May 1, 2011

More on Anselm and Humility

 As I make my way through the seemingly myriad steps required for me to be able to extricate myself from my current position at Fayetteville State University and the life that I've made for myself over the last three years in Fayetteville, North Carolina -- and as I prepare to deliver my penultimate public lecture, on the Seven (or the Eight?) Deadly Sins, a little more than a week away  I've been able to devote somewhat less time to translating and meditating on Anselm's writings than I'd have liked.  But, I want to keep the momentum generated last Sunday going -- an impetus for ascending the mountain or ladder, or levels of the virtue of humility -- if only in words, in imagination, in a scholarly manner.

Humility is one of those virtues central not only to the monastic profession and way of life but to Christianity itself, taught about, learned, practiced, ruminated upon, and modeled not only by Jesus Christ himself but by so many of His followers, many of whom have unfolded portions of its intrinsic intelligibility previously unrealized or even suspected.  This was and remains one of the distinctive contributions by Christianity to moral philosophy, one which seems at times to have been lost sight of in many modern philosophical perspectives -- just look for example at Hume's or Nietzsche's construals of humility.

Saint Anselm was one who, to use a Hegelian locution, labored the concept of humility. As in the works of those whose thoughts he repeatedly read and routinely mulled over -- including St. Benedict, John Cassian, and St. Augustine, among others -- we can find in his numerous little gems, discussions of one or another aspect of humility.  Next week, I will take up where I left off last Sunday, and introduce you to those two sisters Anselm placed atop the 7-story mountain of humility, translating the remainder of chapter 1 of the Dicta Anselmi.  This week, however, I will just provide some other interesting humility-related passages from the De Similtudinibus/De Humanibus Moribus, starting with two which take up where a previously rendered passage from last week ended:
Truly, since we sometimes praise ourselves for certain things, because we do not rightly compare ourselves with others, what we need to see is the manner in which we ought to do this. For if we will to compare ourselves with others, we ought to pay attention to those things in us that are, as it were, things in which we excel [quasi praestita. . .nobis], and that are from us, not from God. For indeed one who praises himself above another person for goods in which we excel [but are] from God acts like one who glories in the clothes belonging to another in which he happens to be decked. Thus, we should not compare these, but rather the evils that we have in ourselves from ourselves, to other people’s goods. If we were to do this, we would appear to ourselves to be inferior to everyone else. But, since the proud do the opposite, even if they be worse than everyone else, they nevertheless judge themselves to be better than everyone. For, by paying attention so much to their goods, they compare them to the evils of others, to whose evils they ought not be paying attention.
Ontologically, Anselm is quite clear, particularly in his treatises De Casu Diaboli and in the De Concordia, the goodnesses which we possess are not really ours in the sense of being truly from us, and from us alone -- so we have no reason really to be proud of them. We would have a perfect right to be proud of what we have by ourselves attained, produced, made of ourselves -- but that is a prue hypothetical, an imaginary.  By contrast, the damages and ravages which we have -- and over a life time this can be very extensive -- done to our beings, to our human nature, to the image of God within us (and Anselm himself deplores his own grievous sins of this sort very frankly in his prayers and at the start of Proslogion) -- those are our fault. Those privations, those corruptions, we do have a hand in and a stake in -- and if we really do know ourselves adequately, we ought, therefore to be quite humble.  This also leads Anselm to discuss consideration of the self in relation to others.  We ought to carry out comparison -- but ought to be focused on others' sins, failures, faults.
Indeed, consideration or knowledge [cognitio] of the sins of others opens the way to many evils in different ways. For, if the one who considers the guilt of another is a sinner, by the other person’s bad example, he will persevere in his own sin. And, if he is repentant about sin, the same example will cool him from his repentance. So, if he is tempted by the same sin or by a different one, he will easily be overcome by the other’s example. But, if he lacks temptation, by that very fact that he considers the vice of another, he is tempted. For, if he is just, by setting himself above the other person, he will lift himself up to pride. But, even if he loved the other person in God, he nevertheless starts to hold them in hatred. Thus one should not consider the faults of another in an easy manner, consideration of which generates so many evils. Rather, one ought always to pay attention to the virtue of another, since consideration of this works in a contrary way. Indeed, virtue makes the sinner to be converted, a penitent to be more repentant, one who is tempted to resist temptation, one who is not tempted to remain so, the just person to be humble, one who is loving to love the more. So, each person should pay attention to the other’s virtue, not their vice, and to their own vice, not to their virtue.
Notice that this last the path of humility does not mean a total dissociation of the person from other persons, or a lack of attention to their moral qualities.  We ought, Anselm thinks, to pay attention to the virtues of others, their means of flourishing -- for themselves and for others who are in contact with them or under their care or rule.

Another interesting set of passages start from consideration of interior and exterior virtue, and eventually lead to what seems in some respects to be the most exterior, but is also the most interior of the virtues: humility.
There are indeed two types of virtue, which differ between each other like the body and the soul do. For one of them is interior and invisible, the other is exterior and visible. Now, interior virtue is charity, humility, patience, kindness, and other similar ones. And, exterior is fasting, giving alms, keeping vigil in prayers, weeping, and other things of this sort. And, just as the body cannot long subsist without the soul, but the soul can without the body, so the exterior type cannot long subsist without the interior type, while this can work inwardly without the external type. For, someone can have charity, even if he does not fast, whereas he cannot fast for God very long if he does not love Him. And just as an evil spirit quite frequently takes on a body, and by stirring it up makes it subsist, likewise vain glory enters into a person’s heart and simulates the type of virtue externally. For, just as charity makes one fast, so does vain glory. But, just as the body deprived of the soul quickly starts to rot and is contemned, likewise the external type are despised if the interior type is lacking. For, when somebody is zealous in their fasting, but is seen to easily become angry, if he is praised by somebody for his fasting, someone else will immediately respond: “Who cares about the fasting of that one,” he says, “when he flames up like that over nothing?” If he were to eat more often, but he were seen to be humble and patient, if someone were to criticize him because he did not fast, right then another person would respond: “He well deserves to eat,” he says, “because he is patient to such an extent, and what’s more, kindly.”
I particularly like this illustrative similitude Anselm has picked, because it is so commonplace, so easy to relate to, for anyone who has made the effort to fast, but who is far from perfection -- particularly those of is who have struggled with our dispositions to anger.  He continues, with another metaphor from monastic life:
Truly one who strives for the virtues ought to know that he or she should act in the way of a gardener. For the gardener, who desires to plant herbs, first considers the nature of the ground where he would plant them. And unless the nature of the ground and of the herbs are compatible, they will in no way be able to grow and be fruitful. Likewise, for one who wants to make a plantation of the virtues, a first examination of their place where he or she would plant them is needed. For if the place is corrupt [vitiosus], then those very virtues will be reduced to vices.
And another:
Again, one ought to act just like one who ought to build a house. For, one who wants to make a stable edifice first considers the firmness of the earth, on which can be set down a firm foundation, equally strong [walls] raised up, a roof set on top, and [the house] inhabited in safety. Likewise, one who wants to build the edifice of the virtues, which he or she will inhabit safe from the attacks of demons, must carefully examine beforehand that place of theirs in which they would construct it for themselves. For if it should not be a firm ground, then the edifice will not long subsist. And so, this pure soil or ground is humility, whose nature is suited to the other virtues and like a firm foundation sustains them. For, the other virtues are able to subsist, so long as they retain the foundation of humility.