"an instinctive revulsion to overweight people"
I don't think it's instinctive. Whoever carved the Venus of Willendorf
with stone age tools probably wasn't doing it as a joke. Mauritanians don't overfeed young women
to make the young women less attractive.
I think it's a trained revulsion, especially considering that it's kicking in at lower and lower fat percentages.
I haven't missed the point of the rest of your essay, but I'm thinking about it.
Yes, see the very next sentence: "...if it turns out that our revulsion to overweight people is totally contingent on images we get from TV and so on and that other societies find overweight people perfectly okay or even more attractive (as is indeed the case). "
Since the word "instinctive" is probably the wrong one to use there I'll edit it out.
The discipline of trying to stamp out pride -- and then continually saying "oh, well, your humility is just a really subtle form of pride, start all over again" is common to all the Abrahamic religions. There's a lot of it in Rumi (for all that the hippies love him, he's still a Muslim). Here's the thing, Squid -- I actually tried to *do* it. I built the habit of constantly digging for a prideful thought. It's not a process that allows you to live in the world. You end up with paralysis. And let's be frank -- the guys like Lewis who are *telling* you to do this elaborate form of torture are hardly practicing it on themselves.
This is where I become something of a Randroid. This is where I notice that this discipline of systematically trying to destroy the Self is only practiced by people so conscientious that it's really *sad* to see them wasted in self-abnegation. The best minds of our generation, and the most ethical people too, have a real tendency to get stuck on a purity trip. And it's a damn shame. If you're OCD enough to try to purify yourself of pride, and smart enough to go up lots of meta-levels about it, both you and the rest of the world would be a hell of a lot better off if you just dropped the guilt trip, declared you were awesome, and went about doing awesome things.
And you say -- well, it's not really about self-abnegation, that's just another form of pride -- but as you say yourself, once you start framing it as a goal of Not Being Prideful, you never get out of that loop of finding prideful motivations under noble ones. It is an infinite regress, and not a pretty one.
There *is* a way out though. And it's the blessing of multiplicity. Thank Maude, the mind doesn't only do one thing, and there isn't only one self. Eventually, something other than the guilt trip *will* come to your attention -- you'll get curious about some question, or you'll notice a leaf falling from a tree, or you'll want to help someone. This is the moment where you have to make a choiceless choice. Think about the question, or the leaf, or the person in distress, and *not* about the guilt trip, but don't think about not thinking about the guilt trip. It's logically impossible if you're a single decision-theoretic agent, but it *is* possible in reality, and in fact happens all the time, precisely because we're not single agents. "Leaf-loving Sarah" is born in an instant and takes over "Guilt-tripping Sarah". It's hard to put into words how to do it, and I'm not sure how to do it more often, though I think vipassana helps.
I think I agree with you about everything here. Powerful, willful attempts to escape pride don't work. What works for me is usually making myself genuinely happy (there's a different kind of happiness that comes from being successful and gaining status, but I'm starting to think that's totally unrelated). I can do that by listening to good music, taking a walk especially somewhere beautiful, spending time with people especially those I love, or reading a good book. For me happiness seems to be a state where I'm in the world and where I naturally stop focusing on myself. Your mention of "leaf-loving Sarah" sounds right.
But also worrying about thought too much might be downplaying the role of action. A lot of my pride problems involve me not being able to apologize or admit I was wrong. Once I'm able to notice I'm doing that, go up to the person involved and apologize, I might not have untied the whole Gordian knot but it seems like a good first step and then consistency bias drags my thoughts along kicking and screaming to catch up with my actions.
