As I was sitting at Mass yesterday, I noticed a common virtue being called to mind in all three of the readings: humility. What’s so interesting about the virtue of humility is how unreasonable and illogical it seems to be. As I was thinking about it on the drive home, two philosophers came into my mind: Nietzsche and Aristotle.
Aristotle and Nietzsche’s Ideal Man
For Aristotle there is the magnanimous man. The magnanimous man is one who is filled with honor; he confers benefits, but does not receive them for he requires no benefits; he gives no admiration to any other man because there is nothing so great to him; he speaks no gossip (for he cares not to be praised since he already knows he’s worthy of it, and he cares not for others to be blamed for their shortcomings); he is open in his love and contempt of things. The magnanimous man, in other words, is a man filled with proper pride. For Aristotle, this is the ideal man and anyone short of him is unduly humble and anyone acting in a manner beyond him is vain.
For Nietzsche there is the ubermensch (popularly known as the superman). The ubermensch is very cunning and smart. He is beautiful and is beyond morality; he defies normally accepted virtues since they are virtues of slavery. For Nietzsche, the master morality is one defined by consequences, where right and wrong is defined by the ubermensch for himself, not by some universal natural moral law. On the other hand, slave morality is one defined by virtues that often value things like humility, sympathy, love and are subject to a universal moral code that is make-believe.
God’s Ideal Man
Interestingly, God’s ideal man (or the man worthy of God) is one who would be rejected by Aristotle and Nietzsche as defectively inferior.
The first reading from Palm Sunday comes from the Prophet Isaiah who admits that “the Lord God is my help, therefore I am not disgraced…knowing that I shall not be put to shame.” Isaiah does not trust in himself like the magnanimous man nor the ubermensch; instead, he places his trust in the Lord God.
The second reading is from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians where St. Paul recalls the humility of Jesus Christ in “emptying himself to take on the form of a slave, coming in human likeness..becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” What profound humility to move from the throne of the King to abide with his subjects and to die for their sake!
The Gospel reading is the Passion of the Lord, but what sticks out most to me is the exchange between Jesus and the two criminals hung by him. Where the one criminal rebuked Jesus in fear and mistrust in what Jesus has said of himself, the other rebuked his companion in hope and humility: “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal…Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
What faith it must take to utter those words of the criminal! What courage and humility must be present to acknowledge one’s own wrongs and look to God for forgiveness! This, my friends, is what an ideal man of God looks like. He is filled with humility because he knows that without God’s grace he shall die. It may look like the virtue of a slave that looks to the master for life-giving food and drink, and it is! But, as St. Paul knows so well, when the Master is Christ himself who wishes nothing but for the best of those enslaved to His will and graces them with eternal joy with Him, then why should we not take up the virtues that would make us His slaves?