Meek is an Interesting Word

Somebody asked me to do a video on the beatitude about meekness, so I’ve been doing some research on the word “meek”. Even though I don’t speak from a place of authority, talking about the beatitudes still carries a lot of responsibility.

The first problem that we have with the word “meek” is that it is not really a modern English word. It’s very rarely used as a character description in novels, and outside of that, pretty much never. So we have to delve back into history and etymology.

The OED defines meek as “Gentle. Courteous. Kind.” It comes from a Scandinavian root. Various Scandinavian languages have an extremely similar word which means, generally, “soft” or “supple”.

Next, we turn to the original Greek:

μακάριοι οἱ πραεῖς, ὅτι αὐτοὶ κληρονομήσουσιν τὴν γῆν

To transliterate, for those who don’t read the Greek alphabet:

makarioi hoi praeis, hoti autoi kleronomesousin ten gen.

Much clearer, I’m sure. Bear with me, though, because I will explain. (I’m going to refer to the words in the English transliteration to make it easier to follow.)

The beatitudes generally have two halves. The first half says that someone is blessed, while the second half gives some explanation as to why. This beatitude has this form. Who is blessed is the first three words, “makarioi hoi praeis”. In the original the verb is left understood, but this is usually translated as “blessed are the meek”. The second half, “hoti autoi kleronomesousin ten gen” is commonly translated “for they shall inherit the earth”.

Let’s break the first half down a little more, because both major words in it are very interesting (“hoi” is just an article; basically it’s just “the”). The first word, “makarioi”, can actually be translated in English either as “blessed” or as “happy”, though it should be noted happy in a more full sense than just the pleasant sensation of having recently eaten on a sunny day with no work to do at the moment.

I’ve noticed that a lot of people, or at least a lot of my fellow Americans, want to take “blessed”, not as an adjective, but as a future conditional verb. Basically, they want to take Christ, not as describing what presently is, but as giving rules with rewards that are attached. This doesn’t work even in English, but it’s even more obvious in Greek where makarioi is declined to agree with the subject, “hoi praeis”. Christ it’s telling us what to do and offering rewards. He’s telling us that we’re looking at the world all wrong, and why.

The other part, “hoi praeis”, is what gets translated as “the meek”, though I’ve also seen “the gentle”. It is the noun form of an adjective, “praios” (“πρᾷος”), which (not surprisingly) tends to mean mild or gentle.

Now, to avoid a connotation which modern English has accrued over hundreds of years of character descriptions in novels, it does not mean week, timid, or mousy. The wiktionary entry for praios has some usage examples. If one peruses through them, they are things like asking a god to be gentle, or saying that a king is gentle with his people.

So translating the first half very loosely, we might render the beatitude:

Those who restrain their force have been blessed, for they will inherit the earth.

This expanded version of the beatitude puts it in the group of the beatitudes which refer to something under the control of the people described as “makarios” (blessed, happy). Consider the other groups of people, which are roughly half of beatitudes: “the poor in spirit,” “those who mourn”, “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, “those who are persecuted in the cause of righteousness,” and “you when people abuse you and persecute you and speak all kinds of calumny against you falsely on my account”.

I think that this really makes it clear that what is being described is a gift, though a hard-to-understand one. So what do we make of the other beatitudes, the ones under people’s control?

Just as a quick refresher, they are: “the meek”, “the merciful”, “the pure in heart”, and “the peacemakers”. They each have the superficial form of there being a reward for those who do well, but if we look closer, the reward is an intrinsic reward. That is, it is the natural outcome of the action.

So if we look closely at the second half of the meek beatitude, we see that indeed it is connected to the first half: “for they will inherit the earth”. This is often literally the case: those who fight when they don’t have to die when they don’t have to, and leave the world to those who survive them.

Now, I think too much can be made of “the original context”—our Lord was incarnate in a particular time and spoke to particular people, but they were human beings and he was also speaking to all of us. Still, I think it is worth looking at that original context, and how in the ancient world one of the surest paths to glory was conquest. Heroes were, generally, warriors. They were not, as a rule, gentle. Even in more modern contexts where war is mechanized and so individuals get less glory, there are still analogs where fortune favors the bold. We laud sports figures and political figures who crush their enemies in metaphorical, rather than literal, senses.

Even on a more simple level, we can only appreciate the power than a man has when he demonstrates it by using it.

And here Christ is saying that those are happy who do not use their power when they don’t have to. And why? Because they inherit the earth. Glory is fleeting, and in the end one can’t actually do very much with it. Those who attain glory by the display of power do not, in putting that power on display, use it to do anything useful. They waste their power for show, rather than using it to build. And having built nothing, they will end up with nothing.

You can see this demonstrated in microcosm in a sport I happen to like: power lifting. It is impressive to see people pick up enormous weights. But what do they do with them once they’ve picked them up? They just put them back down again.

Now, the fact that this is in microcosm means that there can be good justifications for it; building up strength by lifting useless weights can give one the strength to lift useful weights, such as children, furniture, someone else who has fallen down, etc. And weightlifting competitions do serve the useful role of inspiring people to develop their strength; a powerlifting meet is not the same thing as conquering a country. But there is, none the less, a great metaphor for it, if one were to extend the powerlifting competition to being all of life. Happy are those who do not.

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