Formerly considered a classic virtue and a hallmark of spirituality, humility gets little press these days. On the contrary, we value assertive behaviour. Self respect and self belief are important to us. We boost our confidence and promote our potential. Reality TV is the antithesis of humility, and its ethos pervades our thinking. In a success oriented world, humility is not an asset. Modernity has made us more capable in the natural world we live in, and less its victim, but for humanity to vaunt its newfound prowess and forget its humility in the huge scope of the cosmos is a mistake, possibly a very dangerous one.
We are rightly cynical about what we label ‘false humility’. To understate our capability to others, and even to ourselves, is a failure to be true, and offends the virtue of truth. It denies fulfilment of our potential, and so is wasteful. It is no spiritual virtue. This is humility about ourselves. It’s a static idea, a matter of self definition.
There is another more dynamic behavioural dimension of humility, that of not pushing ourselves, but preferring others. Humility will tend to let someone else off the train first. It’s as rare today as definitional humility about ourselves.
Humility measures the relative prominence of ego. We speak of some people having a ‘big ego’. They appear over-confident, are often dominating, self aware and self promotional. Whilst humility can be false, lack of humility can be equally false. False pride and confidence fail to perceive what we lack, what we don’t know, what we can’t do. The self fulfilling effect is that we then don’t bother to develop our capability, because we have falsely convinced ourselves that we don’t need to. We are there already. We are the ones to do the telling, not the listening. Humility in this sense is enabling.
I’ve always found it remarkable that the greater someone’s capability, the more humble they tend to be. It’s mediocrity which leads to promotionalism. Intellectuals, scientists, performers of the arts at the frontier of their subject are very aware of, if not daunted by, the sheer extent of what they yet don’t know, don’t understand, or can’t yet do. This humility keeps their mind open, and makes more development possible. It is humble to remain a learner, and it is ultimately more fulfilling. It is humble to show courtesy, to give priority to someone else, and this remains a grace which elevates the human world in a way Nietzsche, who regarded humility as the virtue of slaves, could never understand. The alternatives to humility are arrogance, vanity and pride. Virtue as always is an arbitrary choice, a choice of which sort of world we prefer.