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Review of Max Scheler’s Essay “On the Rehabilitation of Virtue”

In Friendship on March 8, 2014 at 6:52 pm


A “must read” is the brief philosophical essay by Max Scheler, a masterpiece entitled “On the Rehabilitation of Virtue” (from  the American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly, Vol.79 No.1, 2005, Translated by Eugene Kelly).  His sleepy essay title does no justice to the importance of the content, and instead, you might as well rewrite it as “How to Live Well” or “The Meaning of Life in a Nutshell.”  Scheler dusts off critical values for our reconsideration and does so with transcendental clarity: first, on the importance of virtue, then on humility and finally, reverence.

At the beginning of the essay, Scheler right away corrects peoples mistaken notions of the value of virtue as plain ignorance.  First, he says, “Virtue has become so intolerable to us most of all because we no longer understand it as an enduring, living, joyful consciousness of one’s capacity and power to desire and to act for what is right and good in itself and, simultaneously, to desire and to act for one’s own individual self, as a consciousness of power that flows out from one’s very being.” “We understand it rather as a mere dark unfathomable “disposition” and as a natural ability to act according to some prescribed rules.” (p.22)  Scheler understands human nature very well here because, he brings to light the idea that we innately all want to express ourselves freely, to achieve our identity freely, but we don’t’ want them just based upon some norms exterior to ourselves which appear to inhibit our own self-expression.

But, what Scheler states is that our Modern cultural predisposition to reject “virtue” and prefer “rebelling” or “resistance,” or “resentment” is a cataclysmic personal mistake because virtue is the power to desire and to act for the sake of what is objectively good, not only for ourselves but for others. This is a big deal, a big mistake to make.  However, for those who get it right, Scheler says, “With the growth of virtue the effort becomes less, and with that it loses the ugliness lying in strenuous effort.  Goodness becomes beautiful by becoming easy.”(p.23) People are often initially put off by the effort required to achieve a virtue and even they’re sometimes uncomfortable around virtuous people because they  misperceive or distrust their intentions. But, the virtuous person is quite simple and humble because he knows his limitations and yet desires to do what is good.  As Scheler says, the virtuous person has power to do the hard, good thing–and as a consequence he is joyful, and free and loves life because he personally contributes to giving justice its best shot in the world whether he’s successful or not, while at the same time, the more he tries, the easier it becomes.

When discussing humility, Scheler eradicates erroneous preconceptions of humility and shows that being humble, as a mode of living, is a vital consciousness to possess in order to discover the truth at every moment and in every circumstance of our lives.  He says, “Humility is the most tender, the most concealed, and the most beautiful of Christian virtues…As we co-execute this movement and let go entirely of our ego, of all its possible value and its respectability and dignity, to which the proud man clings tightly, we truly “lose” ourselves, “abandon” ourselves–without fear of what may then happen to us but dimly confident that the co-execution of that divine stirring as “divine” may also serve our salvation–then we are “humble.”(p.24)  The humble man lives with an ever-present cognizance of his own personal salvation, and with that of those around him.  With this great mission always at the forefront of his mind and with this grand perspective he interprets all things of life–good or “bad”– as “gift.”  Whatever diminishes his personal ego is an invaluable aid to his knowledge of truth which he cherishes more than himself.  Scheler says the humble man “…seeks them in the mistaken orientations of his interests, in the hastiness of his drives, and in the muscle tone of his flesh and spirit, that is, in his ‘attentiveness,’ which makes the world a poorer place.”(p.29) For Scheler, it is the prideful man who seeks, with great impatience, to insert himself as the solution to whatever circumstance he finds himself involved.  Whereas, he says, it is the humble man knows himself so well, with all his defects and faults, that he seeks to remove himself from situations, not to hide his faults but to prevent others from suffering from his imperfections or the degradation of circumstances as a consequence of his very involvement.  Scheler says that to be humble is an act of boldness “as it becomes the very being of the soul.”(p.29)  Scheler says that the humble man exposes his soul because he has chosen to lose himself for the sake of “winning oneself anew in God…”(p.29)  It is this very identity exchange that is the paramount goal of humility.

