Being humble means having a low or modest estimate of one’s character or importance. It means selflessness and viewing others as more important than oneself. This is widely regarded as a virtue.
Humility as a Core Concept in Religion
Humans are supposed to feel humble before God and burdened with original sin. God is credited with creating the earth and all the creatures on it. He is said to be omniscient, totally moral, all-loving, and omnipotent. He can violate the laws of nature through such actions as the “virgin birth,” miracle cures of disease, and bringing back people from death. In contrast, humans are inferior to God in all these respects and must be obedient to God in order to get into heaven and avoid hell. When humans sin, to be saved they must beg God for forgiveness.
Given human inferiority, religion logically views pride or self-valuing for one’s virtues and achievements as the worst of all sins, the cancer of the soul. Practically, pride “goeth before the fall.” Morally, pride is considered unjust because, by implication, it puts humans on the same plane as God, though they are obviously inferior. Many decades ago, I saw a light-hearted movie in which a woman was talking to a friend and said how much she loved her husband because he was so modest. The friend replied, “Well, he has a lot to be modest about.” Religion views this to be the case for the whole human race.
Christian virtue is largely based on the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. The overall themes are selflessness and obedience. In the end “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” “The meek shall inherit the earth,” although, of course, in reality, they never do.
Here are some common examples that have been proposed as ways to practice humility and thereby avoid the sin of pride.
- Listening, asking for advice, learning from others
- Thanking people for their help, giving earned credit to others
- Belittling or denying credit for one’s own contributions, especially if one works with others
- Confessing one’s own weaknesses or flaws
- Consideration of others, politeness
- Giving to charity
- Graciousness when losing a competition
Actually, such examples of humility do not involve self-belittlement but rather commitment to reason and justice and thus make one worthy of self-respect.
Pride: Sum of All Virtues
A newborn knows nothing. Starting at birth, learning things from others, starting with parents and then teachers, is necessary for survival. As one grows, if one wants to thrive, one needs to proactively gain and actively seek knowledge throughout one’s life. Thanking or acknowledging others who enhanced your life in some way (i.e., gratitude) is giving them their due. This applies even to those who are not living. For example, we owe a tremendous debt to Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, the Founding Fathers of America, and many others who have helped make the world a better place. Pretending to be a know-it-all is to harm oneself. Imagine, for example, the foolishness of trying to run a business while refusing to listen to the ideas of experts, capable employees, and others. To be just, give credit to others where credit is due.
Learning from others does not negate the reality of your own discoveries and achievements, including the hard work involved in processing and applying what you learned and putting forth the efforts needed to attain goals. Making the most of one’s freedom to think and act is a source of earned pride. If one adopts pro-life virtues such as rationality, integrity, honesty, productiveness, and justice, and gains the benefits they make possible, one deserves to feel proud. Aristotle said pride was the sum of all virtues. Real, earned pride is a healthy internal state based on your thinking, actions, and their consequences. At the same time, be proud of being just by giving others credit where credit is due.
Real pride is not based on just aspirations and is not the same as boasting or trying to dominate every conversation. The purpose of boasting is to impress others. Using others’ approval as your standard dooms you to dependency and endless self-doubt. After all, there is virtually always somebody, somewhere in the world, at some time, who in some way knows more and has achieved more than you. So what? That does not negate what you have achieved, because that is based on the choices you make, i.e., using your free will to think and act.
What if you are asked by others about what you have achieved or how good you are at something? Ask them exactly what they want to know and then tell them the truth. Give them concrete examples. Neither embellish your achievements nor deny your limitations or your actual skills.
Having some flaw, such as ignorance of certain facts or making an honest mistake, is not necessarily proof that you are fundamentally no good, provided you take steps to acknowledge and correct any errors. Irrationality, the refusal to use reason or take reality seriously or to engage in deliberate dishonesty, will promote deserved humility.
Consideration and politeness are based on the fact that other people have rights and values too; you are not the center of the universe. Narcissists try to live in a “me-only” world. This makes real friendship and intimacy impossible.
The Role of Charity in a Rational Life
What about charity? Some people in life do better than others, sometimes due to their own faults and sometimes not. You may feel empathy for some of the less fortunate and the less able. But if you are an honest person, you must hold in mind that you did not cause others’ problems, such as through dishonesty. And you certainly did not cause slavery, as evil as it was, and could not support every poor person in the world. That would make you selfless. If you are selfless and have no personal values, you are not a person at all. That would be humility.
What about donating to a non-profit? There are tens of thousands of possibilities. Start by asking: what is important to you personally? Is there any group or organization that you think is doing something that has personal meaning, something that is a value to you? Then consider what degree of involvement you want and can afford and act accordingly.
If you lose in an honest competition, say a game, congratulate your opponent for their achievement because it is just– they earned it. Sometimes you can learn from them.
Be Proud – When You Have Earned The Right To Do So
Humility, looking down on what you have achieved is nothing to be proud of. It is a negation of your right to your own life. Life is a process of setting and pursuing goals in order to attain values and thereby achieve happiness. To enhance happiness, do things to make you proud. Never accept unearned guilt for your honest achievements and virtues.