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Question:: Should we consider everyone better than ourselves?

It seems that we can, without abusing humility, consider ourselves better than others. And it seems that we can do this in two ways: 1) by comparison of what we have from ourselves and what the other one has of himself, 2) by comparison of what we have from God and what the other has of God. (But we could not consider what we have from ourselves to be better than what other has from God). This seems to be the teaching of Aquinas:

I answer that, We may consider two things in man, namely that which is God's, and that which is man's. Whatever pertains to defect is man's: but whatever pertains to man's welfare and perfection is God's, according to the saying of Hosea 13:9, "Destruction is thy own, O Israel; thy help is only in Me." Now humility, as stated above (Article 1, Reply to Objection 5; Article 2, Reply to Objection 3), properly regards the reverence whereby man is subject to God. Wherefore every man, in respect of that which is his own, ought to subject himself to every neighbor, in respect of that which the latter has of God's: but humility does not require a man to subject what he has of God's to that which may seem to be God's in another. For those who have a share of God's gifts know that they have them, according to 1 Corinthians 2:12: "That we may know the things that are given us from God." Wherefore without prejudice to humility they may set the gifts they have received from God above those that others appear to have received from Him; thus the Apostle says (Ephesians 3:5): "(The mystery of Christ) was not known to the sons of men as it is now revealed to His holy apostles." On like manner. humility does not require a man to subject that which he has of his own to that which his neighbor has of man's: otherwise each one would have to esteem himself a greater sinner than anyone else: whereas the Apostle says without prejudice to humility (Galatians 2:15): "We by nature are Jews, and not of the Gentiles, sinners." Nevertheless a man may esteem his neighbor to have some good which he lacks himself, or himself to have some evil which another has not: by reason of which, he may subject himself to him with humility.

But on the other hand, it would seem that we can not consider ourselves better than others even if we see another committing a serious sin. We read in the Imitation of Christ (emphasis is mine):

If you wish to learn and appreciate something worth while, then love to be unknown and considered as nothing. Truly to know and despise self is the best and most perfect counsel. To think of oneself as nothing, and always to think well and highly of others is the best and most perfect wisdom. Wherefore, if you see another sin openly or commit a serious crime, do not consider yourself better, for you do not know how long you can remain in good estate. All men are frail, but you must admit that none is more frail than yourself.

Also, I have heard an argument in favor of the opinion that we should not consider ourselves better in any respect, because we never know how the other person would have acted if he received the graces we did

Can all of those arguments be put in harmony?

Of course, I would like an answer from the Catholic viewpoint.

  • Hey thom, you might want to edit the question's title so it reads more like a question about Catholicism – Peter Turner Oct 25 at 16:51
  • We must condemn the sin but love the sinner. See the example of John the Baptist. – Grasper Oct 25 at 16:59
  • No. An Adolf Hilter says it all. – Ken Graham Oct 26 at 0:00
  • And yet a fellow whose only sin is to disobey his parents, if he does not repent, goes to the same eternal fate as we presume has become the fate of Hitler. – EvilSnack Oct 31 at 2:35
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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.

  1. Argument from Aquinas
  2. Argument from chapter II of The Imitation of Christ
  3. Argument from lack of knowledge about how others would have acted if they receive the same graces we do

Introduction

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

  1. 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

  2. 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."
  3. 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.
  4. 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.".
  5. 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.
  6. 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

  1. Section 1:

    • 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.
  2. Section 2:

    • 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.
  3. Section 3:

    • 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.
  4. Section 4:

    • 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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]
  3. 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]
  4. 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.
  5. 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".

  6. 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.


CONCLUSION

There is no conflict between Q161 and Chapter II since:

  1. 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.
  2. 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)
  3. 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
  4. 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
  5. 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.

