I have thought a lot about humbleness recently. Is humility a synonym or a discretely different meta-attitude? Both words have their origin in the Latin humilis, literally ‘on the ground’ from humus, ‘earth’. Islam can be interpreted as meaning ‘submission’ or ‘surrender,’ which can also be interpreted as ‘humility’. In Islam, part of the daily prayer ritual involves prostrations, an act of humbling.
Outside of religions, the concept of humility is at odds with contemporary western culture. We are raised to take pride in accomplishment and success. With the exception of Kant, who considered humility a central human virtue, philosophers ignore the pursuit of humbleness.
It strikes me that attaining humility, genuinely, though demanding, should be an immensely rewarding path, not that this thought will offer any revelation to those able to dwell within the major religions. But what meaning should humility hold for the secular?
In thinking and reading around this theme I am drawn to Aquinas’s interpretation that humility is a tendency to avoid setting goals which are beyond one’s faculty to achieve. This is how Aquinas puts the argument:
I answer that . . . it belongs properly to humility, that a man restrain himself from being borne towards that which is above him. For this purpose he must know his disproportion to that which surpasses his capacity. Hence knowledge of one’s own deficiency belongs to humility, as a rule guiding the appetite. Nevertheless humility is essentially in the appetite itself; and consequently it must be said that humility, properly speaking, moderates the movement of the appetite.
It follows from this interpretation of humility that we must fully understand the breadth of our faculties (and, of course, the inherent difficulty of our goals).
I’d love to read any thoughts you may have on the subject, or suggestions of literary or philosophical texts that may be useful.