C. S. Lewis’s popular satire, The Screwtape Letters, showed us the way our mind often thinks things through in a way that justifies activity which we know we should not do. This book brought Lewis into the limelight and helped launch his literary career, even though the unique style used a devilish mentor explaining how to convince people to turn away from a path of righteousness, Lewis was not the first, nor would he be the last, to investigate the psychology of justifying ourselves. We can find this theme, for example, within The Book of the Rewards of Life by St. Hildegard von Bingen.
Throughout her book, Hildegard gives various erroneous dispositions, the way they tempt us to follow them, and the proper responses needed to overcome them. For example, she began her work with a vision of seven sins and seven responses to them: Worldly Love, Impudence, Jesting, Hard-Heartedness, Slothfulness, Anger, and Foolish Joy. In each, we are shown elements of truth which attract us: there is always some good which is abused and leads us to evil. Examining how Hildegard portrayed Worldly Love and Slothfulness offers far-reaching implications for how we should view ourselves in the world today.
First, St. Hildegard had a vision of “Worldly Love:” an Ethiopian, full of youthful vitality, has his hands around a tree with branches containing a large variety of flowers. The figure then speaks, “I hold all the world’s kingdoms with their greatness in my hands. Why should I be withered when I have all this greenness in my hands? Why should I be old when I could be young? Why should I lose my sight to blindness? If this happened, I would be embarrassed. I would hang onto the beauty of this world as long as I can. I do not understand words spoken about another life when have never seen it.” After the Ethiopian speaks, the tree withers and falls and everything becomes dark.
It might seem difficult to understand how, exactly, this represents “worldly love.” Yet, what is presented is the transitory nature of worldly goods. What we love is only the world in a particular state of its history. We can be attracted to the good things in the world. They truly represent something great when they are at their peak. This is how we feel when we are young, when we think we can go out into the world and make it our own.
Yet, contained within this vision is its own undermining. What beauty, what strength, what vitality we have shall, one day, no longer be there with us. If all we have is this world and its impermanent beauty, then we have nothing: we will end up being depressed. We will not even be able to appreciate ourselves and our bodies as they age and become weaker and in need of care and attention. We might like who we are in our youth but it is fleeting. Can we find the beauty and joy in the world when we are weak and infirm? Can we accept our bodily state when it is imperfect? Worldly love, with its affection for impermanent moments, makes us momentarily happy when we meet these sham standards of glory, but it will not allow us to appreciate ourselves once these favored moments pass. We should enjoy the gift of life – as Heavenly Love says in response to Worldly Love – but how can we enjoy it if we only accept a small portion of it and judge everything according to it? We will push for a state which we cannot always have. We will try to grow in self-glory only to find our very bodies keeping us away from such infantile glory. We will find, even though we claim to love the world, we really hate it, because we have no ground to understand it, to accept it for what it is. Worldly love in this fashion leads to worldly hate as soon as that which we try to love is shown to be false to us. The one who can accept weakness, the one who can accept the not-so-glorious state and transformation of their bodies, those who can accept that they might need the help of others, to stand with others in order to thrive, will be those most capable of appreciating the world, and truly loving it for what it is, instead of the shallow vision of what we want it to be.
Slothfulness presents to us different goods and different temptations. St. Hildegard saw it as a man with the body of a worm and a head where its left ear was like a rabbit’s, so big it covered the whole head. Sloth is shown as self-justifying because sloth does nothing; therefore, sloth does nothing which will make anyone hurt or angry. Is that not a good thing? “I do not want to injure anyone by rushing [….] I will not pay any attention to the holy and the poor since they cannot benefit me in any way. I want to be pleasant to everyone so that I do not suffer. For if I fight with someone, they might hit back with force. And if I injure someone, they might injure me more. As long as I am alike I will remain quiet. Likewise, it is sometimes better to lie and deceive than it is to speak the truth. It is also better for me to gather possessions than to do away with them. It is better to run away from the strong than to fight them.”
Here, as “Divine Victory” points out, “good intentions” are being used to justify inactivity, but if one looks closely at oneself, those good-intentions are lies, self-deceptions seeking to pacify the conscience when one looks at injustice in the world. “I don’t want to harm anyone,” while a good intention, is false because if we let injustices in the world continue without speaking up, we let people be harmed. Sloth is about “looking out for number one,” while claiming it is about looking out for others. It is very easy for us to fall into this trap. We lie to others out of it. “We don’t want to hurt them.” But the truth is if we are dishonest, we are hurting them and ourselves. Sloth only does that which is necessary for relaxation, for “enjoyment” in life, and anything which would trouble us, must be pushed aside, and left for someone else, someone who is stronger, more capable than us. Or so we let ourselves think. After all, the opposition is too great. Who are we to do anything? But justice demands we try. Even if we fail, we help more by trying than when we stand idly and let injustice thrive unopposed.
Self-deception always borrows from the good, where it feeds off of the good like a parasite, using only a small portion of the “good” to discourage us from proper attitudes and ways of living in the world. It is such sloth, for example, which led to the accumulation of injustices towards women throughout the centuries, and it is such sloth which can now be seen in the reverse, when some radical feminists show slothfulness despite acknowledging demonstrable injustices toward men. This is how, even when injustice is recognized, we find excuses not to care – to let someone else care – sighing with a righteous resignation that echoes through the world.
There are many other examples of self-deception found in St. Hildegard’s work. It’s a remarkable book with reflections that tell us much about ourselves, and how we think ourselves into error. St. Hildegard came from a different time, and sees some things quite differently than us today – but in this way, she offers a better light to us, from a time when self-criticism was common. While nearly forgotten today, self-examination can clearly be a fruitful endeavor in these times of heightened individualism.