- not proud or arrogant
- having a feeling of insignificance, inferiority, subservience, etc
- low in rank, importance, status, quality, etc
Why is Humility Treated as a Virtue?
Hark back to the Moral Studies classes you were given in school, and there is sure to be a lesson or two about how humility is a very important virtue for a human to possess. Perhaps a story about a modest King who sought to understand the suffering of his subjects disguised as a commoner was in vogue, or perhaps the life-lesson of Mahatma Gandhi who led the freedom struggle inspiring millions without any pride whatsoever. Super-admiration for the ones that are modest in success is almost universal - so universal that it must stem from more than just an inspiring story from childhood.
But, what is it that makes us admire humble achievers more than the pompous ones? Is it because we believe that they appreciate the fact that those who failed also tried just as hard? Society at large does not accept failures, while successful people are immediately put on a pedestal. Yet we still yearn for those "heroes" to be modest.
Perhaps it is because humility shows a lack of pride - a pride that scythes away at the self-esteem of the ones who could not achieve what they aimed for. While that is clearly a noble stance, it would also be plain vanity if one has to try hard to suppress pride. When one hears "Oh, that was nothing really. I didn't have to work hard for it - just happened", one might be tempted to either respond with "Just happened? Why doesn't it just happen with me?" or perhaps "That was NOTHING? How smart does he think he really is?"
Perhaps then, it is because we innately feel a sense of connectedness in each other's achievements. That we are all in this together. That one person's success is really built on circumstances, events, hard work and perseverance of many others. Having a great idea is pointless until you find the right people to bring it to life, and more people to accept it, adapt to it and spread the good word. Maybe that is why most Academy Awards speeches are adorned with gratitude for everyone from family to filming staff to fans. And we lap them up despite them all sounding the same.
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” - Isaac Newton.
Humility as a virtue is defined as a basic necessity for achieving any spiritual realization uniformly by all religions across the world. Pride and Hubris are solemnly criticized as blinding factors that only feed one's ego and bloat it further. To take pride in one's actions and achievements is indeed marginalizing everything else except one's ego, to deny that there is something bigger than one can fathom at play when one succeeds or fails in what they will to do.
The life of the moral man is plain, and yet not unattractive; it is simple, and yet full of grace; it is easy, and yet methodical. He knows that accomplishment of great things consists in doing little things well.
He knows that great effects are produced by small causes. He knows the
evidence and reality of what cannot be perceived by the senses. Thus he
is enabled to enter into the world of ideas and morals. - The Doctrine of the Mean.
A rabbit that a huntsman brings,
They pay for it the proper price;
But none will give a betel nut
For the corpse of a ruler of the land!
A man's body is less worth than a rabbit's.
- Basavanna's Vachanas.
The Other Side
Like a see-saw must swing to the other side without proper balance, the practice of humility can also swing into self-effacement. In fact, many philosophers prescribe self-effacement and subduing of self-esteem as an essential part of humility.
Confucius said, "A gentleman does not grieve that people do not recognize his merits; he grieves at his own incapacities."
"To know when one does not know is best.
To think one knows when one does not know is a dire disease."
- Tao Te Ching.
"The fool who knows that he is a fool is for that very reason a wise man;
the fool who thinks he is wise is called a fool indeed."
Yet there is a genuine risk that this self-effacement can sink into self-loathing, which was never the goal of humility. Just as one must deny oneself the pride of success, it is equally important to deny the complete censure of failure. If it is narcissistic to think one is great due to their achievements, it is equally narcissistic to think one is the sole cause of one's failures. Like the other kind of narcissism, this negative narcissism can be equally blinding and misleading.
Mahatma Gandhi captures this best -
“I claim to be a simple individual liable to err like any other fellow mortal. I own, however, that I have humility enough to confess my errors and to retrace my steps.”
Perhaps why humility is regarded as a great virtue is because one who is consumed by the pride of success must then also prepare to be consumed by the despair of failure. Perhaps the best reaction is that of a mother at the success or failure of her child - you get a hug for trying your best no matter what the result. In success and in failure, perhaps the only thing we are required to do is study what we have been through, take what we can learn from the experience, understand the patterns for the result without prejudice, and stow it away for it will come handy once again.