Why humility is not a deadly sin, with Aristotle and Descartes

In Part One of his Discourse on Method, René Descartes offers a low appraisal of the work of ancient moral writers:

“I compared the writings of the ancient pagans that deal with morals to very proud and very magnificent palaces that were built on nothing but sand and mud. They place virtues on a high plateau and make them appear to be valued more than anything else in the world, but they do not sufficiently instruct us how to recognize them; and often what they call by so fine-sounding a name is nothing more than a kind of insensibility, pride, desperation, or parricide.” (Translated by Donald A. Cress)

We might give Descartes the benefit of the doubt and assume that his criticism is directed primarily towards the seedier ancient moralists, the Stoics, Epicureans, etc. But in doing so, we would be as Jane Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, far too ready to believe well of everyone. No, with all that talk of “virtues,” and those two mentions of “pride,” it is likely that Descartes was directing at least part of his criticism towards Aristotle, especially toward Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics.

It leaves one feeling slightly ill, I know.

Still, from a Christian perspective, Descartes has his point. While I have defended Aristotle’s account of “pride” elsewhere, Descartes is at least correct in noting that pride is generally not a disposition that mixes well with Christianity. In fact, Christianity has long classified pride as one the Seven “Deadly” or “Capital” Sins, meaning that it is a failing at the root of many other more particular failings. Pride could, for example, lead one to inordinate boasting, but it could also lead one to a rude and sullen silence. Different manifestations, same root.

However, this leads to an intriguing question: Why pick on pride? Could not a disordered humility also be a problem? Imagine a father who was so humble that he never disciplined his child, even when that child hurt other children, because he felt that such “disciplining” implied superiority? Would not that sort of humility be as stupid and as harmful as pride? Why, then, is inordinate pride a capital sin, but not inordinate humility?

To find an answer to this dilemma, one might look to one of the very works Descartes seems to be criticizing, Aristotle’s Ethics. At the end of Book II of the Ethics, Aristotle offers a little piece of practical advice for drawing nearer to an intermediate, “just right” sort of habitual reaction to situations–what we call “virtue.” His advice is, like all good philosophy, deceptively simple:

“He who aims at the intermediate must first depart from what is the more contrary to it. . . . For one of the extremes is more erroneous, one less so.” (Translated by David Ross)

The idea here is that there are lots of wrong responses to situations that call for human action, but some responses are more wrong than others. This is not a subjective thing, not just “wrong for you,” but objectively wrong–wrong in a way that can be verified by the judgments of other people. For example, consider the habit of healthy eating. There are lots of important factors, to be sure (look for an upcoming post on my vegan experiment this January), but let’s simplify the variables: healthy eating, in its most elemental form, may be thought of as an intermediate point between two bad extremes of eating too little and eating too much. However, if you think about it, one of those two extremes is actually more problematic. Eating healthy is still eating, so if you are not eating, that is actually a worse problem, a greater evil (i.e. obesity kills, but starvation kills faster). If you are actually in doubt about your survival requirements–you have been shipwrecked or something like that–then you should err slightly on the side of eating too much.

Or consider courage, an intermediate between having too little confidence (the coward) and having too much confidence (the reckless). Again, both extremes are problematic, but at least the reckless person does something. He acts, while the coward does nothing. Recklessness, while not good, is thus the lesser evil. It is not without reason that “fortune favors the bold.”

No Deadly Sins Here

A similar line of reflection can clarify our traditional Christian concerns about pride. If we think of a correct assessment of self (giving rise to actions) as a “just right” point between a silly humility and an overweening pride, then it is clear that pride is the more logically problematic extreme. Why? Humility, though it can be too excessive, still fundamentally corresponds to our human condition as finite, limited beings. There are things we just cannot know and cannot do, especially on our own. Humility carries within itself a recognition of this fact, while pride does not. Pride is thus a bigger intellectual mistake; it stands to reason it can give rise to more trouble than its opposite failing of inordinate humility. Pride is more “deadly.”

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One Response to Why humility is not a deadly sin, with Aristotle and Descartes

  1. Pingback: A Quotation About Man’s Desire For Knowledge From Aristotle | Renard Moreau Presents

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