C.S. Lewis, Greed, and Self-Interest
Art Lindsley, Ph.D.
It is said that a half-truth taken as the whole truth becomes an untruth. Recent protest signs saying, “Capitalism is Greed” perfectly illustrate this saying. The half-truth is that capitalists can be greedy. But are all capitalists always and everywhere greedy? Certainly not. There are greedy socialists, Marxists, Democrats, Republicans, rich people, and poor people. Greed is an equal opportunity employer. We are all capable of being greedy. But is there something in capitalism that intrinsically makes greed more likely? Is greed encouraged? Adam Smith famously said that our dinner comes not from the butcher or baker’s benevolence but from their own self-interest (“self-love” or “interest”).1 Is pursuing our self-interest necessarily selfish or greedy? Can you have self-interest without selfishness?
C.S. Lewis wrote much about selfishness, greed and self-interest. Perhaps he can help us clarify our understanding on these issues. We will look at Lewis on selfishness and greed, then Lewis on self-interest, and finally, come back to this charge that “Capitalism is Greed” with (hopefully) renewed clarity.
C.S. Lewis on Selfishness and Greed
C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia has been a best-seller in the category of children’s stories, having sold 120 million copies in 47 different languages. The seven books are adventures in the magical land of Narnia. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was recently made into a film, the third in the series following The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and Prince Caspian.
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Edmund and Lucy are drawn into Narnia with their cousin Eustace on board a ship called the Dawn Treader. Eustace is a new character. In many ways, his transformation is a centerpiece of the book. The book’s first line is, “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”1 Eustace acts from the beginning as a spoiled, selfish brat. Edmund calls him a “record stinker.”2 Eustace chooses to be a bully, dominating others—putting himself at the center. Eustace needs to be saved from his self-centered life so that he can save others.
The scene where Eustace is saved from himself (undragoned) is called by Michael Ward the “microcosm of the whole novel.”3 Eustace (on Dragon Island) sneaks away from the crew in order to avoid work and take a nap. He comes on an old dragon who is dying and takes refuge in the dragon’s cave because of the downpour. He falls asleep on a bed of crowns, coins, rings, bracelets, diamonds, gems, and gold ingots. He turns into a dragon while he takes a nap: “Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he has become a dragon himself.”4
When Eustace awakes and discovers that he had become a dragon, he first thinks of how he could get even with Caspian and Edmund (for their rebukes), but he immediately realizes he doesn’t want to. Later, as he is lying awake, wondering in his loneliness how he can deal with the dilemma, he sees a lion and follows it to a well. The lion tells him to undress (Eustace was not wearing any clothes). Eustace thinks that perhaps, like a snake, he could peel off his outer layer of skin and get to a deeper layer. After trying this three times, he realizes that it is a failure. He is still a dragon. Then, Aslan the Lion says, “Let me undress you.” The lion’s claws were painful: “The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything ever felt.”5 The effect was that he was undragoned.
C. S. Lewis understood the layers of selfishness and pride that were present in his own life (and ours). He wrote in a letter: “And will you believe it, one out of every three is a thought of self-admiration … I pretend I am carefully thinking out what to say to the next pupil (for his good, of course) and then suddenly realize I am really thinking how frightfully clever I’m going to be and how he will admire me … And when you force yourself to stop it, you admire yourself for doing that. It’s like fighting the hydra.”6
In Surprised by Joy, Lewis compares this process to removing armor or like a snowman beginning to melt.7 We all have layers of selfishness, pride, and greed that take more than self-examination and moral reform to address. We, like Eustace, need a deeper cure. Lewis, in these and other passages, showed a profound understanding of selfishness and greed. But he also strongly maintained that there was a proper place for self-interest in our lives. Self-interest was not necessary selfishness.