Jun 5, 2011

Anselm's Mountain of Humility

So far, in the Sunday series I've been writing, addressing monastic authors' interpretations of the virtue of humility and its developmental levels, I have discussed -- and in some of the entries, translated (here and here) -- the thought of a later monastic author, St. Anselm. His own reflections and chosen metaphors bearing upon the capital vice of pride and its remedy, the virtue of humility, were no doubt formed through reading, and long meditation placing him in conversation not only with the authors of Scripture but also earlier Christian authors, particularly St. Benedict, St. Gregory, St. Augustine, and John Cassian.

One key thing we know about Anselm (in The Life of St. Anselm) noted by his biographer, Eadmer, a fellow Benedictine monk of Canterbury and a close friend of Anselm's, is that -- although he was certainly not lukewarm about this early on in his monastic profession -- at one point he decisively "gave himself up entirely to being a true monk and to understanding the rational basis of monastic life, and expounding it to others." Before going back to touch base with the last three posts on Anselm and humility, as well as addressing a reader's question whose brevity belies its great usefulness, there are three things I'd like to quickly point out about the perhaps not-so-aptly-named Scholastic Doctor and his works -- some of which are worthy of their own blog posts later, when I have more time.

 Three Things to Know about Anselm

First, it seems to be a common trait of monastic authors -- as opposed to the later scholastic authors -- that they make no pretense to comprehensively and exhaustively cover the topics they address, the possible stances one might take, the objections one could raise. Often -- and this was the case at times for Anselm -- they write because others, e.g. their fellow monks, or their students, continually pester them until they congeal the fluidity of oral dialectic into fixed written form.

Second, one way in which Anselm differed considerably, almost scandalously (in the eyes of his old mentor and master, Lanfranc), from other monastic authors was in his almost entire lack of reference to earlier authors. He wades downstream a river of tradition which he is content to leave almost anonymous, whose views and standpoints he attributes to the Christian faith, or to rightly functioning and discerning human reason. He almost never cites past authorities, he resists displays of erudition by citation and paraphrase, he makes no display of what he has read and reread. He ungrudgingly treats portions of knowledge -- old or new -- as if they belong to nobody and everyone, solely to God and thus to anyone in need of or joyed by them.

When taking up, reworking, and going deeper into a phenomenon another earlier writer -- who he has read -- not only remarked upon but perhaps even set into a definitive mold, Anselm boldly sets out entirely new ways of thinking about the matter. After the Eight Principal Faults enumerated and analyzed by Evagrius Ponticus (in the The Praktikos and John Cassian (in his Institutes and Conferences had taken what would be their definitive shape thenceforth as the Seven Deadly Sins in the Moralia in Job of Pope Gregory the Great, what does Anselm do?  He agrees with all of these authors in construing pride to be the fons, the origin of all the other sins, but then has it go off into three, not eight, not seven, but three main streams.  He plumbs the depths off pride, realizing and teaching that at bottom it is propria voluntas, self-will -- and uses that term in place of superbia, "pride," throughout his works.  He appropriates the conception of levels of humility from the very founder of his order St. Benedict, and then blithely announces that there are seven levels to it without  even mention of the twelve ensconced in the Benedictine Rule -- he does not add, he does not contradict, he simply leaves the earlier thought, the earlier writing, the earlier metaphor is place and elaborates his own. 

Third, Anselm was himself a master of metaphor in multiple ways.  We know both by his biographer's word and from the frequency of their appearance in his own writings that he explored matters himself and taught about them afterwards through the medium of apt similitudes.  They did not serve a merely applicational, explicatory role, however.  Not all images, not all metaphors, not all dramatic situations are made equal -- some admit of the sort of exploratory play, exploitational unfolding to which linguistically-attuned Anselm bent them -- most particularly in his prayers and meditations.  And, that is precisely what we glimpse him doing in the similitude developed at considerable length in ch.1 of the Dicta Anselmi, where he narrates the climb out of the valley of pride, filled with shadows and noxious beasts, up the seven-leveled mountain of humility, to the top where two guardian sisters reside, and the virtues come out to greet the climber.

What Does "Contemptible" Mean?

It is that complex metaphor whose seeming paradoxes I aim to explore a bit here.  But first, I do owe at least and attempt at an answer to a question posed -- as a comment on the earlier Anselm on the Seven Levels of Humility:  "I wonder how Anselm defines 'contemptible.' I could guess, but I am not sure my guess would be accurate."  So, for a fellow blogger -- one considerably more proficient than I -- here is my short take on that provocative musing.

Notably, Anselm uses this term contemptabilis,rendered adequately by its cognate, in the De Similtudinibus discussion of humility's seven levels, but not in the corresponding Dicta Anselmi one.  Why is that?  It seems to me that the change in terminology simply reflects the fact that in the shorter treatment, he uses the term, while in the longer he provides us with what he takes to be an adequate characterization of it -- not a definition, mind you -- Anselm rarely provides definitions, and when he does, they are typically at the end of a long process of sifting.  Let's look then at the first level.

