The “Sin” of Humility

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by Thomas Fleming October 9th, 2009

Humility is the great moral skandalon (stumbing block) of Christianity, in much the same way that Christ—the God who became man, suffered, and died a humiliating death—was the skandalon to the Jews. Thus it is a little amusing to read the complaints of so many uneducated neopagans—most of them anti-Semites—against Christian humility. Their reaction is exactly that of the well-bred Jew of Jesus’ time.

The virtue of humility is praised throughout the New Testament. The texts of the Gospels are studded with admonitions, parables, and tales, all designed to inculcate this teaching: the banquet at which we are not to take a seat of honor, the Pharisee who thanked God he was not like other men, Christ’s washing the feet of his disciples, the Roman centurion, used to giving orders, who thought himself so unworthy that it was not fitting that the Lord should enter his house. St. Paul’s epistles constantly warn against getting puffed up or people who think they are something—a marvelous phrase in Greek, where the word for something is the monosyllabic unaccented word ti.

The natural man, the old Adam—whether Christened or not—rebels against humility. What, am I supposed to put myself on par with a Third World savage or an effeminate neopagan? In one sense, yes. None of us is perfect as Our Lord would have us perfect. We all fall short, not just of the glory of God but of the human glory we were created to enjoy. If we wish God to forgive our failings, then we must not be too proud to forgive the failings of others: “Forgive us our debts/trespasses, as we forgive our debtors/those who trespass against us.”

This is, admittedly, a different moral universe from what is portrayed in most pagan literature, Homeric (though not Vergilian) epic in particular. Homer’s heroes are passionate and self-willed men, worthy even of some respect from the vastly more powerful gods. Yet this contrast is somewhat misguided, as it is sometimes stated, if it is intended to be a contrast of civilizations. In the first place, Homer is rather like the Old Testament of the Greeks, and the code of the Homeric warrior—”always do the best”—undergoes a good deal of refinement at the hands of poets and philosophers. Euripides and Menander, no less than Aristotle and Epictetus, would have had a good deal to say about some of the behavior of Homeric heroes—the lying of Odysseus, for example, the cruelty to captives.

But even within the context of Homer, there is a moral code that condemns excessive self-assertion. The quarrel between the equally arrogant Agamemnon and Achilles, with which the Iliad begins, is not a good thing for the army that suffers untold casualties as a result. Agamemnon, at least, comes to his senses, but Achilles is implacable, as his friend and comrade Ajax points out in the Embassy scene. In fact, he has become a monster, who hopes that the Greeks and Trojans will kill each other and leave only himself and Patroclus to sack Troy. Even the gods are afraid to interrupt his bestial mistreatment of Hector’s corpse.

Achilles temperament is characterized by hybris, an overweening self-confidence and self-importance that treats social equals with contempt. This is the great sin of Greek popular morality, the subject of countless tragedies. A man who behaved this way on the streets of Athens—slapping a citizen or pushing him—might be taken to court for hybris, as Demosthenes did to an enemy.

For Aristotle, who is one of the best guides to Greek folk wisdom, the proper attitude is a mean between self-effacing meekness and strutting arrogance. His student Theophrastus brilliantly portrays what the Greeks disliked in this quality of arrogance in his character sketches of men who are obnoxious, ambitious in petty matters, ungenerous, arrogant, and oligarchic, that is, domineering. Such types are simply not gentlemanly, what the Athenians called kalos kai agathos, fair and brave.

Later schools of philosophy went further in the direction of Christianity. The great Neoplatonist Plotinus sometimes sounds like a Christian saint, in his understanding and forbearance. It is arrogance—the arrogance of the Gnostics—that gets him angry. The Epicureans, who strove for untroubled peace of mind, avoided self-assertion, while the Stoics, whose morality so often anticipates Christianity, reminded themselves and their listeners and readers of how unimportant even the most lofty and powerful men are. The Stoic code is seen to best advantage in the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who did his duty completely and spent most of his adult life in the field against the savage Germans, when he would have vastly preferred to be at home with his books. This superb man, nonetheless, tells himself over and over both to be worthy of his family and his job and not to let his position as divine ruler go to his head. The most nearly Christian Emperor was also a persecutor of Christians, whom he believed to be stubborn and arrogant.

There are differences, albeit not vast, between the highest pagan understanding of humility and the Christian teaching. For Plotinus, the Epicureans, and the Stoics, the point to humility is that it frees the mind from unimportant distractions, to gain wisdom and understanding, and to live a philosophical life. In this, they were perhaps a bit freakish by ordinary standards, and it was even more bizarre for ordinary Christians to practice the extraordinary virtues of the philosophers—the point that Justin Martyr makes in his apologia addressed to Marcus Aurelius. The Christian is humble out of his love and gratitude to his God and saviour whose virtues he wishes to emulate and with whom he wishes to spend eternity. Still, serious decent pagans and good Christians outwardly behaved in much the same way. The late 4th century aristocrat Paulinus of Nola, was a very saintly man but, even after his conversion, he also remained every inch a gentleman.

