- BQO - https://www.bigquestionsonline.com -

How Do We Develop and Maintain Humility?

Let’s begin with a word of caution. In his early manhood, Benjamin Franklin was very disciplined in his efforts to acquire and maintain the virtues. Looking back on his efforts to gain humility, he comments:

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself (Autobiography).

My own experience with efforts in this line confirms Franklin’s assessment. But the unlikelihood of perfect success shouldn’t discourage us from trying, for I think we can make some progress.

Humility’s Plural Nature

Franklin describes sinful pride as a “passion” in the singular, but I think it actually takes many subtly different forms — for example, vanity, smugness, pretentiousness, arrogance, hyper-autonomy (go-it-aloneness, the desire to succeed without anybody’s else’s help), envy, domination, snobbery, self-righteousness, and grandiosity, to name some of the main ones. Franklin can lump all these vices together as “pride” because they all involve an inappropriate obtrusion of your Self in your concerns and consciousness. But since they differ in the exact kind of concern that your self obtrudes in, and the special nasty way it obtrudes, they are different vices.

For example, vanity is an excessive concern to appear in a good light to people whose opinion matters, whereas arrogance is a disposition to grasp illicit entitlements on the grounds of a claim (justified or unjustified) to some kind of superiority. Grandiosity is a self-inflating concern to be the performer of feats and the executor of plans that are in fact well beyond your ability. Smugness is a preoccupied satisfaction with your own accomplishments and triumphs, whereas self-righteousness is a preoccupied satisfaction with your moral superiority (real or merely supposed) to others on whom you morally look down from your exalted judgment seat. Snobbery is a preoccupied satisfaction with your membership in some relatively elite group, which manifests itself especially in making invidious comparisons with those who are outside and “below” your group. Domination is a love and practice of influencing and controlling others, even marking them as your own creation. Envy is an antipathy for others because of their perceived superiority to yourself, and a consequent desire to reduce them. And so we could go on distinguishing the vices of pride.

Speaking of the vices of pride rather than simply of pride helps us gain a more concrete understanding of it, which will help us lay concrete strategies for combating it and promoting a corresponding humility. It is helpful also because it allows for good kinds of pride such as self-respect, self-confidence, patriotism, and family loyalty.

What is humility, then? I suggest that it is a marked absence of the vices of pride. Thus, like the vices of pride, humility will come in a variety of kinds: unvanity, unarrogance, ungrandiosity, unsmugness, unself-righteousness, unsnobbery, undomination, unenvy, and so forth. Because of the differences among these ways to exhibit humility, each will have its somewhat distinct strategies of acquisition. Among these strategies are ones called “Cede Entitlements” (against arrogance), “Practice Admiration” (against envy), “Restrain the Domineering Impulse,” “Let Your Ignorance Show,” “Forgo Self-Display,” “Keep Your Mind on Intrinsic Goods,” and “Think Critically About Our Culture.” In this short essay, we must select only a couple of the many possible approaches for brief elaboration; but I will first comment on a general strategy.

Meditate on the Vocabulary of the Vices of Pride

The vices of pride can be deliciously pleasant. If I’m vain, and am getting lots of attention and positive feedback, I’ll be in hogs’ heaven. If I’ve just triumphed over a long-time rival for the position of top salesperson in the company, I may have an excited warm feeling, cozy and snug in my smugness as I quietly savor my new rank and scan the admiring or envious eyes of my colleagues, careful not to let on how conscious I am of them. The more snobbish I am, the more thoroughly will I enjoy chatting with my buddies at the alumni club of my Ivy League university about the posturing of the upstarts at the state university. If, because I’m a movie star, I’ve demanded to be seated ahead of those who are waiting for a place in a restaurant, and have successfully intimidated the maître d’ into seating me immediately, I’ll take arrogant pleasure in both the convenience and the fact that my high status was what secured it for me.

