The Virtue of MeeknessDONALD DEMARCO
My electric typewriter has a built-in dictionary of 60,000 words. Whenever my typing of any of these words is incorrect, an electronic bell is activated, gently alerting me to the fact that I have made a spelling error. My “spell check,” however, is given to producing many false alarms. I can get by very quietly with “jejune,” “heuristic,” and “obloquy.” But when I enter the word “meekness,” the automatic beep sternly calls me to task.
My “spell check,” however, is given to producing many false alarms. I can get by very quietly with “jejune,” “heuristic,” and “obloquy.” But when I enter the word “meekness,” the automatic beep sternly calls me to task. Being a philosopher of culture, however, and confident that I can properly spell “meekness,” it is my mental bell that I am more attuned to, and that more spiritual alarm reminds me that not only the word “meekness,” but its very meaning is conspicuously absent from popular discourse. For many, it is simply assumed that “meekness is weakness,” and surely not a virtue.
Keeping our grip
The irony is that meekness, indeed a virtue, is the one virtue above all that allows us to remain ourselves in the midst of adversity. It allows us to maintain self-possession when adversity strikes, rather than be possessed by the adversity itself.
Meekness is more synonymous with empowerment than it is with weakness because, as St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, meekness makes a man self-possessed. Dionysius has told us that Moses, surely no milquetoast, “was deemed worthy of the divine apparition on account of his great meekness.” According to St. Hilary, “Christ dwells in us by our meekness of soul.” When we are overcome by anger, we lose that sense of ourselves that allows God to dwell within us. Anger excludes God; meekness invites His presence.
Since meekness is self-possession in the face of adversity, it enables a person to do good in response to evil. Meekness is not cowardliness, timidity, or servility; it’s the power that restrains the onslaught of anger and subjects it to the order of reason. While it may be more natural to express anger when one is assaulted, meekness is the higher path. It prevents evil from completely overcoming the person who is already suffering enough from evil. Meekness prevents this suffering from advancing to the precincts of the soul — first to depression and then to despair.
All the rage
People speak approvingly of someone “going ballistic” in the face of even a slight offense. “Feminist rage” is presumably justified on the basis of the acceptability of revenge for perceived injustices. But the unleashing of wrath is not the self-possession that St. Thomas had in mind. The anger that leads to revenge can be futile, if not counterproductive. As St. Bonaventure warned, becoming upset and impatient over the failings of someone is like responding to his falling into a ditch by throwing oneself into another. If the desire for vengeance is not restrained, the administration of justice becomes merely a repayment of evil with another evil. And retaliation of this kind has a tendency to escalate conflict, with each blow being repaid with yet another.
Courage, not prozac
Real-life stories are often the best means of illustrating a virtue. On a June morning in 1993, David Gelernter, a Yale University computer scientist, opened what he thought was an unsolicited doctoral dissertation. The package exploded in his hands, nearly blowing off his right hand, and severely damaging his eyesight, hearing, and chest. Gelernter had joined the list of casualties of the “unabomber,” Theodore Kaczynski.
If anyone had a right to see himself as a victim, one might say, it is David Gelernter. But he will not wear that badge, and he will not invite the outpouring of public sympathy that goes with it. Nor does he want to be seen as a survivor. He does not want to be relegated to categories that are suspiciously “politically correct.” He wants to be known as a human being, a husband, and a father. We know a great deal about David Gelernter and his struggles with adversity, assault, and affliction, because he has written eloquently and insightfully about it in his book, Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber.
There were times when he could be discouraged, but at no point was he depressed. Depression, he writes, “is a pathological state.” On the other hand, “discouragement is a moral state, a failure of the heart; you treat it by taking courage, not Prozac.”
Victims of anger
A person in adversity wants to be able to act, not acted upon. It is so easy to be consumed by anger. But that is a way of being acted upon, even though the anger flows directly from one’s own wounds. Hence, Gelernter steadfastly eschews the label “victim.” A person who readily accepts the tag of “victim” is already engaging, if not floundering, in self-pity. “When you encourage a man to see himself as a victim of anything — crime, poverty, bigotry, bad luck — you are piling bricks on his chest.” Self-pity, the failure to summon the positive power of meekness, is like piling bricks on your chest. Your best friends are the ones who help you heave them off.
Lady Diana Cooper, who was rather well-off, had trouble finding the meekness to deal with the unavoidable facts of human existence, let alone the devastation wrought by a unabomber. “I do not think,” she once exclaimed, “servants should be ill. We have quite enough illness ourselves without their adding to the symptoms.” How many of us, who complain about the most trivial inconveniences, fail to forestall our anger by exercising a bit of meekness? A hockey player who earns approximately $10 million a year demands to be traded to a larger city so that he can go shopping without being badgered by adoring fans. An irate teenager leaves home because her mother requires her to take out the garbage. A distraught motorist flies into a violent rage because he is once again stuck in traffic.
David Gelernter’s memoir reveals the soul of a politically incorrect moral hero. In an age when “victimology” is temptingly trendy, and “conspicuous compassion” has replaced “conspicuous consumption” as a natural pastime, it is reassuring that there are still moving examples of men who have the meekness to remain self-possessed when nearly everyone around them is advising them otherwise.
DeMarco, Donald. “The Virtue of Meekness.” Lay Witness (May 1999).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.
Copyright © 1999 LayWitness
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.