Idées Fixes of the Week

St. Thomas Aquinas Confounding Averroes (1445-50), Giovanni di Paolo

“Any number of autonomous intelligences traced their fate on the books she made and which were secondary, primal was the documentation of a thinking vibration reflected in a perfectly unknown place and material. Her effectiveness did not depend on memory, but on knowledge. Looking at the writers sitting around the table, she found that this term was empty, and that their images were defined, more than anything, by the position of their gaze, and their abandonment of the old way of reading and writing. Meditating on their fates she saw that nothingness was approaching, but it was powerless. The long narrative that was going to take place did not come from the interpreted description of the lives, but from the evolution of their interior transitions, which might converge, at some points, with the universal adventure, their experimentation and flight.”

—Maria Gabriela Llansol, In the House of July and August

(My impressions of Llansol—to date—mostly posted here and here.)

”                    Again is the sacred
word, the profane sequence suddenly graced, by
coming back. More & more as we go deeper
I realise this aspect of hope, in the sense of
the future cashed in, the letter returned to sender.
How can I straighten the sure fact that
we do not do it, as we regret, trust, look
forward to etc? Since each time what
we have is increasingly the recall, not
the subject to which we have come. […]

I know I will go back
down & that it will not be the same though
I shall be sure it is so. and I shall be even
deeper by rhyme and cadence, more held
to what isn’t mine. […] [W]e
trifle with rhyme and again is the
sound of immortality.”

—J.H. Prynne

Ever So Umble

I have thought a lot about humbleness recently. Is humility a synonym or a discretely different meta-attitude? Both words have their origin in the Latin humilis, literally ‘on the ground’ from humus, ‘earth’. Islam can be interpreted as meaning ‘submission’ or ‘surrender,’ which can also be interpreted as ‘humility’. In Islam, part of the daily prayer ritual involves prostrations, an act of humbling.

Outside of religions, the concept of humility is at odds with contemporary western culture. We are raised to take pride in accomplishment and success. With the exception of Kant, who considered humility a central human virtue, philosophers ignore the pursuit of humbleness.

It strikes me that attaining humility, genuinely, though demanding, should be an immensely rewarding path, not that this thought will offer any revelation to those able to dwell within the major religions. But what meaning should humility hold for the secular?

In thinking and reading around this theme I am drawn to Aquinas’s interpretation that humility is a tendency to avoid setting goals which are beyond one’s faculty to achieve. This is how Aquinas puts the argument:

I answer that . . . it belongs properly to humility, that a man restrain himself from being borne towards that which is above him. For this purpose he must know his disproportion to that which surpasses his capacity. Hence knowledge of one’s own deficiency belongs to humility, as a rule guiding the appetite. Nevertheless humility is essentially in the appetite itself; and consequently it must be said that humility, properly speaking, moderates the movement of the appetite.

It follows from this interpretation of humility that we must fully understand the breadth of our faculties (and, of course, the inherent difficulty of our goals).

I’d love to read any thoughts you may have on the subject, or suggestions of literary or philosophical texts that may be useful.