Humility

The paradox of humility is that it equates the low with the high. Humility is lying low, taking the lowest position; humility is the downplaying of self. But as a virtue, it is great, a high achievement, and an excellence. A lowly virtue, humility must be won by heroic self-overcoming. Thus, the least becomes like the great. In an ethic of humility, the least shall count as most, and the meek inherit the earth. The image of the divine infant, a most vulnerable and infinitely-dependent Infinite Being, is an image of omnipotence at its most humble.

One is within one’s rights to distinguish epistemic humility (otherwise known as a diffident ignorance) from ethical humility and from aesthetic humility. Humility as an ethical ideal may be either driven by inner needs, or culturally imposed, or valorized. As an aesthetic gesture it may attribute all inspiration to a higher power, an ulterior source — the artist as vehicle. In the extreme it shrugs off masterpieces as trinkets. Or aesthetic humility is the felt smallness and painful wonder familiar to anyone who has encountered the sublime. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, so this aesthetic humility is tinged with knowing, and spills over into epistemology. (Fear of God is also reported by many atheists as the beginning of their wisdom).

It seems that humility is a spiritual virtue by way of both its aesthetic and its epistemic roots. To stand before God is enough to induce a most profound and self-rejuvenating humility, though for that one has to get in queue behind the believers. Yet even non-believers may enjoy cosmic humility, the sublime recognition, as when the greatness of the night sky induces in us a most minuscule yet delicious feeling of our ultimate scale and measure. Mortality is the other universal equalizer, the preeminent secular humbler, the end before which all must fall on bended knee...before tumbling into the grave.

It is all too easy to write off ethical humility as an oppressive aspect of Western or Christian culture. There is the image of Jesus, of course, and Socrates too — despite his goading irony — exemplifies epistemic humility by disowning the virtue of wisdom. Yet Kong Fu Zi (Confucius) and Lao-Tzu, despite their numerous differences, both prize humility. And the radical equality of high and low, of the honoured and the despised, is espoused in the Upanishads and in the Bhagavad Gita. The Bodhisattva who forgoes enlightenment till all beings enjoy it is another infinitistic gesture of god-like humility. Strange that humility should get the assent and earn a bow from so many high philosophies. Clearly, if the doctrine that we should all be humble is indeed a tool of self-oppression, it is also a tool used by many religious traditions. Its effectiveness may even explain its prevalence.

Yet the ethic of humility is not, in fact, universal, not even in our society. In some situations, it is anathema. Team or community or corporate spirit is a form of social pride, of group self-assertion, in the face of which humility is mere lukewarm support, if not passive-aggressive betrayal. If you are not with us, you are against us. Modesty in patriotism may likewise come across as treason, if there is suspicion in the glance. Is there room for humility in such dichotic thinking?

It is hard to reproach ethical humility directly, since its more obstinate cousin pride (and other social forms of self-pluming) demand more attention, and deserve at least as much condemnation. But humility gets its name from pride. It is pride’s sickly cousin, at times jealous of its more valorous kin. Thus humility is not happy with modest efforts, it must drive on toward perfection or excellence. Great humility is by all accounts better than moderate humility. Like pride, humility needs its extremes.

Ethical humility may be (but it may also not be) modesty, but both are superficial virtues of social appearance, if they are virtues at all. Neither would be confused with the virtue of temperance, but strangely both are easy to conflate with the latter’s namesake, moderation. So let us be clear, modesty is not moderation. Humility is not the wisdom of ‘nothing in excess.’ Too much pride (hubris) can be a vice without humility being a virtue. Humility is not a mean between two extreme vices, to use the Aristotelian formula, though moderation may well be. (Moderation on his account is the habit of choice and action concerning bodily desire, which avoids insensitivity and indulgence relative to self and situation. Dullness and overindulgence are not the vices opposed to humility or modesty).

Aristotle recognized modesty as a virtue, but this was decidedly not the same as humility. Modesty is the habit of choice and action concerning shame, which avoids shamelessness and shyness. Too much shame is bashfulness. But what could too much humility be? Is it false humility? (But false humility is not humility). Nowhere do we find in Aristotle pride as an opposite of modesty.

As a Christian virtue, humility is by way of its genus a perfection rather than a mere excellence. For the doctrine is that even the great must pale before God. Humility was never a Greek virtue of character, and not considered an excellence of character in the eyes of noble Greeks. Spiritual surrender is a kind of humility, but while it is vivid in Islam, it was not present in ancient Athens. For the base and lowly, to be humble is only to make a virtue of a necessity. If, to speak truly, one is little, humility is only telling the truth. When humility is mere honesty, it is a duty, rather than a virtue, obligatory rather than excellent, a minimal moral requirement, not a mark of good breeding or decorum.

Social humility is as different from privately experienced humility, as social honesty is from private honesty. If one is outwardly humble and inwardly self-aggrandizing, one might as well be a performing seal. Humility, then, is one’s advance. If one is outwardly boastful but inwardly humble, one is bluffing. It may win some games, but it is only a lie for profit. And if such inward humility is extreme, so that what is inside of you makes yourself small, belittles yourself, and makes you fearful of the greatest that you can be, then you are yet only a more expectable contradiction, a backstage seal.

But ethical consistency in this case may be hardly better, and is possibly even worse off than either of these absurd inconsistencies. Suppose one is a braggart inwardly and outwardly, a show-off through and through. Is this maybe laudable? While it has the merit of moral consistency, and the absence of a contradiction between inner and outer, it is hardly a model of honesty or praiseworthy or imitable in any way.

Now suppose one is outwardly humble but also inwardly humble. One covers up ones good deeds inside as well as outside. One not only hides one’s lamp under a bushel, but burns the bushel and burys the lamp.

One attributes one’s success to others not just to pay in thanks, but to hide one’s own drive.

Humble here, humble there. Who am I to argue for braggadocio?

Inner and outer humility may seem the most honest of them all, but especially here much depends on nuance and intention. It is unconscionable of me to not yet have raised the question squarely: what does it mean to be humble? On at least one reading (and here I end) inward and outward consistency in humility is self-abuse, that is, morally reprehensible. Let me finally directly refute humility.

This unfavorable interpretation of humility is low self-efficacy. Humility here becomes a virtual vice, inwardly, and therefore outwardly. Self-efficacy refers to one’s belief regarding one’s own abilities. We often do not know our abilities until we try our hand at something. If we have an unquestioned dearth of confidence in our own abilities to master a task (say, learning to drive, or a new language, or to play a new musical instrument), then we are unlikely to even try. What then shall we become? Another person, with less native talent, but more blissful ignorance in motivation, may exceed beyond our inborn but undeveloped abilities. On this uncharitable reading, by humility you risk selling yourself short. To hit a far target with an arrow, one must aim high. We ourselves must perhaps aim higher than our capacities to get as high as we are able. Therefore self-efficacy that starts as illusion may end in reality greater than any realistic beginning might have achieved.

But here’s the rub: that illusion must be high. Humility be scorned, greatness is there for the making. Try, and don’t privately downplay success. Rejoice. Brag honestly. Brag to get better, to psych yourself into your game. Downplay your success only to lower expectation, and so that your next brilliant performance will awe and amaze. Downplay yourself only strategically, not to improve your reputation for its own sake, but to springboard yourself to ever greater heights. Humility be damned. You are greater than even you think.

Your two cents is worth sharing. Come hat in hand to the well of philosophy.