Sep 4, 2011

Virtuous Humility . . . and Pride?

A month or so back, attending the ISME conference, I came across an interesting paper delivered by Kristen McPherson, a Marquette doctoral candidate with a promising project bearing on the topic of humility and pride. The natures and values -- positive or negative -- of these opposed affective states is a subject upon which many different, some mutually incompatible, viewpoints have been worked out down the centuries, and a pattern and (broadly speaking) point of progress is what I aim to write about here – a way of returning to the theme of my earlier Sunday posts prior to the blogging hiatus imposed by my summer travels: theological, specifically monastic treatments of humility as a virtue.
What particularly caught my attention in that ISME paper were three things: a goal, a claim, and an omission. One of the stated goals was to provide a naturalized account of pride and humility, one which would presumably draw upon the centuries of hard-earned insights and progressively developed intellectual resources of Christian thought on pride and humility but in such a way as to strip away the specifically Christian elements, arguments, appeals, concepts, so as to leave a residue or precipitate equally acceptable (even embracable, incorporable) to secularists of good faith as to committed Christians. The interesting, and to me startling claim was that we ought not only to think in terms of vicious pride, a vicious counterfeit to humility, and genuine and virtuous humility, but also in terms of virtuous pride as well.

The omission was that. . . . well as it turns out, what counted as stand-ins for the wide scope of Christian thought was . . . you guessed it: Augustine and the later, greater Thomas Aquinas. Now, I would be far from faulting diligent study of, and reliance upon, the thought of these two great Doctors, but when it comes to the matter of humility and the distinctively Christian understanding, it can only help one to read monastic as well as scholastic writers – Thomas, for one drew deeply on the wellsprings of wisdom afforded him by generations of monastic authors.

McPherson competently touched on several points about pride and humility that are commonplaces to most historians of moral theory, but which are worth briefly mentioning. One of these is that, while ancient moral philosophers – Aristotle for instance -- did see some modes of exhibiting pride as excessive, even dangerous, and regarded boastful over-assessment of one’s own value as vicious, many of them also elevated “greatness of soul,” megalopsukhia (whose descriptions at least in Aristotle’s two Ethics sound much like later characterizations of pride), or other similar conditions to the status of virtues, such states would be reinterpreted in Jewish and particularly in Christian thought as forms of vicious pride counterposed against and remedies by the virtue of humility.

That virtue assumes positive shape and more or less central importance (and emphasis, explanation, and exemplification) in Christian thought and practice, so much so that in the modern era, which witnesses yet further revaluations of values, virtues and vices as well as new attempts at understanding human nature and the status of human beings in the universe, humility comes once again to be thought of by many (the dirty little secret being that there was always a struggle along such lines within Christendom and even within Christian souls) as particularly “Christian” in a bad, i.e. hypocritical, manipulative, or self-loathing, life-and-joy-denying, even “monkish” manner, opposed to healthy pride which one even ought to feel in oneself, one’s accomplishments, one’s gifts and talents, even the scope of one’s possibilities as a human being. Humility becomes the vice in pride’s place, or alternately, as with David Hume, they both become basic human passions, simple emotional responses, affective building blocks of our emotional, valuational, striving, practical life.

There are entirely understandable reasons why, in attempting to carry out and produce philosophical work in moral theory, particularly when working from but attempting to advance beyond previous thinkers' accounts, a philosopher might want to articulate their account in a "naturalized" manner, along lines that in theory -- it never does seem to turn out this way in practice -- ought to be as equally unproblematic, acceptable, convincing to the atheist or even (they're a bit hard to find these days) pagan philosopher as they would be to a Christian philosopher.  Interestingly, these are -- and have long been -- reasons which tend to carry weight with and preoccupy those who are in some way indebted to, formed by, or work within living and lasting traditions of Christian thought.

I won't attempt to provide any sort of full enumeration of these reasons here.  Suffice it to say that they range from worries about finding oneself dismissed or confined to the modern philosophical ghetto of believers, to concerns about irrevocably crossing the boundary between philosophy and theology -- and therefore (rather miraculously) transmuting one's thought from the one to the other -- to products of uncritically adopting, deliberately or unknowingly secularized (or even some religious) conceptions about the nature of philosophy and the limits it must always observe, to a very legitimate desire to reach and teach those who would otherwise automatically reject anything coming from or incorporating Christian sources.

