Meeting 28

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DATE: Tuesday, March 9

TIME: 1 PM Princeton time (EST) / 8 PM Bucharest time (GMT+2)

PANEL: ‘Say not that you are a light unto yourself’: Seventeenth Century Conceptions of Humility in Epistemology and Politics

SPEAKERS: Julie Walsh (Wellesley College) and Eric Stencil (Utah Valley University)


In Sermon 67, Section 8, Saint Augustine mediates on pride and humility. He writes:

“Of course, as far as you are concerned, and your capacities, you are in darkness. I mean, what else is being foolish, but being in mental darkness? In any case, that’s what he [God] said of them: Calling themselves wise, they became foolish. And before they [the proud] said this, what else had he [God] said about them? And their foolish minds were darkened (Rom 1:21). Say that you are not your own light. At the most you are an eye; you are not light. What’s the use of an open and healthy eye, if there’s no light? So say it; you don’t get any light from yourself, and cry out what is written, You will light my lamp, O Lord; with your light, Lord, you will light up my darkness (Ps 18:28). I mean, all I have is darkness; you are the light dispelling the darkness, lighting up me; it’s not from me that light comes to me, but the only original, uncreated light is in you.” (page 219)

In this sermon, Augustine’s topic is Matthew 11:25: “I confess to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the knowing, and revealed them to little ones.” The question driving section 8 is “Who are the little ones?” Augustine’s answer: the humble. On Augustine’s view, to call yourself wise is to become foolish. In our key text above, Augustine tells his reader that those who take themselves to be wise have their minds darkened; God reveals nothing to them. Instead, God favors the “little ones,” the humble, with light (219). The humble see that they are eyes, not lights. The proud see themselves as lights, that is, as sources of power and knowledge, which makes them fools.

We take Augustine to be underlining the importance of what we will call ontological humility. Humility about the nature of one’s ontological status, that is, being, means acknowledging and accepting the limitations that come with being the sort of being that one is. For us humans, our being is finite. So, to practice ontological humility is to structure our aims and methods according to our limitations as finite beings with finite faculties and capabilities. Other species of humility fall under the genus of ontological humility. Of central interest to us in this paper is epistemic humility, which requires that we be humble about the sorts of things we can know, and a subset of epistemic humility, political humility, which calls for humility with respect to how much finite beings can know about the appropriate way to organize a community.

We look at three understudied moments in early modern philosophy when the call for these sorts of humility are underlined. First, we look at epistemic humility in Pierre Nicole and Antoine Arnauld’s Port Royal Logic. Both Nicole and Arnauld were associated with the Jansenist movement—a Catholic movement partially borne of a Cornelius Jansen’s Augustinus. While the general Cartesian nature of the Port Royal Logic’s epistemology is unmistakably Cartesian, we argue that the authors offer a mitigated scope of reason on account of their commitment to ontological humility. Second, we turn to Malebranche, looking at (1) his explicit exhortation of Augustine’s dictum in The Search after Truth, and (2) on what we take to be a related appeal to political humility, which comes out most explicitly in his Treatise on Ethics. Third, we look to the writings of the Port Royal nuns, and show that their preoccupation with Augustinian-style humility is focused on feminist political humility, in particular with respect to their involvement in the debate over the condemnation of Jansen’s writings.

Our discussion of the assorted treatments of humility in the Logic, Search, Treatise and in the writings of the Port Royal nuns reveal, that the seventeenth-century European revival of interest in Augustine’s work was not monolithic.In particular, we wish to show that the call for humility from Arnauld and Nicole originates in their desire to embrace much of the emerging Cartesian world view, while holding on to their theological commitment to the rational opacity of theological matters; for Malebranche, the call is tied to his interest in demonstrating that human beings are utterly dependent on God, which, in turn, forces his hand to show how such dependence is consistent with the empirical fact that in a political system, human beings are dependent,at least to a certain extent, on one another; for the Port Royal nuns, the call is tied to their efforts to assert spiritual and intellectual autonomy in the face of demands for obedience from the archbishop of Paris. All told, among the broadly Augustinian tradition in 17th century Europe, far from being a notion confined to ethical theory, conceptions of humility permeate a range of philosophical questions.

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