The Case for Lucifer

Judy Bachrach | Posted on 03/01/10

QUICK — who is responsible for this arresting passage?

“Learn to obey, you dust; learn to bring down yourself, you earth and slime, and throw down yourself under all men’s feet. Learn, I say, to break your will and humbly to submit yourself to all.…[Show] yourself so lowly and simple that all may tread you under foot like mire in the street.”

Was it ...

  • Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad outlining the future of the state of Israel?
  • A Colombian drug trafficker addressing a potential snitch?
  • An investor e-mailing AIG?
  • A best-selling author?

The answer, I’m afraid, is Thomas à Kem­pis, a fifteenth-century monk who liked to write about humility, which is the kind of topic people pay good money to read about because it’s unlikely they’ll ever stumble across it in real life. Much like teenage vampires, you might say, or destitute virgins who end up marrying roguish Scottish earls, or chaste schoolboys with a gift for magic: the sure augury of a best-seller is a subject matter that basically doesn’t exist.

In this happy vein, The Imitation of Christ sold 100,000 copies in more than forty editions before 1640, numbers especially impressive in an era when reading was not exactly universal. “Wax hot against yourself,” Kempis advised his fans, “and suffer not pride to have place within you.” They loved that stuff back then, the immolation of pride and the exaltation of the humble. That’s because Kempis didn’t actually invent the notion that humility was the greatest virtue on earth. Imitation of Christ was, as its title suggests, essentially plagiarized from its betters, most notably Isaiah 14:12–14, Milton, and Dante.

What exactly did the literary output of these three have in common? Prophet and poets alike, they all had it in for Lucifer — and not because, as modern devotees of Rosemary’s Baby might suspect, the devil appeared to them in the shape of a particularly ugly infant with glittering eyes and a bad manicure. Or because the devil was so repellent he had to date-rape a drugged, skinny blonde. On the contrary: Lucifer was, initially at least, one of your more compelling angels, according to early accounts — perfect in beauty, a quick study, and ... exceptionally unhumble. You can sort of tell this from his most famous biblical quote, which sounds as though it had been lifted straight from a Tony Robbins video. It’s in the I-think-I-can mold of Yankee optimism, and in its own aspirational way kind of touching:

I will ascend the heaven; I will exalt my throne above the stars of God; I will sit also upon the mount of congregation in the sides of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; and I will be like the most High.

Imagine, if you will, the furor that kind of talk provoked — the apoplexy, the dreams of revenge from the CEO already ensconced on some high-flying cloud and by no means thrilled at the prospect of acquiring a neighbor. I’m sure you can see the problem here: arrivistes never get good write-ups, especially if they fail in their efforts to actually arrive. (If they succeed, on the other hand, they are remembered forever after as farsighted entrepreneurs).

Of course, some might call what Lucifer had in mind an interesting stab at power-sharing. Others might interpret his words in equally benign fashion as a commendable instinct to go beyond good looks, charm, and a lush environment and make something of himself, which in our free enterprise system we generally try to encourage.

Our ancestors, however, called it pride, pinned it on Lucifer, made a big deal out of his eventual defeat at the hands of heaven — and connected the dots. Pride goeth before a fall. Conversely, if you fall, you must have been at some point or other extremely proud, very likely Luciferian, and therefore a big loser. “How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground ...” crowed Isaiah.

And that’s how pride got such a bad rap and humility, by contrast, became something you wished on everyone else in a corporate environment except yourself.

How eager are your bosses and colleagues for you to be humble?

For answer, here’s another CEO — well, a former one anyway, who ran General Electric for more than two decades and then crowned his career by dumping his (second) wife. Jack Welch, as it turns out, is very fond of humble employees, and you can read all about it in his hubris-free book Winning: “The third ticket to the game [of success] is maturity,” Welch writes, a stage of life he describes as the ability to “enjoy success with equal parts of joy and humility.”