I'm sort of intrigued by your bringing up Rand here, in that I'm not sure I know what her answer to this problem would be. Her characters seemed proud of their legitimate accomplishments, but they didn't seem to constantly dwell on whether they were "good enough". On the rare occasions they got bested, they seemed to be pretty excited to meet someone who could beat them in a fair fight and willing to acknowledge their competitor's superiority while also hoping to improve themselves and win the next round. Maybe they were insulated from pride because they cared about their art - the art of business, or the art of architecture - more than they cared about their own status? But I don't know of any Rand stories about people who actually face real insurmountable ego threats - a crappy entrepreneur who keeps getting outcompeted, or an architect forced to accept that he's just not all that good at designing buildings. I can't imagine John Galt getting a D on some exam, or having the love of his life break up with him, and having to wonder whether he was really a decent enough person to achieve his goals - it just seems like something he would never allow to happen. There was one mediocre-but-virtuous character in Atlas - a servant (?) or something of Dagny's - who realized he would never achieve greatness himself and so dedicated himself to assisting someone who would and so helping build the world vicariously - but it seems psychologically unrealistic to expect that from the mediocre people.
Lewis' politics were indeed conservative. I was reading a two-in-one volume of The Screwtape Letters / Screwtape Proposes a Toast, which showed the contrast quite amusingly. The first book follows a small group of people, and you sort of nod along, thinking "ah yes, this advice about how to cultivate humility in your personal life is indeed very sensible". Then the next book branches off into how trade unions are, literally, a tool of the devil.
I feel there is a prisoner's dilemma situation here. For any given individual, it probably maximizes happiness to adopt a Christian/Buddhist attitude of equanimity and acceptance. But if _everyone_ does that, we end up with a society like medieval Europe, where everyone lives in squalor and gets screwed over by the ruling elite.
2012-11-07 05:52 pm (UTC)
Very good point.
There is a long, long history of pointing out that Christian ethics don't work so well in statecraft (and we may take the ruleds attitude towards the ruler as a form of statecraft) but no one has really found out a good way of squaring the circle, other than a somewhat artificial division between politics and personal behavior.
It seems horribly unchristian to not want to listen to the downtrodden because they make you sad.
Actually, when I read the excerpt you posted, I didn't understand it to be saying "We can't have her here, we don't want to listen to her grumbling." What I understood it to be was an answer to a question I've wondered about before; if (say) I am in heaven but my friend is in hell, how can I be happy? So the guide was explaining that one cannot hold the joy of heaven ransom to people who choose to remain in hell ("I know it has a grand sound to say ye’ll accept no salvation which leaves even one creature in the dark outside.").
I haven't read the book, so it's highly likely I'm missing something, but that's how I understood it before I read the rest of the post. It doesn't explain why the lady from the nursing home was in hell, of course.
Well, think about the situation we have here on earth, where someone may try blackmailing another person into either starting or continuing a relationship with "If you break up with me, I'll kill myself!"
No-one would, I hope, tell the second person in that situation "Oh, you have to stay with Bill or Jane, otherwise you will be to blame if they do anything!"
To give an absurd example out of my own experience, when it comes to fanfiction writing, you sometimes (and I've seen this in action myself) get the very young and/or over-sensitive reacting to constructive criticism (that is, criticism genuinely meant to help them improve as a writer, rather than merely telling them "You suck!") by stomping off in high dudgeon, then a couple of days later someone supposedly their sister or best friend comes back and tells us that So-and-So has killed herself so there, I hope you're all happy you drove her to it with your mean ways, you big meanies!
Of course So-and-So isn't dead, she merely popped up pretending to be her own sister/friend and was hoping to shock everyone. Does not work, by the way; the first time I saw this, I was genuinely startled, until I learned better.
That is what Lewis is saying about the damned; they are trying to force the blessed to be miserable because "If I'm not happy, you can't be happy, either!". But that doesn't work, anymore than "If Bob kills himself, it will be your fault!"
2012-11-07 05:55 pm (UTC)
Your reading of Great Divorce is a lot different than mine, so thanks, yours was illuminating.
But like you, I took Lewis' attitude towards pity sto be bordering on heartless and poorly thought out:
Thank you. It was good to see someone else with some of the same worries so I know I'm not completely missing the mark.
