Humility, part 1

The March theme here at Community UU at White Plains, NY, is humility. We Unitarian Universalists aren’t great with the humility thing. We tend to be a bit suspicious of it, for a number of reasons.

What I’ll do, today, is go through a list of those reasons. One by one, we’ll consider five difficulties with the idea of humility. And then we’ll look at a kind of humility that I think Unitarians actually have taken to heart and embody – a humility, I’d say, that is at the essence of Unitarian Universalism.

Humility as Putting Oneself Down

The first difficulty is the idea that humility means putting yourself down. This is the simplest one to dispense with: that’s not what we’re talking about. Humility is not exemplified by someone who’s always putting themselves down. They might be doing it because they really have low self-esteem. Or maybe they’re very insecure and need you to contradict their bad assessment and tell them they’re fine. Either way, that’s not humility.

Putting yourself down is not humility because it’s still focused on you. Prideful, boasting arrogance is one way to be focused on yourself. Abasing yourself is another way to be focused on yourself. These apparent opposites – having a very high opinion of yourself and having a very low opinion of yourself -- share a preoccupation with the self. They both put the self at the center. Humility is about decentering of the self – focusing on others, shifting focus away from oneself and toward the situation at hand, toward the present needs, toward the task, toward serving. “Humility,” as C.S. Lewis nicely put it, “isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”

A self-centered life is barren and sterile. A saying that’s been circulating in various versions for over a century is that a person all wrapped up zirself makes a small package. Humility is not denying that we have worth and value. It’s simply a focus on serving others rather than on what others think of us.

Humility as Superfluous; Not a Virtue

Even when we grasp clearly that humility is not about thinking you don’t matter, but about being unconcerned with mattering and just responding to the needs of the situation, Unitarians may remain unconvinced that humility has value. By all means, some of us might say, let us value service and compassion, being respectful, considerate, and kind. But if we value and practice those things, then it is enough to value and practice them. We don’t need an additional value called “humility.”

So that’s the second difficulty: the idea that humility is superfluous – an unhelpful redundancy. If the argument for humility is that it orients us toward service and compassion, then why not focus directly on the service and compassion and skip the humility?

Indeed, there are some strands within the Western philosophical tradition that might seem to suggest we not regard humility as a virtue. Aristotle, for instance, wrote at length about the virtues and becoming a virtuous person, and he does not seem to have regarded humility as a virtue. Aristotle’s idea of the ideal person was someone he called “great-souled." Such a person deserves honors and knows ze deserves honors. For Aristotle, the nine important virtues are:
  • wisdom (theoretical);
  • prudence (practical wisdom, skillful decision-making about action);
  • justice (treating people fairly);
  • fortitude (persevering in the right thing under difficult circumstances or threat of harm);
  • courage (mediating between recklessness and cowardice);
  • liberality (in spending money, mediating between prodigality and parsimony);
  • magnificence (spending large sums in order to bring grand things into the world);
  • magnanimity (eschewing pettiness, facing dangers, pursuing noble purposes);
  • temperance (moderation in the indulgence of pleasures, esp. food, drink, sex).
A person who has those virtues is justified in claiming to have them – no need to be humble about it.

18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume said humility was a “monkish” pseudo-virtue, along with celibacy, fasting, silence, and solitude. These pseudo-virtues, Hume said, “stupefy the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper.” If you’re great, isn’t it OK to know that you’re great? And not pretend otherwise?

But, again: humility isn’t thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less. The Aristotelian virtues require an orientation toward needs other than your own – so humility would have a role in enabling those other virtues. And Hume did recognize that “impudence and arrogance” were problematic -- and that “a due attention and regard for others” was an important trait.

The thing is: focusing directly on service and compassion doesn’t always succeed. We have egos, and mechanisms to protect and defend those egos – and those are fine when they help us stand up for what is rightfully ours, or help keep us safe. But those ego protections can get in the way, manifest as arrogance, and steer us away from compassionate service, or from any of Aristotle’s virtues. Humility, then, is an “enabling virtue.” That is, paying attention to the idea of humility helps tame the impulse to arrogance so that we can be better oriented toward service, respect, kindness, compassion, and consideration – or toward wisdom, prudence, justice, fortitude, courage, liberality, magnificence, magnanimity, and temperance.

Humility -- along with patience, self-control, and courage – helps us overcome the impulses and inclinations that run contrary to virtue. As such, humility has a crucial role in the development of virtue.

This raises, however, a third difficulty – and that is that humility is so tricky to self-assess.

The Paradox of Assessing One's Humility

If we’re thinking in terms of the development of virtues, then don’t we need to have some sense of how much development has happened at any given point along our path? Accurately assessing how patient you are, say, or how courageous, isn’t exactly easy, but the attempt at least makes sense. There’s no self-contradiction. But humility is different. If you think you’re good at humility, doesn’t that prove that you aren’t? Saying “I’m humble” sounds like a self-undermining joke in a way that saying “I’m compassionate” or “I treat people fairly” does not. When it comes to humility, it seems that realizing you have it somehow spoils it. If you have it, you won’t know it -- and if you think you have it, you probably don’t really!

On this point, I suggest we take our cue from the recovery community. One of their slogans is, “always recovering, never recovered.” Self-assessment of how much progress you’ve made is not, after all, necessary. Just stay on the path. You don’t need to know how far you’ve come. You don’t need to know how much farther you have to go. Just stay on the path.

Whether the pertinent addiction is addiction to ego and to our ego-protection mechanisms, or addiction to alcohol, there is no point of “being recovered” – never a time when you can say “mission accomplished.” There is only staying on the path of recovering. And if you notice that you fell off the wagon, do your best to climb back on.

In Part 2, we'll look at the fourth difficulty with humility common among Unitarians (we're so darn proud of our intellects and education), and the fifth difficulty (we've seen humility invoked in the interests of keeping other people in their place). Then we'll look at how one kind of humility -- epistemic humility -- is, in fact, a core part of the Unitarian Universalist outlook.

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