Simone Biles, Uncle Screwtape, and the elite praise of “radical courage”

Ben Reinhard is Associate Professor of English Language and Literature at Christendom College. He holds a B.A. from Purdue, as well as an M.M.S and Ph.D from the University of Notre Dame.

As Chesterton observed long ago, “the modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad” – and mad virtues are far more dangerous than vices.

July 29, 2021 Ben Reinhard The Dispatch 15Print

U.S. gymnast Simone Biles competing in the women’s individual all-around final during the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 11, 2016. (CNS photo/Dylan Martinez, Reuters)

In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis’s senior devil reminds his protégé that every age and every culture has its characteristic vices and virtues. It is the devil’s job to confuse men as to what those virtues actually are:

We direct the fashionable outcry of each generation against those vices of which it is least in danger and fix its approval on the virtue nearest to that vice we are trying to make endemic. The game is to have them all running about with fire extinguishers whenever there is a flood.

If the devils are successful, humans allow their real vices to roam about unchecked – and turn their natural virtues into monstrously swollen parodies of themselves. Thus “Cruel ages are put on their guard against Sentimentalism, feckless and idle ones against Respectability, lecherous ones against Puritanism” – and the devil feasts.

Screwtape’s old counsel came to my mind as I observed national media coverage of Simone Biles’s abrupt withdrawal from the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Miss Biles, as most readers are probably aware, is widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of her generation (some would say, of all time) and was arguably the face of the US Olympic team entering the Games. After posting the highest individual score in the qualifying round, Miss Biles withdrew from the competition after her first event in the women’s team finals – shocking the world and leaving her teammates in an unenviable position. Lacking their most skilled gymnast and forced to compete in events for which they had not fully prepared, the remaining American gymnasts – heavily favored going into the games – finished a disappointing but respectable second. In a post-event press conference, Miss Biles revealed that she had withdrawn from the competition for the sake of her mental health – not, as initially supposed, because of injury.

It is not the purpose of this column to say whether Miss Biles’s decision was right or wrong, and still less to praise or to blame her for it. To render judgment would require knowledge about the severity of the crisis she faced, the dangers inherent in the Olympic gymnastics competition, and the impact of her decision on her teammates – knowledge I do not pretend to have. My concern is rather with how the national media have interpreted her decision. A few right-wing critics notwithstanding, the dominant note was not merely understanding for the difficult decision that Biles made, but an outright celebration of it; anyone who questioned or criticized the withdrawal was made the subject of immediate vituperation. Thus The Week declared that Miss Biles’s exit was “more impressive than winning”; the New Yorker praised her for her “radical courage”; according to the Athletic, she showed us “the most human meaning of courage.”

There have been some dissenting voices. Wesley Yang noted that we are witnessing a “bourgeois moral revolution” that substitutes “new political propositions, new moral premises, and new psychological underpinnings” for the old, universal ones, and to an extent he’s right: it’s difficult to imagine another age that would characterize quitting in the middle of a team Olympic competition as courage.

But a significant part of me wonders just how new this revolution is: it seems rather a repetition of Screwtape’s old game. It is, of course, good for a culture to be aware of mental illness and to recognize that mental health is – like physical health – a gift from God. We are its stewards, not its absolute possessors; as such, we must cultivate it as best we can, but also accept that He can withdraw it when He will. So, yes: mental health is a real concern. But is our culture in any danger whatsoever of forgetting this? Mental health is our obsession, and (perhaps not coincidentally) recent years have witnessed an alarming rise in mental illness – especially among the young.

In the face of this, we need resilience, fortitude, courage, and the habits of life that make these virtues possible; what we in fact possess is smothering and suffocating sentimentality. And so, following good Uncle Screwtape to the letter, our ruling classes champion unbounded compassion, toleration, and accommodation – above all towards those who can be labeled ‘victims.’ This ideology poses certain immediate dangers to the Republic – as when the military drops combat readiness in favor of Critical Theory or the CIA advertises and celebrates employees with generalized anxiety disorder.

But it also signals a wider spiritual crisis: as Chesterton observed long ago, “the modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad” – and mad virtues are far more dangerous than vices.

As René Girard observed in I Saw Satan Fall Like Lightning, the post-Christian world has gone particularly mad on the principle of compassion. Pushed to the extreme, these such compassions can become nothing less than the spirit of Antichrist, who “boasts of bringing to human beings the peace and tolerance that Christianity promised but has failed to deliver.” Under the reign of the Antichrist, compassion is paganized, all is permitted, and simple adherence to the moral law is perceived as an act of violence and oppression.

Unless and until we can correct this tendency, our culture will remain trapped in a nightmare world of Orwellian absurdity, one in which freedom is slavery, war is peace, and the love of Christ a repressive hatred.

It might be objected that I am reading far too much into a young woman’s decision not to compete in tumbling. Maybe I am. But I do not believe this is the case. Rightly or wrongly, great moments in Olympics history have always resonated in the world of international politics. Jesse Owens’s triumph over the Aryan supermen in Berlin in 1936, the Miracle on Ice of 1980, and the cheerful dominance of the 1992 Dream Team all served as heralds of new things to come; so too did the rapid Chinese ascendancy in the Beijing games in 2008. I cannot shake the feeling that history may view Miss Biles’s exit from the games – and, still more, elite response to it – in a similar way.