Conflicting Themes of Pride and Humility

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As I was sitting there staring at my computer screen waiting for some divine bit of inspiration, I closed my eyes brimming with hope (or desperation I will allow you to determine which) and let the book fall open to a random page. To my immediate disappointment, it fell over on its side, closed. But then I began to read the back, it has a short description of Milton and then it states, “Paradise Lost’s apparent ambivalence towards authority has led to intense debate about whether it manages to justify the ways of God to men or exposes the cruelty of Christianity. ' This prompted a flood of questions in my mind. Isn't trying to justify the ways of God to man well, just a bit assuming of man’s comprehensive ability? Yet in the opening lines of the poem Milton states that he is attempting to “justify the ways of God to man”. In all fairness, he does not claim to understand the mind of God. Through blank verse and device Milton illustrates creation, the fall of Lucifer, and the fall of man. What has caught my interest are the warring themes of pride and humility throughout each text.

What exactly is humility? Is it a way of acting? If it is only a way of acting, do we then call a man humble by his observable actions without also knowing if his intentions match? How could we know? If one’s actions could be described as humble, does this necessitate a humble mind? For if we are to truthfully call a man humble by nature, he must be humble in his entirety. Surely, we would not say that a man that only eats like a pig departs from our species and should now be classified under our taxonomy as a pig. Thus, whatever way in which the man acts is merely an indication to the state of his mind. When the observable actions of a man are to a degree consistent, we assume this is the fruit of a humble mind and it is after this, we then label a man, humble.

Are you humble? If you say yes, does that then make you correct in your proper presumption of yourself or has your answer led you to a thick fog? A fog that conceals the border between humility and pride. Let us first understand that humility and pride are explicitly human concepts. No one would expect a butterfly to pen a self-help book and call it From Humble Beginnings. Jesting aside, the beautiful and powerful gift of free will is packaged with certain questions to be pondered that are essential to fulfill our desire to aim toward the Good. We are going to be examining Paradise Lost by John Milton and The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis to better understand the nature and relation between pride and humility and man and God.

Why humility? Why use our free will, “the gift whereby (we) most resemble our maker” (Lewis 141) to live in humility? In light of Christian theology and these two texts, we will explore the what, why and how of humility. True humility is properly understanding one’s value in relation to God and fellow man. Anything more is pride and anything less, which most people would call self-deprecation, is also pride.

First, to better comprehend what humility is, we must first look at how one understands their own value in relation to the Truth. The beginning of humility is to put aside oneself and seek this. In C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce, the ghosts that arrive in heaven from “hell” are each eventually met by Solids. The Solids are spirits who have matured in their desire for God. In fact, the guiding spirits have “interrupted that journey and retraced immeasurable distances to come down today on the mere chance of saving some Ghosts”(Lewis Need #). The Solids themselves who have long pressed into the mountains now return, so that maybe one ghost may be saved. They leave their own pursuit, in hope that another may also experience the Grace in the mountains. Already, one can see that it is in the nature of the solids to put aside themselves for the sake of bringing more people to Truth. The Solids first thought is not about their own glory nor how convenient a thing may be. Quite the opposite, the journey back “is also joy to do so”(Lewis need #) “ The journey into the mountains is a journey of Truth, but first the ghosts much choose to take the first step. While searching for evidence that ghosts could remain in this solid place, our narrator stumbles across the well dressed woman. He first observes her attempting to hide herself in shadows.

A solid then finds and confronts her offering help. The ghost however, exclaims repeatedly,” I want to be left alone!”. The ghostly form inspires shame in the woman, so much so that she states she would rather die than be seen. The solid tries to help by showing the ghost that once she can look past the shame, infinite happiness is waiting. The ghost exhibits a minute instant of attempt but laments and cries for the solid to leave. The solid offers,” Could you only for a moment fix your mind on something not yourself?” The solid understands that the ghost is too focused on herself to comprehend the truth that her shame and self-hatred blind her. If she could think for a moment of something not herself, she could take the first step towards Truth. In light of the ghost’s stubbornness, the solid attempts a last-ditch effort to redirect her mind. He blows a horn which summons a herd of thundering unicorns. All in hopes that the great clamor and awe-inspiring image of these fantastic beasts incites the ghost’s mind to remove itself from its self-loathing. The narrator does not witness the end of this exchange as his nerves cause him to flee. The spirit offers to her the road of humility but can only leave it to her to step “into infinite happiness”. Once one takes this first step it becomes necessary to refocus the object of attention to Truth.

Our narrator eventually moves on from the startling encounter with the herd of unicorns but still has many queries for his guide, MacArthur. Together, the pair observe another interaction, this time the ghost is an artist. The artist takes in the heavenly landscape and desires nothing more than to paint it. The solid observes that he has lost sight of the reason why he enjoyed painting in the first place. He tries explaining to the ghost that there is no longer a need to share imitation of heaven since everyone has the opportunity to see and enjoy it for themselves. He notes the artists first love was light and his inspiration was imitating nature so that others may enjoy little glimpses of heaven (Lewis 83). This love became perverted into a vain desire. This desire to paint no longer was based in love and selfless intention, but in painting in for its own sake. The artist was then led astray into further perversion by the love he gained for his reputation. The solid explains that he has experienced the process himself. He tells the ghost that he was too interested in his own personality and reputation to care about the cause of the enjoyment in painting. However, there is a complete remedy for this, in the mountains when one partakes of the fountain it allows one to forget all proprietorship forever. “You enjoy them just as if they were someone else’s: without pride and without modesty”.

