Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Worth Of Man: A Slightly Early Rumination

By way of the esteemed David De Gerolamo, I've just encountered a brief but remarkable essay. I'll quote the intro on the condition that you read the rest in its entirety:

Growing up, I heard lots of complaints from parents and teachers about children being conceited, proud, and arrogant. Looking back, it seems to me that most of these complaints were related to a failure to obey. We did have one or two kids who were arrogant jerks, but the rest of us received the same comments they did.

But whatever motivated the adults of my youth, they were mostly wrong -- it's not our overvaluation of ourselves that is the real problem; it's our undervaluation.

Here is a passage from G.K. Chesterton's The Defendant that makes this argument:

There runs a strange law through the length of human history — that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility.

Go finish it; I'll wait right here.

Back so soon? My, my. What did you think, Gentle Reader? I'd especially like to hear from those of you who received conventional Jewish or Christian upbringings. Does this comport or clash with your understanding of the generally noncontroversial virtue of humility?

If my experiences were representative of the Baby Boom, the great majority of us were systematically taught to "undervalue ourselves." It was the prevalent practice in those years that children raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition were continually admonished against taking pride in their abilities and achievements, cautioned against being confident of their capacity to meet challenges, and chastised for "having a big head."

Yet I remember quite clearly that my parents had no problems with self-undervaluation. If anything, they thought more of their abilities and achievements than those things properly deserved. Nor were they exceptional in that regard. American adults from the "greatest generation" carried themselves with pride. They'd been endlessly lauded for all they'd done, particularly their conquests of the Great Depression and America's enemies in World War II.

The contrast seems even starker today than it did back then. I can't help but wonder whether they sensed it as clearly as I did. Whether they received the same conditioning in self-abasement as children, I cannot say with certainty, but let's imagine that it was so. How does one "graduate" from such a "weird and horrible humility" to a properly adult, confident stature? Is it a normal progression for a healthy mind? Most critical of all, how does it bear on our understanding of ourselves as a species and our appreciation of genuine humility?

Ponder that while I fetch a fresh cup of coffee.

Many of "our problems" derive from a reluctance to discriminate.

Oops! I used a naughty word, didn't I? "Discrimination" is the cardinal sin of the Twenty-First Century, right? We're all supposed to be exactly the same, precious little snowflakes, of absolutely equal worth yet somehow unique. That this bunch is better at something than that one, or that those folks over there really shouldn't be trusted, are absolutely inadmissible observations in contemporary society...even when they're correct in all particulars.

There are substantial differences among us: between any two arbitrarily selected individuals, and between any two arbitrarily defined groups. You don't even have to look hard to see them. Realism about the variety of Man would seem to follow naturally. Yet hearken to essayist Paul Rosenberg:

We are, since childhood, trained to view ourselves as dangerous creatures, teetering on the edge of error and harm....Bear in mind that I’m not saying all humans are good. Clearly, some of them are violent and vile. But these are a small minority, and we should not lump normal people in with them.

Whatever the size of that minority, once it has been identified and classified, why would anyone deem it just to "lump normal people in with them" -- ?

But that's the crux, you see. We're not allowed to identify a subgroup of Mankind as dangerous or destructive, while exempting the rest of us. We're required to maintain the myth of the Uniform Aggregate: that every last one of us might prove violent, or untrustworthy, or unfaithful at any instant. Because without that myth, the power structures that lord it over us will topple:

Whenever it is that a significant number of people develop healthy psyches, modern systems of rulership, including "law and order," will fail. These systems assume that they will always enjoy instant and unreasoned obedience.

Of course, there are assumptions built into the inverse posture as well:

  • That without legislatures and their law, we will know right from wrong.
  • That without rulers, men will act on their own to establish justice as appropriate.
  • That unruled men's justice will be superior to that of conventional "systems of rulerhip."

Yes, they're assumptions. And yes, recorded history, which is largely about the deeds of governments, tends to ignore the record of Mankind's few unruled societies. But if we start from the accumulated horrors that attach to the record of the State, it seems to me that there is no reason to prefer the Statist assumption -- that men must be ruled by an authority with sole jurisdiction and an overwhelming command of coercive force -- over that of freedom.

But it must begin with the willingness to discriminate -- and to draw the appropriate conclusions.

A favorite poem:

The Stranger within my gate,
    He may be true or kind,
But he does not talk my talk--
    I cannot feel his mind.
I see the face and the eyes and the mouth,
     But not the soul behind.

The men of my own stock,
    They may do ill or well,
But they tell the lies I am wonted to,
    They are used to the lies I tell;
And we do not need interpreters
    When we go to buy or sell.

