Humilitas— Part Four

The Fourth Chapter has a simple premise— humility is winsome and beautiful, and arrogance is repellent and ugly.  Dickson thus suggests that there is an aesthetic dimension to humility and I mostly agree with him.  I do however think that there are plenty of persons out there who are wicked enough or narcisstic enough that they would not see humility as beautiful at all.  They would see it as weakness.   In other words, many would not find humility inherently attractive or beautiful or something to strive for.

A good example of what I am talking about is some of the heroes of Ayn Rand’s famous Fiction  (e..g The Fountainhead,  Atlas Shrugged) and of course her little credo book- ‘The Virtue of Selfishness’.   I frankly find it more than a little frightening, from a Christian point of view, that Paul Ryan, the deviser of the much touted budget compromise and vision of how to re-do Medicare cites Ayn Rand as his inspiration for his economic and political vision.   Someone should send him John Dickson’s book.   There are no virtues to selfishness.   Humility by contrast is indeed a virtue, bearing in mind Dickson’s dictum that by humility he means the person who deliberately steps down from a height, and forgoes profit or benefit in service to others.     There is a certain naivete in Dickson’s assumption that even those attracted to the bad,  really wouldn’t much enjoy people being bad towards them.  Frankly, I have run into too many people who somewhat masochistically enjoyed exactly that, enjoyed even self-flagellation.

There are some helpful warnings in this chapter as well about fake humility, false humility (and false pride for that matter).   He urges “Humility is not an ornament to be worn; it is an ideal that will transform”  (p. 82), and he gives the excellent example of Sir Edmund Hillary of what he has in mind.     But is is worth pondering what it means to ‘humble oneself’   This is an action phrase, referring to stepping down and serving others but in itself it implies nothing about a virtue such as ‘modesty’.  Some of the people who do the most self-sacrificial deeds are not necessarily all that modest about it when asked to tell their tale.   So which is it?  Is humility’ modesty’ or being ‘self-effacing’,  or is humility sacrificial behavior, or does it necessarily entail both?     Well let’s consider the case of Jesus.   Beyond dispute he was self-sacrificial— he died on a cross for others.  But was he modest in the sense of not claiming much credit, or deflecting praise, or not tooting his own horn as someone special?   I’m not sure it is accurate to say he was ‘modest’ in the normal sense of the term.  He actually claimed to be the Son of God and the Wisdom of God, the Son of Man,  the one who binds the Strong Man, and we could go on.   Yes he sincerely praises God for various things he does,  but he does not say, as John the Baptist does— “I must decrease, and you must increase”.    My point is simple— I don’t think modesty is in all respects synonymous with humility.    And Dickson seems a bit too ready to equate the two things.     Still, the lesson of Phil. 2 is presumably that Jesus allowed the Father to exalt him and give him a superior name, and so should we.  We should be concentrating on self-sacrificial behavior, not on status claims or status seeking. In this regard we mirror the mind of Christ.

  • MF

    There’s an interesting interview on a recent Mars Hill Audio Journal that talks about Distributism (ownership is spread as widely as possible) as an economic third way compared to Communism (state owns all) and Capitalism (ownership is oligarchical). The relevance here is with regard to the “virtue” of selfishness: distributism does not rely on selfishness, greed, and consumerism as its fundamental drivers.

  • http://www.hongkongudy.com Karl Udy

    As I remember GK Chesterton was a fan of Distributism


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