Pride and humility for melancholics

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?

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Addiction and pornography: rediscovering virtue in the internet age

It’s been a while folks. Inspiration is a mysterious and fickle thing.

My latest article at MercatorNet examines the underlying nature of addiction, and how it inhibits our greater happiness and enjoyment of life:

This disproportion between the object of addiction and the pleasure or enjoyment we derive from it is characteristic of all addictions. When the pleasure and pain we feel at the presence or absence of the object far outweighs its objective value or significance, something is clearly awry.

Becoming sexually excited by images and videos may be the quintessential addiction of the internet age, but it is also deeply absurd because images and videos per se are not sexually exciting.

Taking a drug to experience “ecstasy” might be popular too, but it is absurd because there is nothing intrinsically ecstatic about ingesting a tablet.

On this level, addictions are always absurd. In the first instance they break the relationship between reality and pleasure, leading us to seek pleasure in unreal and absurd stimuli.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/addiction-and-pornography-rediscovering-virtue-in-the-internet-age

 

Everyday heroism and the value of fiction

My first article for MercatorNet for 2017 is inspired by my past year of writing fiction. I’ve been working on a middle-grade fantasy novel, and have learned so much along the way…it’s completely transformed my appreciation of fiction.

Today’s article is a reflection on heroes and villains, and how they mirror our own struggle with vice and virtue:

We can even see the conflict between the hero and the villain as a symbolising the struggle between our own virtuous and vicious inclinations. On one level we can see ourselves in either the hero or the villain, but on a deeper level we already contain both villain and the hero in ourselves.

Fiction can lead us through this journey, this struggle, in a way that non-fiction cannot. Fiction is figurative where non-fiction is literal, obscure where non-fiction is clear, and imaginary where non-fiction is factual. But it is precisely these apparent deficiencies that allow fiction to go deeper than our literal, factual minds can follow.

https://www.mercatornet.com/features/view/heroes-and-villains-the-real-world-significance-of-our-most-popular-stories

Have yourself an avaricious Christmas

My friend Tom has had an article published on Mercatornet, examining how the sin of avarice became a virtue in the context of our modern consumer economy:

Cavanaugh notes that consumerism is thus a “spiritual disposition”. Its error is not in that it seeks the spiritual in the material, for this is a tenet of traditional theology. And nor is its error that people are choosing material goods over spiritual values. Cavanaugh’s insight is to see consumerism as a type of spirituality, “a way of pursuing meaning and identity, a way of connecting with other people.”

This spiritual dimension to consumerism is reflected in the nature of advertising which has come to say little about the advertised product but much about the identity attached to buying such a product. Buying a product becomes a means to attaining a particular identity or experience. In this process, the actual product is only instrumental and so we become detached from it.

http://www.mercatornet.com/articles/view/have-yourself-an-avaricious-christmas

Coherence of character

In ethics we typically look at actions rather than people. But part of ethics involves understanding what actions can tell us about the people who perform them.

Confucius said:

Look at the means he employs, observe the sources of his conduct, examine what gives him comfort – where can he hide? Where can he hide?

In other translations: “In what way is a man’s true character hidden from view?”

We can indeed separate a person’s actions from their character, but when a person’s actions become habitual, or are chosen ‘freely’ without external constraint, then we can also make assessments or at least hypotheses about their character.

Someone might lie to you once under pressure, and we forgive it. But if they lie regularly, we recognise that this is somehow their habitual response, part of their character. Likewise, if someone lies when they are not under pressure, ie. they lie gratuitously, we realise there is something wrong with them personally.

Let’s say for the sake of the argument that a person is habitually manipulative and a liar at work, yet seems to be a ‘good mother’, friend, or partner in private contexts.

Typically we try not judge someone ‘as a person’ because we may not see the full picture – they may exhibit different qualities in different contexts. However, I would argue that a) behaving differently in different contexts can most likely be coherently explained, b) it is possible that some people behave incoherently/inconsistently, and c) either a or b actually further implicates the person’s character.

Let me explain:
If someone is willfully manipulative of others in a work context, I would not be at all surprised if she is equally manipulative in other private contexts. I would never broach this in public of course, but we can take the disarray of a person’s private relationships as another ‘data point’ in an ongoing assessment of their character.

If she is *not* equally manipulative in a private context, there must be reasons. The reasons may be that her manipulations are only really motivated by money or by power, and her private relationships at present do not happen to impinge on those motives. Yet in theory there would always be potential for the line to be crossed.

If, on the other hand, someone truly behaves inconsistently, this is far from a redeeming feature. Inconsistency is not a good character trait, not a virtue. There’s a story of a senior Nazi officer who would quite happily murder Jewish children and then go home to his own young family and be a ‘loving father’. There is no virtue in this…the fact that he didn’t murder his own children, or the fact that he didn’t feel any love or mercy toward the Jewish children…in either case, he clearly had some kind of deep incoherence in his psyche. Call it a lack of ’empathy’ if you will.

Let’s say I lie to everyone at work, but I never lie to my wife. There’s no real merit in this, unless perhaps I constantly struggle not to lie to my wife, and in that sense am fighting with the ‘thin end of the wedge’ in my lying behaviour more generally. But if I am stable in my behaviour, lying to others but not lying to my wife, I am either acting out of an irrational incoherence, or I am acting rationally according to some arbitrary moral principle such as “you can lie to anyone *except* your wife”, or something more utilitarian such as a need to have my wife’s support in case everyone else turns against me.

Such character assessments should never be taken as a definitive judgement or total condemnation of an individual. But the fact is that a person’s character cannot remain hidden, and for our own sake we can draw reasonable conclusions about how a person is likely to behave in future.

As Confucius’ schema suggests, a person’s ‘true character’ can be ascertained from their actions, motives, and where they turn for comfort. In a truistic sense, we can tell how a person is likely to be by observing how they already are.