Monday, January 01, 2007

"Plot is Character"

One of my favorite movies is Shadowlands, the Hollywood version of C.S. Lewis' biography. How accurate the movie is does not concern me. The dialogue is thought-provoking, and the plot is touching. To add a final commendation, the score by George Fenton is one of the best ever.

In a scene near the beginning C.S. Lewis is addressing a room full of philosophy students. He asks, “Character and thought... chicken and egg. Which comes first? Aristotle's solution was simple and radical. He said, 'Plot is character. Forget psychology. Forget the inside of men's heads. Judge them by their actions.' " All the other quotes from the movie make astounding sense, but this is one I just cannot comprehend. How can you judge men only by their actions? How can character, and the immortal question, "why?" mean nothing?

There are those, probably smarter and wiser, people who would turn my question, "How can you judge men by anything but their actions." In a few recent exchanges people whom I respect have said as much. "We cannot judge men's hearts," Lisa. "Only God knows the hearts."

Over the New Year holiday I have been receiving an informal economics lesson over on C.S. Hayden's blog. In the field of the market, he asserts: “The only way to determine anything about how much a person values a good is to observe his demonstrated preference in the marketplace.” (how he spends his money) and “The economist would answer, 'Let him demonstrate this preference by pursuing a means to the end of attaining bread.' ”

There have I been hung up again. Is that really the only way to demonstrate preferences? Do I show my family value by buying them expensive gifts? If I never "do" anything about which you know, am I Miss Anonymous to the world? Do my words and thoughts matter?

My life has made me into a great believer in thought. Outwardly I'm a goodie-two-shoes. However, knowing myself to be less than the saint on the pedestal, I've made a study of those Bible verses that deal with thoughts. There are many, so I conclude thoughts matter. The heart matters to God. What's more, as a man thinketh, so is he. That which I think will come out. Is that what Aristotle and Anthony Hopkins (who plays C.S. Lewis in the movie) and C.S. Hayden (just noticed that similarity - very clever!) are saying? Character inevitably reveals itself in action, so any inquiry into mere character is a waste of time? men.

To God, character is essential. There He works on the root of our obedience or disobedience. In character God chooses us for the people we will be. In the famous passage of God looking at the heart, we read: "But the LORD said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the LORD looketh on the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7) God had chosen David, not his brothers, based on the character unseen by anyone. David was too young to have a reputation.

Look at Samuel in that story. Even though Samuel's eyes could not see the heart, God sent Samuel to choose the new king. God would guide Samuel with His eyes (Psalm 32:8). How much is that true of Christians today? Does God supernaturally enable us to make decisions based on His understanding of men's hearts?

This is a good way to start a new year, full of questions!

To God be all glory.


Believer said...

I'm not sure I understand your thoughts on character and actions. Do you not think that our actions in part show what is in our hearts?That our character is revealed and influences our actions?
We all have a character whether we are well known in the world or are "Miss Anonymous". I believe we all have a measure of immaturity and flawed character until Heaven.
Jesus is the only One with a perfect character/a perfect heart.

Lisa of Longbourn said...

My thoughts are in transition. This is an admission of being unable to understand at this time. So the thoughts expressed, whether arguing on both sides or being ridiculously sarcastic, are just the different ideas happening in my head while I try to figure it out.

It seems that you, believer, would not say plot is character because character, you say, exists without being known through actions. But I'm not saying one way or another.

Immaturity, flaws, and perfection aren't really the topic of my post.
To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn

Believer said...

If plot is the action then plot reveals the characters of the people involved. Jesus said, "You will know them by their fruits"
I mentioned immaturity and flaws as part of every person's character. Which I thought was part of the topic of your post.

Caleb said...


These are some interesting thoughts. They have challenged me to think more about character and action. Christ says that we know people by their fruits, and Scripture also says that we will be justified or condemned by our words (Matthew 12:37; cf. Romans 10:9). Thus, I have to clarify my statements about words being insufficient. If you look at the context of those comments I made, you will see that I stated that mere words are not enough for us to evaluate your preference for one item over another, or to evaluate your preference for an item compared to another person's preference for the item. (My example was that you might say you value a camera very highly and bid $3 for it, while another person might say he doesn't care much for the camera, but he bids $20.)

Your family is not a scarce resource, so no one is bidding for them on the free market. However, the way you allocate your time and money (towards gifts, for example) will demonstrate your preference for them over other things. (For example, not that you would do this, but if you just went to the mall and hung out with friends all the time, neglecting your family, your actions would show that you don't value your family very highly, even if you said that you did.)

I Samuel 16:7 might apply to this discussion about character and actions: "Man looks at the outward appearance, but God sees the heart." We cannot tell what is in people's hearts; we judge people by their words and works. (Again, "Ye shall know they by their fruits." And further, "By your words you will be justified or condemned.")

About the widow's mite again, which is somewhat related because it deals with "interpersonal utility comparisons," I have pondered the fact that, on a percentage basis, she gave more. She gave 100%, while the others gave a smaller percent. My cost accounting teacher taught us to look at percent, not dollar value. (For example, a company with $50,000 in revenue and $30,000 in profit is much more profitable percentage-wise than a company with $10 million in revenue and only $0.5 million in profit, even though the profit of the latter far exceeded the revenue of the former.) We can say that she objectively gave more without saying that she necessarily valued her mite more than all the others valued their large sums of money. However, we certainly can conclude from this and other passages that God is more pleased with her heart being yielded solely to Him than He is in the outward generosity of those with the big money bags. We can only see the outward, so we would be tempted to neglect the significance of the widow's donation. Thus, we should not evaluate the monetary impressiveness of an individual's actions, lest we miss the deeper implications of their actions.

I hope these thoughts help clarify the matter somewhat. In short, the heart matters -- big time. However, mankind is finite and fallible, so he, unlike God, cannot see the heart and must draw conclusions from words and actions.

Lisa of Longbourn said...

Thanks for clarifying. I did understand and agree with your points made (on your own blog) about words being insufficient. That's why I took it over to my blog, to sort of reference what made me think of the whole plot vs. action thing this week in particular. I hope any readers won't take your quotes out of context, but will link to your blog to check out the whole, enlightening discussion.

Thanks for commenting.
To God be all glory,
Lisa of Longbourn