Greater things, lesser things, and our culture

C. S. Lewis makes some helpful observations about greater and lesser things in an essay in God in the Dock.  The first few paragraphs I quote lead one to personal application — if I pursue anything more than I delight in and desire God, I am an idolator and will have neither the thing I desire nor God.

But there is a cultural application as well — the culture that desires anything ahead of God will not have its wants nor God.  And the solution then is not so much to battle against the thing desired (homosexual marriage might be the issue today), but to hold high the revelation of God and exhort and compel and entice individuals in our culture with the surpassing delights of becoming Christ-worshippers.

Here is a portion of Lewis’s essay, “First and Second Things:”

LewisThe woman who makes a dog the centre of her life loses, in the end, not only her human usefulness and dignity but even the proper pleasure of dog-keeping. The man who makes alcohol his chief good loses not only his job but his palate and all power of enjoying the earlier (and only pleasurable) levels of intoxication. It is a glorious thing to feel for a moment or two that the whole meaning of the universe is summed up in one woman — glorious so long as other duties and pleasures keep tearing you away from her. But clear the decks and so arrange your life (it is sometimes feasible) that you will have nothing to do but contemplate her, and what happens? Of course this law has been discovered before, but it will stand re-discovery. It may be stated as follows: every preference of a small good to a great, or a partial good to a total good, involves the loss of the small or partial good for which the sacrifice was made.

Apparently the world is made that way. If Esau really got the pottage in return for his birthright? then Esau was a lucky exception. You can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first. From which it would follow that the question, What things are first? is of concern not only to philosophers but to everyone.

It is impossible, in this context, not to inquire what our own civilization has been putting first for the last thirty years. And the answer is plain. It has been putting itself first. To preserve civilization has been the great aim; the collapse of civilization, the great bugbear. Peace, a high standard of life, hygiene, transport, science and amusement — all these, which are what we usually mean by civilization, have been our ends. It will be replied that our concern for civilization is very natural and very necessary at a time when civilization is so imperilled. But how if the shoe is on the other foot? — how if civilization has been imperilled precisely by the fact that we have all made civilization our summum bonum? Perhaps it can’t be preserved in that way. Perhaps civilization will never be safe until we care for something else more than we care for it.

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