This post is part of a series on the chivalric virtues. For the series introduction (containing links to all the other series posts), go here.
Last in sequence, appropriately enough, is the chivalric virtue of humility. Perhaps not a virtue we have come to associate overly with knighthood, it nonetheless comes in final and perhaps chief place as the seal of all the other virtues.
In my Mediæval Planetary symbolic scheme, humility is associated with Saturn; in the thinking of the day a baleful and malevolent planet connected with death and calamity. It seems somehow apt. Such things as ruin and calamity can come as death-blows to our idea that we are something in and of ourselves. Rightly appropriated, the leaden influence of Saturn pierces our puffed-up self-importance and arrogance. The call of Christ to take up the Cross and follow is rightly understood as a call to die.
Knights, typically, weren’t very good at humility. It was something honoured more in the breach than the observance; a virtue, yes, but one often at odds with the rest of the proud knightly code.
The knightly life in pursuit of honour often promotes pride, not humility, and the Mediæval knight was notoriously touchy about perceived slights to his honour. Star Trek’s Klingons are a warrior race whose culture revolves around honour, just like the knights of old. Honour – the praise of one’s fellows and the acclaim of one’s culture – is attained through meritorious acts, particularly courage on the battlefield. And because everyone loves a winner, especially particularly victory on the battlefield. The Miles Christi, or true Christian knight, may have elevated humility to the status of virtue, but it was a virtue not lived so much, unlike the other more martial and demonstrative virtues.
This is what happens when your idea of honour is honour before men. There’s another kind of honour, though: honour before God. The difference is rather like the difference between objective guilt and guilt feelings. Objective guilt – guilt before God, if you will – is that you did, in fact, do the unrighteous deed. You are guilty. Whether or not you feel guilty is a separate question. We all know there are people who can apparently commit the most grievous of offences and seemingly feel no guilt; no twinge of their seared conscience at all. Conversely, we can sometimes feel guilty about things for which we bear no objective guilt, for example, guilt feelings do not always miraculously go away after we get forgiven by God. Our objective guilt has been atoned for, but the feeling remains.
The Bible uses similar language, not for honour, but forhonour’s polar opposite shame. Verses such as “The one who trusts in Me will never be put to shame” suggest an objective shame, a shame before God, as well as the shame feelings we normally associate with the term. As with the guilt/righteousness axis, so with the honour/shame axis.
If our sense of honour is rooted in God, in objective honour, then it frees us to do some things that would normally be considered dishonourable. Not the objectively dishonourable things such as lying or cheating, but those things at which our pride rebels. Taking the low place, not the place of honour. Menial work. Acts of service. Tasks that are despised and considered worthless by society.
I don’t know about you, but this is looking a lot like humility to me.
Just like Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made Himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
He humbled Himself
and became obedient to death,
even the death of the cross.
Jesus identifying with fallen humanity in baptism, shocking the already-righteous by hanging out with evil government collaborator tax-collectors, prostitutes and drunks, humbling Himself to wash the sweaty, dirty feet of His apostles, stooping to the humiliation of hanging naked on a Roman cross.
In the eyes of the world, shameful and dishonourable. The Messiah can’t come from Nazareth – nothing good comes from there. The Messiah can’t hang out with sinners – He’s supposed to be righteous. The Messiah can’t wash my dirty feet – He’s the Master, and that’s the job of the lowest slave. And the Messiah really can’t be apparently defeated and die in one of the most painful and humiliating ways imaginable, naked in front of everyone to be jeered by the rabble. God’s honour is at stake!
Yes, it is. But rather than being an offence to God’s honour, these actually reinforce it. God sees what really is, and works in the sphere of objective honour. Man looks at the outward appearance.
When I listed off seven chivalric virtues and failed to include honour, I originally said that honour was the sum total of all of them. I may have been wrong. Honour may well be humility in disguise, looked at in a mirror.
Honour before men is rooted in pride. Objective honour, paradoxically, is willing to be dishonoured before men for true righteousness’ sake.
Not that being in a low position automatically means you’re all right in God’s eyes, either. Sometimes we can think that humility means being down on yourself. We take Paul’s self-description as “the chief of sinners” and apply it to ourselves, thinking this is what we’re supposed to do. It certainly seems properly self-effacing. Look at me, I’m so humble.
Sometimes, claiming to be worse than we really are can be a sort of inverted vanity. I’m important! Look, I did big, important sins! It becomes rather like the proverbial fish that got away. “I needed grace and it was this big!“
Humility is, as the Scripture puts it, “thinking of yourself with sober judgment.” Neither too highly nor too lowly, but in accordance with the view of God, the One who truly sees.
Interestingly for the Mediæval planet associated with ruin and death, Saturn was also the highest planet, nested in the uppermost of the seven planetary spheres, and thus closest to the Primum Mobile, God the Prime Mover. It somehow seems appropriate that this should be the virtue associated with seeing as God sees – seeing yourself the way you really are.