Friday, December 16, 2005

In Defense of Niceness?

Last week when I was re-reading Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis, I came across this:
‘Niceness’—wholesome, integrated personality—is an excellent thing. We must try by every medical, educational, economic, and political means in our power to produce a world where as many people as possible grow up ‘nice’; just as we must try to produce a world where al have plenty to eat.

For a few minutes, I could hardly believe my eyes. Lewis is one of my favorites. Obviously, Mere Christianity was written half a century ago, before “nice” gained the vapid, cover-all associations it has today. But still. I am partially a creature of my lingual environment.

I’m not sure I could have continued to love Lewis as much as I do if he hadn’t gone on to partially repudiate the initial nice paragraph:
A world of nice people, content in their niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might be even more difficult to save.

Needless to say, I read that with a sigh of relief. The metaphysical thrust of Lewis’ writing had been effectively shoved into the backseat by the excessive niceness.

I’m choosing to believe that he did it on purpose, using niceness rather disgustingly to make a point. But this just goes to show, vocabulary can have profound effects on one’s relationships.


Anonymous momma2theMax said...

i personally and i think i have said this in previous comments CANNOT STAND the use of the word "NICE" it is exactly as Lewis asserts....a mediocre culturally accaptable way to has NOTHING to do with what it implies and everything to do with behaviour that is sociallly accaptable for the "viewing pleasure" of others :) and it is all FAKE. (no, really, i don't have an opinion on this one )

8:16 AM  
Anonymous dan said...

Actually I kind of like 'Nice' - I don't like it as an empty bucket (a word dumped of meaning), but I think what Lewis is doing is taking a word that has been dumped out and is simply filling it back up again. He first defines it as a wholesome, integrated personality and then pins it up on the wall as a target for society as a whole to hit. His problem is not with 'nice', his problem is when 'nice people' are content with their 'niceness' - 'nice' is in need of redemption as much as 'wicked', but atleast 'nice' makes for better neighbors and playmates for your children.
Another interesting and thoughtful post. Thanks.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Belinda said...

Very good; A point well-made and illustrated! Or should I say, "Nicely done?"

6:44 PM  
Blogger martin said...

I think for Lewis, writing from 1950s Oxford, 'niceness' would be understood not as general mild good humour but specifically middle class 'politeness' with the artificiality that that implies (ie the appearance of goodness/morality rather than its reality). So he is actually being quite tough, saying that evfen if evrybody behaved as if they were Christian (loving others, not killing people), they would still need saving.

2:53 AM  
Blogger B said...

Very NICE....thanks!

10:22 PM  
Blogger piksea said...

I'm not sure how good of an example Lewis is. Lewis had a motive. He used "nice" to set people up for his real message. Have you ever seen those religious graphic book like flyers? They have people being normal people, not so terribly unlike you or I. Then, on the last page, everybody burns in Hell. Lewis was that kind of guy. He went whole hog with his newfound Christianity to the point of freaking out JRR Tolkien, the man who turned him on to Christianity in the first place.

1:28 PM  
Blogger Ariel said...

It's been heartening to see several of you rally to Lewis' defense. As Dan pointed out, "[Lewis] first defines ['nice'] as a wholesome, integrated personality and then pins it up on the wall as a target for society as a whole to hit."

I've concluded I should have given Lewis more credit for this definition in the first place.

Piksea, I'm curious what exactly is it you object to in Lewis. He certainly wasn't a bait and switch type, as illustrated by the title of a key book, Mere Christianity. Tolkien's objection to Lewis' theologizing, as described in Colin Duriez's Tolkien and Lewis, was based on Lewis' non-pastoral status - not the content of his writing. (Tolkien was convinced that theology should be left to the "professionals.")

I'm in danger of hijacking my own post here, but at least Lewis was part of the original thought!

8:34 AM  

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