Saturday, May 15, 2010

Humility 1: False Humility

I recently heard a gentleman talking about humility. He mentioned asking people at a retreat whether they were humble. Some sucker bit and raised her hand--Ha! She isn't humble, or she wouldn't raise her hand!

How droll!

How totally, almost damnably false.

This peculiar view of humility is common, unfortunately: it is the Virtue That Dare Not Speak Its Name. The first (and perhaps still the only) writer I've seen get this right is C. S. Lewis. Unfortunately, many of his "fans" have never read his writings. Pity, that.

Anyway--it doesn't take much examination to locate the problem. Suppose there is a truly humble person. You ask him, "Are you humble?" What does he--can he--answer?

1. If he says "Yes," we automatically dismiss his claim: it's a trick question for which an affirmative answer is impossible even though we have already stipulated that it would be true. That is, we have excluded truth as a possibility.

2. If he says, "No," then he is at best mistaken or deluded and at worst lying. So the only answer we will accept is a mistake, a delusion, or an outright lie. And this is a virtue?

Note that real virtues do not cost us self-knowledge: it's the vices that numb us to reality. That's why we like them. We drink to forget, in other words, though we get drunk on Pride, Wrath, Lust, and so forth. If we concentrate on vices, they will blind us to the guy on the cross and to the same guy not in the tomb but enthroned at his Father's right hand. If you fight vices and exercise virtue, you'll know as much about yourself as your friends and enemies do.

So the fact that this so-called humility at best calls for loss of self-knowledge tells us that it's really a vice. Its patron sinner is of course Uriah Heep.

Someone will probably claim that my thought experiment assumes an impossibility: no one is truly humble. Untrue: at least One was truly humble--and he said so in Matt 11:29! So by the usual reasoning, Jesus himself was guilty of the sin of pride, which would interfere with his being our Savior. Drat.

Next time, I'll explain what real humility is, and why it's as plain as the nose on your face.

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