By the time of Constantine, as pagans and Christian moralities converged, the more obvious contrast was with the northern European barbarians. In the Greco-Roman view, Celts and Germans acted like children. Livy portrays the Celts as strutting and boasting and threatening great deeds before a battle, but when they are stoutly resisted by more disciplined Romans, they flee in disarray. Caesar, admittedly disingenuous, portrays Ariovistus the German as boastful, and this is a constant theme of ancient writers, There is, admittedly, an element of propaganda in this, but since the barbarian nations did not learn to read and write, it is their own fault if we only hear the Roman side of the story. The Germans were bigger and generally stronger than the Romans, but the civilized discipline of the Romans prevailed against the German berserkers time after time. Even in the sixth century, Justinian’s armies eliminated the Gothic Kingdom of Italy. When the Goths surrendered to Belisarius at Ravenna, they apologized to their women, claiming that the vastly larger Roman army was made up of huge warriors. When the the small army of Eastern runts marched into the city, the women reviled their brave German husbands, brothers, and sons.

The Germans are a great nation, and they have made very important contributions to our common civilization. Some of their accomplishments must be due to their robust vigor and native talents, but they did not learn to put those talents to good use until they were civilized by the Roman Church and Roman civilization. Even crazy Nietzsche, a Lutheran pastor’s son whose hatred of Catholicism knew no bounds, confessed that Luther had unleashed the Germans from classical civilization and given them license to return to their native swinishness. This is much too harsh, both on Luther and on the Germans, but that was the opinion of the leading guru of neopaganism.

As Christian moral theology was developed, it had to take account of the nuances of situations–and of our barbarian ancestors’ propensities to self-love and arrogance. St. Thomas, in his discussion of humility in the Summa Theologiae, takes up the argument that humility is not a virtue because it is not recognized as such by Aristotle. He points out that Aristotle’s account of the virtues has to do with civic life, which concerns man’s subordination to man, while Christian humility is the subordination of man to God. This is a brilliant and concise way of making an important statement. Insofar as Christians hold important social or public positions, whether as Pope or Emperor or as officer or father, they have a duty to maintain a position that we have a duty to respect. What could be more lordly than the procession of Pope and cardinals in St. Peter’s, and yet those same princes of the Church are supposed to humble themselves to their confessors. A father may not think himself “better” than his sons, but he is in a position of authority and must insist upon his sons’ respecting that authority. In this way, it is entirely possible to maintain a complex hierarchy—and no hierarchy was more complex than what developed, East and West, in the Christian Roman Empire—while celebrating humility as one of the main virtues of Christian life.

St. Alphonsus has a fine treatment of superbia (pride) in Book V of his Theologia Moralis. Here is a crude summation of some of what he says, Alphonsus defines pride as “an inordinate (that is disproportionate) appetite for one’s own preeminence (excellentia)” of such a sort as does not wish to be subject either to God or to one’s human superiors. Pride is not complete so long as it does not reject property authority, divine or human. HeSD distinguishes between venial and mortal acts of pride. Mortal sins include expressions of pride aimed at harming our fellow men or are directed against the love of God. (Neopagans take care!) . Pride is a mortal sin when someone laps up praise for something that is a mortal sin. When someone introduces new customs or fashions into a commonwealth, foreseeing that by his example he would be imposing a moral necessity on others that they make expenditures beyond their ability and later would be unable to feed themselves or satisfy their creditors, he sins gravely, but it is only a venial sin if someone dresses extravagantly out of mere lightwittedness. It is also a sin to pretend, out of pride, to vices that one does not actually practice (such as the neopagan metrosexuals who claim to be playboys.)

Humility remains a stumbling block for even the most virtuous of pagans, but it is by no means an insurpassable obstacle to a pagan appreciation of Christian civilization. Even Gibbon admired great Christians like the last Constantine or Pope Leo IV, who defended Rome against the Saracens. What I suspect is really going on, when young neopagans—mostly urban metrosexuals—attack Christian humility is that that they are yearning to escape from their position as peripheral males and think that in the Wagnerian myths that can embrace a manhood they will never attain. In any event, their attack on Christian humility is as ill-informed as it is malicious, and there is a serious question whether it is useful to do any business with people who, without taking the trouble to learn anything, insist on reviling the religion of their supposed allies