Put the U Back into ‘Humility’

Giovanni Boccaccio, On the Downfalls of Famous Men (2.16):

The mortal condition is calamitous, to be sure: one minute you’re a king, the next minute a slave; one minute you shine with the most wonderful splendor, and the next you’re wasting away in disgusting squalor; one minute you’re issuing haughty commands, and the next you’re fawning over and begging for the most humble things. Why are you so greedy for lofty station, when you see ruin so thickly-packed all over? Why don’t you consider humble things, in which alone one can find stability? Why don’t you look at the things you should pity? Why do you not sharpen your eyes on your own health and safety?

If the other examples of fragile things failed, these Hebraic kings should have alone sufficed to show you. You will hardly see so many chains on the people, so many exiles, so many dishonorable deaths, so many shames, so many anxieties (which you think is the most unfortunate thing). If Amasias had remained among them and away from his victories, he would have survived in Lachish.

Thus too Oxias, had he been held back by common humility, would not have deserved to incur leprosy by tempting the divine. And Ozias, if he had been an unknown man of the people, would have been able to die under his country’s sky and with his paternal gods. Nor would Senacherib died in a temple, slain by his own sons eager for the throne. Thus Ioachaz, thus Ioachim, thus even most wretched Sedechias could have lived as private citizens, could have enjoyed time with their wives, could have raised and left behind sweet children, could have looked at the sky, and died free in their fatherland among the kisses and embraces of their families. And yet, each one found himself unable to stand firm when raised to the apex of power.

What does it matter to be raised to the point that I seem, am recognized as, and considered the greatest, when I am not well enough to fix my step and seem in that same lofty spot to be on a cliff or to be hurled with a precipitate fall. If you had any sense, when you see that there is nothing stable, nothing fixed, nothing firm except for humility, you would strive for it with all of your strength, and would place yourself entirely in its embrace. While you flee it foolishly, you make it so that you are not painfully afflicted by the fault of Fortune (just as you might complain of some loss), but by your own cowardice.

Mortalium profecto calamitosa conditio est: nunc regnas, nunc servis; nunc summo splendore prefulges, nunc turpi squalore tabescis; nunc superba iubes, nunc humiliata obsequeris et precaris. Quid celsorum locorum avida es, cum tam crebras assidue ruinas prospectes? Quid humilia non respicis, in quibus solis stabilitas posita? Quid tibi miseranda non prospicis? Quid oculos in tuam salutem non acuis? Si labilium rerum cetera cessent veritatis exempla, hi tantum reges hebrei suffecisse debuerant. Vix facile tot in plebe catenas, tot exilia, tot inhonestas mortes, tot dedecora, tot anxietates (quam tu infelicissimam putas) invenies. In qua si stetisset Amasias, uti absque victoriis, sic intrepidus vixisset in Lacis; sic et Ozias, plebeia humilitate detentus, non ausus divina temptare, lepram non meruisset incurrere; et Ozias, si popularis incognitus fuisset, sub celo patrio mori et patriis in laribus potuisset; nec a filiis regni cupidine Senacherib occisus cecidisset in templo. Sic Ioachaz, sic Ioachim, sic et miserrimus Sedechias privatus potuisset vivere, cum uxoribus oblectari, dulces alere ac superstites derelinquere natos, celum cernere et liber inter suorum oscula et amplexus in patria mori: et in regni fastigium sublimatus stare non potuit. Quid refert eo extolli ut videar et cognoscar et habear maximus, quo gradum figere non valens, ibidem conspiciar esse in pendulo aut prepeti deici casu? Heu si saperes, cum nil stabile, nil fixum, nil firmum preter humilitatem aspicias, quam totis viribus in illam tenderes, teque eius locares in sinu! Quod dum insipidal refugis, id agis ut non Fortune crimine, prout deiecta quereris, sed dolens tua ignavia affligaris.


Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (Chp. 16):

My stool was such a tower of observation, that as I watched him reading on again, after this rapturous exclamation, and following up the lines with his forefinger, I observed that his nostrils, which were thin and pointed, with sharp dints in them, had a singular and most uncomfortable way of expanding and contracting themselves—that they seemed to twinkle instead of his eyes, which hardly ever twinkled at all.

‘I suppose you are quite a great lawyer?’ I said, after looking at him for some time.

‘Me, Master Copperfield?’ said Uriah. ‘Oh, no! I’m a very umble person.’

It was no fancy of mine about his hands, I observed; for he frequently ground the palms against each other as if to squeeze them dry and warm, besides often wiping them, in a stealthy way, on his pocket-handkerchief.

‘I am well aware that I am the umblest person going,’ said Uriah Heep, modestly; ‘let the other be where he may. My mother is likewise a very umble person. We live in a numble abode, Master Copperfield, but have much to be thankful for. My father’s former calling was umble. He was a sexton.’


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