Tuesday, October 14, 2008

On Humility

By Hanno

I did promise to have a new post each Monday. I failed. Sue me.

Last week, we engaged had a discussion about humility. What is humility? Is it a virtue or a vice? Are people being humble when they give glory to God?

Normally, you cannot do philosophy by dictionary. A dictionary definition tells us how we use words, and there is no truth that is uncovered by simply showing how we use a word. moreover, people may use a word in one way, but the philosophical impact of the concept may lie in a different place. Be all that as it may, I find it useful in the present circumstance to think about the dictionary definition. To be humble is to have a low estimate of one's importance. The other connections we were making to humility seem to follow loosely from this definition.

Hence giving glory to God is an act of humility in a way: you are saying I did nothing, it was all God's doing, which is why He gets the glory, not me. But 1) most people who say this are basking in the glory while saying it. Then it becomes at best an empty gesture, even if in some sense heartfelt. 2) Conceiving of yourself as the instrument of God's will is not humility. True, he could have used someone else as his instrument. But that only marginally lowers the importance of the actor. In fact, conceiving of yourself as the instrument of God raises your importance in another way: you are like a prophet! God choose you! Your god given talents make you special, and special in a divine way, as it is God's power that you have and use. Being God's tool makes you almost divine. Giving God the glory is false humility.

Nietzsche criticizes humility for two reasons. The first is that we value humility not because it is good to be humble, but because lack of humility makes unimportant people feel bad about themselves, and creates rage and depression amongst them. Even if true, saying "I am smarter, stronger, faster, prettier than you" makes other people feel bad, rocks the boat, offends the herd. Valuing "I am worthless, unimportant" is the value scheme of the slave.

The second criticism he makes is far deeper: Valuing claims like "I am worthless" strips life itself of value. To live, to value life, you must think positively of this life. The humble monk, sitting in his hut, does not live life, he denies it, denies life has value. The monk does this for a variety of reasons, but the main Christian one is to see this life as a punishment for our sins. If so, reveling in life is reveling in our punishment, turning it from punishment to reward. Humility is essential to thinking of this life as a punishment. Humility is thus life-denying.

So is that right? And even if it is right, are there true virtues to humility? If so, what?


tr said...

I would have thought it would be a virtue to have accurate powers of self analysis and to believe you are exactly as good as you are. Which I believe puts me in a camp with Hume and Aristotle.

ce said...

There are problems here:

Giving glory to God does not necessitate that 1) God gets all the glory nor 2) that it was all God's doing. Giving thanks to God could simply be a way to acknowledge His involvement in your life, work, etc. You didn't do it entirely on your own. You could even say God was essential, but that hardly makes God sufficient in a particular instance.

It might not make you anything like divine, and even if it does, if we assume we are made in His image and are part of His plan, then we already are something like divine, so you're just saying humans are human. It could also easily be said that we are all given God given talents, and indeed that any talent possessed was given by God anyway. Why you in this particular case? Well, who the in the Hell knows? He's a mysterious, dude.

Now, on to Nietzsche . There is a big difference between being a braggart, which makes you feel better by making others feel beneath you, and simply stating an observed fact. You may well run faster than someone else, and stating so is simply an observation supported by the demonstration at hand. But adding "neener neener" to the end of it just makes you a jerk. It seems valuable for us to note the difference.

Also, "to have a low estimate of one's importance" is not the same as "worthless". Worth is not even the same as importance. I may be valuable and helpful, and worthwhile in many, many ways, but perhaps I don't have very much importance. Maybe I'm comparing myself to Presidents and Prime Ministers, people who make globally important decisions. One can be valuable, and not important. Of course, this may be more the fault of the translator's rather than that of Nietzsche .

But we use humility in more ways than just in dealing with how important we are. We can be humble about any victory or accomplishment. The difference, I would initially say, is the degree and manner in which we rejoice in our accomplishments. We can do it in a manner, which embraces those who assisted us in that accomplishment. We can include those people and circumstances, which enabled it initially, and make both ourselves and those around us feel better about the victory/accomplishment. We can also do the opposite, and be hurtful, and demeaning to all associated parties. The humble person realizes their place realistically. The braggart dismisses, diminishes and demeans the assistance and efforts of others in order to simply crow.

I suppose you could also not be humble simply by the degree to which you rejoice. Getting a gold star probably does not deserve a trip to Las Vegas in order to celebrate. But, obviously, this will be a judgment call. Social conventions will help guide us here, but there will be a point where you turn off just some, and a point where you turn off most if not all.

This makes me think that perhaps humility should be more clearly defined into different sorts of humility, but that's not a project for a message board. Perhaps, character is better demonstrated by the manner, but that's just what I would intuit initially.

Anonymous said...

tr: Why is there virtue in truth? Art is essentially false, yet it has value.

ce said...

How is art "essentially false"?

Anonymous said...

Because the stories never happen, the picture is never true. At best, art is a distortion. Movies are not like life, plays are not like life, stories are not like life, paintings are even further away.

I don't say this as a criticism of art, but as a criticism of truth. If art is valuable, then falsehood is valuable.

tr said...

All I said was that it was a virtue to have true beliefs about yourself. That's not at all inconsistent with thinking it can be good to have false beliefs about other things. Which is not to say I endorse that view; it just isn't inconsistent with what I said.

Hanno said...

Well, art is essentially interpretive. Interpretations are neither true nor false, but interesting or bad. Still, the focus on truth seems anti-art, and the point remains.

ce said...

Still, the focus on truth seems anti-art, and the point remains.

Valuing truth does not require us to be anti-art. Exclusively valuing truth probably would. As such, it would require that our focus be solely on truth. There is always the plural form, foci.

Anonymous said...

Art is a lie. All of it. It simply never happened. Hamlet never lived. Richard III did, but he never said the things Shakespeare wrote that he did.

And life is a lie. The stories you tell yourself, the history you give yourself, what you think of yourself, its all a lie. The truth is: you are irrelevant to the universe, to the world. You are unimportant. You are not as smart as you think you are, as handsome as you think you are, not even close.

That is why, perhaps, humility may be the veridical attitude to have, but it is life denying. To live well, you must think that you are special, important, even though it is a lie.

Hanno said...

You guys are not giving any reason to value truth. You say you can value both the lie and the truth, both art and non-art. OK, but give me a reason why the truth is so important, why humility is so important. Why do you need an honest evaluation of how unimportant you are?

ce said...


There is a difference between something which is fictional, and something which is a lie. If you think it better to conflate the two then give me an argument for that, otherwise you're just mistaken (or possibly equivocating). Art is fictional, but that doesn't make it a lie. What if I am merely my own work of fiction? And?

Why can't I be completely honest with myself and live well? I suppose we'll just leave what it means "to live well" up in the air for now. Hell, even if I am incapable of doing so (and I don't see why that would necessarily be the case), I can still respond with: so what?


To better gauge the world, yourself, and how to act within it. Do you need to be totally, utterly, unabashedly honest? Of course not. But being utterly delusional obviously handicaps you in a multitude of ways and in many instances. You can (and we probably most often do) wind up somewhere in between, where you are somewhat honest and somewhat not, and be totally o.k.

The wise person, perhaps, knows when it is best to let the fiction continue unfolding, and when to break for a reality check.