Humble Pride

TW said he was challenged by much of Philosophical Reflections but thought it often arose from unproven assumptions, and he was finally prompted to write by my comments on pride vs humility.

He disagreed that humility means “grovelling in the dirt, and said it means knowing your true position in the universe: thus, Cicero was “humble” when he claimed to be the greatest speaker in Rome, because he was! TW stated that humility is an essential virtue, and the danger of not being humble is pride; and without realistic self-assessment, people arrogantly over-rate their value and lose all sense of truth, so that pride is not the mother of all virtues but makes them impossible.

TW (Tableaus, September 1994) took me to task for taking humility to task in Philosophical Reflections 12: The Good Life.

While I welcome specific criticisms, saying that my arguments “often arise from unproven assumptions” doesn’t allow much scope for reply. So my response is the one appropriate to a flat assertion: a flat denial! I must admit that I occasionally throw in provocative assertions without explicit proof in a (generally futile!) attempt to provoke a response, but in my humble opinion all of them can be proved!

OK, maybe I was a bit harsh on humility. There are meanings of humility which are virtuous. A “realistic self-assessment” is certainly a good thing. So is the recognition that you are not infallible: one of the foundations of the virtue of tolerance.

However, my understanding of the history of humility as a virtue is that it means rather more than that. One must have a realistic view of one’s worth and realise that it isn’t much. Look at the Christian doctrine of “original sin”: that man is sinful by nature , a slave to his base desires, and unworthy of anything except the wrath of God. The essence of humility is not realistic self-assessment (why is that not “pride”? ), but: “I am not great”, “I am unworthy”, “man is incapable of perfection”, “no matter what you achieve, you are still merely a man”, “only God is good”, “we do not presume to come to this thy table, merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness”, “who do you think you are?”, “the sin of hubris”.

To state my case explicitly: on the basis of how the words are used and why people damn or praise them, the essence of humility is an assumption or feeling of unworthiness , and the essence of pride is one of worthiness . And it is by these essences that I include humility as a vice despite its good meanings, and pride as a virtue despite its bad meanings. It is worthiness that is good for our lives: feeling, seeking and being worthy of living: the value of self-esteem and the virtue of pride.

Note that pride in the sense of self-esteem is a value to be sought, not a virtue to be practised: and like all values, it must be earned. And it cannot be earned without rational, realistic self-assessment: and acceptance of both the possibility and necessity of earning it, which is the virtue of pride. The answer to the danger of arrogance is not unworthiness-as-virtue, but rationality . Rationality is the foundation of all virtues, including truth and pride, and is the defence against all vices, including arrogance.

Finally, consider this: “My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute” (Ayn Rand). I don’t think “humble” is how one would naturally describe that magnificent statement. They are proud words.

© 1994, 1996 Robin Craig: first published in TableAus.