Ever So Umble

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.

20 thoughts on “Ever So Umble

  1. “Humbleness” shouldn’t even be a word, really. “Humility” is the noun, and “humble” is both the adjectival form and one of the verb forms of “humility” (“humiliate” being the other). We don’t need another noun form. But modernly we’re so confused about the concept of humility that we almost always misunderstand its forms, which only increases our confusion and makes uttering the word “humility” seem downright risky. So instead we nominalize the adjective: “humbleness.” It sounds more secular, more generic, more attainable, even.

    Whenever entertainers win an award, they inevitably gush during their acceptance speech, “I’m so humbled by this!” No. To be humbled is to be reduced in importance or stature, defeated, even debased or degraded, and to have a low estimate of one’s own worth. It’s not as severe as being humiliated, but it’s definitely on the way.

    And when people are gratified by the attention of someone higher in status who’s feigning modesty or self-effacing behavior in order to gain advantage, they exclaim, “She’s so humble! You’d never know she’s a billionaire and the CEO of a huge investment company!” No. “Humble” means meek, submissive, unassertive, subdued, or low in social status.

    So what’s left? The problem with defining true humility is that it’s not a personal quality or characteristic, and it’s not an attitude or approach: it’s the absence of such distinctions. In her introduction to Simone Weil: An Anthology, Siân Miles wrote, “[Humility] is not the opposite of arrogance, for example, and can never be included in an opinion of one’s self in comparison with a personal ideal…. Humility, [Weil] claims, is not a poor opinion of one’s own person in comparison with others. It is a radically poor opinion of one’s person in relation to what is impersonal in one’s self.”

    No authentic teaching, secular or otherwise, will encourage us to dismiss or deprecate the value of our person so that we may apprehend the impersonal within. That would be the equivalent of encouraging us to act humble in order to be humble: the fake-it-’til-you-make-it fallacy. Any deprecation, any “radically poor opinion,” any humility, will develop only (if at all) as a result of our having at least discerned, if not apprehended, the impersonal within. And how can we do that? The pedagogical praxes of all of the major religions exist solely to provoke such apprehension, but we have to pass the chicken-egg entrance exam in order to begin the course. And how can we do that? Well, the basic requirement is…yeah: humility.

    P.S. You probably know that “numbles” (ME for offal) –> “umbles” (edible animal innards, i.e., low-class grub) –> “umble pie” (pie made from umbles) –> “humble pie” (a pun; ‘h’ was unpronounced). I just found that out a couple of minutes ago! 😉

    P.P.S. I’m typing this online, live. I hope WordPress accepts italics. If not, sorry!

    • ‘Humbleness’ is clunky and ugly. I was surprised to find it in my dictionary.

      I enjoyed very much your comments on the difficulty of defining true humility. Kant is, as far as I can tell, is the only major western philosopher that reflected at length on the nature of humility. He classified it as a ‘duty to oneself’, and pairs it with “true, noble pride” as the elements of self-respect. I argue with Kant often but in this case I accept his stance.

      Professions of humility are by definition insincere and always hypocritical. Kant warns repeatedly against comparing ourselves with others, only against “moral law”: “A man of true merit is neither haughty nor a snob; he is humble, because he cherishes an idea of true worth so lofty that he can never rise high enough to satisfy its demands.”

      I’d very much enjoy umble pie, though strangely, “umbles” and the modern word “humble” are (according to Wikipedia) etymologically unrelated.

      • Many good points raised. Here’s another:

        In Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, Ippolit asks: “…But again comes the eternal question: why is my humility needed here? Isn’t it possible simply to eat me, without demanding that I praise that which has eaten me?”

        Why do we value humility in ourselves?

        • Do we value humility? I am far from certain that, except in the misplaced form you identified in your comment above, or its monkish interpretation, genuine humility is valued. In the West at least it is probably considered a form of timidity.

      • I was thinking of the increasing number people who seem to want to be perceived as humble, or who say they’d like to cultivate humility in themselves, however they interpret the concept. I suppose much of that is prompted by the same faux-spiritual meme-notions as “voluntary simplicity” or “mindfulness,” if not the sense that “narcissistic entitlement disease” is pandemic. Ach, we hapless humans: self-improvement just isn’t working out for us…. 🙂

      • BTW, I hope it didn’t sound in my previous comment as if I was referring to your thoughtful posts on this topic; not at all.