Anselm explicitly identifies "knowledge of self," and then goes on to tell us a bit about precisely what we ought to know about ourselves. "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."  Now notice something:  this does not mean pathological self-abasement, thinking less of oneself than one ought to, that what truthfully reflects who and what one is.  that sort of false (and falsifying) humility would be a vice rather than a virtue, a disposition only apparently opposite to, and not actually corrective of, that of pride.

The Apostle is not the lowest of everything, no good whatsoever, but assesses himself as the least of the saints.  Why?  Because he is being honest with himself and before God, working from the information he has at hand.  He knows and acknowledges his own faults, weaknesses, failings, which -- and this is part and portion of genuine humility -- he pays closer attention to these, which are his own business, than to similar or compensatory deficits in his neighbor.  He may not know his own heart entirely, as God knows it in its most secret recesses, but he can know it much better than he can anyone else's!

One key theme echoed throughout Anselm's treatises is that whatever good we have -- even our own being and its nature -- is not from ourselves but from God.  We err -- precisely down the direction of pride -- in either attributing that good to our own account, or in even desiring that we be the ontological source of our own goodnesses. Genuine humility, as self-knowledge, means recognition, admission, even at its higher levels, embrace of one's creaturely status.  This also comprises assuming responsibility for the condition in which one is, a being in whom the image of God has been marred, corrupted, covered over, by our own failings when faced by temptations, our own sins and vices.  To know oneself in this way is to realize oneself as contemptible -- not as lacking any value whatsoever -- but as lesser than the inflated and conveniently airbrushed image one would otherwise typically resort to in the course of "understanding" oneself.

The Metaphor of the Mountain

Now, on to Anselm's image.  There is a valley and there is a mountain, and from the beginning, a reversal rules this likening of pride and humility   Superbia, "pride," already contains in its Latin morphology a root more often a prefix, super-, "above."  Two of its conceptual synonyms also communicate height.  Pride is self-will, and this involves willful setting one's own will above the wills of others, including even God's will.  One of the three main currents pride flows into is exaltatio, "exaltation," more literally "raising oneself up on high."  The reality of pride and its workings, however, is that in seeking to raise the person higher, it lowers the person; in seeking to be above others, one is brought under the sway of other things, persons, even poorly ordered or integrated parts of oneself.

Humility, on the other hand, we --  just as much as the ancients and the medievals did -- tend to associate with lowering oneself, abasement, setting oneself below others.  Anselm reverses this spatial valuation by making humility into a mountain, whose levels the one who wants to establish this essential virtue must sequentially ascend.  By climbing those terraced steps, by practicing humility to greater and more extensive degrees, in essence one more and more fully develops humility in oneself, and through that, participates collaborativety in the gradual reformation and renewal of one's very being.

But this extended metaphor Anselm uses is no mere allegorization in spatial, graphic terms of less directly figuration-susceptible complexities of moral life -- the lasting but alterable dispositions we call virtues and and the vices.  It is what we might well call a working similitude, a metaphor in which what is symbolized enters into connection into the images that symbolize, casting an illuminating light on what is being treated symbolically  -- as if a man, once aware of his shadow, would naturally enter into conversation with it, or as if one could be stung by an idea and have to draw out the stinger and poultice the throbbing pinprick.   The personifications and the spatialization play paradoxically back and forth from a field within which the human subject moves to what is taking place within the interiority of the human subject.

Consider the mountain itself.  It towers up as a refuge from the valley of pride, in which range noxious beasts, the various vices, personified as animals, which makes good theological sense in an Anselmian schema -- they are corrupted shapes of the will, products of the delight and consent of the will to the suggestions of the carnal appetites and desires -- appetites that are right when non-rational animals feel their urgings upon their wills, but which in rational beings reflect the ravages done to their bodies and souls both as a lasting consequence of original sin and by the effects of personal sins.

The topography introduces an analogy of opposition between pride and humility.  Not only are they moral opposites, a virtue and a vice contrary to each other, they also -- and this is why in the Anselmian as in so other monastic moral theories they are the capital virtue and vice -- are metaphysical and epistemological opposites. 

Lingering within pride's does not only represent a state of ignorance about oneself, symbolized by shadows and darkness. That residence and consortation with the vices induces a worsening epistemological state, going beyond mere ignorance, a lack of theoretical knowledge, and having more in common with the failure to develop practical knowledge through action, discipline, sacrifice, choice and commitment -- a misconstrual not only at the level of concepts, images, inferences, but in the deeper and wider matrix of desire, inclinations, affectivity, pleasures and pains, structures of habituation, orientation, preference -- the level of the will.

