Embody Humility Without Vanity
The Unhappy Man: Guiding Axiom #6
Restrain the urge to overcome unhappiness with ideological prescription
The following is the sixth guiding axiom for this newsletter, The Unhappy Man. It’s the penultimate one of the many I’ve been sharing in the past few weeks.
Nietzsche wrote, “Our honesty, we free spirits—let us be careful lest it become our vanity, our ornament and ostentation, our limitation, our stupidity! Every virtue inclines to stupidity, every stupidity to virtue; ‘stupid to the point of sanctity,’ they say in Russia,—let us be careful lest out of pure honesty we eventually become saints and bores!” (Beyond Good and Evil, A. 227) And in a similar vein, Joseph Conrad also wrote, “Vanity plays lurid tricks with our memory, and the truth of every passion wants some pretence to make it live.” (Lord Jim, C. 41) Though different in prose, both superlative writers disclose a sublime yet mostly overlooked truth about us: Every virtue is a vice, and no virtue is independent of the passions and underlying psychic forces of being human. Perhaps this datum applies mostly to those good old Protestant virtues of humility and noble suffering—both have the predisposition to become the vainest, most narcissistic acts, particularly in our times of perpetual exhibitionism.
Humility is a virtue, but being humble doesn’t make one a good person—if only being good was that easy. Ironically, those who proclaim to be the most humble and open-minded seem to have an overweening pride about their perspicuity as they flaunt empty catchphrases from contemporary self-help books like Ego Is the Enemy—I’m familiar with this ilk as I’m one of them. A person who makes humility a part of their identity rather than an existential tool is one of the most exasperating kinds to be around. As Conrad articulated, vanity has played a trick on them by taking a perennial virtue (at least since the rise of Christendom) and making it a vice; humility becomes haughtiness. They resemble that annoying spiritualisthippie who’s had a few psychedelic trips and decides to preach to the rest of us, unenlightened sheep, about the true nature of reality and how we’re all blinded by our egos, engrossed in trivial superficialities, etc.—I have the desire to punch such people in the face. Radical, unquestioned humility is as equally totalitarian as the quasi-solipsistic egoism of a fascist or spiritualist. The humble man, at least implicitly, makes a similar claim about his unprejudiced epistemic insights and superior knowledge about reality by virtue of the humility he embodies. Much like a rapacious capitalist who flaunts his wealth at the commoner, the humble man has the penchant for using his identifying virtue for vain social signalling; despite his outer facade of earnest permissiveness, he nevertheless feels superior to the rest of us neanderthals.
The problem with humility is captured best by an old Jewish joke:
Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, reaches its climactic moment. The Rabbi, in front of the congregation, throws himself down on hands and knees, an ultimate act of self-abnegation. He cries out to his Creator, “Before You, I am nothing!” The Cantor, on cue, jettisons down, sobbing with animation: “Before You, I am nothing!”
Mr. Schwartz in the first row is so moved, so inspired, so galvanized, that he dives down, landing on hands and knees, and yells out, “Before You, I am NOTHING!”
Registering the kerfuffle in the first row, the Rabbi looks over to the Cantor. Dripping with sarcasm, he says (Yiddish intonation, please): “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”
The proper way to view humility is through the pragmatic lens we see in the Old Testament:
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” (Proverbs 9:10)
Fearing the LORD imbues humility. However, it’s a virtue that’s a means to an end via its utilisation to gain wisdom, not for any spiritual salvation or ostentatious enlightenment, nor is humility synonymous with the pristine goodness of one’s soul. As King Solomonwrites, to be humble is to know our existential finitude, mortality and ignorance when facing the ground of all being; it’s to acknowledge and bring to light our truest position in the universe—perhaps even with a healthy dose of fear, as he suggests? Therefore, humility should be embodied with that aforementioned utilitarian ethos rather than a self-important, supercilious Kantian moralism.
No virtue, be it humility or noble suffering, ought to be treated as an abstraction that exists much like a platonic or mathematical entity, somewhere “out there” detached from the subject (i.e., you and me) who has his own idiosyncrasies and impressionistic experience, which affect how the virtue manifests in reality. In fact, virtues don’t exist without a human being. Our virtues manifest not in submission to a Kantian categorical imperative, i.e., the moral law, but in our ultimate responsibility to our inner conscience, our eternal self—we can never repudiate that responsibility. Nor can it be abstracted away into a disengaged metaphysical system. Perhaps, in that case, no systematically derived moral virtue is absolute, and the morality of man lies beyond moral laws or “Beyond Good and Evil”, as Nietzsche would say? Ergo, one shouldn’t mistakenly assume practising the virtue of humility makes one a humble person, as mostly it’s vanity.
Parts of the book of Proverbs are attributed (some scholars argue apocryphally) to King Solomon. He was the monarch of the United Kingdom of Israel, a major Islamic prophet and a noteworthy figure in all Abrahamic religions.
The LORD being referred to here is God, who I define in Paul Tillichian terms: “God is being-itself, not a being. On this basis a first step can be taken toward the solution of the problem which usually is discussed as the immanence and the transcendence of God. As the power of being, God transcends every being and also the totality of beings - the world. Being-itself is beyond finitude and infinity; otherwise it would be conditioned by something other than itself, and the real power of being would lie beyond both it and that which conditioned it.” (Systematic Theology, Vol 1, P. 237) But on the other hand, Herman Melville would argue that God can never be defined.