        And although I agree with “birds fly” that humility isn’t something one can attain through pursuit, I think it may occur involuntarily as a result of life events or circumstances, and also that it may be provoked by permanently abandoning one’s ordinary existence, lifestyle, values, environment, profession, identity markers, etc. (whatever those may be) and not subsequently generating a book, website, NPO, or guruship.

        Finally (maybe), it seems likely to me that people whom others tend to describe as humble aren’t, and that those who are go completely unnoticed.

  2. I think I prefer what Kant says to what Aquinas says (speaking solely based on the quotes you include here). It seems to me that Aquinas is implying the need to exercise active restraint in order for humility to exist, whereas Kant is saying that humility will flow naturally from setting one’s sights on such a high ideal that achieving it is simply out of the question. To me, this is a fundamental difference in how to look at humility. With Kant, humility appears to be a passive result, whereas with Aquinas it appears to be more deliberate.

    Personally, I feel like humility is not something that can be worked toward; I think it just happens as a result of a way of living, and is perhaps even a function of personality. But, to me, by saying “that a man restrain himself from being borne towards that which is above him,” Aquinas is telling us he thinks that one can desire greatness (or some ideal), yet at the same time achieve humility by recognizing one’s limitations and not striving beyond them. I would disagree. I don’t think one can ever harbor a need to restrain oneself from seeking a higher station, and still manage to be humble (this awareness of the need to restrain seems like it could lead to the fallacy that Death Zen mentions).

    I like the words Kant uses…”cherishes,” “true worth” and “true merit”…these words tell me that the person he is thinking of never even considers wanting to achieve the ideal, but that simply by valuing that ideal and holding it close, humility flows from it.

    • I think what you write comes close to capturing Kant’s position (as far as this dilettante reader can grasp Kant’s arguments), what he terms an epistemic humility that flows from our receptivity to the acquisition of knowledge. This loosely fits Plato’s argument that 50 is the right age to study philosophy (which I don’t truly believe, but by then, you have any chance of acquiring (some) humility), after the maturity that can only come from experience in the form of acquired knowledge.

  3. Humility is the by product of perspective, as it relates to mortality, and there is a precise relationship between the Western occlusion of death as a universal ever present and the advancement of the individual ego to a place of extreme centrality. The reason why humility is such a profound quality is because it is the direct result of a realisation that we are mortal, and fragile, therefore we should not waste time over egging our own achievements which are truly irrelevant and transitory, and most often, material. Humility is not therefore a suppression of self worth, but a proper adjustment of it in the light of death, which allows us a freedom to be unburdened by minutia or pride. I think this can be sought out and attained but undoubtedly certain life practises will provide this sense of perspective. For example, martial arts. Taking your sense of inflated worth, voluntarily, to a room where people can physically control you, hypothetically kill you, will provide humility. And when they are also extremely courteous and affable, you realise the proper application of that term and can apply it.

  4. From memory Descartes touches on ‘humility’ in his ethics (regarding the passions and deferring to the traditions/laws of the land. Other thinkers ala Nietzsche certainly touch upon it; at least indirectly in any exploration of the nature of morals.

    I suspect, and I warn you these are intoxicated reflections here, that Western views of humility have been largely shaped in relation to the notion of piety. ‘We are all humbled before God’. Its almost an assumed premise in pre-modern moral thinking that we are all humble as we orientate ourselves towards God and God’s final, everlasting, judgement. What we see around the time of Kant is that the spread of egalitarian or deep democractic thought associated with the Enlightenment removes the absolute moral value of piety. It is seen in part Hegel’s Phenomenolgy of Spirit, which explores so much of human societal history – my reading PoS pushes for some secular public space because all other modes fail when extended beyond small communities. This is seen, to me quite clearly in the British response to the French Revolution which saw the first major skirmish between neo-conservatism (Burke; the society of manners) and modern liberalism (Wollstonecraft; deep democratisation). The latter, eventually victorious, relegates the notion of humility to a less prominent place but without removing the romanticised ideas associated with it.

    I know this hasn’t been expressed in an exemplary fashion. The core idea is that its discussion in the Western tradition has largely been framed indirectly. That the meaning, through the Enlightenment and Modern periods has mutated significantly, as we have gradually adopted the principles of democracy we have further revised are views in the light of nostalgia – just like we have tended to do so regarding the age of chivalry – which has led us to this radically different modern usage and the appearance of a gap in our secular thinking… Whether this is a real gap in our thinking or a shallow reading – I’m not sure. I think that the two notions of humility or ‘humbleness’ (as we all seem horrified to view as a proper label) are divergent enough for us to question which we are actually talking about.

    • Thanks, Edward, for that useful comment.

