May 10, 2015

Godless humility

Lately, I have been struggling to reconcile my belief that humility is a virtue with its lack of secular grounding. I have a strong intuition that it is good to be humble. But I do not know why I should be so, absent belief in God. This post is an attempt to clarify the two things and draw out the tension between them.

Wikipedia gives the definition of humility I like best: "having a clear perspective and respect for one's place in context." This is quite different from more traditional definitions, like "a sense of one's own unworthiness through imperfection and sinfulness" (from Webster's 1913 Dictionary).

For me, the latter definition evokes images of high-steepled churches, somber-faced clergy, and bottomless penance. Humility by this definition is wrapped in strong, mostly negative, religious overtones. Yet my favorite definition is also compatible with a religious perspective. "Having a clear perspective and respect for one's place" can be considered in the context of Creator and created. And if your worldview includes a hereditary stain on all humankind, then the place of the created in relation to the Creator seems low indeed.

But that's not part of my worldview. With my worldview (almost certainly secular, or at least rigidly non-mystical), it is more difficult to figure out my context and my place within it.

Maybe my context looks something like this:

I am one of many of a certain type of creature. Creatures of my type share a roughly similar set of abilities, and inhabit a roughly similar environment. Creatures of my type are able to out-perform creatures of all other known types, and thus we dominate our environment. It is not obvious where we came from, where we're headed, or why we are here at all.

In this context, Nietzschean will to power seems a strong contender for "a clear perspective" of one's place. I am one of the dominant group. There is nothing superior to me, excepting other members of my group. We all strive towards self-improvement, towards expansion our being, towards proving ourselves best when contested against our peers. By this dialectic, we all spiral upwards together, to greater planes and places. Humility thus becomes an acknowledgement of one's (potential) superiority, and an encouragement to develop its nascent forms.

While this concept is a consistent interpretation of my favorite definition of humility, it is antithetical to what I mean by the term. I want a justification for humbleness in the pious monk, knowing teacher, wise beggar sense. My intuition of what humility "actually is" is too strong to be thrown out by a reshuffled interpretation of the concept. Nietzsche isn't cutting it here.

I've been wrestling with this for a while now, and by this point I'm convinced that I'm not going to reach a tidy resolution in this post. So, in the spirit of this place, I'm going to lay out a few things that seem true, then let the thing lie.

  • Humility is a virtue.
  • A humble person is aware of their failings and limits, and works to simultaneously improve themselves and accept themselves.
  • Humility is possible, and important, without God. (I acknowledge that this is the main thing I'm struggling with, so including it in my list of unsupported conclusions is a bit unsporting. I'm going with my gut here.)
  • A person can be genuinely humble without partaking in complete self-immolation or bottomless self-abnegation.
  • It's possible that my confusion results from a too-coarse analysis. Perhaps to be understood, humility should be split up into its component parts, and each then considered on its own merits. I.e. epistemic humility is different from egoistic humility is different from social humility, and only some of these concepts are justified.
  • The concept I'm pointing at when I say "humble" feels very similar to the Zen concept of beginner's mind.
  • It also feels quite similar to Elon Musk's attempt to perform an accurate self analysis.

[rereads: 3, edits: many rephrasings, reworked passages, and angsty changes of conceptual direction]