The Master Humbler

Apr 22, 2011 |Matt Kaufman

Feeling pretty pleased with yourself? Meet someone who'll change that — a voice from beyond the grave.  

I like to collect quotes: I've got about a 20-page document full of 'em on my computer (near 20 pages' worth), to say nothing of a several shelves worth of extensively-underlined books. I recall stumbling across one of my favorites a long time ago, from a 17th-century French nobleman, the Duc Francois De La Rochefoucald: "Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue." It was a great line: It was brief, memorable, and ran refreshingly counter to the spirit of the age I lived in, which was mesmerized by the notion that no one should feel ashamed about anything. ("I'm OK, you're OK," "just be yourself," that sort of thing.)

Writers who write like that are the sort I want to get to know, so it was my pleasure to discover later that Rochefoucald wrote like that all the time: He'd done a famous collection of 500 or so pithy sayings, popularly known as The Maxims. I resolved to lay hands on a copy, then (for neither the first nor last time in such matters) never got around to doing it for — well, let's just say "a few years." Finally, when I wasn't even looking for it, I ran across a copy at a used bookstore and made good on my old resolution. And since the book was so short, it wasn't long afterward before I sat down to devour it.

It wasn't long before I did so again. It's that good. More precisely, it's that convicting.

Rochefoucald (let's just call him "the Duke" from now on) is sometimes called a cynic but more often, and more fittingly, called a moralist. A sharp and witty observer of human nature — as manifested, especially, among the nobility, with whom he lived — he specialized in penetrating the façade of respectability which concealed the sinful human heart's real purposes. As one of his epigrams puts it, "We should often be ashamed of our noblest actions if the world knew all the motives which begot them."

Here's a sampling:

  • A desire to be pitied or admired is often the strongest reason for our confiding in people.
  • We sometimes jokingly complain of our friends as a way of justifying our fickleness in advance.
  • We generally lack the courage to say that we have no faults and our enemies no virtues, but we actually are not far from thinking it.
  • In general, we give praise in order to get it.
  • We refuse praise from a desire to be praised twice.

Ouch! I've gotta admit, I'm busted. Not that these epigrams sum up all my motives, all the time. But they apply far more than I care to admit. I might compliment someone else, maybe even sincerely, but somewhere inside I'm nursing the secret hope and expectation that I'll get some payback in kind. I might start griping about someone else, maybe with good reason, but I can quickly lose myself in the spirit of griping (a blend of self-pity and self-righteousness) for its own sake. Sometimes I catch myself in the act and rein myself in, but I can't say that stops for good, or even, sometimes, for long: I might be right back at it again within a few minutes.

Ready for some more? Ready or not, here we go:

  • When laziness and timidity yoke us to our duties, we often give virtue the credit for it.
  • We often forgive those who bore us, but we cannot forgive those we bore.
  • When our vices desert us, we flatter ourselves that we are deserting our vices.
  • Dislike of lying is often an unknown desire to increase the value of our testimony and to give a sacred importance to our words.
  • We confess our faults to mitigate, by our sincerity, the harm they have done us in other people's minds.
  • We confess to small faults only to convey the impression that we have no big ones.
  • We behave politely to be treated politely, and to be considered polite.
  • Had we no pride ourselves, we should not complain of it in others.

I trust all this sounds as familiar to you as it does to me. I trust you feel the same urge to protest some of these judgments, to cry "that's unfair!" And I trust you also recognize that those feelings are driven, to no small degree, by an awareness that there's a whole lot of truth behind those judgments. The Duke, we can imagine, felt the same way. You'll notice how often he speaks in the first person. He wasn't just denouncing, say, the corrupt aristocracy he saw around him; he wasn't just indicting other people, but himself.

I wouldn't want to give the impression that the Duke did nothing but hand out stern judgments. For one thing, his derision of our vices is leavened, often, by his humor. ("Why is our memory good enough to retain to the smallest detail things that have happened to us, and yet not good enough to recall how often we have told them to the same person?") More important, though, his Maxims speak of virtues as well as vices, and he wants to shed light on the nature of both. ("There are two sorts of faithfulness in love," he says. "One consists of forever finding new things to love in the loved one; the other is based on our pride in being faithful.") He wants us to know what real virtue is like. ("We share, to some extent, in noble actions by praising them with a warm heart.")

Still, the Duke doesn't spend much time urging the reader to undertake a self-improvement program. Though most of his writing in Maxims wasn't overtly religious, he was a professing Christian, and his alertness to our sinful nature permeates his work. Behind the wittiness of his aphorisms, you can see that his job was not unlike that of a preacher of God's Law: It was to show us all how utterly, hopelessly unrighteous we are — how deep-seated the sin in us really runs.

Though the Duke didn't preach the Gospel, he's the sort of writer Christians today would benefit from reading. And perhaps Christians could use him more than everyone else.

If the popular culture suffers from shamelessness, much of Christian culture suffers from respectability. Too many people in church, far from seeing themselves as confessed sinners surrounded by other confessed sinners, are obsessed with making a good impression on those around them; in the very place where pretension should be lowest and humility highest, the opposite is often true.

It doesn't help believers when their bookstores stock material promising 20 Steps to Holy Living, as if that goal were in reach if only they master the right techniques and disciplines. It helps them a lot more when they're shown how even their most respectable acts flow from a sinful heart, and even their best motives are so tainted by bad ones that they cannot present themselves as holy before God.

Perhaps no one expressed this more forcefully and consistently than Martin Luther. Back in 1518, in his Heidelberg Disputation, Luther wrote that "Although the works of man always seem attractive and good, they are nevertheless likely to be mortal sins." By "works," he meant works that supposedly contained intrinsic righteousness. Luther stressed a totally different approach: We daily need to be broken of our pride, convicted of our sin, and driven to the foot of the Cross, where we find the only One who is truly righteous. That's what the Law is for; not to make us better people but to strip our illusions and send us to the Gospel.

Luther never read the Duke, having preceded him by a century or so. But I have a hunch Luther would have appreciated him. If the Duke only did half the job — the Law half, not the Gospel half — it was still a job worth doing. And he did it well.

Copyright 2005 Matt Kaufman. All rights reserved.

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