Introduction to Chesterton on Humility; The Relevance to a Poet
T. S. Eliot once said, ‘Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people wanting to be important.’
One might speculate that most of the trouble with literature is caused by writers wanting to be important. The modern cult of self-esteem has gained foothold in lock step with the modern dissolution of formal literature, and it is little surprise. Writing has become a tool, often an economic tool, for the building of the writer’s own reputation for cleverness and eccentricity rather than a tool for the building of the writer’s community and its understanding and enjoyment of whatever the writer has explored in writing. With this self-aggrandising aim, any art which is enjoyable and accessible to normal people is to be eschewed, while at the same time any art which requires of the writer more concentration and effort than he is willing to expend is deemed below his mighty genius. He and he alone shall determine by what means his art shall rise above that of his peers. Where literature, like all the arts, was once enjoyed in community, it has become in the modern world more of a competition––enjoyed only by the ‘winner’ in voluble isolation, whilst all the ‘losers’ suffer their degradation in communal silence.
If we are to regain the traditional aim of literature––delight––then we must champion the traditional stance of literature––humility.
About a hundred years ago, G. K. Chesterton noted a shift in the literature of his day. In his essay ‘In Defence of Humility,’ he wrote,
‘Men have revived the splendour of Greek self-assertion at the same time that they have revived the bitterness of Greek pessimism. A literature has arisen which commands us all to arrogate to ourselves the liberty of self-sufficing deities at the same time that it exhibits us to ourselves as dingy maniacs who ought to be chained up like dogs. It is certainly a curious state of things altogether.’
Chesterton’s contention was that it is only from a position of humility (‘the luxurious art of reducing ourselves to a point . . . to a thing with no size at all’) that we can begin to see the world around us as it really is, in all its wonder and glory. Those who fall prey to hubris are ‘becoming larger and larger, which only means that the stars are becoming smaller and smaller.’
‘World after world falls from him into insignificance; the whole passionate and intricate life of common things becomes as lost to him as is the life of the infusoria to a man without a microscope. He rises always through desolate eternities. He may find new systems, and forget them; he may discover fresh universes, and learn to despise them.’
Self-importance is deeply and demonstrably injurious to all art, for there can be no delight in anything but one’s own self to the prideful. In opposition to this, all truly good art is self-forgetful. The state of wonder and delight necessary for the creation of good art is a state of total extroversion. Even the most egoistic of the great writers, when producing his seminal work, enters into this state and, for a moment, lives no longer in service only to himself, but to his art.
Therefore, I submit that as authors we ought to have the humble attitude of self-forgetful servants; servants of the things we write and servants to those who will read our writings. The simple fact of the matter is that we are servants. We are not masters: nothing is ever so fully within our mastery that we can do it justice by a poetry of pride. The intent of literature is to glorify those things of which it speaks, and to invite its readers into a new experience of their glory.
So let us take this position of humility, of service to things greater than ourselves, and confine ourselves to the angle and aim of humility in what we write. Let us realise our limitations as well as our strengths, remaining true to our small gifts while not over-extending ourselves. Let us remember that literature written from self-importance and a sense of mastery will contain a certain amount of hubris which will both injure the expression and diminish the enjoyment of the reader; yet literature written in service to its content and its patronage will contain a certain amount of humility which will both enrich the expression and increase the joy and wonder of the reader.