I don't know if this helps any, but from St. Thomas Aquinas on Pride (pride is considered under the heading of the cardinal virtue of Temperance; the pairings are pride opposed to humility, with temperance being the middle way or balance we should all strive for):
"Reply to Objection 1. Pride [superbia] may be understood in two ways. First, as overpassing [supergreditur] the rule of reason, and in this sense we say that it is a sin. Secondly, it may simply denominate "super-abundance"; in which sense any super-abundant thing may be called pride: and it is thus that God promises pride as significant of super-abundant good. Hence a gloss of Jerome on the same passage (Isaiah 61:6) says that "there is a good and an evil pride"; or "a sinful pride which God resists, and a pride that denotes the glory which He bestows."
It may also be replied that pride there signifies abundance of those things in which men may take pride.
Reply to Objection 2. Reason has the direction of those things for which man has a natural appetite; so that if the appetite wander from the rule of reason, whether by excess or by default, it will be sinful, as is the case with the appetite for food which man desires naturally. Now pride is the appetite for excellence in excess of right reason. Wherefore Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xiv, 13) that pride is the "desire for inordinate exaltation": and hence it is that, as he asserts (De Civ. Dei xiv, 13; xix, 12), "pride imitates God inordinately: for it hath equality of fellowship under Him, and wishes to usurp His dominion over our fellow-creatures."
So what pride is, is inordinate or unbalanced self-esteem or self-glorification (or esteem or glorification of other things; saying "My country, right or wrong!" is the wrong kind of national pride, because if you really don't care that your country is in the wrong or doing wrong, merely because it's your country...)
2012-11-08 12:52 pm (UTC)
I don't think that's what "my country, right or wrong" means. Its more a declaration of relationship, i.e., that my relationship to my country is not a contingent one based on a continually updated evaluation of my countries value. Its like saying 'my wife, healthy or sick."
"One of his damned souls is a woman who (as best I understand) was put in a terrible abusive nursing home where she was starved to death."
I was surprised by this, because I honestly didn't remember any case like that, so I dug out an online version of "The Great Divorce" and I think you must be referring to the Grumbling Ghost in Chapter 9:
"I once said to her 'I do think I'm entitled to a little consideration because you at least lived out your time, but I oughtn't to have been here for years and years yet' - but of course I'm forgetting you don't know - I was murdered, simply murdered, dear, that man should never have operated, I ought to be alive to-day and they simply starved me in that dreadful nursing home and no one ever came near me and . . ."
Now, please remember this book was first published in 1945. Back then (and up to quite recently), if you had to go into hospital for an operation, it practically meant you had a death sentence. Operations were the last resort when nothing else would cure the ill. This woman - however old she is - expected seventy or eighty years of life, and she feels cheated out of her 'full share' (but none of us can guarantee we'll live to be as old as we expect we will live, so this is her first error). I didn't read it as being starved to death in an abusive nursing home, but as a very gravely ill woman who died (of cancer or who knows what) but who was so desperately clinging on to life, she blamed everyone and anyone for failing to keep her alive and make her better.
The operation didn't cure her? Then the surgeon "murdered" her! The nursing home didn't cure her? She was "simply starved", not that her condition was so poor, she couldn't eat solid food. No one ever came near her? And whose fault is it that she drove away all her friends?
The irony is that she claims her former friend, who died before her and whom she met again in Hell, "turned out to be so changed, absolutely selfish, and not a particle of sympathy for anyone but herself". That's her own case, and she can't recognise it. Lewis says "I am troubled, Sir," said I, "because that unhappy creature doesn't seem to me to be the sort of soul that ought to be even in danger of damnation. She isn't wicked: she's only a silly, garrulous old woman who has got into a habit of grumbling, and one feels that a little kindness, and rest, and change would put her all right." And George MacDonald answers, "That is what she once was. That is maybe what she still is. If so, she certainly will be cured. But the whole question is whether she is now a grumbler....The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman - even the least trace of one-still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again."
In other words, the Grumbling Ghost is so fixated on the unfairness that she died ('I oughtn't to have been here for years and years yet') that she can't be happy anywhere; she first has to let go of the expectation that she was owed a certain amount of lifespan and that she shouldn't have gotten sick and died from a disease.
There may also be a misunderstanding of the language used; Lewis is using "nursing home" to mean "convalescent home", not "residential home"; to give an online quote:
"Scottish convalescent homes, established between 1860 and 1939, provided short-term care for around two to three weeks for patients recovering from trauma, surgery, or illness either at home or in hospital."
