The Poison That Spoils All the Virtues

In George Herbert’s seventeenth century poem “Humilitie,” the Virtues sit on a throne to receive gifts at court from the animals who serve their masters. Humility steps down to receive the gifts the beasts present to the members of the court. The angry Lion surrenders its paw to Meekness, the fearful Hare presents her ears to Fortitude, the jealous Turkey offers its wattle to Temperance, and the sly Fox bestows its clever brains to Justice. The Virtues rule the animals with authority and power, each virtue the remedy for the vice the animal symbolizes, until the peacock presents its feathers that rightfully belong to Humility, the opposite of Pride. However, the other Virtues quarrel about the peacock’s plume and demand it as their due. While they argue about its possession, the animals all seize power, overthrow their rightful rulers, and subjugate the Virtues to the lower status which the animals earlier occupied: “Till they fell out: which when the beasts espied,/ They leapt upon the throne;/And if the fox had lived to rule their side,/They had deposed each one.” A political revolution occurs, and the coup d’ état reverses the moral order as the Virtues are momentarily governed by the vices.

As Humility witnesses the fighting, its tears spoil the peacock’s feathers: “the tears trickling down/ spoiled all the train.” Pride ruins every virtue. All the Virtues lose their esteem and dignity by lowering themselves to compete for trivial honors like the feather. Pride unleashes political and moral anarchy on the throne when the animals sit above and the Virtues take the lower place. The tears of Humility that ruined the prize of the peacock’s plume that each Virtue claimed as its own–even though each Virtue had already received its appropriate gift—fortunately remove the temptation of competition for first place or best prize and restore the hierarchy of the Virtues maintaining control of the beasts; Humility “then saying Here it is/For which ye wrangle, made them turn their frown/against the beasts.” Humility, the servant of the Virtues on the throne, who accepts the gifts and presents them to the proper recipients, does not contend for the prize even though it is the only Virtue that has not received its due. Without Humility’s lowliness moral restoration would fail.

Humility does not seek first place or the highest honor. Grieving over the quarrel and shedding tears on the feathers of the peacock, Humility ends the strife and unites the Virtues who regain power and rout the animals: “so jointly bandying, / They drive them soon away.” Thus Humility serves and unites all the Virtues by defending them from the poison of pride that instigates division—the strife which undermines moral authority and gives the beasts reign over the Virtues. Every virtue needs humility as a servant for moral order to prevail. Virtues without humility become deformed and assume many ugly shapes. Without humility, human aspiration turns into worldly ambition, righteous anger becomes uncontrollable wrath, the natural desire for pleasure degenerates into gluttony, the necessity of money expands into the worship of Mammon, and free will is reduced to willfulness. Without humility, the desire for perfection and sanctity develops into scrupulosity.

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The virtuous can be guilty of many forms of pride. In the name of religion they can pray in the streets and seek the positions of distinction at the heads of tables like the Pharisees. In the name of political victory they can seek absolute power and think “might is right.” In the name of an ascetical life that cultivates contempt of the world and distances itself from the vanity fair of wealth and pleasure, the virtuous can acquire the spiritual pride that scorns the ordinary sinner as the Rev. Wilfred Bohun does in Chesterton’s short story “The Hammer of God.” The priest, who dwells in an atmosphere of purity in his church on the heights of a steep hill, looks down with disdain upon his decadent drunkard brother below, viewing him as a worthless insect deserving of the punishment of death, whom he kills with the hammer he throws from above. In the name of propriety, punctuality, and order, the virtuous can adopt airs of priggishness that forbid innocent pleasure as Shakespeare’s Malvolio does in Twelfth Night who provokes the stinging remark of the mirthful Sir Toby Belch: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?” When those who honor rules remain unbending and make no exceptions for simple requests, the virtuous acquire rigidity and lose their humanity.

Dante’s portrayal of the sinners guilty of pride in The Divine Comedy depicts distinguished artists renowned for their great masterpieces, great giants like Briareus famous for heroic strength, kings like Saul eminent for their worldly power and leadership in war, and mothers like Niobe blessed with fourteen children. But all these gifts intended as invitations to a life of greater virtue—talent, might, honor, and a large family—suffer loss and cause their own punishment because pride corrupts its recipient into misusing it.  The artists whose egotism will not settle for any honor except the first place of distinction, the giants who attempt to overthrow the gods of Mount Olympus, the King of Israel who provokes the Lord’s anger by disobeying God’s orders in the battle with the Philistines, and the mother who boasted of her many children and lost all of them to the archer goddess Latona—all these characters’ lives begin in virtue but end in suffering and tragedy because of the feather of pride.

