Friday, December 10, 2010

The fall into the unreality of selfishness and pride

In Thomas Merton's 1961 book The New Man, the Trappist monk delves into the reasons and meaning of Adam’s fall from grace. For Merton, Adam’s (and Eve’s) fall is, in the final analysis, his allowing “unreality” to become a part of his worldview. Adam, you see, wanted to know “evil” or “bad.” He wanted to experience what wasn’t: A lie.

Merton tells us,
Even the natural and healthy self-love by which Adam’s nature rejoiced in its own full realization could gain nothing by adding unreality to the real. On the contrary, he could only become less himself by being other than what he already was.

All this can be summed up in the one word: pride. For pride is a stubborn insistence on being what we are not and never were intended to be. Pride is a deep, insatiable need for unreality, an exorbitant demand that others believe the lie we have made ourselves believe about ourselves. It infects at once man’s person and the whole society he lives in. It has infected all men in the original pride of Adam. It has, as a secondary effect, what theologians call concupiscence: the convergence of all passion and all sense upon the self. Pride and selfishness then react upon one another in a vicious circle, each one greatly enlarging the other’s capacity to destroy our life. In a sense, pride is simply a form of supreme and absolute subjectivity. It sees all things from the viewpoint of a limited, individual self that is constituted as the center of the universe. Now everybody knows that, subjectively, we see and feel as if we were at the center of things, since that is the way we are made. Pride elevates this subjective feeling into metaphysical absolute. The self must be treated as if, not merely in feeling but in actual fact, the whole universe revolved around it. Concupiscence is then enlisted in the service of pride, to prove this one obsessive metaphysical truth. If I am the centre of the universe, then everything belongs to me. I can claim, as my due, all the good things of the earth. I can rob and cheat and bully other people. I can help myself to anything I like, and no one can resist me. Yet at the same time all must respect and love me as a benefactor, a sage, a leader, a king. They must let me bully them and take away all they have and on top of it all they must bow down, kiss my feet and treat me as god.

Humility, therefore, is absolutely necessary if man is to avoid acting like a baby all his life. To grow up means, in fact, to become humble, to throw away the illusion that I am the center of everything and that other people only exist to provide me with comfort and pleasure. Unfortunately, pride is so deeply embedded in human society that instead of educating one another for humility and maturity, we bring each other up in selfishness and pride. The attitudes that ought to make us “mature” too often only give us a kind of poise, a kind of veneer, that make our pride all the more suave and effective. For social life, in the end, is too often simply a convenient compromise by which your pride and mine are able to get along together without too much friction.

The New Man
That is why it is a dangerous illusion to trust in society to make us “balanced,” “realistic” and “humble.” Very often the humility demanded of us by our society is simply an acquiescence in the pride of the collectivity and of those in power. Worse still, while we learn to be humble and virtuous as individuals, we allow ourselves to commit the worst crimes in the name of “society.” We are gentle in our private life in order to be murderers as a collective group. For murder, committed by an individual is a great crime. But when it becomes war or revolution, it is represented as the summit of heroism and virtue.

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2 Comments:

Blogger Robert Hagedorn said...

Do a search: The First Scandal.

December 10, 2010 at 2:15 PM  
Blogger Tom Armstrong said...

Thanks, Robert. As you probably know by now, I am now a 'follower' of your blog, The First Scandal, about Adam and Eve and The Garden.

It will be useful and of great interest as a further pursue the meaning in the story.

December 11, 2010 at 9:18 AM  

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