So the Grumbling Ghost would have been sent from hospital after her operation to a short-term care home to recuperate, except that obviously she died there due to complications from the operation or because her disease was so far advanced.
2012-11-07 08:57 pm (UTC)
Suggestion: when mentioning a book, and especially when writing a review, immediately name the author. You wrote this as if the reader already knew of the book, in particular knew who the author is.
I can imagine occasionally wanting to hide the identity of the author, particularly this author, from people who know of only a subset of his writing, but I'm pretty sure that was not what you were doing in using his surname but not initials.
2012-11-07 09:15 pm (UTC)
>>>But I keep thinking of pride as a defense mechanism. And you know who develops defense mechanisms? People who have horrible experiences. Lewis is extremely evasive about whether everyone will be saved eventually, but taking him at his orthodox word and assuming they won't be, it seems extremely unfair for people who have worse experiences and so develop more mental defense mechanisms to get the short end of the salvation stick. If someone is abused for their entire life, and so they develop some unhealthy coping strategies to deal with it, then rejecting them from Heaven for those unhealthy coping strategies seems like adding insult to injury.
One of the big philosophical differences between you and Lewis is that you take for granted that humans don't have libertarian (= contra-causal) free will. For someone like Lewis who believes in souls with libertarian free will/ultimate, non-reducible agency, no matter how horrible your past experiences you always *can* break out of your defense mechanisms and embrace salvation. For a compatibilist it makes more sense to say that in some of these cases you have lost your (non-magical) freedom to choose to do otherwise than what you are doing, like it happens for drug addicts or brainwashed people.
2012-11-09 03:06 pm (UTC)
Re: Free will
I don't know what Lewis' position is on libertarian free-will. But I don't think that's what the Great Divorce is about. The underlying philosophical concept isn't 'you deserve to be in hell because you have freely chosen to be.' Its more "deserve's got nothin' to do with it."
I once had an idea for an MMO that starts with you dying and going to hell. Not *precisely* the Christian hell, since it isn't optimized for Game Design. But a Hell that is more in line with actual Christian concepts of Hell than an atheist's parody of it. (I thought this was a more interesting exercise).
The initial game is about the conquest of hell - there's a huge swarm of evil people all dumped into this shithole, and they all need to make alliances to survive but obviously can't trust each other very much. You get abilities and choose sides based on which sins resonate with you. The initial story-arc ends with Lucifer successfully putting himself on top.
Later expansions would include breaking out, manipulating mortals, fighting with angels, etc. To preserve some suspense, the second-to-last expansion ends with Lucifer convincing God to sign a contract, stating that He will not use omnipotent God-powers to just swoop in an defend his creation - if his creation is worth anything, it should be able to defend against the temptations and armies of Hell.
The last expansion would end with everything falling apart because yes, evil does in fact turn upon itself. Lucifer's carefully balanced stack of cards crumbles and consumes itself.
At the very end, Lucifer (and you, now as a ranking demon-lord) are given the option of ending it all and going to heaven. Lucifer refuses, of course, returning to an endlessly repeating fantasy where he maintains illusions of power.
Going to heaven means that you stop playing this fucking repetitive soul-sucking MMO and move on to real life.
That's a cool concept.
It might work even better as a novel than a game. Ending it just before the narrator decides. . . .
2012-11-08 07:58 pm (UTC)
As a teenager I was worried that I did good things in order to be seen as a nice person. I asked a friend in her eighties for advice, and she told me to keep doing the same things and eventually my motivation would change. The question of pride no longer bothers me, but I'm not sure how much is that my motivation really shifted and I and how much is that I now believe it's fine to pay attention to how your actions look to other people.
Sounds like 1984 told from the other side: Winston Smith could stay in Heaven, if only he learned to love Big Brother.
yes, obviously, there is no difference between hating a totalitarian dictator, and hating food and resenting that you go hungry.
What you say about 'pride' and 'humility' sounds a lot like what Lewis said about them (in MERE CHRISTIANITY, iirc).
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