Pandemical Reflections: Chesterton on Humility and Modesty

What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

Sober Pandemical Reflections. Or standing before the mirror of life and asking the proverbial question, as we try this pandemic on as if it were the latest fashion: “Does this make me look fat?”. How should we, as a society, answer ourselves on this loaded question when our proper “moral weight” should reflect both modesty and humility…and perhaps it doesn’t?

Chesterton has two parallel observations, one from Orthodoxy written in 1908 and one from The American Ideal written in 1932 revisiting the same subject he had discussed 10 years earlier in What I Saw In America which seem to us to be more true today, not less. And what is God telling us through Chesterton’s observations about how we have responded to the needs of the world throughout this pandemic? How could we respond better, for there is certainly time in which to do so?

What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place.

“What we suffer from today is humility in the wrong place. Modesty has moved from the organ of ambition and 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. We are on the road to producing a race of men too mentally modest to believe in the multiplication table.” – G.K. Chesterton, The Suicide of Thoughts, Orthodoxy, 1908

“The very simple explanation of this puzzling contradiction is that they were perfectly nice and normal people in themselves, but they had never been left to themselves by those who were always telling them to assert themselves. They had been bounced into bouncing and bullied into being bullies. And the explanation is the existence of this modern heresy false ideal, that has been preached to everybody by every organ of publicity and plutocracy: the theory that self-praise is the only real recommendation.

The trouble with the false commercial ideal is that it has made these men struggle against modesty as if it were morbidity

I have suggested that the American character might have developed in an infinitely more healthy and human fashion if it had not been for this heresy. Of course the American character would in any case have been very much more alert and lively and impetuous than the English character. But that has nothing to do with the particular features and fashions of commercial advertisement and ambition. There are many other races that are more vivacious or vehement than the English and who yet live the normal life of contented country folk, and practise the traditional ideas of modesty and courtesy.

The trouble with the false commercial ideal is that it has made these men struggle against modesty as if it were morbidity; and actually try to coarsen their natural courtesy, as other men stifle a natural crudity. I do not think that bragging and go-getting are American faults. I hate them as American virtues; I think the quarrel is not so much with the men as with the gods: the false gods they have been taught to worship and still only worship with half their hearts. And these gods of the heathen are stone and brass, but especially brass; and there is an eternal struggle in that half-hearted idolatry; for often, while the gods are of brass, the hearts are of gold” – G.K. Chesterton, The American Ideal, Sidelights on New London and Newer York and Other Essays, by G.K.Chesterton, 1932

image source: Humility by Tadeusz Gorecki (Polish;1825-1868)

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