The Stranger within my gates,
     He may be evil or good,
But I cannot tell what powers control--
    What reasons sway his mood;
Nor when the Gods of his far-off land
    Shall repossess his blood.

The men of my own stock,
    Bitter bad they may be,
But, at least, they hear the things I hear,
    And see the things I see;
And whatever I think of them and their likes
    They think of the likes of me.

This was my father's belief
    And this is also mine:
Let the corn be all one sheaf--
    And the grapes be all one vine,
Ere our children's teeth are set on edge
    By bitter bread and wine.

[Rudyard Kipling]

Kipling was, of course, referring to the pressure for the mass admission of persons from the colonies of the far-flung British Empire to England itself. Those who argued for such a policy were relatively few in Kipling's day, but in the end they proved quite persuasive, as the current condition of the United Kingdom makes plain. Yet the central theme of The Stranger is not race or place of origin but trust: one's willingness to repose confidence in the words of others and in their willingness and ability to fulfill the commitments they make.

Benjamin M. Anderson, one of the greatest financial analysts of the first half of the Twentieth Century, wrote in his magnum opus:

There is no need in human life so great as that men should trust one another and should trust their government, should believe in promises, and should keep promises in order that future promises may be believed in and in order that confident cooperation may be possible. Good faith -- personal, national, and international -- is the first prerequisite of decent living, of the steady going on of industry, of governmental financial strength, and of international peace. -- Benjamin M. Anderson, Economics and the Public Welfare: A Financial and Economic History of the United States, 1914 -- 1946

Anderson, a child of Nineteenth Century America, was appalled by what he saw from our federal government in his adult years. He had reason to believe that it should and could behave far better, especially with regard to the economic activities of American citizens and their voluntary associations. But the governmental experiences of Nineteenth-Century Americans were incredibly far from the human norm. The contrast they made with the great mass of human history is so stark as to be white against black.

If we agree to omit consideration of the federal government from roughly 1876 through 1912, the entirety of recorded history screams a single unadulterated message:

The State cannot be trusted.

Which is why those who seek to become the masters of the State encourage us to distrust one another.

Few Americans would claim to want power for themselves. However, the moral and spiritual degeneration of the century past has been so dramatic that many of us -- perhaps a majority -- want power to "do something," usually with the aim of "solving a problem."

Here's where the inculcated perversion of the virtue of humility bares its teeth, for it is impossible, in one's heart of hearts, to think oneself a lowly or unworthy creature. Our innermost selves know better, for as Rosenberg tells us, the Bible itself says so:

I [God] have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High. [Psalms 82:6]

But one in a certain place testified, saying, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands: Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him. But now we see not yet all things put under him. [Hebrews 2:6-8]

It is perhaps the most "obvious" [cf. "overlooked"] feature of the Bible that it seldom tells us anything about ourselves that we couldn't have figured out for ourselves. This bit of revelation is no exception.

If I am an ace, but you "should" be humble, it follows that what I think should be preferred to what you think, regardless of the subject. Therefore I should be permitted to dictate to you -- and if my "humility" requires that an intermediary enforce my will upon you, well, that's what intermediaries are for, right?

The State never had it so good.

We come at last to the elucidation of humility as it's properly understood: the grasp that would free us from so much that is evil and misdirected in our time. On this subject, I refer, once again, to the great Clive Staples Lewis, through his inverse, that experienced expositor of evil, the demon Screwtape:

You [Screwtape's "nephew," the demon Wormword] must therefore conceal from the patient the true end of Humility. Let him think of it not as self-forgetfulness but as a certain kind of opinion (namely, a low opinion) of his own talents and character. Some talents, I gather, he really has. Fix in his mind the idea that humility consists in trying to believe those talents to be less valuable than he believes them to be. No doubt they are in fact less valuable than he believes, but that is not the point. The great thing is to make him value an opinion for some quality other than truth, thus introducing an element of dishonesty and make-believe into the heart of what otherwise threatens to become a virtue. By this method thousands of humans have been brought to think that humility means pretty women trying to believe they are ugly and clever men trying to believe they are fools. And since what they are trying to believe may, in some cases, be manifest nonsense, they cannot succeed in believing it and we have the chance of keeping their minds endlessly revolving on themselves in an effort to achieve the impossible.

To anticipate the Enemy's strategy, we must consider His aims. The Enemy wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the, fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour's talents—or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall. He wants each man, in the long run, to be able to recognise all creatures (even himself) as glorious and excellent things.

