Wednesday, December 19, 2007
In Defense of Humilty by GKC
A DEFENCE OF HUMILITYThe act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has to-day all theexhilaration of a vice. Moral truisms have been so much disputed thatthey have begun to sparkle like so many brilliant paradoxes. Andespecially (in this age of egoistic idealism) there is about one whodefends humility something inexpressibly rakish.It is no part of my intention to defend humility on practical grounds.Practical grounds are uninteresting, and, moreover, on practical groundsthe case for humility is overwhelming. We all know that the 'divineglory of the ego' is socially a great nuisance; we all do actually valueour friends for modesty, freshness, and simplicity of heart. Whatevermay be the reason, we all do warmly respect humility--in other people.But the matter must go deeper than this. If the grounds of humility arefound only in social convenience, they may be quite trivial andtemporary. The egoists may be the martyrs of a nobler dispensation,agonizing for a more arduous ideal. To judge from the comparative lackof ease in their social manner, this seems a reasonable suggestion.There is one thing that must be seen at the outset of the study ofhumility from an intrinsic and eternal point of view. The new philosophyof self-esteem and self-assertion declares that humility is a vice. Ifit be so, it is quite clear that it is one of those vices which are anintegral part of original sin. It follows with the precision ofclockwork every one of the great joys of life. No one, for example, wasever in love without indulging in a positive debauch of humility. Allfull-blooded and natural people, such as schoolboys, enjoy humility themoment they attain hero-worship. Humility, again, is said both by itsupholders and opponents to be the peculiar growth of Christianity. Thereal and obvious reason of this is often missed. The pagans insistedupon self-assertion because it was the essence of their creed that thegods, though strong and just, were mystic, capricious, and evenindifferent. But the essence of Christianity was in a literal sense theNew Testament--a covenant with God which opened to men a cleardeliverance. They thought themselves secure; they claimed palaces ofpearl and silver under the oath and seal of the Omnipotent; theybelieved themselves rich with an irrevocable benediction which set themabove the stars; and immediately they discovered humility. It was onlyanother example of the same immutable paradox. It is always the securewho are humble.This particular instance survives in the evangelical revivalists of thestreet. They are irritating enough, but no one who has really studiedthem can deny that the irritation is occasioned by these two things, anirritating hilarity and an irritating humility. This combination of joyand self-prostration is a great deal too universal to be ignored. Ifhumility has been discredited as a virtue at the present day, it is notwholly irrelevant to remark that this discredit has arisen at the sametime as a great collapse of joy in current literature and philosophy.Men have revived the splendour of Greek self-assertion at the same timethat they have revived the bitterness of Greek pessimism. A literaturehas arisen which commands us all to arrogate to ourselves the liberty ofself-sufficing deities at the same time that it exhibits us to ourselvesas dingy maniacs who ought to be chained up like dogs. It is certainly acurious state of things altogether. When we are genuinely happy, wethink we are unworthy of happiness. But when we are demanding a divineemancipation we seem to be perfectly certain that we are unworthy ofanything.The only explanation of the matter must be found in the conviction thathumility has infinitely deeper roots than any modern men suppose; thatit is a metaphysical and, one might almost say, a mathematical virtue.Probably this can best be tested by a study of those who franklydisregard humility and assert the supreme duty of perfecting andexpressing one's self. These people tend, by a perfectly naturalprocess, to bring their own great human gifts of culture, intellect, ormoral power to a great perfection, successively shutting out everythingthat they feel to be lower than themselves. Now shutting out things isall very well, but it has one simple corollary--that from everythingthat we shut out we are ourselves shut out. When we shut our door on thewind, it would be equally true to say that the wind shuts its door onus. Whatever virtues a triumphant egoism really leads to, no one canreasonably pretend that it leads to knowledge. Turning a beggar from thedoor may be right enough, but pretending to know all the stories thebeggar might have narrated is pure nonsense; and this is practicallythe claim of the egoism which thinks that self-assertion can obtainknowledge. A beetle may or may not be inferior to a man--the matterawaits demonstration; but if he were inferior by ten thousand fathoms,the fact remains that there is probably a beetle view of things of whicha man is entirely ignorant. If he wishes to conceive that point of view,he will scarcely reach it by persistently revelling in the fact that heis not a beetle. The most brilliant exponent of the egoistic school,Nietszche, with deadly and honourable logic, admitted that thephilosophy of self-satisfaction led to looking down upon the weak, thecowardly, and the ignorant. Looking down on things may be a delightfulexperience, only there is nothing, from a mountain to a cabbage, that isreally _seen_ when it is seen from a balloon. The philosopher of the egosees everything, no doubt, from a high and rarified heaven; only he seeseverything foreshortened or deformed.Now if we imagine that a man wished truly, as far as possible, to seeeverything as it was, he would certainly proceed on a differentprinciple. He would seek to divest himself for a time of those personalpeculiarities which tend to divide him from the thing he studies. It isas difficult, for example, for a man to examine a fish withoutdeveloping a certain vanity in possessing a pair of legs, as if theywere the latest article of personal adornment. But if a fish is to beapproximately understood, this physiological dandyism must be overcome.The earnest student of fish morality will, spiritually speaking, chopoff his legs. And similarly the student of birds will eliminate hisarms; the frog-lover will with one stroke of the imagination remove allhis teeth, and the spirit wishing to enter into all the hopes and fearsof jelly-fish will simplify his personal appearance to a really alarmingextent. It would appear, therefore, that this great body of ours and allits natural instincts, of which we are proud, and justly proud, israther an encumbrance at the moment when we attempt to appreciate thingsas they should be appreciated. We do actually go through a process ofmental asceticism, a castration of the entire being, when we wish tofeel the abounding good in all things. It is good for us at certaintimes that ourselves should be like a mere window--as clear, asluminous, and as invisible.In a very entertaining work, over which we have roared in childhood, itis stated that a point has no parts and no magnitude. Humility is theluxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing ora large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all thecosmic things are what they really are--of immeasurable stature. Thatthe trees are high and the grasses short is a mere accident of our ownfoot-rules and our own stature. But to the spirit which has stripped offfor a moment its own idle temporal standards the grass is an everlastingforest, with dragons for denizens; the stones of the road are asincredible mountains piled one upon the other; the dandelions are likegigantic bonfires illuminating the lands around; and the heath-bells ontheir stalks are like planets hung in heaven each higher than the other.Between one stake of a paling and another there are new and terriblelandscapes; here a desert, with nothing but one misshapen rock; here amiraculous forest, of which all the trees flower above the head with thehues of sunset; here, again, a sea full of monsters that Dante would nothave dared to dream. These are the visions of him who, like the child inthe fairy tales, is not afraid to become small. Meanwhile, the sagewhose faith is in magnitude and ambition is, like a giant, becominglarger and larger, which only means that the stars are becoming smallerand smaller. World after world falls from him into insignificance; thewhole passionate and intricate life of common things becomes as lost tohim as is the life of the infusoria to a man without a microscope. Herises always through desolate eternities. He may find new systems, andforget them; he may discover fresh universes, and learn to despise them.But the towering and tropical vision of things as they really are--thegigantic daisies, the heaven-consuming dandelions, the great Odyssey ofstrange-coloured oceans and strange-shaped trees, of dust like the wreckof temples, and thistledown like the ruin of stars--all this colossalvision shall perish with the last of the humble.