What Humility is Not

Dry Leaves Glass

Talking about downward mobility sort of lends itself towards meditation on humility, I imagine.  Truth be told, that post didn’t inspire the meditation as much as a comment I made on someone else’s blog, but it seems to fit anyway, so I’ll just pretend that was my original idea.

I remember years ago, I was pondering what exactly humility was.  I knew there was a tendency to warp it in some fashion, to turn the virtue into a vice (though I certainly wouldn’t have phrased it that way then) and instead of following what was good in humility, turning it into self-degradation.  I knew that wasn’t humility, but I never found anybody actually attempting to define it.  It just seemed like it was assumed that we all knew what it was, so nobody needed to talk about it with any depth.  We were just told that we needed it, so go get it, and that was that.  Honestly, I don’t think it’s that simple.  I don’t think the Christian community really understands humility.

Part of the problem, I think, is that we attempt to define humility as the opposite of pride, which may not necessarily be a bad thing, but we’ve lost the original understanding of pride.  Pride and vainglory used to be two separate vices.  Evagrius defined eight evil thoughts, out of which arose the traditional seven deadly sins, but to make seven, pride and vainglory were sort of mushed together, and the idea of pride as a separate issue faded away.  What we think of as pride today – believing oneself superior, boasting, narcissism – is what the ancients would have called vainglory.  Pride, on the other hand, was a belief or attitude that one was sufficient unto oneself.  This didn’t require any feeling of superiority, though that could arise from such a mentality.  Rather, pride was simply not needing anyone or anything.  Theologians today sometimes refer to it as autonomy – doing everything yourself and believing that no one and nothing else is necessary.

With this understanding of pride, perhaps humility becomes a bit easier to grasp.  The problem is that humility is not directly the opposite of pride.  Neither is it the opposite of vainglory exactly.  The funny thing about pride and vainglory is that when you move directly opposite to them, you somehow end up back where you started, just looking different.  That probably didn’t make much sense at first glance, but when did sin ever really make sense?  Consider, though: if vainglory consists of a sense of superiority, then its opposite is a feeling of inferiority.  But a sense of inferiority means that one is continuing to focus on oneself, which is narcissism, and that’s still vainglory.  Oops!  We’re back where we started, and that didn’t work.  Well, perhaps, then, one needs to not be narcissistic, to not look at oneself.  While there’s some truth to that, there are also a myriad of problems with it.  The first is that this can end up being like trying to not think about elephants.  To not think about elephants is almost impossible because you’ve always got to have the thought of elephants to make sure thoughts of elephants don’t arise.  It doesn’t work.  Similarly, to not focus on oneself can require focusing on not focusing on oneself, but then you’re already where you’re not supposed to be.  That doesn’t work; your attempt to not be narcissistic has made you narcissistic in another way.  Another issue is that, I believe, we are supposed to have a focus on ourselves to some extent.  It you look at the book of Proverbs, it often discusses vices and habits that we are to avoid.  But how do we know if we deal in them already if we don’t look at ourselves to see?  We must focus on ourselves to some extent.  It’s not healthy spiritually or in any other sense not to.

But what about pride rather than vainglory?  Would looking at the opposite of autonomy work?  This would entail, instead of looking to oneself and believing oneself sufficient, affirming that one is in need of help in all things.  There’s a bit of truth in that.  In fact, I think it’s immanently true in some respects.  Consider John 15:5 (“apart from Me, you can do nothing.”).  But there was a movement called Quietism that moved this direction, and it was declared heretical.  To move directly against autonomy is to assert that one can really and truly do nothing, so the only thing that one should do is nothing or get someone else to help with everything.  But if one asserts that one can’t do anything and seeks out others to do everything for them or at least with them, then one becomes a drain on others and really has become self-focused again, and that’s narcissism, and that’s vainglory – pride by contemporary standards.  You’re back where you started by turning the opposite direction.

So just running the opposite direction, while a simple technique, is not an entirely effective one.  So if humility is not simply the opposite of pride or vainglory, what is it?  More meditation required.


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