtuous remains. In this striving for moral and ethical glory, we have not really left religion behind.
As a believer in psychology, I find self-rejection a shocking notion. To be “saved” (made better), we must bury our own authentic self! What we really need is the willingness to work with what we have. We should be satisfied with striving to make the best of our genuine resources, but these are often not impressive enough to please. Lewis reveals the problem when he says we must “want” Christ. That is, we must yearn to emulate Christ’s values and behaviour, even if they are different from our own. Modern secularists play the same game; only the “Christ” label is missing from the list of stellar, often politically correct, virtues. Yet living up to false ideals is a recipe for self-alienation.
Lewis believed the desire for Christ was difficult to establish claiming, “It is true that the wanting itself would be beyond our power but for the one fact. The world is so built that, to help us desert our own satisfactions, they desert us. War and trouble and finally old age take from us one by one all those things that the natural self hoped for at its setting out.” The view arises from the notion of sacrificing earthly pleasures on order to become more virtuous. In reality, desire is the easy part. Few of us have trouble wanting to look good! The difficulty comes in actually living up to the idealized self. Some see this as a noble conscious struggle to live by high standards when in fact it is, as I have already noted, a case of living by values not your own; self-alienation, in other words.