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 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07543b.htm

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.

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4 thoughts on “The futility of humility

  1. Those of us who choose to seek humility, presumedly do so because we lack it. (It is unnecessary to seek that which we have). Why must that be considered immodest? I see it as part of striving for a healthy life balance. Writing is part of my process of seeking, of learning. I write about things that are important to me. I don’t know what is important to other people. If others choose to read what I write they may or may not be moved by it—and people will be moved in different ways, sometimes in opposition, as you are here. I don’t write to persuade or convince, only to express. I understand why the idea of humility is unpalatable to many (I wrote about that here: http://bit.ly/TZxM2o) and I accept that this viewpoint may not change. It doesn’t need to. Perhaps you, and others who appear to be striving so hard to denigrate the concept can accept that it’s important to some, and simply respect that. After all, isn’t respect the value that you are offering here as a better alternative to humility?

  2. Those of us who choose to seek humility, presumedly do so because we lack it. (It is unnecessary to seek that which we have). Why must that be considered immodest? I see it as part of striving for a healthy life balance. Writing is part of my process of seeking, of learning. I write about things that are important to me. I don’t know what is important to other people. If others choose to read what I write they may or may not be moved by it—and people will be moved in different ways, sometimes in opposition, as you are here. I don’t write to persuade or convince, only to express. I understand why the idea of humility is unpalatable to many (I wrote about that here: http://bit.ly/TZxM2o) and I accept that this viewpoint may not change. It doesn’t need to. Perhaps you, and others who appear to be striving so hard to denigrate the concept can accept that it’s important to some, and simply respect that. After all, isn’t respect the value that you are offering here as a better alternative to humility?

  3. Do you think you lack humility? I think that humility is an ongoing process and that by seeking it, you demonstrate that you value it and I respect that.

    It would indeed be arrogant in the extreme for me to attempt to impose my views on you or anyone else who isn’t attempting to impose their views on me.

    I think what I object to is language that implies that a particular opinion is objectively ‘right’ and therefore that anyone who doesn’t hold it is ‘wrong’. Forgive me if I saw an intent where none existed.

    I also think that sweeping generalisations are always a terrible idea. Do you think that humility should be sought in all situations regardless of context? What about job interviews? Is it possible to be honest and respectful without being humble? What would that look like?

    I wrote the post to try and explain my own position, not to convert anyone else to it.

    • “Do you think that humility should be sought in all situations regardless of context?”
      Personally, yes. I don’t know how it should be for others. For me, this seeking is about attempting to show up in an open, honest, congruent way. It is more about presence than it is about behavior.

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