Because humility was not one of the virtues that Aristotle expanded on, and because that virtue gets specially savaged in Nietzsche, I’m sometimes tempted to think of it as relatively simple, a bow here and a scrape there and that’s it. All the thinking that one must do, I’m tempted to think, has to do with reducing one’s self. Certainly revisiting Thomas Aquinas dispels this illusion, and so do passages of Scripture like this week’s epistle. With a genuinely literary, indirect narration to open and a dizzying array of exploded binaries, Paul stretches the imagination so that humility takes its place alongside courage and wisdom as a truly dialectical, truly Christian virtue. To be humble, one must renounce what is genuinely good, never nullifying that good but holding it relative to goods that are superior.
Paul presents himself as two people in the passage: one is a holy man, someone whose experience in “the third heaven” (a phrase that interests me a little less every time I hear or read someone’s obsessing over it) renders him worthy of boasting and whose contact with the spiritual world borders on the Gnostic. (I know I often gripe about the overuse of the word “gnostic,” but I think it fits here.) The other is the one plagued by God, thorn in flesh and visited by Satan. This second persona prays for spiritual boons and bodily healing but never receives. Instead he waits, deferred, with nothing to show but a particular sort of weakness. Contrary to certain caricatures from the disciples of Nietzsche, this is not the sort of flat resentment that rises from self-hatred but a complex personality, one who recognizes genuine goods in his own experiences yet does not offer those goods to other people, lest he be accused of withholding the best for the sake of his own glory. For the Satan-plagued weak man to come across as powerful, the spiritual hero must stand glorious before giving way.
So when Paul boasts in his weakness, when he finds contentment in insults, he does so not denying the things that he has experienced but avoiding boasts in such things. After all, the grace of Christ ultimately stands sufficient, and Paul is always interested in the universality of that grace. So if visions and special knowledge are prerequisites for the reception of divine grace, that negates what Paul sets out to do in the first place. And if Paul’s mission is negated, then there’s no point to the letter. The story-telling practice that Paul models here stands to critique both the much-maligned “self-esteem” movement that defined my own childhood and the counter-narrative that has risen in response, perhaps most iconically articulated by Tyler Durden’s nihilistic philosophy in the novel and movie versions of Fight Club. Instead both goodness and the inadequacy of goodness remain parts of Paul’s testimony.
Thus humility: Paul does not confuse things that are “as skubalon” with skubalon itself. (Ask a first-year Greek student.) To regard one’s own justice as filthy rags is not to say that it stops being justice. Instead, recognizing with Plato and Aristotle and Moses that goods are hierarchical and that scale matters in questions of the good, Paul refuses to put even the revelation of “the third heaven” and sayings of angelic things on par with the supreme good. Thus the persistence of the old virtue-vocabularies. Thus the exhortations in Paul’s letters that, yes, borrow from Platonic and Aristotelian and Stoic vocabularies. Thus the intelligibility of Christian ethics. To borrow from the gospel of Matthew and from generations of commentators on the same, Christ does not dispel goodness but fulfills it, does not render good as evil but situates goods so that, if pursued as the Good, become idols.
Humility is no simple thing. Praise be to God that we Christians sometimes get a lifetime to explore it.