It’s Spring Break and Selfishness is everywhere. Or, to be more clear, he (yes, I said he), is appearing in everything I am reading this week.
He first appeared in Pablo, the guerrilla leader in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls. Pablo begins his career in the Spanish Civil War as a great fighter and leader. But as the war drags on, and as Pablo acquires more and more wealth, the beast of selfishness consumes him and he actually starts to inhibit the cause. You see, the hero of the story, Robert Jordan, shows up in Pablo’s mountains and he desperately needs Pablo’s help to blow a bridge so that the fascists cannot reinforce key positions once the Republicans start an offensive. Pablo wants nothing to do with it because he has gained many horses over the course of the conflict. One of his soldiers, Anselmo, calls him on it:
“To me, now, the most important is that we be not disturbed here,” Pablo said. “To me, now, my duty is to those who are with me and to myself.”
“Thyself. Yes,” Anselmo said. “Thyself now since a long time. Thyself and thy horses. Until thou hadst horses thou wert with us. Now thou art another capitalist more.”
“That is unjust,” said Pablo. “I expose the horses all the time for the cause.”
“Very little,” said Anselmo scornfully. “Very little in my judgment. To steal, yes. To eat well, yes. To murder, yes. To fight, no.”
“You are an old man who will make himself trouble with his mouth.”
“I am an old man who is afraid of no one,” Anselmo told him. “Also I am an old man without horses.”
“You are an old man who may not live long.”
The next example of selfishness I came across was from a book called Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller. In the book Miller recounts an epiphany he had after attending a political protest:
“I started wondering whether we could actually change the world. I mean, of course we could—we could change our buying habits, elect socially conscious representatives and that sort of things, but I honestly don’t believe we will be solving the greater human conflict with our efforts. The problem is not a certain type of legislation or even a certain politician; the problem is the same that it has always been. I am the problem. I think every conscious person, every person who is awake to the functioning principles within his reality, has a moment where he stops blaming the problems in the world on group think, on humanity and authority, and starts to face himself. I hate this more than anything… The problem is not out there; the problem is the needy beast of a thing that lives in my chest.”
This passage really got me thinking about the mission of Keeping The Republic. We strive to help solve societal ills while promoting Truth, Justice, and Unity. But really what we are engaged in is a battle against human nature, a battle against selfishness.
Our Framers understood this well. Our constitutional government is designed to check and balance our greed and our selfishness. Madison puts it this way in the Federalist 51:
“Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
If selfishness is really the root of our problems, the question is, of course, how do we combat this selfishness? I think we will try to answer this in our next episode of the KTR podcast. If you have any suggestions, please weigh in in the comments below.
Lastly, I want to leave you with this poem on the topic, by C.S. Lewis.
As the Ruin Falls
All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.
Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love —a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek—
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.
Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.