Humility to begin with

Let the most humble monk win. The English monk-chronicler Matthew Paris depicting himself humble in word and image (London, British Library, MS Royal 14.C.VII)

One of the most widespread rhetorical strategies in medieval writing is the deployment of humility. Especially at the start of a book, the author would mix retraction, litotes and protestations of weakness, insufficiency and imperfection to point out that the text he or she is about to write would have been done better by someone else.

The roads into what’s known as the humility topos were endless, and it was nearly an agonistic endeavour for authors to match each others’ statements of humility. Each writer would come up with names to diminish his or her importance. A monk would call himself a monaculus (little monk), through a device which the the rhetorician Quintillian had referred to as tapinosis, a Greek word meaning ‘demeaning’. Even the Pope called himself ‘servus servorum Dei’, the servant of the servants of God, which was a form of litotes-tapinosis.

Humility was a topos – or a commonplace – because everyone was doing it. And the more abundant something is, the less valuable. Humility was also a form of irony, because the expected result was not humility but self-promotion. When modesty becomes worth fighting for, the most modest is inevitably also the most boastful and conceited.

The humility topos is difficult to shake off. In the introduction to his recently-published two-volume memoir ‘Promised Land’, the former US president Barack Obama played the role of the modest monk:

“I’m painfully aware that a more gifted writer could have found a way to tell the same story with greater brevity”

It’s unlikely that Obama’s book could’ve been written more concisely or better. And it’s unlikely we fall for humilitas when it’s served to us on a plate. But perhaps pride is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, and the writer’s worst fear.

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