The Anatomy of Humility

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. —CS Lewis

Our society encourages navel-gazing and celebrates entitlement and exuberance. Economic interests lie not in humility but pride and hubris, while to call something or someone ‘humble’ most often connotes that the thing or person is simple, contemptible, or of little worth.

The first step in defining humility as applied to persons and their characters is to distinguish humility from modesty. ‘Modesty’ derives from the Latin ‘modus’, ‘measure’ or ‘manner’; ‘humility’, like ‘humiliation’, derives from the Latin ‘humus’, ‘earth’ or ‘dirt’. Modesty means restraint in appearance and behavior: the reluctance to flaunt oneself, to put oneself on display, or to attract attention. It often implies a certain artfulness and artificiality, perhaps even inauthenticity or hypocrisy.

The fictional character of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is notable for his obsequiousness and insincerity, often emphasizing his own ‘umbleness’ to cover up the true scale of his ambition. Modesty often poses as humility, but, unlike true humility, is skin-deep and external rather than deep and internal. At best, modesty is no more than good manners.

In contrast, true humility derives from a proper perspective of our human condition: one among billions on a small planet among billions, like a fungus on a tiny fragment of cheese. Of course, it is nearly impossible for human beings to remain this objective for very long, but truly humble people are nonetheless far more conscious of the insignificance of their true relations, an insignificance that verges on non-existence. A speck of dust does not think itself more superior or inferior than another, nor does it concern itself for what other specks of dust might or might not think. Enthralled by the miracle of existence, the truly humble person lives not for herself or her image, but for life itself, in a condition of pure peace and pleasure.

Drunk on his humility, a humble person can seem arrogant to the generality of men. In 399BC, at the age of 70, Socrates was indicted for offending the Olympian gods and thereby breaking the law against impiety. He was accused of ‘studying things in the sky and below the earth’, ‘making the worse into the stronger argument’, and ‘teaching these same things to others’. At his trial, Socrates gave a defiant defense, telling the jurors that they ought to be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, whilst not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. After being convicted and sentenced to death, he turned around to the jurors and said,

You think that I was convicted through deficiency of words—I mean, that if I had thought fit to leave nothing undone, nothing unsaid, I might have gained an acquittal. Not so; the deficiency which led to my conviction was not of words—certainly not. But I had not the boldness or impudence or inclination to address you as you would have liked me to address you, weeping and wailing and lamenting, and saying and doing many things which you have been accustomed to hearing from others, and which, as I say, are unworthy of me. But I thought that I ought not to do anything common or mean in the hour of danger: nor do I now repent of the manner of my defence, and I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live.

Throughout his long life, Socrates, who looked like a tramp, had been a paragon of humility. When his childhood friend Chaerephon asked the Delphic oracle if any man was wiser than Socrates, the priestess of Apollo replied that no one was wiser. To discover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of wise men, and in each case concluded, ‘I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.’ From then on, he dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, ‘if he is not, showing him that he is not.’ His student Plato insisted that, while Socrates devoted himself entirely to discussing philosophy, he seldom claimed any real knowledge for himself.

Was Socrates lacking in humility at his trial? Was he, paradoxically, being arrogant by bragging about his humility? Perhaps he put on an arrogant act because he actually wanted to die, either because he was ill or infirm or because he knew that by dying in this way his thought and teachings would be preserved for posterity. Or maybe genuine humility can seem like arrogance to those who truly are arrogant, in which case the humble person may sometimes need to hide his humility, or certain aspects of his humility, under a cloak of modesty—something which Socrates was unwilling to do.

To be humble is to subdue our ego so that things are no longer all about us, whereas to be modest is to protect the ego of others so that they do not feel uncomfortable, threatened, or small, and attack us in turn. Because the humble man is in fact very big, he may need to slap on an extra thick veneer of modesty.

Socrates is not the only humble person who occasionally comes across as arrogant. In fact I have spotted a certain propensity for such ‘arrogance’ among the most celebrated thinkers and artists. Even doubting Descartes had his moments. In La géometrie, published in 1637 as an appendix to his magnum opus Discours de la méthode, he lets slip, ‘I hope that posterity will judge me kindly, not only as to the things which I have explained, but also to those which I have intentionally omitted so as to leave to others the pleasure of discovery.’

Humble people are disinclined to conceal the truth because they are by nature truth seekers: it is often through philosophy that they attained to humility, and, conversely, humility invites philosophy. What’s more, owing to their proper perspective and the inspiration and direction that this brings, humble people are often highly productive or prolific. So if a person is both insightful and prolific, there are good chances that he is also humble; conversely, if he is stuck in a rut and unable to learn from his mistakes, it is very likely that he thinks too much about himself.

