The meek will inherit the Earth, even if they do not often get elected to Congress.
The humble triumph without triumphalism, win without creating losers, and inherit the Kingdom of Heaven without losing earthiness.
How to be humble?
Karen Swallow Prior (KSP) is here to help. First, she wants to teach us to read well. To read well is to grasp the book and in many works (almost all?) virtue is present. A great story is a virtual reality machine to allow us to practice virtue so we can be virtuous later in reality. To read a hard book well requires humility, except for a very rare few!
Humility comes last of all the virtues and Flannery O’Connor is KSP’s selection as our final teacher. This is meet and right.
O’Connor is the ultimate American short story writer and if one wishes the Kingdom of Heaven, humility is the ultimate virtue. O’Connor shows, KSP writes, “rather than tells” and O’Connor shows us pride and then humility in Revelation.
Ruby Turpin looks down on everyone. Proud? Lord, she’s proud of her humility and bless her heart she is rotten with pride. God help us all:
To be human is to struggle with pride. A few have too little of it; most, too much. There is a good sense of pride, of course, such as having pride in one’s work or one’s children. Aristotle means this sort of pride when he speaks of it as a virtue. In the Christian tradition, pride is understood as the excess of this good pride, what Aristotle terms vanity. Both the Aristotelian and the Christian tradition call for the proper proportion of esteem of oneself. Aquinas defines pride, simply, as “inordinate self-love.” He explains that “every man’s will should tend to that which is proportionate to him”; therefore, pride goes against right reason.
Pride in O’Connor is often a misperception of self, cheap grace. I forgive myself (God save me!) easily and others hard. I know everything, I think, about myself and trust my carefully constructed motives, so I forgive everything. When looking at the “other,” also broken and mistaken, I pretend to know everything and forgive nothing.
This is pride in my generation, or at least in me, and O’Connor has no mercy on this vice.
Against pride is humility: not a lack of self-esteem, but a proper estimate of self. The Oracle of Delphi said “Know Thyself” as an order to humiliate self before the gods. Socrates transformed “Know Thyself” to knowing that before God we must be humble. We are in God’s Image, but not essentially divine. We are people of Middle Earth, not heavenly.
Humility is the virtue of philosophy. One cannot love wisdom without knowing self: I am not god, just a man. Alleluia!
But what is humility?
KSP is succinct:
. . . humility is the recognition that we are all human—another word that comes from the same root—and that none of us are God. Remembering our position as earthly creatures who are not gods is the essence of humility. The virtue of humility, most simply defined, is an accurate assessment of oneself. And, of course, it is impossible to assess oneself rightly apart from God.
Humility is knowing self rightly. Jesus meets Socrates and they both agree: we should be humble. *
KSP shows that O’Connor understands this basic truth: revelation reveals pride, experience hides it. How could this be? Revelation from God pierces our defenses with divine power. Experience begins in us and ends in us. . . If we are defective in our thinking then there is no escape from self. We need revelation to escape the constant feedback loop of experience.
Experience says: “You experience, therefore you know . . . .” Revelation says: “Look! New data! Consider and pray. . . “ Experience often humiliates, but rarely humbles. Most bad news can be dealt with in our life and terrible experience so bad as to break through our defenses. . . That wipes us out. There is no learning possible if we are so depressed that thinking is impossible.
Instead, in acts of Divine disruption, God gives us enough pain to jar us from complacency, but not so much as to innervate us. We stop. We look. We listen. Pain humbles us, if not too great, and God did not create a world with pain too great for us. That pain comes from devils and from us freely choosing badly.
Humility knows that God is in the Heavens, all is not right with the world, but justice will prevail. Humility works toward justice without ever, for one moment, thinking about rewards.
Humility wins and that makes humility hard. I worry about winning when trying to be humble.
Of course, I do, because fake humility roots for losing in order to keep pride intact. “I lost, but it was for the virtue of humility.” Winning is much harder, so hard, that the humility must be real.
Humility is victory for the sake of virtue and not for the sake of winning or rewards. I cannot be truly humble for the sake of winning or prizes, so at my worst I want either to lose nobly (with my nobility marked by onlookers) or to win boldly (with the treats that come to the victor).Humility is willing to lose now, knowing in eternity it cannot.
Still false humility lurks ready to imitate even around this truth. I am tempted to choose humility strategically, but real humility must be constant. I cannot be humble hoping my humility is a tool to make me a Winner in this life. Humility is a tool that would break with such usage.
Instead, I must embrace humility for the sake of virtue. Winning cannot be lurking in the basement of my heart as a goal for my actions even if I will in fact win. Instead, I accept that if I do just actions, then I will be rewarded now and in the days to come with justice. That is enough: I must be good for goodness sake.
Honest Humility Keeps Virtue from Odium
Here too insufferable vanity can crush humility and make virtue odious to all who see me. I can so elevate my virtue that as a result, and O’Connor shows this in painful detail, become insufferable in my own sense of having the proper attitudes. KSP points out the character Julian Chestny, woke in an unreconstructed world, superior to his benighted mother:
He is ashamed of her racism, her prejudice, her haughtiness, her backwardness, and her pride in their family’s lofty past that means nothing now.
Julian is so morally straight he leans a little. His mother is wrong, twisted by her upbringing and her limitations. He is odious and harms the cause of justice by his impiety and pride.
KSP, perhaps, could emphasize that in O’Connor, piety is also a virtue, the servant of humility. Piety is an inclination to proper feelings of reverence for parents and those in authority. O’Connor is not just an advocate of humility but of piety and it is the combination of the two, so rare in our “elite,” that saves. Salvation cannot begin without a knowledge that one must be saved:
Their collective vision shows that before there can be salvation, there must be recognition of guilt as well as sorrow for that guilt, which leads to humility or the “proper valuing of oneself in light of the real relationships one encounters.”
If there ever was a human being that was just so and yet not as her contemporary culture would have had her, that person was Flannery O’Conner. She was not what stupid contemporary culture demanded she should be, but was what we needed badly:
The awkward, pigeon-toed, sickly O’Connor beautifully demonstrated the exaltation of humility in her own life and work.
She knew she could write like an angel, but that she was human. When one has a touch of the divine, but is aware of the clay that is our base, then a person is like Mary, the mother of God. We begin in a choice, a choice to say “yes,” but only if we will, and then we incarnate humility. God comes and dwells within us.
We are, in one important metaphorical sense, Mary: birthing God within us. We are all humbled as God comes and exalts us.
KSP ends this phase of my education with wisdom:
The good life begins and ends with humility.
Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me.
I love reading a good book, full of new ideas, that forces me to read or reread excellent works . . . Even ones like George Saunders I did not like. A great teacher makes us grow! Thank you KSP!
Buy the book.
*KSP wrote a sentence so true that you should buy the whole book to read it in genuine ink on paper: “No pride could be more blinding than the kind that makes you think your pigs don’t stink.”
This will be a twelve part series: Introduction, Prudence, Temperance, Justice, Courage, Faith, Hope, Love, Chastity, Diligence, Patience, Kindness, AND Humility (because I miscounted by not including the Introduction originally).