      As I wrote the opening sentences I felt a gap between the two concepts of humility and ‘humbleness’ or perhaps that there ought to be some divergence between them (as clunky as ‘humbleness’ may be grammatically).

      Kant certainly made a clear distinction between two notions of humiliation: that of monkish ascetics driven by superstition, and Kantian humility a response to ‘the consciousness of one’s restored freedom. In practise, this is the difference between a humility that is backward looking, to propitiate a god, and a forward looking humility that strives to improve one’s moral disposition.

      • Without trying to evaluate the current age, it does seem that we take the notion of humility as bearing a family resemblance to wisdom. By this I mean, that it seems to be a quality of character rather than something obtained by trial and error. We can know a lot but not be wise. For a physical parallel its like peripheral vision or a balanced use of the senses available to us to know ourselves in relation to the world.

        It is a bit annoying that this abstraction, I think takes us closer to the sense that you want to discuss and pushes us further away from the epistemology expressed in your tagline (well the thinker in your tagline). Perhaps I’m off the trail with this line of thought. I would say, if we grant it to be true at least for the sake of exploration, that much of Continental philosophy has dealt with this idea from the viewpoint that whilst man ultimately defines himself starts out from the position of being a state of pure humility (or humbleness as it may be) and then builds up. I’m not quite sure how to frame the analytic tradition though; perhaps its the opposite or not quite so distinct – I would say at a guess that its more of the latter.

        The more that I think about it, I feel that our(?) western tradition has consistently seen humility as being a starting point. Something to push against. Occasionally we, or parts of our intellectual/cultural/political heritage have seen it advantageous to look back to it with a sense of nostalgia or to represent it through a lens of mysticism. After all the modern idea is that to be humble, is to be free of pretension. This when viewed through the lens of nostalgia or mysticism is extremely positive being either innocent or wise; both are things that divorced from our currant capitalistic framing of the world.*

        *I say this without having any strong capitalistic or marxist leanings.

        • I’m coming to the view that, like wisdom (unlike intelligence), humility is a path of trial and error. Children have no humility, by nature they are completely egocentric. Some people never move beyond that egocentricity. They get stuck. I suspect that applies at a broader level to the species, although I am no believer in linear improvement/progression. Acquiring humility is a process of maturation. Some never get there. They get stuck.

          Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Edward.

  5. I also associate selflessness with humility. If one lives in consideration of others, respecting their feelings and looking out for their well-being, then the prominence of one’s own ego recedes in a natural way. I also don’t think it’s ever too late to shed layers of egocentricity by opening oneself up to others, perhaps in small ways at first, and by doing so allowing the space needed for humility to exist. In this way, I agree with how you say it is a process of maturation (and not necessarily a linear process, but one that can either be stunted or fostered throughout one’s life).

  6. I wrote that a few months ago :
    “It was repeated several times that Hopper was a very humble, elegant man. I guess that’s the ultimate elegance, the ultimate humility ; not trying to be anything else than what you are. Being the clown you are, as grotesque and melancholic as you are, as innapropriate as you are. No lies.”
    and I forgot I had written that, but reading Aquinas’ quote I was reminded of it.

    I think it goes beyond capacities, but can be applied to all attitudes, all actions. Humility is not to play a role, not to have a posture.

    Also I was thinking of this recently because I have no idea of what I’m doing, professionally, nor what I should be doing. I’m daydreaming of many things and I’m scared of making a wrong choice, so I don’t make any choice at all. The problem I encounter here is lack of humility. I don’t know what I’m capable of, I always thinking of what I could do, and people I talk to reinforce these thoughts saying things like “It would be a waste for an actress such as you to teach” and when they say that I want to say no, but I don’t say anything because a part of me is tempted to believe them, and a part of me knows that denying them would be the mark of an even greater lack of humility. So I accept their words and still have no clue as to what my capacities are, and my appetite for learning and doing is greater with every minute that passes.

    • Though I adore Hopper’s work, I know little of the man, but I am pleased that he was thought of as humble, elegant. There is evidence of both in this paintings.

      I’m giving a lot of thought to the Kant quote in one of the above comments: “A man of true merit is neither haughty nor a snob; he is humble, because he cherishes an idea of true worth so lofty that he can never rise high enough to satisfy its demands.” I prefer this to Aquinas’s monkish approach.

      • Ha yes. Also the appetite Aquinas talks about can be understood as curiosity, ambition, and these qualities can be both positive and destructive, depending on how you use them, and how much ego you put into them.

        In this regard Kant’s quote sounds much more precise. I like it.

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