As a consequence, humility is precisely not found in big things. Rather, it is small things that aid the growth of this power.  Scheler says, “Accept all forms of happiness, even the least, the smallest joy that affects your senses, just as you accept the deepest blessedness that flows over you and leads you and all things into the light…”(p. 25)  Here, we might think about what Scheler may mean for us today, and consider something like, “How many little small joys have I experienced just today?  Waking up this morning, my health, my family, my friends, my job, my faith, my intellect, clean air, clean water, someone greeted me whom I didn’t previously know, perhaps a stranger held a door open for me or let me go through first, happily, someone who loves me called me, or texted or emailed me concerned about how I am doing, I ate all three meals today, I had a safe commute to work and back.”  Over a lifetime, these small things taken together, in reality are a great multitude of acts of goodness and should give us pause and a sense of gratitude, that all of life is very very good.  We can think of the tremendous gratitude of Saint Augustine in his Confessions, in Chapter One, where he recounts all of the goodness he received throughout his life, mostly unawares, especially when he was a boy, saying “Thanks be to Thee, my joy and my glory and my confidence, my God, thanks be to Thee for Thy gifts; but do Thou preserve them to me. For so wilt Thou preserve me, and those things shall be enlarged and perfected which Thou hast given me, and I myself shall be with Thee, since even to be Thou hast given me.”(  Italics added.)  As Augustine, we should be grateful for our very own existence to God, and especially to our parents.  Then we can embrace the future fearlessly, as Scheler exclaims, with great confidence, “Be humble, and straightaway you will be rich and powerful! For humility is the virtue of the rich, as pride is that of the poor.”(p.27 )  We can insert the word “spiritually” in front of “rich and powerful” and not take away a materialistic misunderstanding of Scheler, but interpret what he probably means instead “Be humble, and straightaway you will be spiritually rich and spiritually powerful!  For humility is the virtue of the spiritually rich, as pride is that of the spiritually poor.”  By implication, it is quite possible, to be both materially rich and materially powerful while also spiritually rich and spiritually powerful, if one is humble.

Finally, Scheler shows us that “reverence” is that vital ability which is available to all persons but not everyone has it: to identify and to respect the profundity of divine operation in the ordinary things of the world and situations in life.  How does he define it?  Well, the closest he comes is in the following, “Reverence, is a kind of shame that becomes spiritual.  In it we become immediately aware of the insufficiency of the categories of our understanding when standing before the world and before our soul…”(p.34)  In other words, reverence is a conscious awareness, an attitude of shame about our genuine insufficiency regarding our real personal ignorance and impotence as beings, coupled by our limitations of time and space as well.  We don’t like to discuss shame, nobody nowadays wants to admit of “being ashamed.”  But this is not Scheler’s point, reverence is a positive reaction to this negative reality of our insufficiency.  Reverence is a positive affirmation that in spite of our multi-tiered inadequacy, materially, intellectually and spiritually, I will actively seek out the awesomeness of all beings, of all persons and of God.  Scheler says, “Reverence gives us the sense of the treasures in our existence and of the powers that are ours and unalienable from us in this early term of life.” (p. 34) Scheler says, “in this early term of life,” probably meaning that, as persons with spiritual souls, we can perceive, in a veiled way, the deep value of things and person if we are spiritually aware here on earth, and in Heaven, we will know their eternal meaning and their complete essence, eventually, in the later term of life, we might say.  Scheler says, “It [reverence] alone gives us the awareness of the depth and the fullness of the world and of ourselves, and it makes clear to us that the world and our nature bear within themselves an inexhaustible wealth of value, that each step we take can reveal to us what is eternally new and young, amazing and unseen.”  Life is boring and routine to the spiritually uncreative, Scheler says that this type of person “does not care to tread the path needed to make visible his own depth of being.”(p.33)  Martin Heidegger also discusses as a central theme of his philosophy this necessity of discovering, unveiling the depth of being.  We can heed both philosophers advice.

Scheler closes the essay with an equally profound thought, “Not only God and the world, but, even more: our own self and that of our loved ones first appear in their deepest dimensions in the act of reverence.”(p.33)  Scheler concurs with the religious metaphysical starting point of being which affirms that all persons are made in the image and likeness of God, or as Saint Gregory of Nyssa says, “microcosmos.”  And, it seems that Scheler is making a further point, maybe a question: Have I really taken the time to discover my true self, who I really am at the core of my being, in an act of reverence, or what we might say, in prayer?  Have I considered my spouse and family in the deepest dimensions of their being in an act of reverence? In this way, we can see it seems that Scheler is pointing out our own personal insufficiency to judge another person is quite obvious when we consider the entirety of their being.  In his brilliant essay, Scheler shows that with reverence, humility, and buttressed by virtue, we can suspend our judgement of others and our own self, because we honestly don’t know our own destiny nor that of the lives of others, of their being.  Instead, with reverence and humility, we can put our time to good use in the active contemplation God who has mysteriously instantiated in all being, in all persons the infinite mystery of His Being.