Bringing Back Meekness as a Virtue

The milquetoast has been, and continues to be, maligned. But meekness is far better than anger.

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One recent morning, as I headed to my college dining hall to grab a bowl of cereal for breakfast, I slipped and crumpled into an awkward contortion of limbs on the cold linoleum floor. It was only then that I fully registered the presence of a cleaning lady with a mop and bucket standing nearby. As I straightened myself out, she hurriedly came over to me, put an arm around my shoulder and, in a sympathetic and contrite voice, asked if I was alright. I bowed my head, curtaining my inflamed cheeks with my hair, and muttered, "I'm fine." 

Carefully avoiding eye contact with anyone who might have witnessed this humiliating spectacle, I quickly filled up my bowl and made my way back to my room, where I changed into fresh pants and tried to put the incident out of my mind. And failed. Almost as if I'd entered a search term into my memory, I promptly and vividly recalled similar incidents of vulnerability past.

Such moments of humiliation, where no one is really at fault, can serve as a litmus test for meekness. The extrovert nonchalantly laughs off his faux pas, where the introvert succumbs to wave after wave of feelings of inferiority.

The extrovert nonchalantly laughs off his faux pas, where the introvert succumbs to wave after wave of feelings of inferiority.

Ironically, the truest manifestation of sangfroid in these cases seems to lie in the ability to play one's own court jester; the emotionless visage, on the other hand, betrays a sense of insecurity. As a painfully shy and insecure child, I'd always looked up to those who were outspoken and able to make light of themselves. I would cringe whenever my teachers, in conferences with my parents, told them that I needed to raise my hand more often in class. To be named meek was, if not an imprecation, then at least something deeply stigmatizing and disabling.

***

Retreating further into my shyness, I sought refuge from the slings and arrows of the real world in fiction. It was comforting to read of heroines like Sofya in Crime and Punishment, whom I immediately, and a bit fancifully, identified with. She uncomplaining prostitutes herself to help her impecunious family makes ends meet, but remains spiritually clean and uncorrupted. 

But things got complicated when I moved to other authors, like Jane Austen. Her witty, slightly impudent, and, above all, eloquent characters are the most attractive. When Austen's most vivacious creations (Emma, Lizzy Bennet) are chastened into something like humility, there's an attendant wearing away of their dynamism. Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, perhaps Austen's most reviled heroine, is maddeningly docile and self-abnegating. 

Emma, of Austen's eponymous masterpiece, at one point thinks of her rival Jane Fairfax:

She was, besides, which was the worst of all, so cold, so cautious! There was no getting at her real opinion. Wrapped in a cloak of politeness, she seemed determined to hazard nothing. She was disgustingly, was suspiciously reserved.

I can't help sucking in my breath each time I read those lines as if the accusation were leveled at me. Confronted with a congeries of self-assured characters always ready with a bon mot, how is a reader to feel about their own reticence?

***

My immediate instinct was to emulate my fictional heroes and heroines, which has and continues to serve me quite well in vast parts of my life. But a recent article published in the journal Ethics made me consider whether there isn't something positive to be said for meek souls after all. I have since begun to own my meekness.

In his article "Meekness and Moral Anger," Glen Pettigrove, a lecturer of philosophy at the University of Auckland, presents a wonderful history of meekness and argues for its reinstatement as a virtue in contemporary parlance. The following is an account of Pettigrove's argument.

The examples of Socrates, Buddha, Jesus, Lincoln, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama notwithstanding, the milquetoast (or meek person) has been, and continues to be, maligned. 

If you overhear people discussing your meek temperament, you're likely to infer that they don't think too highly of you ("spineless" and "lacking in self respect" have become near synonyms for the word). Yet, no less authority than David Hume once unequivocally identified meekness as a virtue. As Pettigrove points out:

In "Of the Standard of Taste," Hume lists meekness alongside equity, justice, temperance, and charity as terms that "must always be taken in a good sense." And in the Treatise, he claims that meekness is a virtue whose "tendency to the good of society no one can doubt of."

Hume and his contemporaries believed that "Meekness is the virtue whose purview is the governance of anger and related emotions." This doesn't mean that the meek person can never become angry; only that he is less easily provoked than others and that he manages to conceal his hostility, which ultimately abates of its own accord.

The jingoistic rhetoric employed by men in their subjugation of women appealed heavily to meekness as the proper, not to say desirable, female disposition.

Self-control, however, is a necessary but insufficient condition for meekness. Philosophers have distinguished between 1) meekness and servility and 2) meekness and resignation. Those who are truly meek act out of both self-control and benevolence (attentiveness to the wellbeing of others), while those who are servile act out of fear of incurring punishment. We wouldn't praise someone for merely acting meek when the true cause of his action is despair (e.g. indifference to the welfare of oneself or others). So we arrive at one definition of meekness: "Agent M manifests the virtue of meekness when he or she characteristically responds in a calm and kindly fashion to aggravating treatment."

Hume famously characterized virtue as "a quality of mind or temper that tends to be useful or agreeable to oneself or to others." Some philosophers (e.g. Rosalind Hursthouse) have quibbled with Hume's disjunctive account of virtue and insisted that virtues must be both useful and agreeable, but, as Pettigrove points out, this is a nonissue in the case of meekness, for it often satisfies both the utility and agreeableness factors. He notes:

The person who remains calm even when members of his household have been inconsiderate or have failed to fulfill their household duties, who continues to treat them with kindness even when they have been selfish or rude, has one of the principal qualities of an exemplary spouse or parent.

As Pettigrove sees it, three things influenced the demotion of meekness from virtue to vice. First, the Calvinist notion of humility (i.e. of being debased creatures) did not do meekness any favors. Second, the notion of submission (to an all-loving, all-knowing God and to the kings appointed by divine right) became repellent. Third, and perhaps most influential, the jingoistic rhetoric employed by men in their subjugation of women appealed heavily to meekness as the proper, not to say desirable, female disposition. Even in cases where 'moral' anger may seem to be the proper substitute -- and despite the unfortunate history of its usage -- meekness deserves to again be recognized as a laudable virtue.

For those who argue that moral anger is a proper desirable substitute for meekness, Pettigrove offers:

Anger is a defensive response system that works on "the smoke detector principle." When responding to potential threats, it is naturally set to generate many more false alarms than true ones.

With the passage of time, angry people only become less willing to consider counterevidence. In contrast, the fact that the meek "are unwilling to draw unfavorable conclusions about the agent's motives" would seem to speak to their better judgment. Anger can be less, not more, effective at communicating a moral message than tempered speech, because it has the adverse effect of triggering the target's defense mechanism and thereby obscuring the message. 

***

A novel with a meek protagonist may not make for the most compelling read, but in real life there's much to be heard and said about the virtues of meekness and meekness as a virtue. Insofar as meekness corrects for the aspects of anger that, among other things, interfere with our ability to make impartial decisions, it deserves more credit than it has been given. The next time I fall and a conscious blush creeps to my cheeks, I hope I won't slink away agonizing over how dreadful it is that I cannot mask my embarrassment. I do not resent being branded as meek. It really is a compliment.

Presented by

Rhoda Feng is a writer based in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Her work has also appeared in Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, and Guernica Daily.

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