Have we lost humility?

Author:Konkola, Kari

Once regarded as the essential Christian virtue, humility has become to many "a weakness or character flaw." (2) A few contemporary thinkers have noted its absence. For example, Claes Ryn has observed that "the humility characteristic of the older kind of American is becoming rare in leading political circles." (3) Jonathan Sacks, a leading rabbi in England, has called humility the "orphaned virtue of our age." This article will provide evidence to support these observations. It will focus on the transformation within Christianity by comparing the moral ideals of early modern English religious texts published in the seventeenth century with those of contemporary American religious and secular literature. In passing, this study will also examine and critique the view of pride and humility held by Thomas Hobbes. Although an obscure philosopher in his day, Hobbes has become one of the most influential of those whose ideas will be discussed here. An examination of Hobbes helps, at least in small part, to explain the loss of humility in contemporary society.

Humility was a quintessentially Christian discovery. Its opposite, pride, had achieved recognition much earlier. The Old Testament and Greek philosophical and literary traditions recognized that pride, or hubris, was a sin or a weakness to be avoided. Yet neither tradition quite reached the conclusion that, if pride or hubris is evil, humility must be good. Only Christianity took this step. While humility is mentioned several times in the Old Testament (for example, Moses is praised for his exceptional humility [Numbers 12:3]), there is no special emphasis on this virtue. In this respect the New Testament introduces a significant change: Christ, the son of God and the central person of the New Testament, explicilty teaches humility and provides a role model for humble behavior with his own life and death. By the seventeenth century, at least, Christian theologians regarded humility as a chief attribute of their religion. For example, Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667)--a bishop, Chaplain in Ordinary to King Charles II, and one of the most popular religious authors in seventeenth-century England--called it "the great ornament and jewel of Christian Religion, that whereby it is distinguished from all the wisdom of the world." (4)

Humility in Seventeenth-Century English Literature

To document the development of English Christian thought, this study relies on bibliometric analysis--identification of the most popular books and their most important ideas. This assumes that best-selling texts reflect the preferences of the book-buying segment of the population, and contain ideas likely to be popular. Of course, public opinion revealed by best-selling books is limited to the literate part of the population. Yet these are the decision-making elite. Further, literacy was widespread in England by 1650, when about 350,000 to 450,000 of the 1.1 million households contained fluent readers. (5) The Short Title Catalogue (STC) provides information on books published in England from the beginning of printing to 1700. It includes all editions of books surviving in our time, whether sold in England or elsewhere.

As this was Shakespeare's England, one might ask whether religious texts reveal much about the morals of the time. However, between 1610 and 1640 production of theological texts outnumbered editions of poems, plays, and sonnets by a ratio of five to one. (6) While the morals found in plays are broadcast to a wide theater-going audience, the real "mass media" at the time were sermons. These emanated every Sunday from England's 9,000 pulpits. Ideas in religious bestsellers reached the non-literate, church-going population through preachers. Intense educational efforts also make it probable that the core ideas of Christian morality were familiar to the entire population.

The moral thinking of early modern English Protestantism comes into objective focus through an examination of the extent to which it appears in books from the period. The first text that stands out in a survey of early modern English "bestsellers" is the English edition of Thomas Kempis's The Imitation of Christ. The book sold over 100,000 copies in over forty editions before 1640--making it a blockbuster. Englishmen apparently enjoyed reading about a surprisingly demanding form of piety. In Kempis, one finds in Christ a role model that required mortification both of pride and the concomitant desire for power and esteem:

Learn to obey, you dust; learn to bring down yourself, you earth and slime, and throw down yourself under all men's feet. Learn, I say, to break your will, and humbly to submit yourself to all. Wax hot against yourself, and suffer not pride to have place within you: but show yourself so lowly and simple, that all may tread you under foot like mire in the street. (7) The appeal of Kempis also provides evidence that core ideas of Christianity continued with small changes through the Reformation. He wrote his book in the early fifteenth century as a manual for people who desired to introduce the ideas of monastic piety to lay society. Still, large numbers of Englishmen in the Tudor and Stuart periods obtained a slightly modified version of the book. English Protestants eagerly embraced large parts of a moral system originally intended for Catholics living a semi-monastic life!

