[Where I live, the prospect of weather from the storm named Sandy seems to have turned this Monday into a day for prayerful vigilance. It’s just as well to remember that how long Sunday should last is entirely up to God. The following piece was written in that spirit.]
Self-respect or self-esteem- which reflects the foundational principle of Conservatism?
This morning I read an article by someone who would surely want to be accepted as a principled conservative. Indeed the article reached a very conservative sounding conclusion:
“So yes, kids today seem to need more stuff than we did in my day to make them happy. Still, certain truths regarding the human spirit are universal and timeless. For example: self-esteem does not come from people giving you stuff. True self-esteem comes from individual personal achievement. And that my friend is a foundational principle of Conservatism.”
Does this sound right to you? It probably “tickles the itching ears” (2 Timothy 4:1) of many who think of themselves as conservatives. But for me, the author’s use of “self-esteem” fell on my inner ear (as in “he that has an ear, let him hear…” Revelation 2:7) like a sudden, sound spike, with an effect that was hard to get over. For without reference to the true standard for judging individual achievement, “self-esteem” is just another word for the vain pleasure we take from the momentary delusion that we are the measure of all things, including ourselves.
The word esteem has an interesting background. Though this is not always the case with words, the sound of it is a good indication of its origins: “from M.Fr. estimer (14c), from L. aestimare “to value, appraise, perhaps ultimately from ais-temos ‘one who cuts copper,’ i.e., mints money.” Like the phrase “values voter” self-esteem is part of a usage that reflects the perspective of triumphant moral relativism, a view of human affairs that rejects the relevance of permanent moral principles.
I would have reacted differently to the author’s conclusion had he used the term “self-respect”. The sound of this term also suggests its origins, though a little less obviously: “from L. respectus ‘regard,”…pp. of respicere “look back at, regard, consider,” from re- “back” + specere “look at”. This word always brings to my mind what Plato says of the function of the ideas which capture the essence of things. Each such idea is like the original of a sculpture or drawing, the source the artist refers to in order to produce an accurate likeness. If man is made in the image and likeness of God, then in principle the reference point for human activity is a standard derived from our respect for God, i.e., our willingness to judge our actions by looking back at God’s original will and intention for our existence.
It’s ironic that the article that pushed me into this train of thought uses a term rooted in the usage of the marketplace to state a conclusion couched in terms of foundational principle. The estimated value something has in the marketplace ultimately has no basis but the shifting sands of human will. It changes from moment to moment with no reliably fixed reference point. Moreover, the marketplace is all about “people giving you stuff”, albeit in exchange for something you give them.
If, in this context, we speak of “individual personal achievement” we cannot be sure, at any given moment, what that means. We have to take a poll. We’ll get different results depending on the characteristics of the people we’re polling at the time. Let’s say we’re dealing with a serial killer. He has long escaped detection. But, on account of his advanced age, he decides that his best retirement plan is to plead guilty to all his crimes in exchange for a deal that takes the death penalty off the table.
If we poll the relatives of his victims, we would get one estimate of his individual, personal life achievement. If we poll a list of professional assassins (always appreciative of an elegant kill) we would probably get quite a very different assessment. Of course, the term “self-esteem” suggests that we are polling a universe that consists of one individual. It explicitly says nothing at all about the standard that individual applies to him/herself. But the fact that the term is rooted in the usage of the marketplace implies an evaluation expressed in terms of the price people participating in the marketing are willing to pay.
The article we’re discussing refers to “truths regarding the human spirit.” But implicitly it substitutes the activity of man’s will for the activity of God as the source and substance of human life. For what is the essential characteristic of money (i.e, the medium of exchange in the marketplace?) It abstractly stores and expresses a value that refers to no “truth” except the true (i.e., accurate) account of what this or that universe of people (market makers) hold to be valuable at any given time.
Intentionally or not, there is something more than faintly dishonest about alluding to “truths of the human spirit” in a context that leaves the substance of the spiritual (i.e., God) out of the picture. It reduces the judgment of what is true to arbitrary decisions made by those human beings who happen to participate in the market.
In this respect, despite the outward appearance of “conservatism” the author ends up in a place that conserves nothing but the overall momentum of willful human activity at the moment. In America’s present situation this means conserving the momentum that carries the nation away from the acknowledgment of self-evident truth that has been the strong foundation of its liberty. It means continuing the momentum of deteriorating mores and unbridled self-worship that substitutes self-esteem for self-respect in the lexicon of worthy human actions. It means pretending that a snapshot of human preferences at any given moment can be taken as the standard of just, lawful human actions, without regard for “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” or, for that matter, any will or intention but our own.
I can understand why history worshiping leftist ideologues and mammon worshiping, cynical profiteers have no problem building America’s future on such shifting sand. But what of people who profess to believe in the God who created heaven and earth, and in the saving grace imparted through Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son? Should they see anything but loss in such a future? At best I would expect them to bear witness against it, even though that testimony, all unheeded, ends up bearing witness to the spiritual destruction of the nation. At least, I pray, by word and deed, that they will awaken from the falsehood of Godless spiritualism and self-willed truth in time to reaffirm their respect for the God-acknowledging truth that is the first foundational principle of Conservatism.