And Welch ought to know. When he retired from GE nine years ago he received, as part of his humble and joyous package: Knicks tickets; the box behind the Yankees’ dugout; courtside tickets to Wimbledon and the Metropolitan Opera; fees at three country clubs; security services; the use of a Manhattan apartment; $50,000 in shelter expenses for his homes in Nantucket, Connecticut, and Florida; free postage; and $450 million in GE stock. You may be repelled by such excess, but that’s probably because you’re riddled with so much humility you don’t realize the guy had expenses: more than $20,000 a month in food and wine alone.

In fact, humility, or more likely its kissing cousin, mortification, descended on Welch only when lawyers for his (second, angry) deposed wife, Jane Beasley Welch, revealed the extent of his perks in a court filing, the succulent details of which were then miraculously made public. Perhaps Jane threw off her cloak of humility when she discovered her husband had been keeping company with Suzy Wetlaufer, twenty-four years his junior and at the time the editor of the Harvard Business Review (and currently the third Mrs. Welch); perhaps her wrath was exacerbated when her husband drew up a list of local divorce lawyers from which he suggested she choose.

Who can explain it? Who can tell you why? All we can say for certain is it was only at this point that the former GE executive decided to repay the mother company for much of that widely perused severance package. Welch did not wish to look, as he informed the press, “like a greedy pig.”

I know, I know. Right now you’re probably thinking, Hey, free season opera tickets and excellent wine are hardly porcine compared to what’s going on these days on Wall Street. And you’re right!

Martin Sullivan, when he departed AIG after the company lost 99 percent of its market value, might have been expected to subsist for the rest of his life on large slices of humble pie. Fortunately for him, however, a far more delectable fate awaited: $25.4 million in severance. John Thain, once the CEO of a crumbling Merrill Lynch, pulled in $86 million in 2008, the very year he was purchasing a fabulous $1,045 office trash can (it went well with the newly acquired $87,000 area rug) and firing 4,000 humbler employees. G. Kennedy Thompson, the CEO of Wachovia, received $21 million in compensation in 2007; a year later 11,250 subordinates were fired.

In other words, the zeal with which corporate giants trumpet the virtues of obedience, submission, and modesty (the very rags that clothe the cold, bony limbs of humility) to employees and other people they don’t know well is in inverse proportion to the degree with which these leaders actually embrace the values themselves. Of what possible use, after all, is meekness to a CEO who lunges after an $85 billion line of credit courtesy of Uncle Sam while planning to hand out almost $2 billion in bonuses to his buddies? Or to a Goldman Sachs derivatives genius who intends to cut in line to get his swine flu shot a solid month before your nursery school kid? (Yes, death is for the little people.)

But why dawdle all day on Wall Street? Let’s move on to loftier ground, by which I mean higher education, cradle of our core values. In November, for example, we learned from the Chronicle of Higher Education that in the academic year 2007–2008, while most citizens with college-bound offspring found themselves struggling to defray the steadily rising costs of tuition or taking out massive loans they couldn’t afford, twenty American university presidents earned salaries of over $1 million.

And not necessarily because the centers of learning they head are either nationally known or stuffed with Nobel laureates, either. Guy F. Riekeman, the president of Life University in Marietta, Georgia, was among the five highest-paid presidents on the list, along with Charles H. Polk, whose academic home, Mountain State University in Beckley, West Virginia, offers what is gently known as distance learning. Number three on the jackpot list was Steadman Upham, who received a pay package worth $1,485,275 from a grateful University of Tulsa.

Was it academic humility that produced these outsized salaries in a period of worldwide economic gloom, an atavistic urge to oblige Kempis the monk by being trampled underfoot? Somehow I doubt it. Can the aim of being “lowly and simple” happily coexist with extravagant garbage pails and subsidized country club memberships? No, and why should it?

Humility, let’s face it, is the booby prize of the downsized, the exiles from Wimbledon who have to scrape the “mire on the street” from the soles of their Payless shoes. It is the virtue only your enemies wish upon you.

We may not admit any of this, especially in church. We may talk a good game. We may want Lucifer brought low, and revel on the rare occasions when this occurs and makes headlines. But on the whole, let’s face it: only saps are humble.

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