27.9.12

Chesterton on Humility

"Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetites of man. He was always outstripping his mercies with his own newly invented needs. His very power of enjoyment destroyed half his joys. By asking for pleasure, he lost his chief pleasures; for the chief pleasure is surprise. Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest start the creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything - even pride. 

But 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 a 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 than 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 make him stop working altogether."


Every year I make a point of reading one, or several, of G.K. Chesterton's books. Every year, I am surprised anew. Chesterton's words on humility, from "Orthodoxy" are well worth pondering. 

It should be noted that Chesterton speaks of humility in the specific context of belief. Humility, as the author of The Cloud of Unknowing notes, is the true knowledge and experience of yourself as you are. Chesterton asserts the same in the context of knowing that we are, if anything, doubtful and therefore we ought to doubt ourselves. 

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