Chesterton on why Self-Confidence is a Weakness and Sin

Self-confidence is a no-brainer in today’s culture. You need to believe in yourself to do anything great in life right? A lack of self-confidence seems to lead to anxiety, depression, and a slew of worse effects. So we might try our best to build up our self confidence.

Here’s quote from a common article I read on “believing in yourself”: The secret to success is to believe in yourself. For when you believe in yourself, no matter what obstacles you encounter, you will prevail. (click here for article)

But, Chesterton seems to turn this modern virtue of self-confidence, which he considered to be “a motto of the modern world,” upside down.

Take a read:

Once I remember walking with a prosperous publisher, who made a remark which I had often heard before; it is, indeed, almost a motto of the modern world. Yet I had heard it once too often, and I saw suddenly that there was nothing in it. The publisher said of somebody, “That man will get on; he believes in himself.” And I remember that as I lifted my head to listen, my eye caught an omnibus on which was written “Hanwell.” I said to him, “Shall I tell you where the men are who believe most in themselves? For I can tell you. I know of men who believe in themselves more colossally than Napoleon or Cæsar. I know where flames the fixed star of certainty and success. I can guide you to the thrones of the Super-men. The men who really believe in themselves are all in lunatic asylums.” He said mildly that there were a good many men after all who believed in themselves and who were not in lunatic asylums. “Yes, there are,” I retorted, “and you of all men ought to know them. That drunken poet from whom you would not take a dreary tragedy, he believed in himself. That elderly minister with an epic from whom you were hiding in a back room, he believed in himself. If you consulted your business experience instead of your ugly individualistic philosophy, you would know that believing in himself is one of the commonest signs of a rotter. Actors who can’t act believe in themselves; and debtors who won’t pay. It would be much truer to say that a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin; complete self-confidence is a weakness.  Believing utterly in one’s self is a hysterical and superstitious belief like believing in Joanna Southcote: the man who has it has ‘Hanwell’ written on his face as plain as it is written on that omnibus.” And to all this my friend the publisher made this very deep and effective reply, “Well, if a man is not to believe in himself, in what is he to believe?” After a long pause I replied, “I will go home and write a book in answer to that question.” This is the book that I have written in answer to it.

Chesterton, G. K. (1909). Orthodoxy. (pp. 22–23). New York: John Lane Company.

Complete self-confidence, for Chesterton, is a hysterical and superstitious belief that is both a sin and a weakness.

Why?

I think that Chesterton is trying to do a couple things:
1.  Complete self-confidence is a sin because self-confidence is the virtue of the modern triune god – me, myself, and I. Confidence comes from the Latin words con fide, or with faith. So self-confidence really means putting faith in yourself. But we know that we must put God alone. Since sin means separation from God, it makes sense that self-confidence is an act of self-pride at the expense of putting all our trust in God. As Chesterton says in the 3rd chapter, we suffer from “humility in the wrong place.” Man now trusts himself and doubts Divine Truth – the opposite of what it is supposed to be.
2. Complete self-confidence is a weakness because we are not to be trusted! How are we to get back up time and time again when it is our own strength that we base all our hope on? We must place all our trust in Jesus. We must be confident in Jesus. And it is only through this confidence that we can say with St. Paul, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).

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