For the 16th century humanist Erasmus, ‘humility is truth’. Given this, religions have naturally been keen to emphasize it in their teachings. In Greek mythology, Aidos, the daimona of shame, reverence, and humility, restrained men and women from wrong. According to the 7th century BC poet Hesiod, after the Golden Age, ‘Aidos and Nemesis [the daimona of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris, and closely associated with Aidos], with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.’ Some of the most vivid Greek myths, such as those of Icarus, Oedipus, Sisyphus, and Tantalus, can be understood as warnings against hubris, which is the defiance of the gods from excessive pride, leading to nemesis. 

In the Christian canon, pride is the original sin, for it is from pride that the angel Lucifer fell out of Heaven and became Satan. Thus Isaiah 14:12-15 (KJV):

How are thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God… I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.

In the Old Testament, the Book of Numbers speaks of Moses as ‘a man exceeding meek above all men that dwelt upon earth’ (Numbers 12:3), and the Book of Proverbs teaches that ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’ (Proverbs 3:34). Similarly, in the New Testament, St Matthew says that, ‘Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted’ (Matthew 23:12).

The 5th century theologian and philosopher St Augustine argued that humility is the foundation of all the other virtues, for in the absence of humility there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance. He held that, while it was pride that changed angels into devils, it is humility that makes men as angels. In one of his sermons, he preached, ‘Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.’

In the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the battlefield of Kurukshetra to allay his scruples about engaging in battle and shedding the blood of his cousins the Kauravas. Krishna explains that, whether or not Arjuna goes into battle, all the men on the battlefield are one day destined to die, as are all men. Their deaths are trivial, because the spirit within them, their human essence, does not depend on their particular forms or incarnations for its continued existence. Krishna tells Arjuna, ‘When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge.’

In the Buddhist tradition, humility is part of the spiritual practice, and an outcome of it; and one cannot attain enlightenment unless one has perfected humility. In Taoism, humility is one of the Three Treasures, or basic virtues, along with compassion and frugality. As for Islam, the very word means ‘submission (to the will of God)’.

But not all thinkers have found it important to emphasize humility. Aristotle leaves it out of his list of virtues, which does however include ‘proper pride’ and ‘proper ambition’. Hume and Nietzsche go so far as to condemn it, and not in the slightest of terms.

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, originally published in 1751, the normally cool-headed Hume writes,

Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify [sic.] the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper. We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices…

Hume is tame compared to Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, our society is evidence of the triumph of Judeo-Christian slave morality over Greco-Roman master morality. Master morality originates in the strong, and is marked by values such as nobility, pride, courage, truthfulness, and trust. Slave morality, in contrast, is merely a reaction in the weak to oppression by the strong, and is marked by such values as humility, sympathy, cowardice, and pettiness. In master morality, the good is whatever is good for the strong; in slave morality, it is whatever opposes the masters. By pretending that congenital meekness is a choice that is both moral and desirable, slave morality makes a virtue out of impotence and subjugation. Thus, pride becomes a vice or sin, humility is elevated to a virtue, and the son of God washes the feet of his disciples and lets himself be crucified like a common criminal. Slave morality is a cynical and pessimistic inverse morality that involves careful subversion of the old master morality. It seeks not to transcend master morality, but, through ‘priestly vindictiveness’, to emasculate and enslave the strong by convincing them that their strengths are evil. 

Nietzsche maintains that democracy, with its obsession with freedom and equality, is in fact the heir to Christianity, even though democrats generally prefer to trace their lineage to Ancient Athens. In our society, the old and natural Greco-Roman morality vies alongside the inverted Judeo-Christian morality. Modern man is confused because he constantly has to juggle their contradictions, while himself, on the whole, being neither Christian nor ancient.

While there may be much of interest in Nietzsche’s master-slave dichotomy, he and Hume seem to confound and amalgamate humility with modesty or meekness. Both modesty and humility involve self-abnegation, but whereas modesty involves self-abnegation for the sake of others or for the sake of receiving praise or adulation, humility involves self-abnegation for the sake of truth and of a higher self.

Indeed, emerging empirical evidence suggests that, rather than being inhibiting, humility is a highly adaptive trait or construct. Scientists have found it to be linked with pro-social dispositions such as self-control, gratitude, generosity, tolerance, forgivingness, and cooperativeness; and associated not only with better social relationships, as might be expected, but also improved health outcomes, better academic and job performance, and even a more effective leadership style.

Because humility de-emphasizes the self, it diminishes the need for self-deception, which in turn enables us to admit to and learn from our mistakes, consider and contemplate alternative possibilities, recognize the qualities and contributions of others, and respect, value, and submit to legitimate authority. Being deeper than modesty, humility is far more stable and resilient and unlikely to crumble under pressure, when, of course, it becomes of even greater use.

In sum, humility could not be more different from mere modesty. If humility resembles anything, it is the ancient concept of piety, or right relations, but stripped or abstracted of piety’s more concrete religious dimensions.

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