Theology 101

C.S. Lewis on Selfishness and Greed

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Ed. Note: This post has been adapted from its original form. Read the full paper here.

Let’s dive into what C.S. Lewis has to say about selfishness and greed.

Lewis was a master at expressing complex concepts through the medium of imagination. He tackled many tough topics, including greed, in his best-selling children’s series, The Chronicles of Narnia. The seven books are adventures in the magical land of Narnia.

In one installment, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, main characters Edmund, Lucy, and their cousin Eustace are drawn into Narnia aboard a ship called the Dawn Treader. Eustace is a new character to the series. He acts from the beginning as a spoiled, selfish brat. Edmund calls him “a record stinker.”

Eustace chooses to be a bully. He dominates others and puts himself at the center of attention. Eustace needs to be saved from himself so that he can save others.

In many ways, Eustace’s transformation is the centerpiece of the book.

The scene where Eustace is saved from himself is what Michael Ward calls the “microcosm of the whole novel.” While on Dragon Island, Eustace sneaks away from his cousins and the crew in order to avoid work and take a nap. He encounters an old dragon who is dying, and Eustace takes refuge in the dragon’s cave to avoid a horrendous downpour.

Eustace falls asleep on a bed of crowns, coins, rings, bracelets, diamonds, gems, and gold ingots. He turns into a dragon while he naps. Lewis explains:

Sleeping on a dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he has become a dragon himself.

When Eustace awakes and discovers he has become a dragon, he first thinks of how he could get even with Edmund. He immediately realizes he doesn’t want to. Later, as he is lying awake, wondering in his loneliness how he can deal with his dilemma, he sees a lion and follows it to a well.

The lion tells him to undress – though Eustace isn’t wearing any clothes. Eustace thinks that perhaps, like a snake, he can peel of his outer layer of skin and get to a deeper layer. He tries three times and fails. He is still a dragon.

Then, Aslan, the lion says, “Let me undress you.”

Aslan’s claws were painful. Eustace recalls that,

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right to my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse anything ever felt.

The effect was transformational. Eustace once again became a boy.

As this scene suggests, C.S. Lewis understood the layers of selfishness and pride that were present in his own life – and ours, too. He once 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.

In Surprised By Joy, Lewis compares this process to removing armor, or a snowman beginning to melt. We all have layers of selfishness, pride, and greed that take more than self-examination or moral and legal reform to address.

We, like Eustace, need a deeper cure. 

Lewis, in these and other passages, showed a profound understanding of selfishness and greed. However, he also strongly maintained that there was a proper place for self-interest in our lives. Self-interest was not necessarily selfishness, as we will see tomorrow.

Where do you see the layers of greed and selfishness in your own life? Leave your comments here

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