To be Christian and proud, then, defeats the whole purpose and ignores the divine teaching and example of Christ washing the feet of His disciples. To presume self-righteousness and to act with spiritual pride toward all the adherents of the culture of death and the sexual revolution rob virtue of its natural appeal and attraction. To perform the corporal and spiritual works of mercy but to seek plaudits and kudos for public recognition does not follow Christ’s teaching about not letting the left hand know what the right hand does. To be religious and devout but unsociable and ungracious makes virtue appear boorish rather than beautiful. To be Christian but to hate one’s enemies and return evil for evil contradicts the teaching of the Beatitudes. For Christians in public life to claim personal opposition to abortion but unwillingness to impose their morality on others lets the pride of human respect supersede the love of God. Pride instigates division, and divisions produce inner conflicts and public battles that dethrone the Virtues and give power to the beasts.

As Herbert’s poem illustrates, every noble virtue—meekness, fortitude, temperance, justice—is subject to pride and regards the peacock’s plume as its sole possession. Once pride taints these virtues, they lose their dignity, power, and authority to govern and subordinate the vices. Pride supplants meekness as it grows in egotism and self-importance, ferocious in its demand for the prize. Pride lowers fortitude from its eminent heights of heroism to fight for a useless feather. Pride disturbs the self-possession of temperance that loses all sense of moderation in its determination for the highest honor. And pride corrupts the nature of justice that demands more than its due when it envies another’s gift. Without the protection and service of Humility, every Virtue is vulnerable to some form of pride that makes the beautiful ugly, the noble base, and the lofty cheap. The artfulness of evil subjects the virtuous to the various forms of pride that deprive the virtues of their strength and sovereignty so that they become enslaved and ruled rather than govern with authority.

The beasts rule because the Virtues do not exercise their rightful authority as a unified body. Imagine if all priests and bishops were united behind Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae and Pope John Paul II’s Evangelium Vitae. Imagine if all Protestant denominations remained true to the Christian tradition prior to the Lambeth Conference that approved of contraception. Imagine if all Jews were true to the faith of their fathers in the Mosaic Law that cherished the sanctity of life. The moral order would prevail with formidable strength, govern all the animals (vices) with powerful jurisdiction, and prevent political and moral revolutions from destroying the permanence of unchanging truths that provide the rule of law to protect civilization from barbarism. To be proud of one’s authority, power, holiness, beauty, intelligence, or success disfigures the beauty of every virtue and reduces it to the pettiness of small-minded selfishness and pompous airs of superiority.

In the moral life, The Beatitudes play the role of Humility in the poem whose tears spoiled the peacock’s feather and restored order. “Blessed are the poor in spirit”: they are protected from the pride of wealth which looks with condescension upon the poor. “Blessed are those who mourn”: they are guarded from the pride of insensibility that does not deign to weep or laugh. “Blessed are the meek”: they are defended from the pride of wrath that lords it over others. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”: they resist the pride of those who live only to “eat, drink, and be merry.” “Blessed are the merciful”: they do not fall victim to the pride of retaliation and revenge. “Blessed are the pure in heart”: they avoid the pride of lust that demands the gratification of the flesh: “Blessed are the peacemakers”: they prevent all the petty quarreling that ruins all relationships of friendship and love, and bring concord out of discord as Humility does in the court. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake”: they seek no prizes but love goodness for its own sake. “Blessed are you when all men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you on my account”: they love God first and seek no honors, accolades, or awards to make them feel important or distinguished.

When humility serves and attends all the virtues by leaving the throne and performing all the lowly tasks, it accomplishes greater good than the Virtues who expect gifts, attention, and recognition. The only cure to pride, spiritual conceit, intellectual arrogance, smug complacence, and the vanity of fame comes in the simple form of tears that expose the feathers as worthless and useless things for noble virtues. In the words of Dom Andre Louf in his essay “The Way of Humility”: “… although many virtues are commanded by the Christian religion, study to give humility the highest place, because all virtues are acquired and maintained by humility, and without humility they vanish away.”


  • Mitchell Kalpakgian

    Dr. Mitchell A. Kalpakgian (1941-2018) was a native of New England, the son of Armenian immigrants. He was Professor of English at Simpson College (Iowa) for 31 years. During his academic career, Dr. Kalpakgian received many academic honors, among them the National Endowment for the Humanities Summer Seminar Fellowship (Brown University, 1981); the Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship (University of Kansas, 1985); and an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities Institute on Children’s Literature.

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