This morning, I came across this passage in Newman's "Fifteen Sermons Preached Before the University of Oxford", and was rather struck by it:
This was one especial consequence of the pantheistic system of the Stoics, the later Pythagoreans, and other philosophers; in proportion as they drank into the spirit of eternal purity, they became divine in their own estimation; they contrasted themselves with those who were below them, knowing no being above them by whom they could measure their proficiency. Thus they began by being humble, and, as they advanced, humility and faith wore away from their character. This is strikingly illustrated in Aristotle's description of a perfectly virtuous man. An incidental and unstudied greatness of mind is said by him to mark the highest moral excel1ence, and truly; but the genuine nobleness of the virtuous mind, as shown in a superiority to common temptations, forbearance, generosity, self-respect, calm high-minded composure, is deformed by an arrogant contempt of others, a disregard of their feelings, and a harshness and repulsiveness of external manner. That is, the philosopher saw clearly the tendencies of the moral system, the constitution of the human soul, and the ways leading to the perfection of our nature; but when he attempted to delineate the ultimate complete consistent image of the virtuous man, how could he be expected to do this great thing, who had never seen Angel or Prophet, much less the Son of God manifested in the flesh?
People say over and over and over that all religions are the same, that conscience by itself can arrive at the truths of morality, and that there is no need of revealed religion to teach us how to be good.
Well, I do think it is true that the moral law is incribed on the human heart, but that is far from admitting that humankind is always or even usually successful at reading or following that law. And one virtue that I think is rare outside the ranks of Christians is humility-- I mean a studied, deliberate, principled humility.
This is one of the reasons I love G.K. Chesterton so much. Chesterton seems to have been both naturally humble, and also to have striven after humility. He must have been conscious of his tremendous gifts, but he always makes light of them. It would be easy for a critic to say that there is a kind of mendacity or false modesty in this. But it is my experience that people who complain about "false modesty" are rarely possessed of sincere modesty, either.
Contrast, for instance, some lines by W.B. Yeats, who I personally consider to have been, not only the greatest poet in the English language, but the greatest writer of any kind in the English language, ever-- and a genuinely great man, to boot. This is a quotation from his poem, "The People":
‘What have I earned for all that work,’ I said,
‘For all that I have done at my own charge?
The daily spite of this unmannerly town,
Where who has served the most is most defamed,
The reputation of his lifetime lost
Between the night and morning. I might have lived,
And you know well how great the longing has been,
Where every day my footfall should have lit
In the green shadow of Ferrara wall...
Now, can you imagine Chesterton writing that? Or anything like that? And is the difference not the difference between a Christian and a non-Christian worldview?
I think humility is the most "unnatural" of virtues, in a colloquial sense of the term "natural". When we look at pre-Christian societies, the unabashed boastfulness is perhaps the feature that offends us most of all. And in our increasingly post-Christian world, this seems to be returning.