Monday, September 9, 2013

Misplaced Humility

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction, where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed.

Nowadays the part of man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason. Huxley preached a humility content to learn from nature. But the new skeptic is so humble that he doubts if he can even learn.

Thus we should be wrong if we had said hastily that there is no humility typical of our time. The truth is that there is a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility that the wildest prostrations of the ascetic. The old humility was a spur that prevented a man from stopping; not a nail in his boot that prevented him from going on.

For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will stop him working altogether.
GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy

Reflection – ‘Whatever.’ That’s the spirit of our times that GKC is talking about here, I think. There is a certain answer that shows up from some quarters at least whenever a discussion reaches a certain point, whenever serious efforts begin to be made to come to the truth about this or that question of private morality, public policy, or metaphysical reality.

Whatever. Your opinion is yours; mine is mine, and there is no point talking about it any further, because there is no way of actually coming to the truth about it. Whatevs, baby. And this is at least one manifestation of the ‘humility’ that GKC is critiquing here. It is a false humility, of course, and ultimately a covert form of blasphemy. The virtue of humility is the virtue of knowing one’s own limits and staying within them, of not expanding oneself beyond what one can attain.

But we are made by God to know the truth of things. Our minds are not ‘limited’ in such a way that they can never come to a certainty about the truth of a matter. We can make errors, of course, but this possibility should make us work that much harder to reason our way carefully through a problem to safeguard against that. A man doing his taxes will undoubtedly check and double-check his figures, just to make sure he didn’t forget to carry the three or some such thing. Our long-time MH office manager once told me that bookkeeping was the art of finding and correcting one’s mistakes.

But if there is no way to do that, if 2+2 might equal 4 this time, but might just equal 3 the next time… and we just can’t know ‘cuz, you know, well, whatever… well, we might as well pick a number out of a hat and call that our tax bill. Come to think of it, that more or less resembles the current fiscal policy of much of the world. Whatever, and YOLO… But I digress.

I am reminded of the book The Closing of the American Mind by (I believe) Harold Bloom. A college professor, Bloom had noticed a growing incapacity for serious moral reasoning in the incoming undergraduate classes. This was back in the 1980s. In an effort to stimulate some kind of moral certainty, he raised the question of the Nazi holocaust of the Jewish people (this was pre-Internet and pre-Godwin’s Law). To his dismay, he found that the college students in his classes would generally refuse to categorically say that Hitler’s actions were ‘wrong’, since we cannot ever say for sure that anyone’s actions are wrong.

This is the modesty of conviction that GKC deplores. Because, of course it is wrong to slaughter people like cattle for any reason, and certainly it is wrong to slaughter people because you don’t like their religion. Of course it is wrong—there is no reason to have the slightest doubt on that point. Those same students would blithely, for the most part, just do any old thing they wanted in terms of their own lives and decisions and moral choices without any great sign of moral questioning or doubts. This is what GKC means by a lack of humility about oneself.

We should be very sure about right and wrong, good and evil, the verity of the commandments and their absolute commanding force. We should be very hesitant and careful about asserting our own goodness and virtue, our own capacity to keep the commandments and our own actual state of moral probity. ‘From hidden faults guard me, O Lord,’ (Ps 19). That is the humility of a Christian, sure about God and His truth and goodness; not sure whatsoever about himself and his truth and goodness.


  1. The world doesn't like the word humility and increasingly shuts down the possibility of calmly discussing differing opinions and ideas. End of conversation, is a typical response. People become inflamed at even the mention of the pro-life side of an issue or the wisdom of why it was man + woman marriage exclusively,from the beginning."You have your truth, I have mine," is the cut off slogan.If the "Flood," came today Noah would be called unfair, intolerant and politically incorrect for taking only one male and female of each kind on the Ark. It's good that humble, obedient Noah was in charge of things or maybe half the species and possibly we people also might be missing.


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