Humility is an underrate virtue, and is often mistaken for weakness and false modesty. But it is the cornerstone of wisdom, where a human being realises his place in the world and the universe, and accepts the lot of his life with good cheer and a smile. In this edition’s Words of Wisdom, we pay homage, humbly, to humility.
Of the seven great vices, pride is said to the beginning of the fall of man. It is when the gaze of the mind turns inward, when we perceive ourselves to be superior in some way, shape or form, to our peers, and sometimes to nature herself, that is the moment when the descent of man begins. As Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘There’s nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self’.
Michel de Montaigne, the French philosopher, dedicated his life to writing about the pride and status that human beings derive from things such as wealth, fame and power. In deriding the kings and knights of his age, Montaigne was to write that true wisdom lay in realising the utter flimsiness of life, and the transient nature of our accomplishments when seen in the grand scheme of things. ‘On the highest throne in the world,’ he says, ‘we still sit on our own bottom.’
There is a mistaken thought about humility that it means you think less of yourself, that you downplay your achievements and shrug off your good qualities. In reality, humility is an act of gaining a sense of perspective about ourselves, seeing ourselves as part of the bigger picture of the world and the universe. C. S. Lewis, the famous author of the Chronicles of Narnia series, says that ‘true humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.’
With the acceptance of humility in theory comes the great challenge to our minds; the willingness to be little, and be forgotten and disliked and slighted. All our craving for fame and wealth and status stem from this desire to be universally liked, and to prevent death from wiping away our memory from the history of humanity. We forget that no matter how big our deeds, time is the ultimate winner, and we must all be forgotten. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: A great man is always willing to be little.
Lao Tzu, the ancient mystical Chinese philosopher, puts humility among the top three precious things he prizes above all, the other two being gentleness and frugality. ‘Be gentle and you can be bold,’ he says. ‘Be frugal and you can be liberal. Be humble and you can become a leader among men.’
Humility is the great friend of patience. Only a person who practices humility and acceptance can be patient in the face of pressure. Humility also teaches us to be kind to the troubles of others. As Margot Benary-Isbert says in her Prayer of an Anonymous Abbess, ‘Grant me the patience to listen to the complaints of others; help me to endure them with charity. But seal my lips on my own aches and pains…keep me from becoming too talkative, and especially from the unfortunate habit of thinking that I must say something on every subject at every opportunity.’