Personifying Pride and the Vices

Anselm writes at first as if the human person encounters the vices in animal likeness external to him or herself.  A mirroring takes effect within the person, however, as the vices become second nature, one becomes habituated to them -- habituated by them to their objects, their pleasures, their motivations, their ways of looking at things, their justifications of themselves and their denigrations and mischaracterizations of virtuous people and states.  And thus:
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, where are the vices?  They can be external, true, in other people who confront one with bad models, errant advice, temptations and occasions for going wrong.  They can be external precisely in representations, sometimes awakening our disgust or self-reflection, sometimes mimetically inducing our desires (as a trivial example, those who smoke or have smoked for some time know how seeing others smoke -- even in a movie -- makes one realize the gnawing of one's own desire). They can seemingly be external, in the object or state evoking our misshapen or misoriented desires -- as when the addict externalizes the agency to the seductively powerful allure of the object of their addiction, as when the wrath-prone screams that the faults of their vice lies in the others who anger him.  But, really, where are the vices?  They lie within.

 A person who resides in the valley of pride takes on the vices.  They become a part of who that person is. His or her character gradually assumes their figures and postures.  And they become both deadened towards the vices and at times rawly and impotently sensitive to them -- alternately inured to their intrinsic badness  and keenly aware but unable to remedy the damage they inflict.  Rising out of the valley by starting the ascent of humility, realizing oneself to be contemptible, involves gradually and progressively developing a more and more adequate understanding of the vices -- the vices as such, and the vices as within ones own self.  This is not a merely theoretical knowledge communicated through teaching or treatises, but a lived, practical, and indeed sorrowful and shameful knowledge -- knowing not merely through the intellect but also conjoinedly through the will.

Each of the levels or steps up the mountain adds something to this knowledge by unfolding a new  dimension. At the second level, for instance, one more truly knows one's state and condition, who and what one is -- particularly in comparison to and at a distance from who and what one ought to be -- affectively, through being pained, or grieving, having or feeling dolor -- a simple word expressing a complex of emotions and feelings: pain, sadness, grief.  Each of these is not only an epistemological advance, however, but also a metaphysical advance, a growth a flowering of fullness within the being of the person -- leading to possession of the being that one ought to have, what one was intended as a human to have, to being whole.

Where Does the Mountain Exist?

We can ask whether the mountain itself is something external to the person or whether it is in fact something internal, and we get a clear answer later in the chapter, when, narrating the faults of the guardian that is the type of modesty among men, Anselm clearly speaks of the mountain as having been established within the mind of the person who slips up by trusting that guardian's counsel: "the man progressing bit by bit built the mountain of humility, he himself established the guardians of that same mountain."

Should we take this to mean that the mountain is purely internal, the development of a structure of outlook and habituation within the human person, more specifically within his or her will.  Is the whole metaphor just a concession to our tendency towards the picture-thinking, representation G.W.F. Hegel construed in his Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion as somewhat more adequate than mere affective feeling, but contrasted against conceptual thinking that alone can actually and dynamically grasp spiritual realities?  Or to invoke another philosophical analogy, should we regard all this talk about the human being climbing a mountain, meeting up with bestial vices, encountering good human virtues, and listening to the two sister-guardians as a Wittgenstinian heuristic ladder to be cast away once we have mentally scaled ourselves out of perplexities and attained the right inward moral state?

I don't think that is the right tack to take.  Clearly, the mountain of humility is built within each human being, and the valley of pride lies in each of our own personal hearts of darkness below -- Anselm speaks of it as being built inwardly, as we've just admitted.  And, as he tells us, it remains a possibility for each of our own personal mountains that our ascent was only partial, that we did not master and make our own each of the levels, and that we adopt the foolish counsel of the second sister, thereby allowing a beast -- even an entire bestiary -- of vice entrance into the mountain, where it assails us, perhaps dragging us back as its prey into the tenebrous valley of pride.

But the mountain is also a type and model, and our own imperfectly built, explored, inhabited or habituated mountains are established after the pattern of that which we do climb, level by level of humility, through our own efforts collaborative with divine grace.  To be sure, there is no actual physical mountain -- if only acquiring humility was only as arduous as physical exertion! -- but there is a process of progressively, solidly building up this virtue monastic life views as central to all the other virtues -- figured as an ascent of acquisition and consolidating habituation, a process not merely in the will, but extending to all of its various relevant objects without and within the person:  feelings, actions, outlooks, relationships.

One of the questions that must remain open at this point -- since Anselm does not really answer it explicitly -- is the degree to which (or whether at all) any of the other virtues can in fact be developed without a solid, well-established basis of humility.  This evokes another puzzle as well:  are these levels of humility strictly sequential in their development, so that we would have to fully or at least adequately develop the one below before making progress in the next, or does the process admit of more flexibility?