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Humility and Greatness: Should Christians Aim for Excellence?

Humility and Greatness: Should Christians Aim for Excellence? November 10, 2021

The Humility Trap 

There is a character trap close to the surface of the Christian life. Like most people, Christians honor excellence. We award bravery, generosity, and skill, and appreciate when those awards come to us. We also place a high value on humility.

NBC/Ron Batzdorff/IMDB

I call this a character trap because of where the tension between excellence and humility can lead. Should I aim to be deserving of honor, and then pretend to think I’m not? False humility collides with truthfulness: now my aim for humility has made me dishonest. I want to be seen as worthy of honor. I also want to be seen as someone who does not want to be seen as worthy of honor. 

Down this paths lies resentment as well. Rather than voice my desire for recognizition, I must brood on the injustice of a world that cannot recognize my merit.

The Magnanimous and the Humble

This trap has a juicy history in the development of Christian thought. Juicy is relative—it’s the sort of story, I mean, that Chidi from The Good Place would nerd out on. When medieval theologians began wrestling in earnest with Aristotle, this tension between humility and excellence took center stage.

Aristotle’s teaching on human excellence collects around his term megalopsychia, or greatness of soul. We usually translate it, through the Latin, as “magnanimity.” The magnanimous person is the one who deserves to be given great honor. I may do something particularly brave, for instance. Or I may offer generous aid to a friend. Those are virtuous human acts. They are deserving of honor, whether I actually receive that honor or not. 

Humility, though, has no place in the catalogue of Aristotelian virtues. And before we look down our Christian noses at the pagan philosopher, we should see that he has a solid point, for just the reason I’ve already noted. Aristotle values honesty. The person who does something great ought to know the truth about her own greatness. Humility looks like duplicity.

A Division of Moral Labor?

How, though, to square this teaching about pursuing excellence with Paul’s, for instance, in his Christ Hymn from Philippians 2? One solution, proposed by Siger of Brabant (d. 1280), was a division of labor. Magnanimity is for the learned, accomplished, and people well-positioned for public honor. Now we would say “privileged.” Humility, on the other hand, is for those small of soul. The poor, the illiterate. That way both virtues are valued, and everyone tells the truth. You can read more about this history in a book by Jean-Yves Lacoste.

This solution reminds me of one Chaucer pokes fun at. There it’s a question about chastity. The inimitable Wife of Bath responds to criticism of her sexual appetite by saying that she’s aware sexual abstinence is a great virtue. It’s just that Jesus surely meant that for those who were called to be perfect—monks and nuns, for example. She feels confident that he wasn’t talking to her. 

Division of moral labor was thick in the air of the high Middle Ages, whether the division was between monks and villagers or nobles and peasants. But Paul doesn’t seem to be talking to some of the Philippians when he says “let the same mind be in you” that was in the servant Christ. Siger’s teaching was condemned, in fact, at a particularly hot theological convention in the late thirteenth century. Again, hot is relative. But it was certainly one that would make this month’s Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion look like those congressional role calls on C-Span.

Thomas and the Diagonal Way

So can humility and greatness exist together? Let’s stick with the greatness of virtue, and leave the greatness of skill for another conversation.

Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274) wrestles with the question (at least) twice. Once in his commentary on Aristotle’s Ethics, and once in his own theological ethics. 

In commenting on Aristotle, Thomas notices that magnanimity is not the same thing as conceit. In fact, he calls it the mean, the sweet spot, between conceit and “small-mindedness,” or self-deprecation. I can err in my quest for excellence in two self-deceiving ways: by thinking I’m worthy of honors when I’m not, or by thinking I’m not worthy of honors when I am.

When he gathers up this question of philosophical ethics into theology, Thomas gives it one more twist. The Christian life aims at what he calls “difficult goods.” Think of these as the character traits of the diagonal way. Forgiving when contempt is easier. Generosity despite my fear of scarcity. Difficult goods are those human actions through which divine grace bleeds. Theosis, that word for union with God, is about our difficult human pathway into divine goods. 

Theosis as Humble Greatness

For the diagonal way, we need both the classic Aristotelian and the Pauline virtues. We need largeness of soul and we need Christ-like humility.

Magnanimity calls us to greatness. It urges us to pursue the difficult and grace-filled act despite our worry that it is too much for us. Our souls are greater than we think they are. God made them that way. 

Humility restrains us from losing our character in our quest for greatness. I will pursue generosity, but I will not let my desire to be known as generous push me to neglect my family. I will pursue the difficult good of forgiving one who has harmed or continues to harm me. What I will not do is allow my desire to seen as forgiving bring me to a place of utter self-effacement. My soul is not for harming—it’s for theosis.

So Christians can pursue greatness, honor, largeness of soul. To deny this would be disingenuous. But we do so faithfully only when we let the tension between excellence and humility guide us. We are not, after all, called by God to achieve earthly accolades and receive standing ovations. The good to which we are called, sharing in the nature of God, is much richer, much costlier, and much more difficult by far. To do so without humility would be foolish. And, ultimately, it would be a pathetic thing to watch.


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