Men without Chests

Here is a handful: A culture that denies the existence of objective value (that is, beauty, goodness, and justice are merely in “the eye of the beholder” and not “out there” in the world) will inevitably produces “men without chests.” And without “chests,” humanity will disintegrate—our thinkings and willings will be at cross-purposes and we will become empty, hollow at the core, fragmented, and unable to living a flourishing life.

Let me try and explain what I am thinking.

If values are subjective, then moral ascriptions—“the painting is beautiful”; “that act is unjust”—are not statements about the painting itself, but are descriptions about how I feel. I like cheap romance novels, you like Victorian literature; I like Classical music, you like punk; I like Brussels sprouts, you like ice cream; I like beating animals, you like protesting chicken farms—end of story.

But what if there is objective value (I say, there is!)—that is, beauty, goodness and justice are not merely in “the eye of the beholder” but rather, there are such things as beautiful paintings, good foods, and just actions? If so, then our emotional response takes on a new level of importance—for our reaction to a painting, a novel, or an action can be either congruous or incongruous with its real value. We ought to love that which is loveable and detest the detestable in accord with the kind of degree of love or detestation that is appropriate to it.

But we can only do that if we have “chests.” This is how C.S. Lewis puts it:[1]

As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the mere appetites by means of the ‘spirited element’. The head rules the belly through the chest.

Lewis is right of course, and he is just repeating what Plato told us long ago. I fear that in a culture that sends mixed messages about what it means to be human, we have ceased being fully human—if we focus on the intellect only—man appears “godlike”; if we focus on the appetite only—man appears “animal-like”—it is only when we integrate the intellect and the appetite with “this middle element that man is man”[2] says Lewis.

The antidote? First, we must acknowledge that there is objective value in the world. Second, we must seek to like and dislike what we ought. And finally, we must seek Him that is the “beauty of all things beautiful,”[3] the goodness in all good things, and the just in all just acts—Jesus Christ. Then we will find wholeness and the happiness offered to us by God.

 

[1] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1974), 24.

[2] Ibid., 25.

[3] Augustine, Confessions III.10.

One Response to Men without Chests

  1. Pingback: Christianity in the 21st century: Christ and Crisis | Paul Gould

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