Thinking about that motive, that project, can lead us towards a very interesting matter of longstanding intellectual inquiry, activity, and debate -- if we know where to look and what to listen for, if we recognize and remember the familiar constellations of issues which include but unpredictably go far beyond these points -- the matter of Christian philosophy.  How philosophy and Christianity can interpenetrate, lend assistance of various sources, challenge and fructify each other, that is a matter not only possessed of a long, many-faceted, controversial -- indeed, still ongoing -- history, with many instances of, deliberate attempts of, and retrospective historical interpretations of Christian philosophy -- it is an open set of philosophical problems and projects that will likely always remain with us, rediscovered by each generation, or (if the efforts of past thinkers aren't overlooked or forgotten) reinterpreted anew.

How does Christianity make, or spur, or provide any philosophical contribution, any new idea, doctrine, even goal to philosophy?  That was one of the key questions that not only motivated an entire set of philosophical debates in the 1930s (portions of which I've recently translated), but which has been (at least implicitly) a preoccupation of Philosophy of Religion down to the present.  One prevalent way of understanding this influence or contribution is that Christian doctrine introduces some new concept to be unpacked, or more often some proposition to be asserted as true, understood, defended by argument, employed as a premise for further reasoning.  Jacques Maritain called these "objective contributions," distinguishing them from "subjective reinforcements," which place the Christian philosopher in a better position or disposition to investigate, follow up and grasp certain philosophical truths.  I recently summarized Maritain's discussion:
Objective contributions take a number of forms. First, “there are objects that from-their-very-nature belong to philosophy’s domain, but that philosophers did not in fact explicitly recognize, and that Christian revelation has set in plain view,” for example, creation ex nihilo, or God as Being. Second, there are “objects that philosophy knew well, but about which it hesitated a great deal,” which Christianity confirms for the philosopher; an example is a trust in reason’s value. Third, there are supernatural mysteries philosophy cannot itself on its own grasp, but philosophy’s scope and its understanding of the divine is expanded when it cooperates with theology in a Christian regime.
The governing notion that some Thomist philosophers, like Maritain and his close friend Etienne Gilson, were keen to stress was that at least with the first two kinds of objective contribution, while something extra- or super-rational informs and aids human reason, philosophy's primary tool, once a proposition has been learned, received, gained through participation in the Christian faith by the philosopher, it can be explained, understood, argued for, relied upon as a starting point in ratiocinative activity requiring no Christian commitments. 

Such an understanding lends itself very well to goals of providing naturalistic philosophical accounts of matters in which significant philosophical progress occurred precisely through the systematic work, the directions of investigation, the rational tenacity, even the gradually assimilated, reflected upon, time tested experiences of robustly committed Christian philosophers.  But what if philosophy -- or at least a philosophical account -- is in reality less a systematically arranged, organized, argued for, isolatable set of propositions which ideally ought to be as clear or persuasive to any rational person as to any other, regardless of their commitments, their experiences, the degree to which they are open, reflective, inquisitive?

What if philosophy is also just as much a habitus, a complex, progressively built-up disposition toward investigating and understanding and perhaps even desiring and loving) the real in as many of its dimensions as we can adequately grasp, a disposition which in its successful activity brings to greater realization the distinctive feature of human being, rationality, a disposition aroused, then developed, then firmly established in the souls of practitioners of philosophy (who may be called philosophers, but who may very well be called by other names)?

Or, what if philosophy is also not only a discipline with a long history of doctrines, stances, approaches, methods competing with and occasionally reacting to each other, but actually a set of communities of inquiry, dialogues and conversations continuing through time, sometimes added to, sometimes permitted to fall into desuetude and forgetfullness?  What if philosophy is -- as certain of the lasting schools, movements, perspectives and their proponents have long taught, some since antiquity -- a certain way of life whose intellectual promise is developed over time and by engagement not only with one's own experiences or reasonings but with those of other, earlier philosophers?

If we turn to the notions of humility and pride, the ubiquitous experiences and exemplifications of these in self and in others, what we discover -- as we would with any moral phenomenon, if we investigated it  thoroughly -- is that the many varied positions on, characterizations of, and judgements about pride and humility do not only differ along lines of questions such as:  "what is pride?" "what is humility?" "what forms are there of pride or humility?"  "what are the objects of pride or humility?" "is pride good or bad?" "is humility good or bad?"

These are important questions to ask, to be sure.  But many of the well-worked out treatments of pride and humility go beyond these.  They examine whether, and to what degree, previous conceptions of pride and humility were wrongheaded or on the right track. They arrange pride and humility in relation to, as components of, a much broader system of moral phenomena, for instance: other virtues and vices, the many stages of progress in the moral life, the unity or requirements of the virtues -- one could go on. And, at least for many pre-Reformation Christian authors, pride and humility would also be situated within a Christian anthropology cognizant of our fallen condition, and in relation to a God whose revelations provoked revaluation as well as reconsideration of these virtues, vices, emotional states -- a God knowledge of whom and one's relation to whom in some way involves cultivation of humility and extricating or at least guarding oneself from a now-natural tendency towards pride -- a God who in many intersecting ways inevitably becomes involved in the very intellectual, practical, and affective latticework of moral theory.

