June 21, 2014
Humility, a chapter from “The Four Cardinal Virtues,” Josef Pieper
One of the Goods in which man naturally seeks fulfillment of his being is excellentia: superiority, pre-eminence, consideration. The virtue of temperance, insofar as it unites this natural urge to the order of reason, is called humility. The ground of humility is man’s estimation of himself according to truth. And that is almost all there is to it.
Starting from this definition, it is difficult to understand how “humility” could have become, as it were, a bone of contention. To disregard the demonic resistance against good which makes this feature of the Christian image of man its particular target, is possible only because the notion of humility has become blurred even in the Christian consciousness. In the whole tractate of St. Thomas concerning humility and pride, there is not a single sentence to suggest an attitude, on principle, of constant self-accusation, of disparagement of one’s being and doing, of cringing inferiority feelings, as belonging to humility or any other Christian virtue.
Nothing lights the way to a proper understanding of humility more tellingly than this: humility and high-mindedness not only are not mutually exclusive, but are actually neighbors and akin; and both are equally opposed to either pride or pusillanimity.
What is meant by high-mindedness or magnanimity? It is the striving of the mind toward great things. High-minded is the man who feels the potentiality of greatness and prepares for it. The high-minded or magnanimous man is, in a certain sense, “selective.” He will not be accessible to every approach, but will keep himself for the greatness to which he feels akin. Above all, high-mindedness is demanding as to honor: “The high-minded man strives toward that which deserves the highest honor.” In the Summa Theologica we read: “If a man should despise honor to the extent that he would not take care to do what is deserving of honor, this would be blameworthy.” On the other hand, the high-minded man i snot crushed by dishonor; he disregards it as something beneath him. The high-minded man despises everything small-minded. He would never prize another man so highly as to do anything improper for his sake. The words of the Psalmist (Psalm 14, 4), “The evil-doer is nothing in his sight,” refer to the high-minded contempt of the just, says St. Thomas. Fearless frankness is the hallmark of high-mindedness; nothing is further from it than to suppress the truth from fear. Flattery and dissimulation are equally removed from the high-minded. The high-minded man does not complain; for his heart is impervious to external evil. High-mindedness implies an unshakable firmness of hope, an actually challenging assurance, and the perfect peace of a fearless heart. The high-minded man bows neither to confusion of the soul, nor to any man, nor to fate–but to God alone.
One marvels to learn that this description of high-mindedness is drawn, trait by trait, in the Summa Theologica of Aquinas. This needed to be made clear. For in the treatise on humility it is said repeatedly that humility is not opposed to high-mindedness. Now we can fathom the true significance of this statement, spoken as if it were a warning and a caution. This is its meaning: a “humility” too weak and too narrow to be able to bear the inner tension of cohabitation with high-mindedness is not true humility.
The customary judgment of men is always prone to call a high-minded man a haughty man, and so equally to miss the true nature of humility. “A haughty man”–this is easily and quickly said. But only rarely is the quality here implied that of pride (superbia). Pride is not, in the first place, a quality of everyday behavior in human relationships. Pride refers to man’s relationship to God. Pride is the anti-realistic denial of the relationship between creature and Creator; pride denies the creaturely nature of man. Every sin contains two elements: a turning away from God and a turning toward the transitory good; the decisive and defining element is the first one: the turning away from God. And this is more pronounced in pride than in any other sin. “All sins flee before God; pride alone; pride alone stands up before God.” Holy Scripture says of the proud alone that “God flouts the scornful” (James 4, 6).
Humility, too, is not primarily an attitude in human relationships. Humility, too, looks first to God. That which pride denies and destroys, humility affirms and preserves: the creaturely quality of man. If to be a creature–to be created–is the innermost nature of man, then humility, as “subjection of man to God,” is the affirmation of this essential and primordial fact. Second: Humility, consequently, is not outward behavior but an inner attitude, born of decision of the will. Regarding God and its own creaturely quality, it is an attitude of perfect recognition of that which, by reason of God’s will, really is; above all, it is a candid acceptance of this one thing: that man and humanity are neither God nor [in the serpent’s sense] “like God.” At this point we get a glimpse of the hidden connection that links the Christian virtue of humility with the–perhaps equally Christian–gift of humor.
Third, and finally: Can we avoid stating outright that beyond everything said so far, humility is also an attitude of man to man, namely, the attitude of self-abasement of one before the other? Let us examine this more closely.
In Summa Theologica, St. Thomas specifically raises the question of the humble attitude of man to man, and answers it as follows: “In man, two things have to be considered: that which is of God, and that which is of man. … But humility in the strict sense means the awe in virtue of which man subjects himself to God. Consequently man, with regard to that which is of himself, must subject himself to his neighbor with regard to that which is of God in him. But humility does not require that one subject what is of God in himself to that which seems to be of God in the other. …. Humility likewise does not require that one subject that which is of himself to that which is of man in the other.”
In the broad and many-graded area of this reply there is room for the “contempt of men” on the part of the high-minded just as there is for the self-abasement of St. Francis of Assisi, who took off his cowl and had himself brought before the people with a rope around his neck. Here it becomes evident that Christian teaching is wary of the tightness and confinement of one-track rules. This caution or, better, aversion is voiced by St. Augustine in another related reference: “If one man says you should not receive the Eucharist every day, and another says the opposite, let each one do what he thinks he should, in piety, according to his belief. For neither did Zacchaeus and the Roman Officer dispute with one another, although on received the Lord with joy into his house and the other said: ‘I am not worthy that thou shouldst enter under my roof’, (Luke 19, 6; 7, 6). Both honored the Redeemer, though not in the same manner.”