Apr 24, 2011

Anselm on the Seven Levels of Humility

Having finished the six-entry series on Anselm's views on anger, I've decided on a new Sunday blogging project for the time being, one which still focuses on the (somewhat inaptly epitheted) Scholastic Doctor, but now on a different aspect of his moral theory:  the virtue of humility, so central to his life, practice, thought, and counsels -- so difficult and trying a virtue to cultivate (I'll admit, in my experience and after very limited success).  Humility, Anselm says, is needed in order to prepare the ground for, and to stabilize the other moral virtues. 

Unlike anger, Anselm did devote some thematic discussion to humility as such, particularly through a metaphor he develops in considerable depth -- that of a mountain with levels.  Each level corresponds to one degree of humility, a new qualitative addition or deepening of that virtue, in practice, in action.  In the weeks to come, I'm going to compare Anselm's treatment, and the successive levels he outlines, with those of other Christian thinkers who also discussed humility, and similarly distinguished successive degrees, steps, or levels, of that virtue.  One of these at least Anselm knew with an intimacy than which a greater can barely be conceived, for St. Benedict, the founder of the very order in which Anselm lived out nearly all of his adult life, distinguishes and briefly discusses twelve steps or levels of humility.

There is a condensed discussion of the valley of pride and the mountain of humility in the De Humanibus Moribus, a text reconstructed by two first rate Anselm scholars (F.W. Schmitt, O.S.B. and R.W. Southern) out of the very popular Anselmian medieval book De Similitudinibus, and I start here by giving a translation of some of those passages.  Further down, I include translation of a longer and more involved discussion of the same matters in the Dicta Anselmi.
And so, pride is a deep valley, which the more one is raised up by pride, the deeper it will cast one. For, the thickness of shadows is the ignorance of self, that is, when one does not know that one is contemptible [contemptabilis]. But the evil beasts are the vices that beset and misuse  those who are ignorant of themselves. And the levels by which one climbs to the mountain's peak are the seven levels of humility, by which one attains to its perfection.
Thus, one who remains in the valley of pride, blinded by ignorance of him or herself, is often beset and abused by all sorts of vices. But, one who, leaving pride behind, one begins to climb by the levels of humility, and by one climbing more of them, one's ignorance being dissipated, one opens oneself to self-knowledge. And indeed, the vices do not attack him, but instead the very good people, that is, the virtues, approach him. But when he should climb to highest level of humility, he rests with these very virtues in clear knowledge of self.

And so, the first level of humility is for one to know himself to be contemptible. And since there are some who know themselves to be contemptible, but do not thereby grieve [over it], the second level is to grieve over being contemptible . Now, since there are others who grieve over being contemptible, but who are unwilling to confess it [to others], the third level is to confess oneself to be contemptible. Then again, since there are others who confess themselves to be contemptible but are not willing that it should be so believed, the fourth level is to persuade [others] that one is contemptible. In truth, since there are some who will that they should be believed to be contemptible, but are not willing that this be said to them [by other people], the fifth level is to suffer that one be spoken of as contemptible. And, since some suffer this, but are unwilling to suffer that they be treated as contemptible, the sixth is to suffer that one be treated as contemptible. But since some suffer this reluctantly [inviti], the seventh is to love that one be treated as contemptible.

In this place, after one climbs there, one is in clear light, that is, in perfect knowledge of self. And, he remains amongst the very good people, that is, the virtues, all of which are based like some sort of edifice upon this mountain of humility. And indeed, all of these levels of humility are necessary, just as can be clearly seen from the similitude [provided here].
From chapter 1 of the Dicta Anselmi:
Our Lord and Savior, full of the spirit of sevenfold grace, wanting to fortify us against the deep valley of pride, and to recommend to us the mountain of humility, says: ‘everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

For pride is like the deepest valley, full of the beasts of vices, and covered in darkness. And if someone drinks in and delights in that darkness, beyond any doubt he will become a stranger to the light of truth. For until he shows himself to be an acquaintance of that humility, which is the seat of truth, not possessing knowledge of himself or the light of truth, he will not distinguish [rightly], since “the animal man does not perceive those things that are of God.”

And so it is that in that dark valley there is an abundance of vices, like a huge multitude of cruel beasts. For indeed, he will encounter cruelty like the lion, cunning like the fox, envy like the serpent, wrath like the toad, and the other vices like death-bringing living things in the same place. For the more that someone should become the companion of them, the less he will take stock of the fact that they are cruel things. For the wont of vice is that from it, it is not readily apparent what will follow from it for one holding to it, but afterwards when he should curse it and struggle to break his companionship with it, then he sees what filthiness and misery it cast him and what serious bites he endured from the evil beast.

But humility is a great mountain, at whose summit there is full light, and a crowd of very good [honestarum] persons, that is the holy virtues. Its height is climbed by seven levels.

The first degree in the mountain of humility is knowledge of self. Every person ought to have this in such way as to judge himself lesser than everyone else, imitating the Apostle, who judged himself the least of all the saints. For if some person who had so sinned that his lord by just judgment could cut off his hands and feet, gouge out his eyes and tear him entirely apart, but nevertheless did not do this but through his mercy put up with him, he ought to know himself greatly the debtor of his lord, and humble himself towards his lord all the more, the less he considers himself worthy of being put up with.

You see, we offend our Lord in many ways, and in such that from the retribution of his justice he could have us torn limb from limb, or impose the weakness of servitude and inflict eternal punishments. From that offense we not only greatly merit God’s anger, but even that all created beings be aroused against us.