In order to keep this relatively short, I'm going to move quickly and only in roughest outline from the goal (developing a naturalized account of humility and pride) to the claim and the omission, which are, I think, connected.

One of the things which we have gradually learned about pride and humility, one of the arguable advances made possible through what Maurice Blondel called "a sort of secular digestion of partially rationalizable revealed truths," one of the shifts in perspective generated not just by a way of life enjoyed by a tiny philosophical elite but as something "lived . . . little by little penetrating the entire intellectual  civilization and the intellects experiencing in themselves human nature's and supernatural grace's double labor" -- one of the things Christian moral theory, one important branch of Christian philosophy, taught was that pride, including the lofty "great-souledness," was actually a vice, a habitual disposition of action, feeling, outlook, and willing that was not merely socially condemned (as a matter of fact, often it was not, or was only hypocritically blamed!), but morally and epistemologically wrong, both a reflection of present and productive of further mistaken valuation of oneself, a considerable motive to other sins and vices.

But, could there be a right, a good, perhaps even a necessary kind of pride?  After all, is it not healthy for us to have a strong sense of self-esteem, an appreciation of  our talents, capacities, achievements, or at least potentials?  Isn't it right for us to feel good when considering those with whom we are connected, who reflect upon us well? Even from an explicitly Christian perspective, ought we not draw some conclusion not only about the intrinsic worth of others but of ourselves from the statement that human beings were created after the image of God?  Advocating for this sort of "virtuous pride," as the opposite to a kind of vicious humility (really just a counterfeit of humility), and as a counterpart to an acknowledged "virtuous humility"-- a virtue long in need of adequate conceptualization -- doesn't that make perfect sense?  Doesn't such an  account represent a sort of advance incorporating but in an eminently modern manner surpassing our Christian cultural and intellectual heritage?

I'm not sure this represents an advance myself.  For you see, I suspect that the monastic Christian writers who meditated long and wrote in considerable depth and subtlety about pride and humility -- and those Scholastic authors who incorporated these practically fruitful insights into their more systematically worked out and organized moral theories -- already understood much more about pride and humility than did most later philosophers, or many of those thinking about these matters today (myself included).  They knew, for example, that there were vicious facsimiles to virtuous humility -- and also that these had their secret root in vicious pride.  They also knew that genuine humility incorporated and made fully possible a more and more accurate self-assessment, not mere self-abasement, a correct evaluation of one's worth in relation to others and in light of God, and a tendency towards proper use of and gratitude for all the talents and advantages one for the moment enjoys, not as possessions of which one can rightly be proud but as entrusted gifts for which one remains responsible. 

Monastic authors like John Cassian, Pope Gregory the Great, or St. Anselm also understood that not only was pride one of the "deadly sins" or "capital vices" -- actually  the most dangerous and difficult of these sins -- but that the virtue of humility was in some manner architectonic, required in some degree as a foundation for any of the other virtues to be firmly established -- that humility is required in addition, and irreducible to, the four cardinal virtues (self-control, courage, justice, prudence) or the
three theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity).

Are such insights -- or for that matter an account or even a full-blown moral theory -- bearing on humility and pride going to be intelligible or admissible, be taken seriously, let alone be in any way convincing to secular philosophers?  Perhaps at times by those who are genuinely openminded, who strive after wisdom wherever it may be uncovered and examined -- at least as far as they feel they can follow.  By others, such positions and such authors will be simply dismissed as hopelessly committed to unquestioned, dogmatic, irrevocably irrational theological assumptions or biases that vitiate any claims they may make to be doing anything that deserves to be called philosophy.

Then again, there are many Christian philosophers working out or working within moral theories not only in dialogue with the great non- or post-Christian thinkers (e.g Hume) but also with some of the great representatives of the tradition of Christian philosophy -- particularly Thomas Aquinas and Augustine -- who seem to have no inkling of the wealth and range of monastic (or for that matter patristic) treatments and contributions to moral theory -- no sense that any possible dialogue partners, potential fertilizers of their own thought are missing or would being anything more to the table. And, lest my complaints, give the wrong impression, I stress that I understand rather than castigate this sort of omission, having come late in my own studies, long after my own graduate formation, to sitting at the feet of just a few of our learned monks, in a one-way converse, reading -- often in amazement that rouses a hunger to read more -- their writings.

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