Though we are equals nowhere else, we are all absolutely equal in the sight of the Supreme Judge, He who holds the only unreviewable and irrefutable jurisdiction: God. The root word of humility is humus: soil, the dust from which our flesh arises and to which it will some day return. In that light, what privilege of lording it over you should any other creature formed of clay possess? No matter how many other clay-footed friends he can muster behind him?

Humility thus understood makes room for just pride: pride in one's abilities and achievements that nevertheless respects the abilities and recognizes the achievements of others. It's infinitely distant from the self-abasement we're bludgeoned into pretending from childhood onward:

    A large, raggedly circular clearing took her by surprise. At the center stood a great oak, an enormous tree more than a hundred feet tall and at least five feet through the trunk. The trees that formed the perimeter of the clearing were pines and firs of unusual height: a fitting honor guard for the creature at the center of the circle.
    She went to the great oak and touched it gingerly. It had to be several centuries old, perhaps a thousand years or more. Louis had told her that trees of such caliber were rare, because they grew so slowly. To achieve such dimensions and yet endure against the elements and the pull of the Earth required that their annual increments of height and girth be tiny, such that their growth could only be perceived over a span of decades.
    I bet it's not as old as Malcolm.
    She chuckled to herself. Too long a baseline cheapened the glories of the world. No man but Malcolm could dim the august majesty of this being. Malcolm himself would agree. Yet she knew what else he would say.
    It has no eyes, or ears, or heart or brain. It has endured the years, but it has not witnessed them, let alone affected them. You say it is beautiful, and awe-inspiring, but the beauty is in your appreciation, and the awe is in your heart. It is Man's heart and mind that create beauty and awe. Nothing else in all the world can do it. Nowhere is there anything as great as Man.

[From On Broken Wings]

It also makes room for freedom.

May God bless and keep you all.


neal said...

Meekness = Strength under Control.
Original Sin. If you could name and understand every lifeform, why would you be convinced into thinking that some damned shorcut for extra credit was something to consider?
The Greatest become the Least.
That is not pride or humility. That is all things being lifted up, the repair and preservation of Life.

Anonymous said...

Both the referenced essay and your entry are better works than I could muster, so I feel bad knocking either, but I was not entirely floored by the concept presented here. I suppose my lack of enthusiasm might have something to do with the magnitude of the concept, and the inability to fit into blog entry format information and examples sufficient to address it adequately.

My feeling is, yes, some people have a low self-image, and others have a quite high self-image. Some people are burdened with their particular self-image, and others cultivate it. Some people use their self-image for good, others for evil. Humans ARE fallible creatures, and the self-image that some have is basically correct, while for others it is misguided.

Yet I'll put it this way. If the teachings of the Bible have somehow caused the "collective" self-image to be a certain way, why then is it that the Bible on the whole is less "accepted", or at least, accepted by fewer individuals these days? And why is it that, on the whole, society was much more just, much kinder and less angry, say, one hundred years ago?

I guess my summary would be, it seems that the two works in question are suggesting or implying that we have an emergent problem with mankind's unreasonably-low self-image...but it seems to me that we have a larger ascendant problem, one not apparently related to a low self-image, but rather a grotesquely overblown one, in which people feel their viewpoint is universally superior to that of others, and therefore merits having it imposed by force. I see this when I walk or drive down the street, I see this when I read about inner-city violence, "-isms" and "-phobias" of all types, fighting in Russia and the middle east, the illegal-alien invasion and the governmental endorsement of this activity...and I see it in the responses from across the spectrum to these various topics.

And so, ultimately, I wonder what's the use of addressing this subject, when, at least to my eyes, it seems to be a minor problem bordering on irrelevant, when it seems to be shrinking, and being replaced with a much more virulent and dangerous problem? But then I think, this is just my opinion, and if I wanted to further it, I'd start a blog. But instead, I'm replying to this blog. So I should just keep it to myself.


daniel_day said...

I was raised a Christian (Protestant) but found it impossible to muster sincere faith for more than a few minutes at a time by the constant harping on how evil human beings are. This article spoke to me and I'll re-read it. Thank you.

Col. B. Bunny said...

Mr. Rosenberg's an insightful man but his essay left me unconvinced. I've never encountered anything in my agnostic but strongly pro-Christian life that in any way required me to devalue myself. Actual errors have been more effective in that department though, paradoxically, the idea of original sin or man's natural fallibility has been more of a comfort than a scourge. Being held to an impossible standard, say, that I should "develop [a] healthy "psyche]" which, in conjunction with others so advanced, would allow governments to melt into insignificance, is guaranteed to make me feel like I don't measure up. However, knowing that I'm fallible and that it's reasonable for me to understand that is a source of reassurance because that is the stark reality of my existence and all other humans. Nothing requires me to be crippled by this knowledge, and its supreme value is that it makes me both more accepting of the faults of others and at ease with the idea of incremental improvements in character (as opposed to quantum leaps into a state of flawless psychic health).

