“We are not sure we are right until we have made the best case possible for those who are wrong.” Lord Acton
We live in an age where people read little, but yet vehemently assert the verity of their own opinions. Debates during the Reformation were bruising affairs. Not only did they demand quick wits, a vast memory, and a comprehension of all the implications of various doctrines and the arguments attendant on them, but it took thick skin and a ready wit. The key thing, however, was never to underestimate your interlocutor. Sure, you could call him a Hussite, tell him you’d eat feces (Herr Doktor Luther used a more colorful word) if that’s what God told you to do, imply that he had neither moral courage nor even any sense of conviction, but you could not take him for granted. Debaters were always accompanied by ‘seconds’. In short, scholars understood that no one could master all the facts.
A few years ago a local Baptist minister thought he could debate a whole slew of Catholics (most of them laity) on the questions dividing Catholics and Protestants, though each in succession, as they didn’t all gang up on him at once. I was asked to join this merry adventure. Though putatively fighting singly, the minister had with him two or three other gentlemen who were furiously turning the pages of their Bibles (as I was called upon to defend the real presence of the Incarnate Christ in the sacrament of the altar they were actually almost tripping over themselves whispering “use John 6:63 against him” or something like that). All this to say, even this individual realized that he couldn’t, even in “individual combat” take on all those arrayed against him alone. In short, polemics demand large measures of both humility and self examination, a measuring of one’s capabilities. As Dirty Harry put it, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
There are things I cannot debate, obviously. I have a colleague, David Bradstreet, always the smartest man in any room, who is an astrophysicist. His work and scholarship are impressive, but equally impressive is his ability to break it down into understandable bites for slobs like me. I know enough only to ask questions. Further, I know very little about twentieth-century philosophy (once past Nietzsche, I’m a child walking into a conversation), and in truth, most of my knowledge of American history is piecemeal.
Now, everything I have just written is no real humility, as this is all just obvious, bald truth. I’ve spent my life in various languages, dug into documents, etc. But even with this preparation for my field (late medieval and Renaissance history) I stand on the shoulders of others. All my research and writing owes enormous debts to all sorts of scholars and their works–also, built on that of others. I am but a suppliant before scholars both living and dead who have plowed, planted, and watered; I am but taking of their increase.
The fathers of the Church are quite keen about humility and especially our overwhelming need for it in the face of our own foolishness. This is no more clearly seen than how life exists in the online world, where humility is needed as never before. Arrogance too proud to back down, and quite often too ignorant to realize both how wrong they are, and how foolish they look, fill comboxes, Twitter, and Facebook to repletion. This is especially true in people who believe themselves possessed of some charism or anointing to this end (whether they believe in God or not), all of which grants them the prerogative to take exception with the slightest of offendicles, and splash the perceived transgressions, amplified by their Pecksniffian superiorities, across Facebook, et cetera. Some people come across as God’s older brother (a phrase I have happily stolen from Paul Johnson), refusing to admit their wrong, refusing even to admit that there might be other ways to see things. We all know them, and all too often, God help us, we are them.
How often I have gotten my own hackles up when someone might “spit upon my curious floor” or take a swipe at a friend, and it is thus an exercise in self discipline to respond with a measured evenness, with facts, and try to be as saccharine, even as mawkish as I am able. I try constantly to remember that “Contentiousness is a trap, whose bait is self-justification.” (St. Symeon, the New Theologian, Practica et Theologica, 30). No one wishes to seem small, no one wants to be wrong, but we often argue ourselves into corners and since there is no deus ex machine in the FB world to rescue us we can all too easily end the discussion by becoming belligerent and insulting.
Even though not identical to humility, gratitude comprises a large part of it, for by it we recognize that all things come to us as gift, that we have nothing of self in the gift, but instead are open to and dependent on the love of others. This includes even the gift of the opportunities to correct those who border on invincible ignorance (and perhaps we should be grateful for these exercises in frustration as well of those beyond the borders). By the openness that gratitude demands we show ourselves to be derivative. This is something every historian, indeed every scholar, needs in spades. All historical scholarship builds on ideas, paradigms, structures, and most of all research received from others. To paraphrase Donne, no scholar is an island.
At the close of D. M. Nicol’s preface in his Byzantium and Venice he writes: “I would like to express my gratitude especially . . . to Sir Stephen Runciman, who gave me the idea and the licence to write [this book] and who would have done it so much better.” I don’t recall which of these two fine historians I ran across first, though Runciman, for all his faults (at times he seemed almost constitutionally hateful of Catholicism, and he also made some rather poorly researched assertions) certainly loomed large in my mind early in my graduate career. But his obvious deference to Runciman endeared me to Nicol, knowing first that he could turn a good phrase (the preface as evidence), but also knowing that he had no qualms in acknowledging his intellectual benefactors.
Lord Acton, in regard to debate, expressed a great truth, but also a rule of humility — can they ever be at odds? – that everyone should follow, the quote at the top of this essay: “We are not sure we are right until we have made the best case possible for those who are wrong.” When we neglect this dictum and instead rely on dismissive attitudes to our interlocutors, often substituting straw men for real arguments, we show first that we are not sure of our own position, second that we fear the ideas of others, third that we are too arrogant and narcissistic to consider that we could be wrong, and lastly that we are also too lazy to do the real work research requires. This is the attitude of those who burn books, who instead of burying by refutation the ideas they disagree with under a mound of facts and arguments, simply blather some trite notion that “some ideas don’t deserve to exist.” (A quote of a former colleague who burned books in front of his students.)
Now some ideas might not deserve to exist, but all that burning books accomplishes, aside from impressing weak minds, is show that the burner has not mastered the material well enough in defense of his own position to destroy the ideas in reality. Also, it shows a certain temperament, one that disdains the rational in one’s fellow creature. When this is true, when we think so little of those ideas we engage that we don’t even give them the courtesy of a rational reply, the interlocutor becomes less than human, and thus gives the truth to Heinrich Heine’s statement that those who burn books will soon burn a man.
Such opinions in fact destroy progress, destroy liberty of thought, and ultimately we could say, seek to extinguish the light of truth. Without the humility to hear others, we make genius nigh unto impossible. There are lines at the end of Sir Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (British spelling) that are most apt.
At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves. I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole. All living things are our brothers and sisters. Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.
Sir Kenneth Clark, Civilisation.
When we lack humility in dealing with others, we become those that Clark feared, a society afraid to be wrong, and thus one bent on destroying genius. We become numbered with the Athenians against Socrates.
This disposition of humility was brought home to me some years ago. Back then, as a PCA presbyter, at one of our quarterly meetings a professor at a local seminary, well known in Presbyterian circles, a gifted and gracious man, stopped me and said “Gary, I see you are at Rutgers studying with Karl Morrison. I knew Karl at Cornell, and we used to spar over eternal punishment. Please give him my best.” Now, this gentlemen was no one’s slouch: published and tireless in the training of ministers, all the same, he was not on the same level as Morrison. I related his greetings to Morrison via a note. Morrison sent me a letter a week or so later, the subject was a paper I had given him, and he ended with a note touching on our acquaintance: “It was good to hear from . . . . How characteristically gallant of him to remember our conversations as sparring. I was certainly reaching far beyond my class, but he never seemed to mind.” I was so struck by Morrison’s magnanimity that I have kept that letter, and it is actually the bookmark in my copy of the Philokalia which has the above quote from St. Symeon in it. I copied as well both the quote from Nicol and that of Clark on the envelope, and I read them to my western Civ students every year. As freshmen, they all need to hear it, but I need the reminder as well.