Around 1901, the prolific English writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) wrote an interesting essay called ‘A Defence of Humility‘ in which he vividly described the effect a humble constitution has on the human imagination and explained the many pleasures that man forfeits upon assuming an egoistic attitude. Chesterton was beginning to notice ‘a collapse of joy’ in the literature of his days and he immediately attributed it to the philosophy of extreme self-assertion and self-esteem that had gained currency in his time. The ‘philosopher of the ego’ could not pen beautiful lines because he couldn’t mentally register the glorious shapes and outlines and colours of the cosmos. As he saw the world from ‘a high and rarified heaven’ of his own, everything appeared ‘foreshortened or deformed’ to him.
Chesterton’s logic could be interpreted like this:
1). One could only think and write joyfully when they appreciated the cosmos around them.
2). To be able to appreciate the cosmos one needed to have a clear vision.
3). Only an individual who was close to the cosmos could see it clearly (without any foreshortening or deforming).
4). And who could engage with the cosmos up close? The humble soul (which did not live in a high and rarified heaven of its own devising).
5). Conclusion: Authentically joyful literature was a forte of the humble.
An individual who had shrunken themselves, prostrated themselves, made themselves little could perceive the magnificence of the world and revel in it and felt prompted to proclaim it. The shrinking, prostration, making little of a soul was no self-abasement. On the contrary, it was a treat, a rapturous adventure in which the soul acquired much knowledge and wisdom. Read a part of Chesterton’s piece to find out how exactly…
In a very entertaining work, over which we have roared in childhood, it is stated that a point has no parts and no magnitude [he is referring to mathematics; humility, for him, is a ‘mathematical’ virtue; he will demonstrate that in the following lines]. Humility is the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point, not to a small thing or a large one, but to a thing with no size at all, so that to it all the cosmic things are what they really are – of immeasurable stature. That the trees are high and the grasses short is a mere accident of our own foot-rules and our own stature. But to the spirit which has stripped off for a moment its own idle temporal standards the grass is an everlasting forest, with dragons for denizens; the stones of the road are as incredible mountains piled one upon the other; the dandelions are like gigantic bonfires illuminating the lands around; and the heath-bells on their stalks are like planets hung in heaven each higher than the other. Between one stake of a paling and another there are new and terrible landscapes; here a desert, with nothing but one misshapen rock; here a miraculous forest, of which all the trees flower above the head with the hues of sunset; here, again, a sea full of monsters that Dante [Italian poet] would not have dared to dream. These are the visions of him who, like the child in the fairy tales, is not afraid to become small. Meanwhile, the sage whose faith is in magnitude and ambition is, like a giant, becoming larger and larger, which only means that the stars are becoming smaller and smaller. World after world falls from him into insignificance; the whole passionate and intricate life of common things becomes as lost to him as is the life of the infusoria to a man without a microscope. He rises always through desolate eternities. He may find new systems, and forget them; he may discover fresh universes, and learn to despise them. But the towering and tropical vision of things as they really are – the gigantic daisies, the heaven-consuming dandelions, the great Odyssey of strange-coloured oceans and strange-shaped trees, of dust like the wreck of temples, and thistledown like the ruin of stars – all this colossal vision shall perish with the last of the humble.