Thus he had a double thought: the one by which he acted as king, the other by which he recognized his true state, and that it was accident alone that had placed him in his present condition. […] It was by the former that he treated with the people, and by the latter that he treated with himself.
Humility is the most accomplished form of self-knowledge. It presupposes that you have a clear and lucid perception of what you really are and of the place you hold in the world. It presupposes also that you look at yourself with neutrality and even distance: humility also means being able to look at yourself with humour.
As explained in my previous post, humility can be defined as the articulation point between two modes of the self (psychological and metaphysical): it means acknowledging my metaphysical condition (the “I am nothing”) even when I am in the midst of social interactions, surrounded by others, just like others. It means being aware of my insignificance even when I go about my business, defending my rights and making sure I command respect if necessary, while constantly carrying within me that “double thought” Pascal alludes to.
Humility is often confused with modesty, which is merely the external manifestation of humility and can be considered a social virtue. But being humble doesn’t only mean being kind, polite and discreet with regard to one’s successes. The virtue of humility comes before these qualities. You may very well be internally humble but still capable to hold your own and assert your authority when the situation requires it; just as you may very well show modesty and respect on the outside but feel very much superior on the inside. As La Rochefoucauld put it, humility is “an artifice of pride which stoops to conquer, and although pride has a thousand ways of transforming itself it is never so well disguised and able to take people in as when masquerading as humility.” That’s very true, but only if you confine humility to a social virtue. Humility as we understand it here fits in another category. It is an internal state of mind, a work on your thoughts that can manifest itself—or not—in modest external behaviour, depending on the context.
Humility is a feeling that consists of becoming aware of what we are. It means realizing that we aren’t much on the one hand, while accepting ourselves as such on the other. In that sense, it is an indispensable condition both to our psychological well-being (we feel good because we learn to accept ourselves) and to our ethical progress (we move away from the false image the ego tries to give of itself and the perception we have of ourselves gets closer to the truth).
It is often very instructive, when trying to define a term, to make a detour via its opposite, in this case, pride.
If humility goes hand in hand with self-knowledge, then pride is synonym with ignorance and illusion with regard to oneself. Pride would then be ignorance, or untruthfulness. Let’s look into this visibly close link between humility, knowledge and truth. The greatest scientists are often said to be the most humble. Why? Because it seems obvious that, for example, a great physicist will never consider bragging about his knowledge of physics. Thanks to his knowledge, his perspective on current science is sufficiently enlightened to allow him to perceive the immensity of all that is left to be discovered. As a result, he is humble—humble with regard to all that he doesn’t know, yet knowledgeable enough to have a real appreciation of the extent of what remains to be known. One might say that he knows what he doesn’t know. Let’s now consider a third year college student majoring in physics. That student has started to assimilate some of the fundamental laws that govern the natural world and this little bit of knowledge is enough to fill his narrow field of perception. Intoxicated and puffed up by this sensation, he feels as if he had understood the secret of the universe without realizing, yet, how much more remains to be learned.
Pride thus results from ignorance. It is an energy rooted in our lack of knowledge of ourselves that pushes us to build a dilated and false image of ourselves, which may be called the illusory ego. You know this poor proud wretch with a swollen ego? That’s all of us. Because the pride we are talking about here isn’t a psychological characteristic that only some of us would have while others would be spared from it (in the way one can say that some people are quick-tempered or lazy while others are calm or hard-working…). It shouldn’t be confused with vanity or arrogance, as these are merely external and particularly obvious manifestations of an internal state, which often remains hidden. The pride we are talking about is like a “solvent (1)” in which the entirety of our psychological characters is immersed. It so wholly impregnates us that we are unaware of it. This pride is consubstantial with our very being and most often closely related to the sensation we have of being ourselves.
As such, it concerns everyone, even those who are kind, even those who are shy, even those who are discrete, even—and perhaps even more—those who lack self-confidence and self-esteem.
(1) ^ This term is used by Bahram Elahi in Foundations of Natural Spirituality.
- Humility 4 – Humility is a strength
- Humility 3 – Detecting characteristics of consubstantial pride within oneself
- Humility 1 – which self are we talking about?
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