For when we offend against the Lord of all created beings, we move all creatures, insofar as they look to what we deserve, to anger against us. Thus the earth could by just determination say to us: “I ought not to maintain you, but rather to swallow you up, seeing that you did not fear to withdraw from my Lord by [your] sinning.” Food and drink could say to us: “You do not deserve that we ought to nourish you; indeed [what you deserve] more is that we ready confusion and murder for you.” And the sun as well: “I should not shine on you for your health, but I should burn you up as retribution for my Lord.” And likewise every single creature could rise up against us by unbreakable reasoning.

And so it is to our advantage that we humble ourselves, lest the postponed retribution arriving harshly punish our evil deeds just as much then as what was put up earlier with could have been punished. So, let us then humble ourselves, let us apply our minds to examining point by point what we are, what we were born as, or what we have done, and we will come to understand that we are worthy of great punishment. Who so judges himself, stands then at the first level of humility.

The second level is pain or distress [dolor].  For there are not a few, who confess themselves to be sinners, but do not have any distress on that account. But it is needful that they feel pain if they want to deserve indulgence, because a person knowing that he is a sinner is not effective if he does not have pain [over it]. For if someone sins against his Lord and does not feel any pain on that account, what do you think the lord should say about him? In what way ought the lord to forgive the offense, so long as he knows him to be so little distressed? It would seem quite ridiculous if someone begs for leniency over something about which he does not feel any pain. So then it is needful that, whosoever desires for indulgence to follow for wrongs he has perpetrated, he have pain or distress.

And so confession comes next, since a much as a person knows himself to be a sinner and is pained , the more he ought to confess it. For there are many who know themselves, and are pained that they sin, but nevertheless hide it, since it would make them blush to confess. And though they know confession to be needed for their salvation, they propose in their hearts to repent in God’s presence and to confess to Him, and to carry out a penance in many things greater than what another person would want to impose on them, if they were to confess. In this matter, they are entirely deceived, because nobody whatsoever can confess anything to God of which He is ignorant. For everything is naked and open to Him. And so God wills that whosoever should sin against Him -- as if God Himself did not know it -- that person should confess it to another person in God’s place, and by this sign it will be clearly proven that, even if God did not know of it, this person would truthfully open it and show it forth to Him.

Furthermore, if one who by his own self-will, not having confessed, wants to carry out a greater penance than someone else would impose on him if he were to confess, he thinks that he does something greater by his self-will than if he were to confess, let him judge for himself whether he thinks it better that he confess and do a small penance or without confession he should by his own free will do penance for a long time. And since he chooses to draw out the length of his penance rather than to make public his fault, he knows for certain that his own freely chosen penance, even if it is severe, does not yet make up for the confession, since such a person does not yet determine himself to make the confession which he ought to make to the same extent as he does penance severely in secret. For, no matter how severe, doing penance without confession is always something lesser than making confession with a pure heart.

Once we have [ascended] these three levels of the mountain of humility, persuasion follows. For, just as it is needful that we confess, so we also need to know that we ought to confess in such wise that those very things we confess, we are also persuaded that they are the case. For then indeed the confession is pure, if persuasion of the will [voluntaria] follows on it.

Then acceptance [concessio] comes and consolidates [comitatur], so that so much as one judges oneself and is pained, confesses and is persuaded, that much he even allows himself to be judged by others. For there are many who are all right with judging themselves to be of such a sort, but in no way can they bear it that they should be blamed for such by others. But, so that one climb the mountain of humility, it is needful that, just as they look down upon others by judging them, let them know how to endure others, if those others should judge them and look down upon them.

From this kind of matter, the work is patience, which is placed at the sixth level of the mountain of humility. This ought to be such a companion to each and every person that, whenever someone does any injury whatsoever, one receives it, as if the other person were to be doing one a great benefit. Indeed if one of the servants of some rational man were to sin, and while he did not complain that because of this many vexations to him arose, but rather said that he would justly suffer such things, he would quickly find mercy from his lord. And we then, who have committed many things against our creator, we ought to humble ourselves just as zealously as we readily see ourselves to be in need of his indulgence.

We ought not only to suffer vexations without complaint but also love that we be weightily punished to God’s retribution. This love is seen to be the highest level of the mountain of humility, for when in the mind of the one who makes satisfaction no whisper of complaint [murmuratio] remains but it is kindled with pious love, then pleasing satisfaction is made to God. There is no doubt whether one will obtain indulgence, who not only judges himself worthy of punishment of account of his transgressions, but even desires to suffer retribution from all created beings as satisfaction to the creator.

And when anyone, as has been said, should have knowledge of self, distress, confession, persuasion, acceptance, suffering patiently, and love, climbing by levels he comes to the peak of the mountain of humility, where no storm can harm him, because there unbroken serenity remains at all times. Now however much others may be disturbed, this person remains unmoved in his condition of humility. And this is not something easy, whence should he offend his Lord again, he will trace the path again, if he knows his sin to be of such a weight, and for this reason feels pained, then by confessing, being persuaded, giving-in, and possessing patience and love, he worthily will make satisfaction to God. When he begins to act in this way, at the start and climbing by levels, he experiences many tribulations and setbacks, because whoever would approach the service of God needs to prepare his soul for temptation. For nobody is the best right away. Now just as in the valley of pride there are many beasts of the vices, likewise also in the path which by levels he climbs to the very peak of the mountain, the attacks of many tribulations will be encountered, for indeed, “many are the tribulations of the just, but the Lord will free them from all of these.” And in truth, the higher one climbs, the smaller these are felt to be. But when he should come to the very top, nothing will be there that could cast him down, if he deeply associates himself with the guard of this mountain, this impregnable camp.
Now, who is this guard?  Actually there are two, but their identities will have to be left in suspense until a later Sunday when I shall provide further translations.