What comes after humility?

4 Nov
    In his recent book, The Road to Character (Random House 2015), David Brooks has made a contribution to my thinking and vocabulary–his contrast between eulogy virtues and resume virtues. Brooks thinks that prior to the 1940s-50s, we honored eulogy virtues, marked by humility. But after 16 years of deprivation–Great Depression and World War II, the existing moral ecology was too restrictive, especially for women and marginalized groups. There was a legitimate reason for many people to move from an attitude of Little Me to Big Me. Resume virtues made their appearance, gradually replacing eulogy virtues. This change was wholesome in itself, but it went too far.

    Resume virtues, however, may nurture pride in achievement, but they are not the seed bed for character–so goes Brooks’ argument. Humility is the prerequisite.
    He believes character is best taught by examples; the book is comprised of eight biographical chapters: Frances Perkins, Dwight Eisenhower, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), Dr. Johnson, St. Augustine, Dorothy Day, and George C. Marshall. These persons were not at all alike–some introspective, others not at all; some grew up poor, others in wealth. All of them acknowledged that they were “crooked timber,” deeply flawed for the life-purposes they pursued. Each experienced suffering that was rooted in the flaws.

    To look at two of her exemplars: Saint Augustine (who lived in the early 5th century) was introspective–ceaselessly exploring the depths of self and tearing himself away from the high position and fame that he had attained. Dorothy Day (1898-1980) was extraordinarily sensitive to the situation of the poor in New York in the 1920s. She wanted to help them, but she also believed that working with the poor was the pathway of holiness. Her quest for holiness compelled her to live and suffer with the people she was helping.

    The early lives of both Augustine and Day were both distinguished and dissolute; he was a leading rhetorician, she, a published novelist, both were sexually promiscuous. Both converted to Catholicism in their early 30s. In the years after his conversion, Augustine was baptized, ordained a priest and still later became bishop of what is now Annaba, Tunisia (Hippo in his time). He wrote hundreds of volumes of sermons, Biblical studies, and theological works. At age 35, in 1933, Dorothy Day founded The Catholic Worker–not only a newspaper circulated to 500 parishes, but a movement with food kitchens, homeless shelters, and farms–centered in her New York City home and then expanded to other cities. She founded it “to mobilize the proletariat and apply Catholic social teaching toward the goal of creating a society in which it is easier for people to be good.” (Brooks 89-90)

    Augustine’s suffering lay in redirecting his loves. His loves were tearing him apart–“I poured myself out, was made to flow away in all directions and boiled off.” (191) He was torn between his sense of transcendence on the one hand, and his base desires, on the other hand. Augustine came to see that God accepted him as he was, and that faith released enormous amount energies to please God and serve his fellow human beings.

    Dorothy Day doubted and criticized her own life and faith in a constant struggle to become purer and holier in her activism. She identified with the poor and sacrificed for them. She believed that it was not enough simply to serve the poor; one had to live with them and love them personally. She spent hours every day just being with the poor people who came to her shelter and her food kitchen. Many of them were alcoholic, mentally disabled, rude, smelly, foul-mouthed, but she respected them and listened to them. She was hard on herself, because she was not satisfied with doing good, she wanted to be good.

    This book’s accomplishment–throwing light on what makes for character–is appealing and impressive. But the question is: can a humility-centered model, forged in the 1930s and 40s, work for shaping character today? Is humility so deeply rooted in an older moral ecology that it cannot grow deep roots today? Talking to one friend about the book, I was struck by her comment, “What can a straight, neocon, middle-aged white man teach me about character?” When I led a discussion of the book, one participant came with Valerie Saiving’s classic article from the 1960s arguing that while pride is a male sin, which may indeed benefit from a dose of humility, women’s sin is self-abnegation, for which curtailing their selves is destructive, while pride may well be a relevant virtue. (See Saiving’s article–http://rel.as.ua.edu/pdf/rel101saiving.pdf)

    Since the 60s, our thinking has developed, giving more detail to Saiving’s argument. Too often, it is the dominators–men, whites, the economic “one-per centers”–who demand humility (and frequently obedience) from those they dominate–women, people of color, and the lower income groups. The context for shaping character is not what it used to be. Humility is a very hard sell, and its value is not transparently clear.

    Perhaps humility need not take the leading role on the road to character. Even in Brooks’ discussion, other considerations are just as important: (1) the route charted by the resume is a moral drama; (2) the goal of the journey is holiness–not only to do good, but to be a good person; (3) we are crooked timber, as well as splendidly endowed; (4) humility enters in our awareness that we cannot straighten our crooked timber by ourselves–we need help; (5) our struggle is not only with the world outside us, but with ourselves–a struggle that never goes away, it is a major source of the suffering that marks the road to character.

    Does this work for us as we walk the road to character?

    What does your road look like?
    Phil Hefner 11/4/2015

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