The formulation "original sin" is a bit harsh and begs the question of how infants could be so infected. However, a reasonable interpretation is that the innate deficiencies of our biological and cognitive self can easily lead us astray in the absence of outside instruction and constant inner discipline.

Daniel Greenberg has an insightful piece here on the danger of surrendering to evil in the false belief that such weakness is not really weakness but actually an affirmation of our (Western) moral superiority.

Col. B. Bunny said...

Brownhouse, I think your idea of the evil of a grotesquely overblown sense of worth is right on the money. The Reformation seems to me to have been that watershed event that let the egotistical demons in man out of the bag. When Rome lost control of the interpretation of doctrine all manner of heresies took flight. Look up the Wikipedia entry for the Adamites and you'll see stark evidence of how human's can fall in love with the most arrant nonsense and, of course, carry it to extremes. I love the Yiddish expression relevant to this thought, namely, "Send a fool to close the window and he'll close them all over town." Since 1517 Westerners have been afflicted with the most absurd ideas, not least of which is the one you put your finger on -- the perfectibility of man. I'll add to that the liberal/progressive/socialist bedrock faith in the power of "disinterested" experts and intellectuals to do better than custom and centuries of slow development of the rule of law.

Our culture today is full to overflowing with shrill idiots offering their opinions of matters of the utmost complexity and seriousness. It's characteristic of the far leftist, of course, for her to be 100% indifferent to the danger of shoveling power into the hands of politicians and unelected bureaucrats.

A Reader said...

I am accustomed to thinking of the late Mr Chesterton as a clever and erudite fellow, but I have to wonder if he was reading the same Book of Isaiah I own. All the optimism that I recall in God's words through Isaiah are founded not on what kind of people the children of Abraham were in his day, but on God's covenant with them. They had strayed from the fold and broken God's heart. In spite and because of this, He told us through Isaiah that the Virgin would conceive, that God would be with us, and that the Lord would lay on Him the iniquity of us all. He did all the work, then as now.

I take the doctrines of Original Sin and total depravity seriously. 'There but for the Grace of God...' is a fundamental truth to me, no less than the assertion that 'The heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked.' David wrote 'I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me' and then 'Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.' Paul wrote, 'All have sinned and fall short of the glory of good' and 'For it is by grace that you are saved through faith. It is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast.' If I keep my promises, give of myself to serve another, or believe enough to be saved, it is not I who do it. The grace of God works in me. 'Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father,' as James wrote. One of those many gifts is the capacity to be decent to one another. Nearly everyone has a little of this grace in them. We call it conscience. We call it love. It is God's thumbprint pressed into the clay of our souls. It points us back to Him if we do not take pains to deface the mark. It is what makes civil society possible.

We are broken beyond our own mending. We are stray sheep. We are grass that flowers today and feeds the fire tomorrow. Even so, we are priceless. We are made in His image and 'a little lower than the angels.' We are also as David wrote and Jesus quoted, 'gods.' I have never been sure what that means. "Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is One," He said. His words are truth. We are not divine. Even if Adam had not eaten of the tree, we could not have become His equals. Yet He wants us to be more like Him. A command like 'Be ye perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect' means that such a thing is possible. How?

What then are we? Are we the dross or the ore, the chaff or the wheat, the head of gold or the feet of iron and clay? Is the proper, geeky answer to these questions 'Yes'? What does that mean for our self-assessments? If we take credit for more than is our due, that is arrogance. If we devalue ourselves, it is no less presumptuous. When we start discussing the arrogance of the very young, I think self-aggrandizement is precisely what we mean. The very young are very sure they already know everything worth knowing, even if all that they know and all they have done could fit into the pages of a very short book. They have self-assurance, but they have no accomplishments. Other nations, I understand, have such a different view of failure that they may not even be willing to launch themselves at a problem because the embarrassment of not succeeding on the first try would be too great. Such arrogance is a far cry from the self-assurance of the competent. Our national belief that we will eventually succeed at anything if we can just work hard enough or learn fast enough creates a willingness to try and fail where others would stop cold. From the outside, our self-assurance can look like arrogance. It does not help matters that the two tendencies are both labelled 'pride.'

True humility is a product of self-knowledge. If one knows how little one really knows, one is free approach the world, the Altar, or Calvary with eyes to see and ears to hear. If knows the limits of one's abilities, one is free seek help without shame.