Updated: Mar 23
As you might have guessed by my previous blog posts, Humility is one of my primary moral values. It is the antithesis of pride and the threshold to self actualization and an open mind as it is a quality which inherently requires self reflection, self sacrifice and the careful deconstruction (or at least questioning) of ego. As a moral value it is one which is closely related to a number of other ethical behaviors and in some cases is a catalyst or prerequisite to those values which are the antithesis of pride. In this article I seek to explore the moral value of humility in the practical terms I outlined in my previous article. In doing so I seek to illuminate some of the meaning behind the word as we use it as well as to utilize the character surrogate method to illustrate this.
“If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, "He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.”
According to Merriam-Webster the definition of humility is the “freedom from pride or arrogance: the quality or state of being humble. Merriam Webster also defines humble as both “not proud or haughty, not arrogant or assertive” as well as “reflecting, expressing or offered in a spirit of deference or submission.” It is the value at the root of the proverb “Turn the other cheek.”
Interestingly enough both humility and humbleness have a definition in common usage meaning “of low social, administrative or political rank” and “lower in dignity and importance” giving some indication of the negative expressions of the word. It becomes an interesting point of reflection that in the long discussion of moral and theological values the term is understood as being of the highest order while simultaneously it has a common usage which also points to low regard and unworthiness. Both humility and humiliate have common etymological ancestry while revealing vastly opposing connotations.
Within the various religious traditions across the world as well as in many of the ethical philosophies we can see the elevation of humility as a virtue consistently across cultures and times. Despite it possessing a common usage with a negative connotation and having an etymological ancestry of referring to inferiority it is a value which enshrines these very qualities as a higher good.
I believe this to be the case because it refers to a specific kind of strength exhibited in the surrender of control (especially of the kind of control which one never really in the first place). It admits the limitations of the individual without requiring prostration, apology or even inaction. It exalts the recognition of limitations without diminishment of the individual. It flips causality by allowing for the acceptance of responsibility for that which is out of one’s control while rejecting the aggrandizement of action by recognizing the interconnectivity of all endeavors. It refers to a self assuredness to understand and accept one’s place in their surroundings. It is not the imposition of will but the calmness of a leaf on the wind. Humility begets groundedness. It is a kite's string tied to a post in a storm and is the threshold to those values which require first that one put aside their own interest in order to act for another.
“It is better to live your own destiny imperfectly than to live an imitation of somebody else's life with perfection.”
― Anonymous, The Bhagavad Gita
First of all we can look at what I would call the subsidiary values. These are those values which we have distinct terms for but in essence are so similar to the primary value that they may be a derivation of it. The differences may refer to a specific context or behavior that would fall under the umbrella of the primary value and though they may be distinct in meaning and expression they may not truly be distinct as ethical values and rather simply components. A way of understanding this may be in understanding the differences between a rectangle and a square in that a square is a rectangle but the specific context of a square does not mean every rectangle is a square. Furthermore both of these shapes are quadrilaterals.
A simple way to identify the subsidiary values can be to first explore the synonyms of the term. Modesty, meekness, deferential, unassuming, submissive, unpresuming, self-deprecating are all words which describe components of humility and may be values in and of themselves however each one does not fully capture all facets of humility as an ethical value. I would place these subsidiary values into two primary sub-categories. The first being behavioral in which they describe the outward or social expression. Meekness, calm, gentleness, deference and reverence come to mind. The second sub-category may describe the traits of character that demonstrate humility. This might include unassuming, unpresuming, modesty, gentleness and patience. There is of course crossover and a lack of clear delineations for each of these values (and subvalues) is interconnected. What seems to be consistent however is that the subsidiary values can be expressed as component parts which require context while the primary value includes all of them.
Its Siblings and its Shadow
Drawing upon an Aristotelian model of understanding ethical values where “virtue is the golden mean between two vices, the one of excess and the other of deficiency” or as I will refer to them, humility’s shadows. In addition to this we can also explore humility’s antithesis as well as its ethical siblings, those virtues which are similar in character or interdependent with the expression of humility in their own development.
To explore the shadows of humility we must look at the way behaviors predicated on humility or its ancillary values are expressed and assess how those values manifest when expressed in both excess and in deficiency. This is a good opportunity for us to introduce the practical method of imagining a character to illuminate the facets of the value for it is easier and more engaging to do so.
In its excess I can imagine a character who has become a martyr and who is unable to stand up for themselves. This character truly exhibits the qualities of insignificance expressed in the negative common usage of the word. Rather than being self assured in acceptance of their limitations they have become nothing but the expression of their limitations. A character who comes to mind as an expression of this is Moaning Myrtle from the Harry Potter series. She was a character perpetually trapped in her victimhood who constantly expressed self deprecation in a self supporting cycle of justification for the very pitiful situation she was in. Though she had knowledge and experiences that could have been helpful to the other characters in the story she was unable to see past her own tragedy and victimhood and aid the other characters materially.
In its deficiency I can imagine a character who is meek to the point of sniveling. I can imagine some kind of sycophant, people pleaser or “yes man” who does not have the strength of character to be assertive, to accept responsibility for their role or may even be manipulative in their weakness. The character I imagine in this role is Grima Wormtongue from the Lord of the Rings series. He is a character who projects weakness while explicitly professing subservience, service and loyalty. His false modesty is in actuality a self-serving manipulation as he twists and controls the mind and actions of his liege, King Theoden.
