Passions, Interests and Narnia

Is following our self-interest the highest goal? And what links St Paul, Aslan, and the 1st Marquis of Halifax? Well, the answer to the second question is this short reflective piece by SPEAK friend Mike Bourne. And you'll have to read it to find out the rest...


“Greed is good!” runs the quote from the film Wall Street, that sums up everything activists have come to dislike about the ‘unfettered’ free market. Well, I’m making a discovery (thanks, almost entirely, to the excellent book The Passions and the Interests by Albert Hirschman), that this idea is the end result of a line of thought that stretches back centuries, and began (ironically) with an attempt to reign in our sinful, fallen nature, by appeals to reasoned self-interest.

St Augustine condemned the lust for money and possessions, the lust for power, and sexual lust, as ‘passions’, and from his time (about 400 AD) up until Adam Smith in the 18th Century, philosophers and other thinkers developed the idea that, since indulging such passions is often self-destructive, our only hope for reigning them in is to pursue our own self-interest in a cool, rational way. Thus Augustine’s first ‘passion’, was transformed into a much more reflective, benign ‘interest’. This, it was reasoned, will lead us to work hard, and treat other people as we would like to be treated. This idea is still prevalent in many aspects of political philosophy, sociology and (especially) economics today.

“Aha!” argued one smartalec back in the 17th Century.
“We can’t really pursue our own self-interest though, since we often don’t know what’s genuinely good for us!”

In fact, it’s worth getting down here what he actually wrote:

If men must be supposed always to follow their true interest, it must be meant of a new manufactury of mankind by God Almighty; there must be some new clay, the old stuff never yet made any such infallible creature.

-George Savile, 1st Marquis of Halifax

In short, we haven’t got a hope of living up to our full potential, which would be glorious indeed. Well amen to that, brother George. It’s a good job for us then, that

If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.

2 Corinthians 5:17 (NRSV)

So, despite our fallen nature, our ‘body of death’ if you will, there is a hope of fullness of life, of genuinely doing what’s best for us (which, by the way, means giving our lives away, but that’s another story), and in fact it’s more natural than the ‘fallen’ stuff is. Like the lion said:

Though the witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and darkness before time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.

-Aslan, Narnia


Meet Mike and many others to keep exploring faith, economics and justice at Soundcheck 2013.