Chesterton on Humility

In the 3rd chapter of Orthodoxy, Chesterton talks about humility in the modern world. He describes how there is “a real humility typical of our time; but it so happens that it is practically a more poisonous humility than the wildest prostrations of the ascetic” (24).

What is this poisonous humility?

But what we suffer from to-day is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition. Modesty has settled upon the organ of conviction; where it was never meant to be. A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason (55).

This form of humility is a perfect example of why Chesterton states that “the modern world is full of the old Christian virtues gone mad” (22).

But before we go further, it’s important to define the Christian virtue of humility. Let’s look at a couple definitions:

Humility is truth: it tends to establish in truth both (1) our intellect – by making us know ourselves as we really are – and (2) our life, by inclining us to take, in relation to God and to men, our proper place and no other” (Divine Intimacy pg. 304).

“I think a good definition of humility may be this: being in right relation to God and to other people; relating to ourselves to the truth of what and how we are” (The Way of Trust and Love pg. 48).

Based on these definitions, we can see why Chesterton called the humility of our time poisonous.

Whereas Christian humility is based on the truth of our weakness and proper dependence on God that allows us to be firmly grounded in the Truth, modern humility is based on a pride and independence from God that persuades us to doubt the existence of Truth.

On the other hand, Chesterton affirms humility as recognizing our littleness. And in doing so, humility becomes an immense source of joy. 

Hence it became evident that if a man would make his world large, he must be always making himself small. Even the haughty visions, the tall cities, and the toppling pinnacles are the creations of humility. Giants that tread down forests like grass are the creations of humility. Towers that vanish upwards above the loneliest star are the creations of humility. For towers are not tall unless we look up at them; and giants are not giants unless they are larger than we. All this gigantesque imagination, which is, perhaps, the mightiest of the pleasures of man, is at bottom entirely humble. It is impossible without humility to enjoy anything—even pride (23).

This reminded me of the Fulton Sheen’s introductory paragraph in The Eternal Galilean:

How can souls find God? It is a psychological fact that it is only by being little that we ever discover anything big. This law raised to the spiritual level tells us how we can find the immense God, and that is by having the spirit of little children (3).

We know that Sheen was profoundly influenced by the works of Chesterton and I think this quote bodes well for such a claim (click here for more on this influence).

Summary:

Humility in modern thought leads to doubting truth itself based on a prideful belief in oneself and this poisonous virtue strips our ability to find joy and pleasure in life.

Humility in Christian thought leads to admitting our weaknesses and limitations as little children based on right relationship with ourselves, others and God and in doing so, allows us to be surprised by truth and find great joys and pleasures in life.

Humility is the mother of giants. One sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak. – The Innocence of Father Brown

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