Some Thoughts On Humility

A Facebook Friend posted: “I hate modesty, loathe mediocrity, despise humility. They are crutches, an invented virtue for those who have nothing to offer besides how little they have to offer.”

I started to write a comment in response, but it quickly became too long for a comment. So I’m posting it here instead. For what it’s worth, all of this is far more what I aspire to than what I actually exemplify. I’ve got a lot of knowing left to gain and I try to keep reminding myself about that. Take this not as if from some guru but, instead, as from someone who’s hoping they’ve got their compass pointed in a worthwhile direction.


You know how first you don’t know that you don’t know something and you may be ignorant and think you know more than you do, and then you find out you don’t know, so that now you know don’t know, and then you start little by little to learn more, and now you know that you know something about it, and eventually you learn it so well that it’s second nature and automatic and you no longer are aware of the knowing? So there are two kinds of not knowing, the first and the last, and they are fundamentally and meaningfully different, one exemplifying lack, the other exemplifying fullness, both to such an extreme that they aren’t even aware of either the lack or the fullness. And even the earlier one was worthwhile as long as you came to know that you didn’t know so that you could then move forward. It was only the not knowing that you didn’t know that was harmful in keeping you stuck in ignorance.

Humility has a lot to do with this. When there’s a lack of skill or knowledge, first there may be ignorance and even pride in what you think you know but really don’t. Then you realize you don’t know, and in order to learn more, you must humble yourself before that realization, must adopt humility, because admitting you don’t know is the only path toward actually being open to taking in whatever it is that’s on the path of learning more, developing your skills, etc. Then you start to learn more, and you know you’re getting better, and you may take some rightful pride in that. But eventually, when you’ve reached a certain level of excellence in your learning, you regain a new kind of humility, not out of embarrassment for what you lack, more like gratitude for what you have, and recognition that good things do not come from rubbing what you have in the faces of others who don’t have as much.

The virtue of the latter, true kind of humility may be falsely leaned on by those who are at the beginning of the path, who may be stuck in ignorant self-righteousness, not knowing that they don’t really know about whatever it is. They may all too easily resent and put down those who know something, trying to get them to act more modestly. But that doesn’t make humility in itself less than a virtue, either in the sense of being open to new learning (like those who realize they don’t know and embark on consciously learning more), or in the sense of being grateful for all the learning you have (as the one who has learned much and even starts to lose awareness of all they’ve come to know). Our critical eye should not be on humility but on the reasons why one might uphold it as a virtue. Some of those reasons are helpful and some aren’t.

The same goes for the pride of both the ignorant and of the person in the process of learning. Two very different reasons for being proud of oneself. And yet even the “good” kind of pride, the pride from real knowing along the path of learning, can only at best be a temporary virtue. It’s a virtue that all too easily can lead to a vice. It’s got to be transcended as you get farther along the path of excellence. Because that pride, even in someone along the path of knowing, is still all too easy to tip toward self-righteousness, and probably even easier to tip toward that when faced with someone you know to be prideful in their ignorance. Someone who knows “should” win over someone who doesn’t, right? Knowing should win over not knowing. But when pride gets in the way, the conflict becomes about that, pride against pride. All that does is keep pushing the “not-knowing” person ever deeper into their own self-righteousness, ever farther from admitting what they don’t know and actually starting along that path of knowing. And then all the learning that the “knowing” person has actually achieved can’t accomplish much, because it didn’t come along another really crucial piece of knowledge that would have made all the difference in how to interact with others.

So even if there may be reasons to be proud of oneself for having learned something, it remains important to not get swept up in one’s pride. Self-esteem that needs to demonstrate itself powerfully to others isn’t self-esteem at all, it’s other-esteem. Excellence that pushes people away from itself isn’t worth much. It indicates that its possessor is less than excellent in some other area, that its possessor has a need to submit humbly to a different kind of not knowing, about one’s own pride and self-esteem and humility, so that one can end up excellent in whatever area without having that excellence push others away. So it’s all the more important to transcend pride in one’s own knowing and get to a point of real humility. Only there can we find what we need in order to have even chance of interacting with the ignorant and get them to realize that they need to start down the path of knowing. We may not succeed with them even if we have humility. But almost certainly we’ll fail as long as we don’t.

Humility may be well worth criticizing when it keeps you from promoting excellence in yourself or in the world. But pride is worth criticizing for the very same reasons. Humility and pride can both promote excellence, each in its way, and in the end I suspect that humility is itself the more important of the two in terms of actually expressing things in the world. Because excellence speaks for itself. It not only doesn’t need pride to speak for it, it actually suffers when pride does open its mouth about it. So in the end humility may be the most important thing in all of this. It’s what lets you admit what you don’t know so that you can keep finding openings to know more. And, crucially, it’s what stands the chance of making you able to help others do the same.

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