True humility, necessitates a lack of self-entitlement. What does this imply? It means that no one is distinguished, in the sense that no more Glory is given to one than another. “Glory flows into everyone, and back from everyone” (Lewis 86). This is the next tenet of humility. Understanding that none is more glorified than another. There is one Glory that is offered to all and it must be understood that it is this in which all men have their identity. None of the solids in heaven are distinguished because they are all famous. “They are all known, remembered, recognized by the only Mind that can give a perfect judgement” (Lewis 86). One does not have to be known, remembered, or recognized by even friends or family to share in this Glory. This is the Truth, the realization is that none can count himself above another since they have nothing to boast of themselves. It would be like a leaf on a branch of a great oak proclaiming how self-sufficient it was. Then when a breeze comes and removes it from the branch it is at the mercy of the wind and no longer has hope of life.

To only understand that Glory shares itself equally amongst men is only a part of the Truth. Now that the focus is removed from the self, we have found in the transitionary blur that man cannot exalt himself; thus, man needs a new focal point. The leaf needs to understand its relation to the tree: to understand that the tree is not a part of the leaf but the leaf is a part of the tree and can only be sustained by it. The whole of humility can be extrapolated from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. The humble man is he who both acknowledges and serves God in his thoughts and actions. During the angelic war, Michael and Lucifer have a brief duel in which Michael easily wounds Lucifer causing him to make hasty retreat. Whilst Satan lay there recovering his “pride humbled by such rebuke, so far beneath / His confidence to equal God in power” (Milton VI.341-43). Satan’s pride is humbled when he finds his power to be so far below God’s. He had infatuated his heart with much power and passion but this was only deception; the Truth exists in the proper fear of God. The acknowledgement of His sovereignty and power is one of the final parts of what comprises humility but there is one more aspect. Raphael reveals to Adam in the garden that he must, 'be strong, live happy and love, but first of all / Him whom to love is to obey” (Milton VIII.634-35). Acknowledging power is one matter but to submit oneself to the agent is a different matter. Man tends to have a spirit of self-sufficiency. This is extremely prominent in our modern culture and our country. The idea of submission and subservience is generally foreign to us. These are, however, qualities which result from a proper understanding of one’s self in relation to God. God after all has created man from the dust of the earth. Coincidentally, the root of humility in the Latin comes from humus meaning earth which then developed into humilis meaning on the ground or lowly. The frame of man, a creation, formed from the ground, given breath, not of his own doing, yet made in such a way that allows him to choose to live a humble life in light of Truth.

Pride then, must be rooted in deceit as was briefly mentioned before. It is a misunderstanding of one’s rank in relation to fellow man and God: to either neither acknowledge that Glory flows equally into and back from everyone or the sovereignty of the Godhead. During Lucifer’s pre-war gathering, on Mammon, one of Lucifer’s officers, speaks for a general fraction of the forces of Satan.

This is much worse than just the leaf despising the tree, it is as if it also despises water and light. The greatest rebellion known begins with a thought outside of humility. Similarly, one can observe Satan’s envy of the Son’s throne and contempt for the Godhead.

Lucifer believed that he was truly more worthy and powerful than the Son. If Lucifer’s belief were true, he would have humbly been taking the position that was his. However, because the Son is truly the worthiest, Lucifer’s belief amounts to Pride. As Lucifer surveys his army composed of one third of the fallen angels, 'his heart distends with pride” (Milton I.571-2). His heart, as he beholds what he thinks to be the power of the victorious side, brims with overconfidence in his ability and vanity. He has deceived himself! The crux of the matter lies in where one chooses to set his focus. It is as if one held their finger at arm's length. Fixing their eyes on their finger and slowly bringing it to their face causes a shift in perspective. The closer the object of the focus is, the blurrier the surroundings become. Pride exists in the mind which thinks or comes to believe that the Glory offered to it, is of themselves.

Satan laments and spites his once so glorious state. Even he understands the reason for his fall. His “pride and worse ambition” lead him to try to glory in glory that was not his for the glorying. His focus slowly drew closer and closer to himself making it increasingly difficult to perceive the Truth. He confesses it was an “unbounded hope” (Milton IV.60) Which drove him to ambition. When his perspective changed from seeing the hope for himself to the hope being of himself, he had already fallen. The whole matter of Pride is summed in some of the most famous lines from Milton spoken by Satan,” 'Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”. He would now despise serving in heaven because of this ambitious, deceived view of himself.

The wise words of Raphael to Eve advise her to only dwell on what concerns herself and her own being. Satan wanted nothing more than more for himself and greater glory for his being not realizing it was too far above that which he was created for. However, the most perplexing part of it all is that it is all made possible through the Creator’s gift of free will.

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Conflicting Themes of Pride and Humility. (2022, Oct 04). Retrieved July 13, 2024 , from

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