The Arrogance of Our Humility
Center of the Universe
It is often said that medieval man was arrogant in imagining that God had placed Earth at the center of the concentric spheres he created to form his universe. The implication is that, by comparison, modern man is humble in thinking of the earth as the third of the planets revolving around a sun whose own place is far from the center of a galaxy quite distant from the imagined point where the universe may have burst into being for reasons we don’t care to discuss.
Those who examine the medieval model more closely discover that the men and women who inhabited the planet at the center of the physical universe thought of themselves as separated from the spiritual center of things by their own bad moral choice. No ego gratification was gained by thinking of Earth as the gravitational center of error and sin. The real and celebrated center of reality was beyond the heavens, ineffably hidden behind those starry signs of its perfection. Redemption was available not by means of a conquering knowledge but only through a turning of the will made possible by the gift of grace.
We, on the other hand, have been taught to think of ourselves as the pinnacle toward which all natural processes have moved. Believing that reality is nothing but those natural processes, we take credit for exercising the highest faculty we can conceive of in the universe, namely that of learning to understand them. We claim greater humility than medieval thinkers on the grounds that unlike them, we can admit that we are not a special creation of God but are mere instances of physical laws at work to no end other than their own existence.
Is not the assertion of one’s humility a form of arrogance?
The arrogance hidden in this humility is that in clinging to the idea that we are merely natural and not also spiritual phenomena, we seek to abolish any ultimate significance in the experiences that are most important to us. In the name of supposedly humble honesty, we assert that non-physical realities are essentially not spiritual but really only material phenomena generated in our brains by the operation of natural laws. The ideals of justice, kindness, and the brotherhood of man; love of our parents, children, friends, spouses, and nature itself; joy in beauty of form, perfection of discipline, and logical clarity; the imagination of an eternal meaning not constrained by the limits of material nature; even the desire to understand how nature works—all are reduced to secondary phenomena solely dependent on physical processes.
Is it not arrogance that in order to fit ourselves to an idea that makes our lives no more significant than the slipping of a rock into the sea we deny the spiritual significance of what most gives meaning to our lives, including the search for meaning itself?
Fairly often now we also hear people argue that it is arrogant for human beings to think of themselves as being higher than other species. It is implied that in thinking of ourselves as merely one among the many species nature has evolved, we show ourselves superior in humility to the ancients, who believed that man’s rationality set him highest upon the scale of nature, and to medieval people, who believed the world and all its species were created for the sake of man. Some even claim that the religious traditions of the West are themselves the cause of our abuse of the other species and the environment.
Again, those who look further will find that for the Greeks, man’s position as highest of the natural beings put upon him the special responsibility to use his reason to live in harmony with nature, including his own nature, and that for Jews and Christians, man was charged to husband the natural world with loving care.
Here too the assertion of modern humility against traditional arrogance presents a logical problem. Apart from the grounds that the religious traditions provide, what could justify our assertion that we should not feel superior to the other animals? If we are merely another species doing what species do, which is to behave however they do behave in order to survive, on what grounds should we be compassionate to them? It may be in your nature to avoid killing flies or to protest the industrial torture of veal calves. But if it is in my nature to like killing flies and eating veal, what gives you the authority to assert that I shouldn’t do so?
Animals have rights, we are told. But where do those rights derive from and why should we grant them? If the other animals have rights that we do, why should we have responsibilities that they don’t? Why are animal rights people not preaching to lions about the rights of gazelles or to eagles about the rights of mice?
The answer is that no animals except human beings recognize, or can recognize, the moral obligations of being not merely nature but rational nature. In telling us how we should behave toward nature, the animal egalitarians depend on grounds whose existence they deny: the moral responsibility of rational beings. If this chop logic is not merely stupid, isn’t there arrogance in it? What right have we to deny our own nature as morally responsible beings?
Those who claim rights for animals don’t acknowledge where even human rights come from. All rights are built upon the same foundation: faith in the sacredness of life, the brotherhood of man, the virtues of justice, kindness, and compassion that are taught us by our religious traditions—just those values about which mere nature at its work neither knows nor cares. The only reason we should not wantonly kill flies or buy immorally raised veal is precisely that we are not just another species of animal; being rational and moral, only we among the animals have the duty to care as best we can for our fellow creatures.
Why Not Be Arrogant?
If the authority of universal spiritual values is denied in favor of mere nature at her work, then there can be no reason not to be arrogant, not to think the world was made only for man, not to abuse other species. If humility is not itself a virtue that transcends nature, then there is no virtue in the humility of admitting that the natural universe does not revolve around us.
Even to oppose geocentrism and speciesism, then, is to value what transcends nature. In saying we ought to be humble about our place in the world, the worshippers of nature are revealing their deeper but unacknowledged belief in man’s unique moral responsibility.