It’s telling that in Conrad Hock’s spiritual advice for the four temperaments, he extols melancholics to cultivate faith in providence, whereas humility he prescribes for cholerics:
The choleric must combat his pride and anger continually. Pride is the misfortune of the choleric, humility his only salvation. Therefore he should make it a point of his particular examination of conscience for years.
The choleric must humiliate himself voluntarily in confession, before his superiors, and even before others.
Ask God for humiliations and accept them, when inflicted, magnanimously. For a choleric it is better to permit others to humiliate him, than to humiliate himself.
Given how dominant cholerics are, perhaps this explains why pride and humility are such central themes of religious teaching and cultivation?
Ever since Cain slew Abel, people have been muttering “f***ing cholerics!” under their breath. There’s a reason why choleric issues get so much attention.
Rethinking spiritual priorities
I’ve devoted a lot of time to unpacking the spiritual theme of pride, because it holds such significance in religious traditions.
In theory we all suffer from pride. Augustine identified it as the root of all sin, and Cassian poetically captured the devil’s fall from heaven as the fault of pride, mistaking his own glory for something self-created rather than the gift of his creator.
But there’s something very melancholic about fixating on the wrong spiritual diagnosis and running with it.
And while everyone is susceptible to pride in theory, and while pride itself can legitimately be defined in very broad terms, still it doesn’t mean that humility is the correct spiritual antidote for a melancholic.
Humility or pessimism?
I think I was drawn to the idea of humility, because in its theological context it means “seeing one’s true dependence on God”. For a melancholic, this can appear very attractive because we are prone to pessimism and despair anyway.
When your ideals have been systematically crushed, it’s tempting to embrace “humility” as a form of consolation, making a virtue out of giving up.
But puncturing pride just isn’t the same priority for melancholics as it is for cholerics.
We melancholics are supposed to instead have faith in providence, telling ourselves “things are not as bad as they seem”. And the underlying logic of providence is, to a melancholic, almost distressingly positive:
God loves you, and God is in control of everything. The creative power behind all existence wants you to be happy. Your entire experience is a work of love aimed specifically at you.
So as the beatitudes remind us: chill the **** out!
Mistaking happiness for pride
If you were to take seriously God’s love and providence, it might bring you dangerously close to feeling good about life.
You might even feel a strange inner glow that could, if you’re not careful, be mistaken for pride.
We think of pride as being “full of oneself”, and “self-satisfied”. So as not to take any chances, we therefore err on the side of being empty of any and all positive feeling about ourselves.
But to avoid confusion, I suggest we instead ignore the issue of pride completely. Keep it simple: Providence + Love => Happiness
If God cares about our happiness, isn’t it okay for us to care about our happiness too?
If God loves us, isn’t it okay to love ourselves as well?
This is the point where all the pride talk would normally strike us down.
Love yourself? Ha! What an ego! Full of God’s love? I can tell you’re full of something. You think you’re special? Such arrogance…you’re supposed to hate your life in this world, remember?
But assuming we’re all melancholics here, we need to accept we are not the intended audience for that.
Pride talk aimed at cholerics is like trying to protect your home from a raging bushfire.
Pride talk aimed at melancholics is like tipping a bucket of cold water on the warm embers that might have stopped you freezing to death in your sleep.
Isn’t it okay to be happy?
We’re told that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and I’ve always interpreted it one way only: that we should all put ourselves last, and if we are sincere then our sincere humility will be rewarded in the next life.
But in the context of pride and temperament I think it should be taken both ways: if you are first, you should put yourself last. If you are last you should put yourself first.
“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low.”
Don’t just topple the mountains, but raise the valleys too. If you are proud you should learn humility, but if you are a miserable unhappy melancholic you should at least consider that feeling good and putting yourself first is not a sin after all.
The proof of this is that real humility will bring greater happiness to a choleric. Their pride does not bring them happiness, it brings them frustration and vexation and anger.
We might look at egregiously arrogant cholerics who project success and happiness, but we know that their arrogance is hungry and grasping.
What more proof do we need that the genuine feelings of love, self-acceptance, and self-respect in us are not pride at all, but the fulfillment and grace of our own melancholic journey?