The Problem of Arrogance

Arrogance is a swaggering, brutal word. It suggests someone with a loud voice, an overbearing manner and probably a florid complexion into the bargain. Unfortunately, arrogance can come in rather more humdrum form — not so much overweening self-confidence as complete disregard of others, an almost risible inability to register what others are thinking or feeling. From time to time I delve into the spam folder on this blog and find comments spluttering expletives and self-righteous denunciations, so bound up in the writer’s own views as to be incapable of taking on board anyone else’s. I suspect these writers have very few friends if they converse like that offline!

The problem with arrogance is that it makes claims for itself at the expense of others. It is selfish; and because it is selfish, it can be destructive. It is suspicious of others’ motives, grudging of others’ success. The contempt it shows is simply a mark of its being turned in on itself. The best image I can think of is not the lip curled into a snarl but the clenched fist, ready to pound a table or another’s nose, the hand that will neither give nor receive. Maybe that is why the prophet Isaiah said that when the Messiah came, he would uncurl the clenched fist; why, as evening comes, we sing the Magnificat, with its bright promise that the arrogant and powerful are cast down and the humble raised up.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Danger of Arrogance

Yesterday, for the first time, it struck me that ‘arrogance’  must come from the Latin arrogare, to claim for oneself. I was reading something which made me think the writer unscholarly and rather arrogant when I found myself questioning what I meant by the latter. In my experience, arrogant people tend to twist and turn facts to suit their own purpose; they are supremely self-confident; and they do not really listen to others because such engagement would show up flaws in their own arguments. What they say and do is all about drawing attention to themselves — see how brilliant/beautiful/superior I am! It is indeed making a claim for oneself, and put like that, it looks rather childish, doesn’t it?

There is a danger in arrogance, however, as there is in most forms of childishness. One hesitates to name any individual as arrogant, but one can see the effects of arrogance all around. Many of our political and economic woes can be traced back to arrogance: to an exaggerated sense of self which disregards any check or balance. It is arrogance which makes it fashionable to decry needy people for being needy — why should I be compassionate when to do so I must step beyond myself and feel the pain of another? It is arrogance which makes it easier to fire bullets at one another rather than sit down and discuss, for why should I listen to you when I know I’m right and you are wrong?

Religious arrogance is just as deadly but often takes a slightly different form. It tends to hide behind the group or organization rather than being outrageously individual, but it retains all the characteristics of personal arrogance. Maybe that is why Benedict is so insistent on monks cultivating humility. The best antidote to arrogance is truthfulness, just as love and compassion are an antidote to hatred and violence. To be truthful, loving and compassionate is to be genuinely grown up, mature in Christ as the apostle says. It is to be selfless in the best sense. To make no claim for oneself, but to allow others to make claims on one, now that really is worth thinking about!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Different Way of Acting

Yesterday’s post looked at some aspects of the cellarer’s duties and the personal qualities needed to perform them well. The second half of RB 31 goes into greater detail about how the cellarer should behave in various demanding situations.

Benedict has already reminded us that everyone and everything is, potentially at least, holy — imprinted with the divine image and to be treated with the utmost respect. Now he says that the cellarer should ‘above all’ possess humility and answer kindly if he is unable to meet a request (RB 31.13, 14). There is real psychological insight here. When someone is responsible for the welfare of others, not being able to provide what is necessary can be hard to bear. A crotchety manner, a rough answer, apparent indifference, they are all ways of masking the inadequacy and failure that the person feels. Benedict will have none of it. The cellarer must have an interior freedom about his service which will enable him to answer mildly and with patience. Moreover, just because he has the power of giving or withholding goods, the cellarer mustn’t think he can behave in a superior manner, as though he were conferring a benefit on others. There must be no arrogance or delay in giving the brethren their food, for example (RB 31. 16).

Benedict is aware, however, that the cellarer himself must be treated with consideration or nothing will get done as it should. The proper times for asking for things must be adhered to, and there should be assistants if the community is comparatively large (RB 31.17, 18). What Benedict aims at is, above all, peace and harmony in community.

I have myself been cellarer in a large and comparatively rich community as well as in a smaller and poorer one. I’m not sure which presents the bigger challenge. Mediocrity has always been the bane of Benedictine life. Monks and nuns in richer houses become too comfortable, forgetting the fervour and zeal with which they began. What was once enough becomes in time not quite sufficient, so that yesterday’s luxury becomes today’s necessity. In poorer houses, the need to economize and make do becomes in time a kind of institutionalized miserliness. It is not too much to say that the cellarer bears a great responsibility for steering a middle course, ensuring that legitimate needs are met but no luxury or excess creeps in, not even in inverted form.

There is only one way of ensuring that the cellarer is equal to his responsibilities: fidelity to prayer and constant watchfulness over his own behaviour. To some, what Benedict has to say may sound naive. All right for monks and nuns, perhaps, but not for people in the ‘real world’. It depends what you think is real, I suppose. Benedict’s recommended way of acting is different from that of some of our corporate mega-stars, but I have a hunch that it makes for greater happiness in this world and the next. It certainly makes for greater fairness. What do you think?

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail