Should we consider everyone better than us?
The answer is DEPENDS on what we are comparing. We also need to remember that in some cases we need to compare ourselves to God instead of to our neighbors.
Can all of those arguments be put in harmony?
The answer is YES. You listed 3 arguments (below) but this answer currently focuses only on the first two. Because this answer's explanation makes a critical distinction between what we are comparing, we need a more detailed source before we can harmonize the third argument.
- Argument from Aquinas
- Argument from chapter II of The Imitation of Christ
- Argument from lack of knowledge about how others would have acted if they receive the same graces we do
We need to be very careful NOT to compare things that the text doesn't ask us to compare. For proper interpretation context, I read the whole Question 161 from the Summa and the whole Chapter II from the Immitation of Christ (1886 translation). More modern English translation here.
The Preface of the 1886 translation says that George Stanhope adds "words, clauses, and even sentences, that do not alter the purport and order of the thoughts, but give more time for dwelling upon each link in the chain" and still preserves the spirit of the book. But I think this translation changes the meaning somewhat for your bolded quote, which warned me that I should better read the larger context:
For lowliness of mind, and not thinking of a man's self "more highly than he ought to think," is the most difficult, but withal the most profitable, lesson; and the preferring others before ourselves, is a point of true wisdom and high perfection. Nor ought our opinions of this kind to be changed, though we should see another guilty of some egregious folly, or very grievous wickedness, since we ourselves are men of like passions and frailties; nor can we tell how long our own virtue may continue unshaken. Remember then, that infirmities are common to all mankind; and so remember it, as to persuade yourself, or at least to suspect, that these are dealt to thee in as plentiful a measure as to any other person whatsoever.
I had to look up the dictionary to get the less common meaning of "frailty" which is:
imperfection or weakness of character; frailty implies a general or chronic proneness to yield to temptation
ANALYSIS of Aquinas's relevant text
HUMILITY (Question 161) is part of the discussion on MODESTY (Intro in Question 160), which in turn is part of Temperance. In Q160 Art.1, Aquinas says Modesty is for less difficult things to moderate compared to Temperance which is for concupiscences of pleasures of touch. There are 4 kinds of Modesty (listed below). HUMILITY is treating the first kind.
Movement of the mind towards excellence, moderated by HUMILITY which is opposed to PRIDE
Desire pertaining to knowledge, moderated by STUDIOUSNESS which is opposed to CURIOSITY
Body movements and actions, becomingly and honestly, whether seriously or in play
Outward show in dress and the like
- In Q161 Art. 1, HUMILITY is shown to be a virtue to handle attractive goods to the appetite, specifically the difficult-to-obtain goods. It is similar to the virtue MAGNANIMITY (to strengthen the mind against despair to pursue great things), but HUMILITY is to temper and restrain the mind "lest it tend to high things immoderately."
- In Q161 Art. 2, Although REASON is needed to realize the disproportion that surpasses our capacity, to know one's deficiency, and to rule the appetite, Aquinas places the virtue of HUMILITY's sphere of operation in the appetite itself, to direct and moderate the movement of the appetite.
- In Q161 Art. 3, the question is "Whether one ought, by humility, to subject oneself to all men?", to which Aquinas says yes, quoting Phil 2:3 "Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves.".
Then he made the 2 distinctions, in both cases HUMILITY does NOT apply:
- If we have God's gift we know we have it (per 1 Cor 2:12). There is no point to lower ourselves, because it's God's gift.
- If both we and our neighbor have defects, then if we lower ourselves against others that means we are bragging that we are the greater sinner (per Gal 2:15). See zippy2006's answer for detail.
What CAN we apply Phil 2:3 to? There are 2 things that we can humble ourselves to them.
- If neighbor has God's gift that we don't have
- If we have evil that neighbor does NOT have
PARAPHRASE of Chapter II of Imitation of Christ
- We have a natural desire to know, but it is better to be a peasant who serve God than proud philosopher.
- He who knows himself well is vile in his own sight, so doesn't care of the praises of man.
- If the philosopher knows a lot but doesn't have love, the knowledge doesn't help him before God who judges according to deeds, not knowledge.
- Inordinate desire of knowledge produces distraction and deceit, i.e. desire to appear learned and to be called wise.
- There are many things to know that profit little to the soul, so it's foolish to seek knowledge when the soul is dying.
- What satisfies the soul is not many words, but a good life that refreshes the mind and pure conscience that gives great confidence towards God.
- The more knowledge, the more to be judged unless we live holy in proportion to knowledge. So don't be proud of the knowledge we have, but have the FEAR of responsibility because of the knowledge.
- Realize the more you know the more you don't know, so you should instead confess ignorance, remembering that there are always others who know better than you.
- If want to learn something worthwhile, then love to be unknown and be considered as nothing.
- The perfect wisdom is to think oneself as nothing and to think well and highly of others.
- When another commits serious crimes don't consider yourself better, for you don't know how long you can keep your virtue / integrity.
