Self-esteem in Walt Whitman and C. S. Lewis

In his notebooks, Walt Whitman wrote:

“I never yet knew how it felt to think I stood in the presence of my superior.—If the presence of God were made visible immediately before me, I could not abase myself.”

In his Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis wrote:

“The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object” (p. 125).

Now isn’t that interesting? One man, imagining the presence of greatness, feels the same about himself. Another man, imagining the greatness, feels unworthy and unclean. Same contemplated being — completely opposite reactions. What explains this?

Part of the explanation can be personal and autobiographical. Some people think and act well, building up a healthy confidence in their abilities and character. Others do badly and knowingly do bad things, undercutting their confidence and coming to dislike themselves.

But it’s more than that. Whitman speaks only of himself in the first person, while Lewis speaks in the second person, implicitly generalizing to the human condition. Lewis is not saying merely that he, personally, through some quirk or weirdness of personal development, came to feel himself to be a loathesome being; Lewis is saying that that’s what it is to be a human being.

He does sometimes speak autobiographically: “In my most clear-sighted moments not only do I not think myself a nice man, but I know I am a very nasty one” (p. 117). But he sees himself as being in the same condition everyone else is. And no one, he thinks, can get to God without the same negative self-belief: “he cannot get into the right relation [to God] until he has discovered the fact of our bankruptcy” (p. 145).

So here’s my question: What is the psychological order for Lewis (and by extension, Christianity)? Is it that first we have a personal sense of nastiness, then we turn to Christianity and generalize that bankruptcy to the human condition? Or is it that we start with a generalized view of the bankruptcy of humanity and see ourselves as part of the package?

Lewis’s book opens up another possibility through his presentation of Christian ethics. That ethic demands chastity, obedience, humility, forgiveness, and so on. But trying to live according to the Christian ethics, Lewis reports, always leads to repeated failure and consequent guilt, which drives home to us our bankruptcy, which is an important learning step: “It is the change from being confident about our own efforts to the state in which we despair of doing anything for ourselves” (146).

So it could be that the self-despising comes indirectly via first adopting the Christian ethic and trying to take it seriously.

So which of three possible routes is the Lewisian Christian one?

1. One first develops a self-loathing for personal reasons. Christianity then is an after-the-fact confirmation and consolation, as well as incorporating a negative generalization to all human beings.

2. One first comes to believe that humans in general are loathsome. Christianity then both confirms this belief and personalizes it.

3. One starts off as a standard decent person who wants to be good. One then comes to believe sincerely that the Christian ethics are good, and one experiences repeated failure when trying to live according to them. So one consequently comes to think of oneself and others as by nature weak and guilty.

Or to put it in starker terms: Does one begin feeling that one is loathsome and then turn to Christianity for affirmation? Or does one start by committing to Christianity and consequently come to despise oneself?

[Related post: Why C. S. Lewis gives me the creeps.]

6 thoughts on “Self-esteem in Walt Whitman and C. S. Lewis

  • April 6, 2010 at 8:45 am

    I think what Lewis is espousing here can be teased out a bit by Blaise Pascal. Pascal takes very seriously man’s ability to be both great and wretched and for him this is a kind of starting point. His “pensees ” #s 117 and 149 highlight this:

    “117. Man’s greatness is so obvious that it can even be deduced from his wretchedness.”

    “149. Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness. It must account for such amazing contradictions. To make man happy it must show him that a God exists whom we are bound to love; that our true bliss is to be in him, and our sole ill to be cut off from him. It must acknowledge that we are full of darkness which prevents us from knowing and loving him, and so, with our duty obliging us to love God and our concupiscence leading us astray, we are full of unrighteousness… Let us examine all the religions of the world on that point and let us see whether any but the Christian religion meets it.”

    Perhaps your quotes from Lewis are only one side of the equation. I think Lewis would agree with Pascal on this as well. In my opinion, Lewis, Pascal, and Jonathan Edwards have one striking similarity with Friedrich Nietzsche – life affirmation. Nietzsche comes at it from the Dionysian angle, while Lewis, Pascal, and Edwards come at it from the joy angle. They are all hedonists, it is just that the objects of their affections tend to differ.

    I think it is unfortunate that Pascal is remembered almost exclusively for his “Wager.” I have also tried to cogently summarize Pascal’s thought through short quotations in a single post, here:

  • April 6, 2010 at 9:18 am

    Good possibility to raise, Michael. I agree that Lewis is broadly in the Pascalean tradition, especially on epistemological issues. And going further back more in the Augustinian and Lutheran tradition.

    Two follow up points, though. As far as I can find, in Mere Christianity there are no counter-balancing quotations about human nature emphasizing positive points. Lewis consistently focuses on the negative. In that respect, he’s un-Pascalean.

    And there’s still the question of why Lewis, speaking for mainstream Christianity, thinks human nature is so bad.

  • April 6, 2010 at 11:54 am

    Stephen asks:
    “Does one begin feeling that one is loathsome and then turn to Christianity for affirmation? Or does one start by committing to Christianity and consequently come to despise oneself?”

    Not to dismiss the second possibility, but I think the texts themselves support the first. Lewis seems to be simply “modernizing” the language of the original.

    Consider, for instance:
    Luke 15:1-7 (Parable of The Lost Sheep)

    and in the Letters, this example of interpretation:
    1 Timothy 1:15
    “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.”

    I am sure there are many other examples, but these should illustrate the common Christian declaration that Jesus came to save sinners – and that self-conviction was the first step to salvation. Not to be confused with a twelve-step program, of course…

  • April 6, 2010 at 12:26 pm


    Elsewhere, in “Weight of Glory,” Lewis writes on the weakness of man’s desires, commending stronger (and higher Godward) desires:

    “If there lurks in most modern minds the notion that to desire our own good and earnestly to hope for the enjoyment of it is a bad thing, I submit that this notion has crept in from Kant and the Stoics and is no part of the Christian faith. Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”

    Lewis, like Pascal, like Paul, all commend that knowledge of wretchedness is a prerequisite for greatness. This is where Lewis/Pascal/Paul would diverge with Nietzsche, as they commend the slave morality of say the Sermon on the Mount over against the master morality of the ubermensch.

    Christian soteriology requires man to recognize his inability to save himself. It does seem rather unaffirming of humanity. However, there are good examples of some (emphasis on some) that have done because of the life-changing encounter with Christ. One such example would be William Wilberforce who made it his life goal to end slavery in the British empire, then went on to press for reforms in education… et al.

    I think there is a subtle power to humility.

  • April 6, 2010 at 1:50 pm


    Wilberforce worked to fundamentally change the whole British empire. And you see this as an example of humility?

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