The futility of humility

There’s been a lot of chatter within my network about the pursuit, and virtue of, humility. Usually framed as ‘humility vs arrogance’

I don’t find the term ‘humility’ especially helpful. It’s an abstract concept and, as such, very subjective. I think that a majority of the disagreements that have occurred are based in part on a lack of agreement about the definition of the term.

Humility is, in many religions and cultures, espoused as a virtue, something to aspire to. It can also be used in a negative way, to denigrate or (hah) humiliate someone who might be perceived as a threat to an authority figure. The ‘know your place’ (i.e. subordinate to me) put-down.

Googling for ‘humility’ gave me the following quote from

The word humility signifies lowliness or submissiveness an it is derived from the Latin humilitas or, as St. Thomas says, from humus, i.e. the earth which is beneath us. As applied to persons and things it means that which is abject, ignoble, or of poor condition, as we ordinarily say, not worth much. Thus we say that a man is of humble birth or that a house is a humble dwelling. As restricted to persons, humility is understood also in the sense of afflictions or miseries, which may be inflicted by external agents, as when a man humiliates another by causing him pain or suffering. It is in this sense that others may bring about humiliations and subject us to them. Humility in a higher and ethical sense is that by which a man has a modest estimate of his own worth, and submits himself to others. According to this meaning no man can humiliate another, but only himself, and this he can do properly only when aided by Divine grace. We are treating here of humility in this sense, that is, of the virtue of humility.

Even in this single paragraph we have humility defined as being submissive, ignoble, of poor condition, not worth much, afflicted, miserable, being subject to pain and suffering. Who’d aspire to that??

Later on it talks about humility in a ‘higher sense’ as being modest and voluntarily submitting oneself to others. This is an improvement but still not something I really agree with. (The submitting oneself to others part is of course really useful if you’re a religious leader who wants to keep the flock docile). Make it a virtue to be aspired to and they’ll do it to themselves, yay!

But let’s assume a more modern definition: wikipedia defines humility thus:

Humility (adjectival form: humble) is the quality of being modest and respectful. Humility, in various interpretations, is widely seen as a virtue in many religious and philosophical traditions, being connected with notions of egolessness.

Being modest and respectful. Now we’re getting closer. Except… hmm, modest AND respectful. This is possibly why I take issue with the assertion that humility is a virtue (and, therefore, universally to be aspired to). Respectfulness I can totally get behind. I refute the notion that I must also be modest. In fact, if I tweet about how I’m seeking humility and why you should too, I’m really not being that modest, am I? So I’m not humble.

But I do strive to be respectful.

Now moving on to arrogance, which has been often mentioned as the only alternative option. Ie. you’re either humble or arrogant. There are no alternatives. And humility is good, so arrogance must be bad, right?

I’m running out of time to drill into it but my main dispute here is I don’t subscribe to the notion that arrogance is the inverse of humility, nor that they are context-free. I might be ‘humble’ when discussing hypnotherapy with my teacher, I’ve got about 20 days experience compared with his 15 years, it makes sense to be modest in that context. In the subject of software development I am definitely not humble. I also try to avoid being arrogant, but I am confident.

And I still strive to be respectful.