- Remember that although everyone has a chronic proneness to yield to temptation, none is more prone than yourself.
INTERPRETATION: digesting the data
- The Aquinas text's context is TEMPERANCE (one of the 7 virtues). The treatment of HUMILITY (Q161) is to discuss MODESTY in our natural desire to seek praiseworthy and inherently GOOD things by the mind so we do not seek beyond moderation which can lead to PRIDE. After receiving information from REASON to know the right proportion and one's deficiency, HUMILITY needs to rule the knowing appetite.
- How does HUMILITY do that, i.e. when does Phil 2:3 apply? Two ways:
- If a neighbor has God's gifts we don't have, we consider them better than ourselves [the implied advice here is to pursue our natural desire for GOOD things without being jealous of the neighbor who has MORE; we need to be humble because we are truly LESS than they are in terms of possessing God's gifts]
- If we have evil (sin, vices) that neighbor doesn't have, then of course we consider our neighbor better than ourselves [the implied advice here is to be humble because they are more virtuous than us]
- But in the following cases, we should not consider our neighbors better than ourselves, i.e. Phil 2:3 doesn't apply here:
- If we have God's gift that the neighbor doesn't have [the implied reason here is because we need to be humble TOWARDS GOD instead, who is the Giver]
- If we are comparing ourselves to neighbor as sinners [the implied reason here is that we will be bragging about having more evil, which is offensive towards God]
- The context for Chapter II of The Imitation of Christ is also about pursuit of good things, focusing on knowledge (like the proud philosopher) rather than doing / serving (like the humble peasant). If there is no love knowledge is useless, in fact can BITE you because God demands responsibility and expect proportionally more holiness from you. Natural desire for knowledge then has to be moderated and tempered so NOT to produce deceit, or better yet, don't pursue it at the cost of your soul. Rather, if you find yourself want to brag about your wisdom, remember how your neighbor may have more knowledge than you.
Here's my interpretation for the last paragraph: Therefore, the perfect wisdom is to tune your attention to other's virtues. When you see your neighbor commits a serious crime, remember that both you and your neighbor share a common human frailty, namely the chronic proneness to yield to temptation. You can say that NOW you are better (since you didn't commit that crime) but your desire for knowledge will deem you more vulnerable than your neighbor for the reasons stated earlier. So it is best to ADMIT that at your current state (preferring knowledge to virtue/serving) you are much weakened, and to motivate you to seek virtues why don't you say to yourself "none is more frail than myself".
The previous chapter 1 and succeeding chapter 3 should also provide support for my interpretation in #5:
[Chapter 1 paragraph 3]: What good does it do to speak learnedly about the Trinity if, lacking humility, you displease the Trinity? Indeed it is not learning that makes a man holy and just, but a virtuous life makes him pleasing to God. I would rather feel contrition than know how to define it.
[Chapter 3 paragraph 7, emphasis mine]: A good and devout man arranges in his mind the things he has to do, not according to the whims of evil inclination but according to the dictates of right reason. Who is forced to struggle more than he who tries to master himself? This ought to be our purpose, then: to conquer self, to become stronger each day, to advance in virtue.
There is no conflict between Q161 and Chapter II since:
- Both talk about moderating natural desire to pursue knowledge with the attendant temptation to PRIDE and VANITY, which is dangerous to the soul and can distract us from virtue.
- Both talk about humility when comparing the good things we have and the good things neighbor have, but in a different way:
- In Aquinas's text: when we know what the neighbor has that we don't have
- In Thomas Kempis's text: when we THOUGHT we know more than our neighbor but actually don't (i.e. by remembering that there are always others who have more knowledge than us)
- When it comes to comparing the case when one party does crime but the other doesn't (yet), the comparison is DIFFERENT:
- In Aquinas's text: it's when WE do it but the neighbor doesn't
- In Thomas Kempis's text: it's when the NEIGHBOR did it but to protect ourselves we should disregard that crime as irrelevant in comparison to our fragile virtue in light of human frailty
The main point of Thomas Kempis's chapter II is the danger of pursuing knowledge instead of virtues. It offers mortification exercises (below). Therefore we shouldn't take the quote out of context.
- to remain humble towards God (whom we should serve)
- to be mindful of our progress in holiness
- to remember that God is interested in our deeds and holiness (so we should measure ourselves to His standard rather than measure to the neighbor's state of holiness), and
- to be realistic in the true measure of our knowledge
What both texts DID NOT SAY: It's a virtue to consider ourselves the greater sinner than our neighbor despite the facts of the case.
- Both passages have nothing to do with the saints considering themselves the greatest of all sinners. That is because although the words compare themselves with other people and saints, but in practice they compare their own heart against their awareness of the perfect God. Ken Graham's answer addresses this very well and provides a relevant blog article to resolve the puzzle. So I think we should take their words as figure of speech, similar to how C.S. Lewis in his spiritual autobiography says that he is "the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England".