Thursday, February 14, 2013

Christian Humility

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.


  1. I have to confess, M, that when I first read your suggestion that Yeats' writings were representative of a non-Christian worldview, I was a bit surprised by them. Yeats, after all, is a 'son' of the Church of Ireland. But after a bit of reflection, particularly on the fact that he was well into various sorts of mysticism, the occult, & spiritualism, I suppose your suggestion is not as harsh as it might seem. Yeats himself might be surprised at your assessment ... but he would be the first social protestant or social Catholic to be surprised at being told that that is not the same as actually being a Christian.

  2. I don't think Yeats would have protested, Father. He once described himself as a member of the Church of Ireland, but not a Christian. I think he would have accepted Christianity as one element of his syncretistic mysticism.

    1. If he said that, then you're right ... he wouldn't be the first member of the Ascendancy to see the CoI as more a badge of tribal identity than a religious profession ... I think Oscar Wilde made a quip once, when asked if he was if was religious or an atheist that he was neither: he was a member of the CofI (I can't find the exact quote, but perhaps you already know it!). However, Oscar found religion in the end, when he was received into the Catholic Church ...

  3. Well, I think the tribal identity thing affects Catholics too. I knew one fellow once, a Northern Irish nationalist, who told me that he went to Mass every week and yet he was an out-and-out atheist.

    I can't trace that Yeats quotation so I can't really guarantee it, but I think I remember reading it.

    Wilde famously said that the Catholic Church was for saints and sinners; for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do. The poor Church of England-- it gets a raw deal sometimes. Someone sent me an article from the guardian newspaper (my keyboard can't type g's so I have to paste them), which appeared before Christmas, saying that Church of England vicars are often the only community spokesmen and leaders in areas so tough that the police and the social workers don't dare to tread there.

    To move on from the subject of religion, I think my favourite quip ever by an Irish writer is the response of Samuel Beckett when he was asked if he was English. He said, "on the contrary".

    1. You are clearly the 'go to' guy when it comes to good quotes (esp from great Irish writers)!

  4. Watching the Celtic - Juventus match on TV the other night, amidst all those vast banks of green in every stand, I spotted someone waving the Vatican flag near the tunnel where the players ran out. Not hard to imagine it in the hand of someone like your Northern Irish friend, Maolseachlann, at somewhere like Parkhead, but maybe it was a devout tribute to the retiring Pope...

  5. I am not sure if my comment went through to you, but anyway as I said, I just found your blog when I was mulling about humility. I searched for "humility"and "most unnatural" and here I am! You have posted exactly what's on my mind as I struggle to articulate it. As such, can I have your permission to post in my blog what you have written here, of course with credits and link. Let me know ;)

  6. Hi Pearlie, thanks for that very kind comment. Of course you may post this in your blog. I'm sorry your first comment got eaten, it seems to happen a lot.

  7. Thanks Maolsheachlann! And you know what's weird? You wrote here about Yeats and then I later read a post where you wrote about my all-time favourite author CS Lewis, and then I read a chapter in the book I am reading on Isaiah by Ortlund and there he quoted both Yeats and Lewis. Hmmm...looks like we are connected in some ways. Hahaha...

  8. Not so weird, I think almost anyone who likes Lewis will like Yeats! I love them both but I do cherish Lewis's rather sardonic comment about Yeats's spiritualism in Surprised by Joy, and how much it impressed him: "I was still very ingenuous. I had no conception of the amount of nonsense written and printed in the world. I regarded Yeats as a learned, responsible writer: what he said must be worthy of consideration." Hahaha indeed!

  9. No, the sense of "weirdness" I feel is not so much that, but the fact that *immediately* right after I read you on Yeats and Lewis, I read the same two in my regular devotional reading. Coincidence? Nope, cuz I don't believe in coincidences. And I am already checking out this Yeats fella :) Dublin guy like you eh?

  10. Yeats was born in Dublin but he was much happier in Sligo where he grew up and where he's buried. You can't go wrong reading Yeats. He's the best!