As pleasant as the vices of pride can be, it is striking that their names are all terms of abuse. Nobody wants to be called arrogant or grandiose or self-righteous or domineering. No one wants to think of herself seriously as smug or snobbish. So even though it can be pleasant to live inside the vices of pride, the vocabulary for them is aversive, and brings us up short if we think it applies to us. It’s a powerful and painful instrument of self-knowledge, and we can speculate that it developed historically as a device of social control.

So here’s a discipline for developing and maintaining humility. Examine our own actions, words, feelings, and thoughts using the vocabulary of the vices of pride. If we regularly probe ourselves with this vocabulary (when have I been arrogant, vain, snobbish, etc.?) we are likely to reduce the pleasures of vanity, arrogance, snobbery, and the like, and so loosen their hold on us. If, anticipating the pleasure of a snobbish remark, I also anticipate that it will be snobbish, I will take some or all the pleasure out of it, and so will gradually diminish the pleasure and the vice. To do this, we need to recognize the vices of pride when we see them, and that means thinking about how they work. Here I would recommend Rebecca DeYoung’s forthcoming book (due November 30 from Eerdmans) Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice. It’s a sustained meditation on the ways of vanity. By helping you think vanity through, the book will sensitize you to it and help you get some distance on it, and thus to grow in humility.

Practice Gratitude (contra hyper-autonomy)

One dimension or kind of humility is a lightness of appetite for self-sufficiency in your actions and accomplishments, a willingness to receive advice and correction, and to acknowledge others’ contributions to your successes. Thus it rules out hyper-autonomy — the excessive desire to go it alone, to be the nearly sole author of your accomplishments. This humility is a kind of selflessness about agency.

Genuine gratitude for help in what you accomplish requires this kind of humility, because heartfelt gratitude is a happy recognition of a benefit or favor as intentionally contributed by a benefactor — an other person. As a glad recognition of the benefactor’s contribution, it requires a willingness not to be the sole contributor to your accomplishments. Robert Emmons has devised and tested several disciplines for becoming more grateful. For example, keeping a gratitude journal, writing down every day three ways that others have contributed to your successes, will heighten your awareness of your dependency on others, and thus reduce any sense you might have of being a “self-made” person. Regular prayers of gratitude are another, as is the habit of writing thank-you notes in which you articulate to your benefactor your sense of his or her contribution to your life. In Emmons’s book Gratitude Works you will find many exercises that will increase your humility because they increase your gratitude.

Keep Your Mind on Intrinsic Goods

A good life consists of activities: supporting our families, rearing our children, participating in our communities, making things, producing works or performances of art, learning things, in some cases even advancing human knowledge, teaching knowledge and know-how to others, healing diseases, helping people with their problems, entertaining people, contributing to good causes. Every meaningful activity aims at goods: healthy, happy families, beautiful objects, knowledge and understanding of the world we live in, people’s health, and so on. The goods I’ve just mentioned are intrinsic or proper to the activities in question.

But another kind of aim, a pseudo good, often captures people’s attention and concern in a way that interferes with the excellent pursuit of the activity, and may even become a substitute for the intrinsic aim of the activity. Iris Murdoch calls this “the fat relentless ego.” It is the pursuit of personal glory, power over others, prestige, prominence in the community, and personal entitlement. These two aims — the intrinsic goods and ego-glory — tend to compete for our attention. The more seriously we’re focused on the intrinsic goods, the more our concern for personal glory will fade, and the more we focus on our own importance and prestige, the more our concern for the intrinsic goods weakens and becomes confused.

To some extent, our focus is a matter of choice. Especially if we’ve been testing ourselves for evidences of the vices of pride in our mind and life, we will start noticing the duplicity in our focus, and thus can repeatedly adjust it away from the ego and back to the intrinsic goods of our activities. If we undertake this discipline, we’ll gain a new appreciation of Ben Franklin’s lament, but I think we’ll also make some progress in the formation of our moral character.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What approaches have you tried for combating the vices of pride and becoming more humble?
  2. Can you think of any pitfalls associated with the disciplines that Roberts has described? How would you avoid the pitfalls?
  3. If somebody actually succeeded in becoming completely unmotivated by the vices of pride, do you think he or she would still have enough motivation to get things done?