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Pride, Humility... and Gravity
The man of the Middle Ages and Late Antiquity believed in a far different universe than we do today, and in more ways than one. For example, we know that the predominant view in the Middle Ages was the Ptolemaic view, in which the earth is the center of the solar system (geocentrism). Very often such a belief is considered “backwards” (literally “medieval”), and such beliefs are considered uninformed, ignorant, and so on–largely simply because natural philosophers hadn’t gotten all the details of cosmic movement entirely correct. (Scientists still haven’t gotten the details down, by the way.) But to take this view of the medieval universe is to ignore the significance–the meaning–of the model of the universe.
And the significance is this: for the medieval man, the universe wasn’t simply just a thing to be observed and looked at: it was a manifestation of the omnipotence of God. This meant that man’s everyday mindset regarding, for example, natural phenomena, was different. For in the Middle Ages, men believed that everything had its proper place. The universe, like a grand Gothic Cathedral, was a magnificent work of order and organization. How could it not be? God had made it. As the universe had a maker and designer, a rational mind, it was not the work of random chance, but a creation both orderly and comprehensible. And, not being the result of random chance, it could be ordered and investigated.
Not only did everything in the universe have its proper place, everything naturally tended toward or sought its proper place: even inanimate objects. This proper place is what Aristotle and ultimately, St. Thomas Aquinas, named as the “cause of causes” or the queen of causes: something’s purpose, its intended end.
Today we think that a stone falls because of something called gravity, that mysterious ill-defined force that objects exert on one another. This is, however, at best a lesser cause (perhaps the “efficient cause,” the agent of movement). Modern men tend to disregard the idea of a final cause or purpose altogether. In these times, we wonder about “how” things move and change, but overlook or ignore the “why.”
In the Middle Ages, however, a stone fell because it was seeking its proper place.
And that place was thus: since everything in nature was composed of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire, things rose or fell based on the makeup of the thing itself. A stone did not fall because of gravity, but because it was seeking its proper place. Since it was made up primarily of earth, and the proper place of earth was the very center of the universe, the stone tended downward toward the center of the universe, the place to which it belonged. Earth was at the center, followed by water, air, and fire (hence how fire rose in the air). All things were made of these elements and all things sought their proper place, and were restless until they did.
What was true of inanimate objects, was true of man as well. Man also had a proper place and sought it, and was restless until he found it. For this reason, St. Augustine could write: “My weight is my love,” and, “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts and restless until they rest in You.” To say that his weight was his love, was to say that he would be attracted to what he loved. If he loved earthly things, he would be pulled downward; if he loved heavenly things, upward to God. Likewise, the human heart also had a proper place, with God; and if it sought that place, all was well, if it sought lesser things, well, only heartache and a restless heart could follow. Man’s final purpose is to be united with God; anything less will bring unhappiness because it is not what we are meant for.
Some things, of course, pulled humans in another direction from God. To the Middle Ages, the greatest and most dangerous of these things was pride. Pride was the “queen of the vices,” sometimes regarded as so serious that it was not always even listed as one of the seven deadly sins, but as a special sin in a class of its own. And it definitely pulled one downward toward hell, away from God. Hence, the medieval model of the universe offers an interesting way to explain the danger of pride. Pride makes a man heavy and pulls him down; humility makes a man light and allows him to be lifted up to heaven. Hence, it was pride that caused Satan to fall from heaven; as one writer put it, Satan fell by the force of gravity.
We ought still to study and acknowledge the usefulness of medieval explanations about pride, and of our need for God. We say that a proud man often gives himself too much weight or importance, as opposed to a humble man who, we might say, takes himself “lightly.” Even today, we instinctively don’t tend to like people who give themselves, and many unimportant matters, too much weight; rather, we tend to like people who don’t act self-important. We like (even if we don’t consciously think about) their humility.
This month, while the secular world, corporations, mass media, the entertainment industry, and others are busy celebrating the deadly sin of pride, it is worth remembering that pride is nothing to celebrate. It means enmity with other men, and ultimately, with God. While the world celebrates pride, we should take the chance to remember to take the truth seriously; but to take ourselves lightly, so that our hearts too can rise to their proper place in heaven.