What's the Difference Between Modesty and Humility?

They are actually very different concepts.

Posted Jun 30, 2018

Pixabay
Source: Pixabay

'Modesty' and 'humility' are often used interchangeably, but they are actually very different concepts.

‘Modesty’ derives from the Latin modus, ‘measure’ or ‘manner’. It means restraint in appearance and behavior: the reluctance to flaunt oneself, to put oneself on display, or to attract attention

Modesty 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. 

‘Humility’, like ‘humiliation’, derives from the Latin humus, ‘earth’ or ‘dirt’. Unlike mere modesty, 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 person is in fact very big, he or she may need to slap on an extra thick veneer of modesty.