As I committed to reading through Calvin’s Institutes with a friend, in honour of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017, I thought it would be worth jotting down some bits that I found particularly interesting. Here’s the quote for today:
Nothing pleases man more than the sort of alluring talk that tickles the pride that itches in his very marrow. Therefore, in nearly every age, when anyone publicly extolled human nature in most favourable terms, he was listened to with applause. … Whoever, then, heeds such teachers as hold us back with thought only of our good traits will not advance in self-knowledge, but will be plunged into the worst ignorance.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, 1.2
Let’s be honest, everyone likes a good story of human nature at its best. We admire the glamour of someone selflessly giving their life for another. We’re drawn to the embattled hero that works his way up the ladder against evil to triumph and vindication.
Calvin here points out that we’re eager to hear people who are going to tell us good news about us as a species. I love the phrase “talk that tickles the pride that itches in [our] very marrow”—it really cuts to the heart of our problem—pride. He says essentially that pride blinds us from seeing ourselves as we truly are.
Think of it like this: If I estimate myself to be an “above average” driver, and I’m actually in the bottom 20% of competent drivers on the road, I’m going to make large errors I thinking I’m capable of something I’m not.1
This is the fatal flaw of humans: we’re un-good and unaware of it. When we lap up the good traits of humans and hold them dear to our hearts, we’re blind to the problem that runs through the veins of us all: sin.
- Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121-1134. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-35126.96.36.1991