In the second half of the seventeenth century, the best-selling author was probably Richard Baxter, whose books went through 301 editions between 1650 and 1700. Baxter, the spiritual leader of the nonconformist branch of English Protestantism, agreed with the Anglicans in condemning sham humility. Virtue had to be "in the soul":

It is not all that are clothed in sackcloth, but to the humble soul that God has respect: even to the self-abhorring person, who judges himself unworthy to come among the people of God ... that patiently suffer the injuries of enemies and friends, and heartily forgive and love them; that bear the most sharp and plain reproofs with gentleness and thanks; that think the lowest place in mens esteem, affections, and respects, the fittest for them;... that reproove themselves oftener and more sharply than other men reproove them; and are more ready to censure themselves than others ...; and therefore are more ready to learn than teach, and to hear than speak.... (8) Richard Allestree's The Whole Duty of Man was another best seller. It went through fifty-six known editions--about 200,000 copies--between 1660 and 1700. A modern reader would be surprised on reading The Whole Duty of Man, which devoted some thirty pages to pride, humility, and contentment, and regarded humility as the most important virtue. In contrast, Allestree only gave five pages to chastity.

Jeremy Taylor, a leader in seventeenth-century Anglican thought, enjoyed similar popularity: 60,000 copies of his book Holy Living came out between 1650 and 1700. At least that number must have read Taylor's view that a humble person

is meek and indifferent in all accidents and changes.... He patiently bears injuries.... He is always unsatisfied in his own conduct, resolutions and counsels ... He fears when he hears himself commended.... He loves to sit down in private, and if he may he refuses the temptation of offices and new honours.... He mends his fault, and gives thanks when he is admonished.... He is ready to do good offices to the murderers of his fame, to his slanderers, backbiters, and detractors. (9) Because humility was the critical virtue, these early English theologians examined it in great detail. They meticulously explored and described the attributes of pride, the signs of a truly humble personality, the benefits of humility to the individual and to society, and, of course, the corresponding difficulties that pride brought to the world.

Pride: To understand how the Divines saw humility, it helps first to examine how they saw pride. In contemporary society we are more familiar with the vice than the virtue. The Divines took seriously the Old Testament story of a proud Lucifer, who resented his subjection to God. His rebellion ended with his banishment from heaven and the entry of sin into the world. Pride is the devil's sin and the original source of all evil--the worst of sins. The Old Testament repeatedly warns that: "Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall" (Prov. 16:18); "The Lord will destroy the house of the proud" (Prov. 15:25); "Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the Lord: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished" (Prov. 16:5).

Popular English writers in the seventeenth century accepted these Old Testament warnings:

[The devil's] sin was Pride, and his Pride an emulation of God himself. I will ascend and be like unto God. He thought himself such a freeborn Subject, that he ought to cast all Soveraignty off him ... this Leader the proud man follows; and with the same event likewise. His great design and aim is to be high, honoured, and applauded: and of all men, is the most odious to God and man. (10) Further, the divines were early modern religious psychologists. They believed sins influenced thoughts, desires, instinctive emotional reactions, and actions. These were controlled--in religious terms, "corrupted"--by the underlying sinful passion. This hidden influence means that the only practical way to define pride is to identify its effects. Richard Baxter used this method when he described pride as:

  1. A will to be higher or greater than God would have us to be. 2. An overvaluing of ourselves, or esteeming ourselves to be greater, wiser, or better than indeed we are. 3. A desire that others should think of us, and speak of us, and use us, as greater, or wiser, or better than we are. 4. An endeavor or seeking to rise above our appointed place, or to be overvalued by others. 5. An ostentation of our inordinate self-esteem in outward signs of speech or action...

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