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Waterwheel at Onden, 1830-1834 by Katsushika Hokusai

“A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.”

  • St. Bernard

What is Humility?

Humility is a virtue that tempers our desires for good things, so that we aim at the right ends with noble and pure motivation shorn of egoism and self-seeking. It comes from the root word ‘humus’, which means to be low to the ground. The humble person is ‘bent to the ground’, having a proper understanding of their own failings, limitations, wayward desires and impulses. The humble do not seek to exalt, or think too highly of themselves, but have a profound awareness of their need for assistance and guidance. That is why we say that humble people are down to earth, for they see things clearly with common sense, and have made themselves low, so as to love and serve.

The pursuit of good things is challenging. We desire good things, and at the same time, recoil at the challenges, difficulty and suffering that it will require to obtain them. For this reason, we need the twin virtues of: humility, to moderate our desires so that they are purified of self-seeking and all egoism; and magnanimity to give us the strength to overcome the despair and reluctance we feel when faced with the difficulties of pursuing good things.

Instead of genuine humility, we often find false humility, which is the performance of outward signs and pretense. It can be seen when people make a showy display of giving, of being nice, of making long-winded speeches in praise of others. It is only for the sake of being seen and thought to be something that they in fact are not. On the other extreme lie attempts at humility that are in fact cowardice, reluctance, or diffidence. They have at their root a lack of healthy self-confidence that leads to inaction, or mediocrity. It is either this false motivation or excessively timid disposition that distinguishes humility from its impostors.

Humility is the counterbalance to magnanimity, which is the desire to do great things. The humble person is a teacher, who instructs by listening and nurturing. Humility allows us to act for the right reasons, not being consumed by motivations of seeking self-aggrandizement, praise, fame, power, or money, but out of the desire to serve and love others, for the sake of the good.

Written by: Peter Copeland

Interview on Humility with Elmar Kremer

How do you define humility?

Humility is the disposition to think about oneself in a realistic, factual way. The humble person neither overestimates nor underestimates his own abilities and his own goodness. He recognizes and fully accepts his status as a creature.

How does the virtue of humility relate to work?

Your work is affected in many ways by your estimate of your own abilities—what you are good at and what you are not good at. It also affects your dealings with co-workers and colleagues. Practicing the virtue of humility in your work will help you do your work better, since you will make your decisions about work in a realistic, truthful way. It will also help you in your relations with your fellow workers.

Why is it important in a work context?

You have to make many small and large decisions in the practice of your work. Humility leads you to make them in a factual, realistic way.

How have you personally built on this virtue?

When I arrived at my first professorial job, fresh Ph.D. in hand, I had high hopes of making my mark in the field. But I was not at all prepared to teach the five courses I was assigned. I did my best and muddled through. But it didn't occur to me to ask for the help of more seasoned colleagues. After all, to ask for help is to admit that you need help, which requires humility. Later on, when I was feeling more comfortable, I did ask colleagues for help in a variety of ways. I received invaluable help from them, help I could have profited from earlier, when a lack of humility prevented me from asking for it.

I also increased my friendship with my colleagues. I learned that they liked being asked for help! In the conversations that followed, I also discovered that I could contribute something to them.

Elmar J. Kremer is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy, University of Toronto, Canada. His past publications include Death before Birth (co-edited with E. A. Synan, Griffin House, 1972), Oeuvres Philosophiques d'Arnauld (Edited and Introduced by Elmar J. Kremer and Denis Moreau, 5 vols., Thoemmes Press, 2003), The Problem of Evil in Early Modern Philosophy (co-edited with Michael J. Latzer, University of Toronto Press, 1999), Interpreting Arnauld (University of Toronto Press, 1996), and The Great Arnauld and Some of His Philosophical Correspondents (University of Toronto Press, 1994).

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