Essay / Misc.

J.P. Getty, meet C. S. Lewis

In his 1965 book How to Be Rich: The Success Secrets of a Billionaire Businessman, J. Paul Getty (1892-1976) tells the story of how he quit smoking. On a vacation in France, he woke up at two A.M. in his hotel room, craving a cigarette. Finding none in his pack, none in his jacket, none in his luggage, he decided to make the hike to the nearest all-night vendor, at the train station six blocks away. It was pouring rain in the middle of the night in a small town in France. In Getty’s own words:

But the desire to smoke gnawed at me, and, perversely, the more I contemplated the difficulties entailed in getting a cigarette, the more desperately I wanted to have one. And so I took off my pajamas and started putting on my clothes. I was completely dressed and reaching for my raincoat when I abruptly stopped and began to laugh –at myself. It had suddenly struck me that my actions were illogical, even ludicrous.

There I stood, a supposedly intelligent human being, a supposedly responsible and fairly successful businessman who considered himself sensible enough to give other people orders. Yet I was ready to leave my comfortable hotel room in the middle of the night and slosh a dozen blocks through a driving rainstorm for no other reason than that I wanted a cigarette –because I felt that I “had” to have one.

Thus J.P. Getty took a step back from himself, saw the situation from outside, and had to laugh at the little tobacco sticks that were somehow in command of the great businessman. The comedy of the situation came from the contrast in scale, because this silly little habit just did not measure up to the stature of the intelligent, responsible, successful, sensible commander of men. Getty crumpled up his empty pack of cigarettes, and with it he crumpled up the tobacco habit in one decisive movement, a triumph of will power over the force of habit.

C. S. Lewis (1898-1963) never did kick his own tobacco habit, and probably stayed home a lot precisely to avoid getting in desperate situations like Getty’s midnight foreigner nicotine fit. No doubt Lewis could have profited from a little bit of the old J.P. Getty will power, as many of us probably could. But in the third book of Mere Christianity, Lewis ponders the various kinds of vices and sins, with typically piercing insight. He considers the various lusts and temptations which make their way into our lives from our physical or animal nature, and has wise counsel about dealing with them. But then he turns his attention to the greatest sin, pride, and notes that it does not “come from the devil working on us through our animal nature.” Pride is different: “It comes direct from Hell. It is purely spiritual: consequently it is far more subtle and deadly.” He goes on:

For the same reason, Pride can often be used to beat down the simpler vices. Teachers, in fact, often appeal to a boy’s Pride, or, as they call it, his self-respect, to make him behave decently: many a man has overcome cowardice, or lust, or ill-temper by learning to think that they are beneath his dignity –that is, by Pride. The devil laughs. He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride –just as he would be quite content to see your chilblains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer. For pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, or contentment, or even common sense.

Both of these books were compiled from previous serial publication. Lewis’ remarks had been delivered over wartime radio as part of his ministry of leaving the ivory tower and putting Christian theology into public life. Getty’s remarks were published in Playboy.

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