Monday, July 18, 2011

Modern Individualism, Modern Narcissism

One young college woman, on being asked why she liked to consider herself "spiritual but not religious," replied that she began to consider herself so when she realized, "I bow to no one." Unfortunately, this sort of stomach-turning nonsense is simple part and parcel of a whole range of cliches that are based in a outlook common in the modern world. That outlook is a radical individualism typically supported by little rational thought but many irrational cliches. The individualist will speak how he "bows to no one," how it is "my body and my choice," or "my life," or his need to "look out for number one," or "believe in himself," or, perhaps worst of all, "be true to himself."

All harmless and even positive sounding on the surface, one could write an article on the sinister meaning each one takes when understood. The person who believes himself typically believes in little else; the person being true to himself is typically being true to little else, and the person concerned with his own choice is often little concerned with anyone else's. But of these various phrases generated by an individualistic culture, the one that concerns us the most here is the idea of bowing to no one.

Sounding wonderfully, and even heroically, individualistic this nonsense, carried to its logical conclusion, leads to a place, I think no sensible person ought wish to go. What is more, a real refusal to bow to others even deprives one of one of the greatest pleasures in this life, the pleasure of admiration. CS Lewis, I think, said that a world where I could not look up to and admire others as better than myself, and honor them for it, would be an insufferable world. Not only would it be an insufferable world, it would be a lie. For if we really imagine that "I am just as good as you are" then we delude ourselves. I have ordinary human vanity (indeed, as an academic, more than ordinary), and typically fancy myself a rather wonderful person. But when forced to think seriously on the issue, we know better.

Even worse, a world where we really refused to bow to no one would be an ugly world, full of conflict. For it is only by making the little bows to each other on a daily basis that we are able to get along at all. Two people who reach for the same last item on a store shelf, or who reach a door simultaneously only big enough for one to pass at a time. If one does not bow to the other, nothing is left than to fight like animals. Some occasions may require a greater bow. Fulton Sheen may have had this in mind when he spoke of crises in marriage that could only be solved by a willingness to crush the ego. A refusal to do so, and the marriage, or life, becomes hell.

Hell, if we are not careful, if precisely what it will be. Where might makes right and we bow to no one save when by necessity we bow to one stronger than we. The conflict, resentment, and bitterness occasioned by a real refusal to bow to anyone will in the end be precisely hell. Milton's Satan declared that it is "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven." Not demons in red leotards with pitchforks poking the well-roasted damned, who rotate on fiery barbecues, but every unrepentant individualist and narcissist shut up for all eternity refusing to bow to each other will be hell.

Fulton Sheen suggested the solution to such a problem. He suggested that we should simply assume that everyone else was better than we. We know, he said, the worst about ourselves. We know it only too well. We can only guess at the worst in others. With this assumption we can hold no hesitation or concern about bowing to others and will, I suspect, find, that Chesterton was right when he remarked, "we become taller when we bow."

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