In the third act of William Shakespeare’s historical play King Henry VIII, the reader experiences some degree of schadenfreude, or pleasure derived from Cardinal Wolsey’s downfall. “No man’s pie is freed / From his ambitious finger” (1.1.52-53), decries the Duke of Buckingham. All his life, this “butcher’s cur”—an insult about Wolsey’s lowly background—aspired to the smile of princes, even causing his “holy hat to be stamped on the king’s coin” (3.2.325), as if he was equal in stature. Once he falls like the ruined archangel, there is a belated reckoning with his “scarlet sin” (3.2.255). Wolsey’s speech below is piercingly honest about “the state of man,” predicated upon two metaphors, the first emphasizing his fragility and the second his foolishness. If Wolsey had not been swallowed by his own greatness, then he would not be bidding it farewell, which is a reminder to this reader that my ambition in life is to bestow praise where greatness truly resides, as the Psalmist declares, “Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (145:3).
So farewell to the little good you bear me.
Farewell! a long farewell, to all my greatness!
This is the state of man: today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hopes; tomorrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honours thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And, when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
And then he falls, as I do. I have ventured,
Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,
This many summers in a sea of glory,
But far beyond my depth: my high-blown pride
At length broke under me and now has left me,
Weary and old with service, to the mercy
Of a rude stream, that must for ever hide me.
Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye:
I feel my heart new open’d. O, how wretched
Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favours!
There is, betwixt that smile we would aspire to,
That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,
More pangs and fears than wars or women have:
And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,
Never to hope again. (3.2.350-372)
Cardinal Wolsey’s downfall reminds me of this famous biblical admonition:
Pride goes before destruction,
And a haughty spirit before a fall.
Better to be a humble spirit with the lowly
Than to divide the spoil with the proud. (Proverb 16:18-19, NKJV)
What more vivid exposition of these Proverbs is needed than our own ruined condition? Our father’s pride, desiring to “be as God” hurried his whole race to destruction. ‘O Adam’—was the exclamation of a man of God, ‘what hast thou done!’ ‘I think,’—said another holy man—‘so far as any man is proud, he is kin to the devil, and a stranger to God and to himself.’ The most awful strength of Divine eloquence seems to be concentrated to delineate the character and ruin of pride. Example abounds throughout the Scripture; each sounding this solemn admonition—“Be not high-minded, but fear.” Fearful indeed is our danger, if the caution be not welcomed; if the need for it be not deeply felt!
The haughty spirit carries the head high. The man looks upward, instead of to his steps. What wonder therefore, if, not seeing what is before him, he falls? He loves to climb. The enemy is always at hand to assist him (Matt. iv. 5, 6); and the greater the height, the more dreadful the fall. There, is often something in the fall, that marks the Lord’s special judgment. God smites the object, of which the man is proud. David gloried in the number of his people, and the Lord diminished them by pestilence. Hezekiah boasted of his treasure; and the Lord marked it to be taken away. At the moment that Nebuchadnezzar was proud of his Babel, he was banished from the enjoyment of it. “The vain daughters of Zion,” priding themselves on their ornaments, were covered with disgrace. (Isa. iii. 24.) Yet after all, the state of heart that prepares man for the fall, is the worst part of his condition. For what is our pride is our danger, ‘Why’—a wise man asks—’is earth and ashes proud? Pride was not made for man.’ But have we been preserved from open disgrace? Examine secret faults. Trace them to their source—a subtle confidence in gifts, attainments, and privileges. And then praise thy God for his painful discipline—the preserving mercy from ruinous self-exaltation. Truly the way down to the valley of Humiliation is deep and rugged. Humility, therefore, is the grand preserving grace. The contrite publican was safe, when the boasting Pharisee was confounded. (Luke, xviii. 14.) Better then—more happy, more honourable, more acceptable to God and man—is a humble spirit, companying with the lowly, than the spoil of the haughty conqueror, ministering only to his destruction. (James, i. 9.) Better is an humble spirit, than a high condition; to have our temper brought down, than our outward condition raised. But who believes this? Most men strive to rise; few desire to lie low! May thy example—blessed Saviour—keep me low! ‘When Majesty’—said pious Bernard—‘humbled himself shall the worm swell with pride?’