Humility used to be a cardinal virtue. It is, however, not so appealing to our minds anymore. It may be that we subconsciously associate it with humiliation, because both words are derived from the same root: humus (earth, ground). To be humble would then mean to belittle oneself, to stay on the ground, to submit: that is hardly a prospect one would consider desirable.
Why then should we contemplate this concept today? What use can it be to our practice of ethics? Well, it can transform the relationship we have with ourselves and with others in an extremely beneficial way.
Let us begin by a somewhat abrupt question: what am I?
Here are the first answers that come to my mind if I ask myself this question: I am so-and-so. Here is my body, more or less beautiful, more or less healthy, young or old. I have a certain position within society: I have such-and-such job, I am rich or poor, educated or illiterate, more or less intelligent. I am single or in a relationship, with or without children. I am born in such-and-such country during such-and-such times. My history, my disposition, my education, my culture, all these elements, combined in a unique way, make me who I am. These first answers refer to a specific mode of the self, which I would call the psychosocial self.
There is however another way to answer this question—a simpler but less immediate answer, which comes to me from a rich philosophical tradition: what am I? I am nothing, or hardly anything. I am nothing because I am mortal; because nothing I have actually comes from me; because most of the causes that determine my existence are beyond my reach and hang upon chance or Providence, depending on how I see things. Assuming I do not accept this idea, assuming I do feel that I “built myself” by the sweat of my brow, I still can’t deny that I have no real power upon what I possess or think I possess. I can’t deny that I could lose everything from one day to the other. I can’t do anything about what can’t be undone, I can’t stop myself from aging and things and people that are dearest to me can disappear in an instant, no matter what I do.
It is a massive fact and so patently obvious that we end up not seeing it anymore. What am I? Wise men and philosophers from all traditions agree in describing human beings as precarious beings, floating for a while in the midst of a reality they don’t really control, until they die. There is a whole body of literature on the topic. It is thus useful to further reflect, if only individually, as part of an internal meditation intended to better apprehend and assimilate this truth.
This mode of existence or dimension of the self that draws it closer to “nothing”, because it is part of the human condition whatever its position in the world, introduces us to what may be called the metaphysical self.
As men are not able to fight against death, misery, ignorance, they have taken it into their heads, in order to be happy, not to think of them at all. (Pascal)
In practice, we do not very often think about our metaphysical self, which appears to us not so much as a matter of “real life” as one of philosophy: “I’ll get back to it when I have time; I have too many things to care about for now” is what we tell ourselves. We may even tend to cultivate a slightly ironic distance towards all these grave philosophical reflections that try to refer human beings back to their nothingness. Upon second look though, this irony is clearly nothing but a denial strategy. I know very well that I am mortal and insignificant—I can’t deny it because it’s obvious. But this obvious fact, which appears to me as a negation of my self (death and insignificance), makes me anxious. Since I can’t negate it, I will do everything I can to deny it. I will live with this fact, but act as if it did not exist and I won’t let it have any impact on the way I live.
As a result of this repression we gladly live our daily life on “psychosocial self mode” and we neglect our metaphysical self. Yet this metaphysical dimension is truly part of us, just as much as our psychosocial dimension. It won’t go away just because we try not to think about it: I won’t become immortal just because I repress the idea of my death. This reality is part of me. If I deny it, I amputate myself from a part of me, I am incomplete, there is something missing.
Our premise here will be that this internal divide or divorce between my two selves has negative effects on me. This is, in fact, a basic principle of modern psychology. I may only live in happiness if I try to reconcile myself with myself, even if it has to be with a part of my being that does not seem to be favourable to me. Some truths are better left unsaid: perhaps, when they affect others. But never is it in my interest to close my eyes to a truth that affects me, however unpleasant that truth might appear at first.
So I am a mortal and insignificant being. I know it. Now all I have to do is internally and profoundly recognise this fact. The aim of this series of articles is to explore a few avenues that may enable us to make some room for this metaphysical self in our daily life and to reconcile ourselves with it. The ethical concept or tool that will enable us to implement this project is that of humility.
Do not hesitate to suggest avenues to explore in your comments. The idea is to reflect together on the following questions:
- How can we integrate the awareness of the true place we hold in the world to our daily life? How can I live while keeping in mind that I am nothing?
- Is there really some benefit to trying to see oneself in one’s true place (as “nothing”), and if so, what kind of benefit? Isn’t it dangerous to perceive oneself as “nothing”?
- Consciousness and near-death experiences – Pim van Lommel, M.D.
- Words of Truth (Asar ol-Haqq)
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