Intellectual Humility

The question of how humility contributes to strength might seem premature. Shouldn’t we first consider whether it can do so? There are, in any case, influential ways of thinking about humility that suggest as much.

One thinks, for instance, of Friedrich Nietzsche’s stinging indictment of humility as a cornerstone of a weak and reactionary “slave morality.” Or of Dickens’s infamous Uriah Heep: “A person like myself had better not aspire. If he is to get on in life, he must get on umbly, Master Copperfield!”

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We human beings are seekers. We seek love, wealth, security, power, happiness, and recognition. We also seek knowledge. Aristotle said, “All people by nature desire to know.” The desire to know can be very ambitious, like that of the scientists who sought to solve the structure of the DNA molecule, or rather modest. It can be enormously satisfying to know and understand things. What does it take to have intellectual success—to come to know and understand something challenging?

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