Should We Be Humble?
Distinguishing humility from mere modesty.
Posted Sep 03, 2014
[Article revised on 2 May 2020.]
Our society encourages navel-gazing and celebrates entitlement and exuberance. Economic interests lie not in humility but in 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 is to distinguish it from modesty. Like ‘humiliation’, ‘humility’ derives from the Latin humus, ‘earth’ or ‘dirt’. Modesty on the other hand derives from modus, ‘manner’ or ‘measure’, and means restraint in appearance and behaviour: it is the reluctance to flaunt, display, or otherwise draw attention to oneself.
Modesty often implies a certain artfulness or artificiality, perhaps even insincerity or hypocrisy. In David Copperfield, the character of Uriah Heep is notable for his obsequiousness, and often brings up his own ‘umbleness’ in a bid to disguise the true scale of his ambition. Modesty often poses as humility, but, unlike humility, is superficial and external rather than deep and internal. At best, modesty is no more than good manners.
True humility, on the other hand, derives from a proper perspective on our human condition: one person among billions on a small planet among billions, like a bacterium on a titbit of cheese.
Of course, human beings cannot remain this objective for much longer than three winks, but truly humble people are nonetheless far more aware of their cosmic insignificance, an insignificance that verges upon non-existence.
A mote of dust does not consider itself superior or inferior to other motes of dust, or concern itself with their comings and goings. Enthralled by the miracle of existence, truly humble people live not for themselves or their image, but for life itself.
Drunk on their humility, humble people can sometimes come across as arrogant. In 399 BCE, at the age of 70, Socrates was indicted for offending the Olympian gods and 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, he gave a defiant defence, telling the jurors that they ought to be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honours as possible, while 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 friend Chærephon asked the Delphic oracle if anyone was wiser than Socrates, the Pythian priestess replied that no one was wiser. To discover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of people with a claim to wisdom, 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.’
Was Socrates lacking in humility at his trial? Was he, paradoxically, being arrogant by bragging about his humility? Perhaps he put on an arrogant display because he wanted to die, because he was ill or infirm and knew that by dying the death of a martyr his thought and teachings would be preserved for posterity. Or perhaps genuine humility can seem like arrogance to those who are truly arrogant, in which case humble people may need to hide their humility under a cloak of… modesty—something which Socrates was obviously 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 humble people are in fact very big, they 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, there is a propensity for such ‘arrogance’ among celebrated thinkers and artists. Even doubting Descartes had his moments. Buried in an appendix to his Discourse, he wrote, ‘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.’
Erasmus said that ‘humility is truth’. Humble people are disinclined to conceal the truth because they are by nature truth seekers: it is often through philosophy that they became humble, and humility in turn invites philosophy.
Philosophy, the art of perspective, eventually leads to clarity of thought, such that humble people are often highly productive or prolific. If a person is insightful and inspired, chances are that he or she is also humble.
Religious traditions are keen to emphasize humility in their teachings. In Greek mythology, Aidos, the daimona of shame, reverence, and humility, held people back from doing wrong. In around the eighth century BCE, Hesiod wrote: ‘Aidos and Nemesis 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…’ Some of the most vivid Greek myths, like those of Icarus, Phæthon, Œdipus, Sisyphus, and Tantalus, can be read as warnings against hubris, which is the defiance of the gods from excessive pride, and which leads to nemesis.
In the Christian canon, pride is the original sin, since it is from pride that the angel Lucifer fell from Heaven to become Satan:
How art 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.
The Book of Numbers speaks of Moses as ‘a man exceeding [sic.] meek above all men that dwelt upon earth’, and the Book of Proverbs teaches that ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’. Similarly, Matthew says that ‘whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted’.
Augustine held that humility is the foundation for all the other virtues. Without humility, one can have only the appearance of virtue, but not virtue itself. 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 and allays his scruples about killing his cousins the Kauravas. Krishna explains that, whether or not Arjuna goes into battle, all the warriors on the battlefield are sooner or later destined to die, as are all men and women. 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. ‘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; 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 ‘Islam’ means ‘submission (to the will of God)’.
But not all philosophers agree to think highly of humility. Aristotle leaves it out of his list of virtues, and Hume and Nietzsche go so far as to condemn it.
This is the normally cool-headed Hume in the Enquiry:
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 or 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…
For Nietzsche, our society represents 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 pride, nobility, courage, truthfulness, and trust. Slave morality, in contrast, is a reaction in the weak to oppression by the strong, and is marked by values such as humility, meekness, 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 meekness is a moral choice, slave morality manufactures an ideal 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 allows himself to be crucified like a common criminal.
Slave morality is a cynical and pessimistic inverse morality that involves careful subversion of the old and natural master morality. It seeks not to transcend master morality, but, through ‘priestly vindictiveness’, to emasculate and enslave the strong by persuading 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 most democrats prefer to trace their lineage to Ancient Athens. Even today, the old Greco-Roman morality has not been vanquished, but vies alongside the inverted Judeo-Christian morality. Modern man is confused because he has constantly to juggle their contradictions, while himself, on the whole, being neither Christian nor Ancient.
Although there is much of interest in Nietzsche’s master-slave dichotomy, he and Hume seem to confuse or confound humility with modesty or meekness. Both humility and modesty involve self-abnegation, but whereas modesty involves self-abnegation for the sake of others or for the sake of short-term ease and acceptance, humility involves self-abnegation for the sake of a higher truth and better self.
Emerging evidence suggests that, far from being inhibiting, humility is a highly adaptive trait. Researchers have linked it to pro-social dispositions such as self-control, gratitude, generosity, tolerance, forgiveness, and cooperativeness; and associated it not only with better social relationships, as might be expected, but also with improved health outcomes, superior academic and job performance, and a more effective leadership style.
Because humility de-emphasizes the self, it diminishes the need for self-deception, which in turn frees us to admit to and learn from our mistakes; consider and contemplate alternative perspectives and possibilities; recognize the qualities and contributions of others; and respect, value, and submit to legitimate authority.
In sum, humility could not be more different from mere modesty or meekness. If humility resembles anything, it is in fact the ancient concept of piety, or right relations, but stripped or abstracted of piety’s more concrete and sectarian religious dimensions.
Humility is the real religion.
Neel Burton is author of Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions and other books.