Art and LiteraturePhilosophy


What is it that causes people to act against their own self-interest?

Two of the most popular conservative thinkers of the last century both addressed this question at a very personal level, which seemed odd to me until I started thinking about it more. At the national level, this last century was the age of Communism, the Great Depression, and Holocaust clean-up, when people were talking in depth about the need to help those less fortunate.

On the surface, these two thinkers couldn’t have less in common. One called himself “a dinosaur” and the “last, true medievalist.” The other was fully modern and portrayed herself as a revolutionary. The first was a Christian apologist, who reinvented fantasy and sought to describe those things that unified believers of all denominations. The second was as secular as one can get, and reinvented the doctrine of selfishness in an effort to rid the “producers” of the “leeches.” I’m talking, of course, about C.S. Lewis and Ayn Rand.

I have to be honest and make a disclaimer at this point. I don’t like Rand. I feel that she was uninventive as a writer, creating only two characters and recycling them, over and over, to allow the same two personalities the opportunity to express the same thoughts in a thousand situations. But she did have her moments.

My favorite of her storylines featured the two Reardens, Hank and Lillian. Hank is a hard-working family man, with a wife, mother, and brother who just don’t appreciate him although Hank himself is very reluctant to acknowledge that. Lillian is the quintessential Machiavellian, who has figured out that Hank is heavily motivated by guilt. It’s appalling, really, to see how cold-blooded she is about things, even to making it seem to Hank as if every sexual encounter between them is some form of marital rape. He wants to believe that she really does love him, but eventually has to realize that she intentionally is setting him up to feel guilt so that she can exploit him by driving him into ever greater feats of atonement.

How often does this happen in real life? Probably more often than we want to admit. But the truly frightening part of the story is that Lillian knew what she was doing long before Hank did, and that’s the part I find improbable. The story accelerates as a nation full of Lillians finds ways to suck a thousand Hanks dry, until a man named John Galt persuades the Hanks to join him in a secret mountain compound where no Lillians will ever be allowed to enter.

C.S. Lewis described the same love-hate-exploitation phenomenon in the Four Loves, which is a philosophical work, and Til We Have Faces, which is a retelling of the Cupid and Psyche myth and probably his least known and most complicated fiction piece. The heroine of Til We Have Faces is a character named Orual, who is rather like Hank and Lillian smashed together.

Orual tells the story herself. Naturally, she’s just the victim here. The gods played very foul with her, tricking her into believing that Psyche was insane by making invisible all the wondrous riches that Psyche was trying to describe to her. If only Psyche could see these things, what was poor Orual to think?

In the original myth, Psyche was sacrificed to the god Cupid who spirited her away and married her, but when she became homesick for her sisters, Cupid allowed one magical visit. The sisters, jealous of Psyche’s good fortune, convinced her that Cupid was a foul creature, probably a demon, and urged her to do the one thing he had forbidden her to do – to light a lamp when he came to her at night and look at his face. Cupid woke up, angry and disappointed that she trusted her treacherous sisters more than him, and Psyche had to do a great deal of penance to win back his trust.

In Orual’s version, although she herself can’t see it, Orual wasn’t jealous of Psyche as much as she was jealous of Cupid. Cupid doesn’t deserve Psyche and Psyche’s just a child, who can’t yet see how unworthy Cupid is of her. In this version, Psyche protests a lot more and it’s only when Orual threatens to commit suicide that a very angry Psyche promises to light the lamp as Orual commands. And, yes, it is a command. Both Psyche and Orual knew it.

Like Lillian, Orual plays on the guilt, love, and pity of her victim. Like Hank, Psyche sees through the play to realize how very manipulative the whole game is.

About three quarters of the way through the story, Orual reads over what she has written and sees herself the way her readers see her. Stricken with remorse, she does everything in her power to change herself into someone more like Psyche, someone who was truly compassionate and loving and very worthy of admiration, but all the while Orual is aware that she is failing and that she can never truly fix her own flaws. In her desperate attempts to change and genuine ever-present remorse, she becomes someone who truly is worthy of pity. Only then does Cupid show her compassion and transforms her into someone as beautiful (inside and out) as is her sister.

Meanwhile, in Ayn Rand land, we do see one character whom the author deems worthy of pity—John Galt. This man, the heroic philosopher of the story, has been captured by the world’s various Lillians and is in great danger. He has nothing more to offer any of his friends, not really. His life’s goal was to get them safely secluded in their mountain paradise and now that’s done. Any rescue mission would, in fact, jeopardize the work he has already accomplished.

Now, despite the fact that this whole book has been entirely about self-interest, and not going out of your way for anyone if there isn’t something in it for you, Hank decides to join in a rescue attempt. This despite the fact that Galt has stolen the heart of Hank’s lover, the woman who showed Hank how shallow and controlling and untrustworthy Lillian actually was.

As best I can figure, Hank’s motivation in this is gratitude, but I’m not entirely sure. Gratitude was supposedly jettisoned alongside pity and love, so that nothing exists except rational self-interest. Maybe Galt was just so inherently awesome a philosopher that Hank and all his friends realized they could never be sure he didn’t have more to teach them. Maybe. But surely it’s at least important to ask whether or not Galt has himself become a leech? This is, after all, a mission in which many of them could be killed.

To me, the difference between Lewis and Rand is that of Orual, one, versus the Reardens, two. In Rand, there can be a mountain commune where good people go to avoid the bad, but in Lewis, the producer is the leech. The woman who raised her child-sister to greatness is the same one who won’t let the grown child go on to be great. Good and bad mix together, so that one friend praises Orual as the best monarch a nation could have, while another friend’s wife calls her a spider who devours her friends.

But one thing they both have in common is that pity, gratitude, anything that causes one friend to set aside their own needs aside for another, these are emotions that must be freely offered. One can’t just demand it.

Photo courtesy of Sputnik+.

Pepper Darlington

Pepper Darlington

Pepper is a graduate of Patrick Henry College with a Bachelor's degree in Classical Liberal Arts. She is a mental health advocate, with a concern for building up the confidence of the voiceless, and she currently works for The Great Courses, whose college-level materials occupy much of her spare time as well. Her studies focus on history, religion, and psychology, while her interests include superhero movies, travel, writing, and kayaking. A Christian Protestant from a low-church background, she nevertheless has a great interest in the other major world religions, especially Buddhism, and she hopes someday to visit Japan.

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