  6. 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".
  • There is also the fact that we each know our own sins and if we are honest with ourselves we are conscious of them. With our fellow Christians we know only of those sins which are apparent, and if the brother has outwardly conducted himself well, we have no knowledge of what his sins are (even though the fact of Christ's crucifixion shows that there are such since). So if we judge on the basis of the evidence we have, our brother will usually seem more righteous than we seem to ourselves. – EvilSnack Oct 31 at 2:39
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St. Benedict's 7th degree (of 12) of humility (Rule ch. 7)

is, when, not only with his tongue he declareth, but also in his inmost soul believeth, that he is the lower (inferiorem) and viler (viliorem) of men, humbling himself and saying with the Prophet: "But I am a worm and no man, the reproach of men and the outcast of the people" (Ps 21[22]:7). "I have been exalted and humbled and confounded" (Ps 87[88]:16). And also: "It is good for me that Thou hast humbled me, that I may learn Thy commandments" (Ps 118[119]:71,73).

The Latin uses the the comparative inferiorem (lower) and viliorem (viler), not the superlative infimum (least) and vilissimum (most vile), respectively. He doesn't say we should consider ourselves the lowliest or the most vile. We are in a better state than those in hell, for example.

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I would also answer, "no." I follow the Dominican tradition of truth. It is easy to see that if everyone esteems others to be better than themselves, then everyone (except one person) will be wrong. As St. Augustine says in the Summa article you quoted, "We must not esteem by pretending to esteem" (ST IIae IIae, Q. 161, A. 3, ad 2).

Secondly, even in the quote from your question, Aquinas is clear:

On like manner. humility does not require a man to subject that which he has of his own to that which his neighbor has of man's: otherwise each one would have to esteem himself a greater sinner than anyone else: whereas the Apostle says without prejudice to humility (Galatians 2:15): "We by nature are Jews, and not of the Gentiles, sinners." (ST IIae IIae, Q. 161, A. 3)

Note the terminus of Aquinas' reductio: "...otherwise each one would have to esteem himself a greater sinner than anyone else." Ergo, we do not have to esteem ourselves as the greatest sinner. We know this because St. Paul didn't do so in Galatians 2:15, where he pointed out that Gentiles are, ceteris paribus, greater sinners than Jews.

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Should we consider everyone better than ourselves?

The short answer is no.

Everyone encompasses a lot of people!

True humility will admit that there are both people better and worse than ourselves.

No matter what sins we may have committed, there is someone who has done worse and is a greater sinner.

Take Adolf Hilter for example. Are our sins equivalent to his. Priests have told me that many persons in the confessional expressed the idea that they believe that they are the worst person on earth. But this is just not true. There is always someone who is worse than ourselves.

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Are there any Judas Iscariots amongst us?

The saints have often considered themselves the greatest of all sinners. The fact is, that the closer we are to God the greater the reality of sin is and of our own sinfulness and need to be redeemed.

“Poor men and women who are sinners, I, a greater sinner than you…” St. Louis de Montfort from the beginning of his book The Secret of the Rosary.

This great saint of the Holy Rosary chose to address men and women by stating that he was a greater sinner than they were; which is interesting because we can honestly conclude that he was quite a holy man here on Earth and that he is now in heaven because he has been canonically recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church and thus is truly known to be in heaven.

To add to the gravity of the proposition that St. Louis de Montfort was the greatest sinner, I want to point out that being canonically recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church means that there was a thorough investigation done into his life and writings to prove that he lived a life of heroic virtue, including an investigation by someone called the Devil’s Advocate (hence the name of the term) who tries to prove that this person did not live such a life. If the person passes this test, then there has to be two scientifically unexplainable miracles that have to be investigated by a number of scientists; and the miracles must have occurred because of the potential saint’s intercession to God. - Why The Greatest Saints are Also The Greatest Sinners

  • +1 for the way to resolve the puzzle why the greatest saints say they are also the greatest sinners. – GratefulDisciple Oct 26 at 15:06
  • There is some value in distinguishing between having done things that are objectively gravely sinful and being a great sinner. For example, while being fully aware of the enormity of Hitler's crimes, one can still recognize that his guilt, in God's eyes, might have been mitigated by insanity. – Andreas Blass Oct 27 at 0:47

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