The antithesis of humility would be pride defined by Merriam-Webster as “inordinate self-esteem: conceit” or a “delight or elation arising from some act, possession or relationship.” Where humility is the relinquishing of credit pride is the assumption of it. Where humility is the recognition of one’s limitations, pride is the gross disregarding of them. Where humility is self-assuredness based upon wise understanding of the self, pride is the misappropriation of cause to the self to support the ego. There are subsidiary values that are related to pride through the dignity of achievement, effort and association that are not negative however the overarching vice is well warned of throughout human cultural traditions and tops the list of cardinal sins as number one.
A character who embodies this vice is the character of Denethor in J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. As the steward and defacto ruler of Gondor he refuses to abase himself and kneel to the claim of the true king. Maddened by the death of his son Boromir he seeks to burn his son Faramir and himself on a pyre. His arrogance and despair blinds him to the fact that his son is actually still alive and instead pushes him to act towards his own ruin. Denethor is not necessarily an evil character yet he represents a character who cannot see nor accept the light of truth. His convoluted and twisted perception of his own status and fate breeds paranoia and indignation towards the very allies who come to his aid and whose very ego driven actions cause harm to those around him and eventually resulting in his own death.
'Hope on then!' laughed Denethor. 'Do I not know thee, Mithrandir? Thy hope is to rule in my stead, to stand behind every throne, north, south, or west... So! With the left hand thou wouldst use me for a little while as a shield against Mordor, and with the right bring up this Ranger of the North to supplant me. But I say to thee, Gandalf Mithrandir, I will not be thy tool! I am Steward of the House of Anarion. I will not step down to be the dotard chamberlain of an upstart. Even were his claim proved to me, still he comes but of the line of Isildur. I will not bow to such a one, last of a ragged house long bereft of lordship and dignity.
- Denethor, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King”
Finally we look to the siblings of humility. In reality these can be seen as similar to the subsidiary values in that some of the subsidiary values are in reality separate values in and of themselves whose components, particularly in regards to how behaviors are exhibited, overlap. For the sake of this conversation I will highlight a few values which are both firmly independent of humility as well as exalted among many religious and ethical traditions in order to demonstrate the interrelated nature of values and virtues.
The first of which is the virtue of compassion. Compassion is a value in which one not only empathizes with the suffering of another but actively seeks to adopt a portion of the burden in order to aid another. This requires a certain degree of self awareness in order to be done. The compassionate individual must be able to know both what their limitations and capacity are and be willing to put the burdens of another at the same level or even above their own. Furthermore, humility develops in the individual a sense of interrelated causality. A humble person understands that they cannot take full responsibility for all they do but also that cause and fault are just as complex. This insight into causality gives the humble individual the capacity to accept responsibility for that which they may not be the cause and enables that individual to behave compassionately.
Another example of humility’s sibling is the virtue of temperance. Temperance describes moderation and voluntary self restraint. It is the virtue of self control and the wisdom of prescribing the right action at the right time. As humility concerns itself with the knowledge and acceptance of limitations then this informs part of the expression of temperance. In a way both humility and temperance are expressions of deference to greater power however humility is a social formulation of this quality while temperance is the purely personal expression of one’s limitations. They further diverge in that temperance is concerned not only with limitation but also potential and in humility limitation is a central wisdom it is also concerned with causality and obligation. Like siblings these values are very closely related, interdependent yet not the same.
Value: Humility (Humble)
Subsidiary Values: Meek, Calm, Gentle, Deferential, Reverent, Unassuming, Unpresuming, Modest, Patient
Shadow (Excess): Martyr, Unassertive, Victim, Self-limiting
Shadow (Deficiency): Sniveling, Sycophant, Manipulative
Antithesis: Pride, Arrogance, Conceit
Siblings: Compassion, Temperance
A character whom I imagine as personifying the virtue of humility is the character Aragorn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. Aragorn’s introduction as a character in the Fellowship of the Ring sees him as a guide of the hobbits and a backwoods ranger known as “Strider.” Despite being a friend of Gandalf, a character of high status and power, Strider is modest and respectful despite his evident displays of competence and strength. He treats the small statured hobbits with respect and fulfils his oaths and duties with diligence.
Throughout the story it is revealed that Aragorn is more than a simple ranger and in fact the heir to the kingdom of Gondor. Despite this illustrious birthright Aragorn does not exhibit arrogance or superiority towards his comrades and in fact laid aside his claim in order to avoid conflict and provide the best opportunity for the kingdom to survive the war with Mordor. He led an army against the Black Gate in order to buy Frodo the time to complete his mission and fought for a cause greater than the self interest of his own claim. It would seem that throughout the story Aragorn hid or held back his power not due to fear or manipulation but rather to foster the bonds of comradeship required to achieve a goal greater than any of the individuals of the fellowship alone.
As a formidable warrior in his own right he relied upon, trusted and cared for his comrades and colleagues in order to succeed in their impossible task. His understanding of his own limitations allowed him to cooperate with his friends, Legolas, Gimli, Gandalf and the Hobbits in order to achieve their mutual success. Boromir’s own haughtiness serves as an effective foil for Boromir’s self interest (even under the guise of selflessness) splintered the fellowship and drove them apart while Aragorn’s humility had no such ramifications and in fact may have served as a uniting factor. As a character Aragorn exemplified humility despite his heritage, birthright and prowess allowing him to unite the allies of men and setting the foundation for expression of the other virtues and dignity of his character.
“A time may come soon," said he, "when none will return. Then there will be need of valour without renown, for none shall remember the deeds that are done in the last defence of your homes. Yet the deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised." - Aragorn, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King
Image: St Jerome by Jusepe de Ribera