The Desire for an Idealized Self

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.

C. S. Lewis

The case of C. S. Lewis reveals that the desire for a splendid false self leads to self-alienation. (Photo: public domain)

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.

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The Morality of Robert Louis Stevenson

We revere Robert Louis Stevenson for his adventure novels, but he was not a genre writer in the modern sense of that term. While Black Arrow, Kidnapped, The Master of Ballantrae, and Treasure Island may seem like straightforward romantic picaresque yarns, Stevenson was always deeply concerned with the moral aspects of his story. Among his fiction, the famous novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde most vividly reveals his other side. The story deals with Stevenson’s understanding of the subconscious mind and the idea that good and evil can reside in the same person. Issues of morality so vexed Stevenson that he called ethics his “veiled mistress.”

Portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson

Questions of morality so concerned Stevenson that he called ethics his “veiled mistress.” All of his works carry his moral values. (Image: Wikimedia)

He may have acquired a theoretical concern with morality from his fiercely Calvinist nanny, but ethical concerns literally overwhelmed him when his artistic ambitions prompted a serious clash with his conventional and practical father. Unable to sway his obstinate parent, Stevenson had to justify to himself his decision to pursue art rather than a more realistic means of earning a living.

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Orwell’s Struggle with the False Self

When reading literary biographies, one is wise to examine the worldview of the biographer as well as that of the subject. In his superb George Orwell: A Life, biographer Bernard Crick says a lot of perceptive things about Orwell, and while doing so, inadvertently illuminates humankind’s chronic problems with the discrepancy between the false persona we create to impress the world and the authentic self that we truly are.

George Orwell sitting at a BBC microphone

George Orwell was driven hard by what one biographer has called his “Puritan daemon.” (Image: BBC)

English literary critic Cyril Connolly lays out the ground of the conflict. He saw George Orwell as standing for independence and offering intelligence as an alternative to character. This view draws a sharp distinction between authenticity (character) and the intellect (ego and its attendant false persona). The idea that one can dispense with character or submerge it beneath intelligence is dubious to say the least, but such thinking reveals the way ego prefers the false persona, identifies with it, and hopes to shield genuine behaviour from view. The intellectual often presents himself as a paragon of moral virtue.

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The Search for Personal Moral and Ethical Truth

German philosopher, mathematician and man of affairs (i.e. businessman), Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz always said that he found no book so bad that he could get nothing from it. He was referring to serious works of non-fiction and meant that he could glean a few bits of worthwhile material from any book he read. There is a more powerful way to think about bad books. The fact that they are obviously wrong helps you to clarify your own thinking. (Perhaps Leibniz had this in mind as well.) You can view your own notions in the light of the wrong ideas in the bad book, make comparisons, and work out arguments to knock down what you are reading. I make a habit of reading books (not necessarily bad ones!) that present views opposed to my own.

Portrait of German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz

Philosophers such as Leibniz work out entire philosophical systems. Ordinary people settle for a set of personal values. (Image: wpclipart.com)

There is a vital clue to being an intellectual in this.

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