Aristotle thought that virtues were means between two vices, one of excess and the other of deficiency. Although humbleness was not a virtue to the ancient Greeks (it is rooted in the Christian tradition), I submit that it is an important value to uphold and strive for. Before more of an explanation of this particular virtue, let me make some remarks concerning ethics and virtue in general.
The question “how to live a good life?” does not haunt us, but sustains us. Recently my life took a radical and unexpected turn, withdrawing from college and leaving behind so many things I had worked diligently for. Coupled with the constancy of the unknown of the future and the impending oncoming of that unknown, and all the anxiety that comes along with such thoughts. Perhaps this change is not radical, but the example is supposed to be an instantiation of periods of flux in our individual lives. It is easy to imagine these periods. Asking ourselves “how to live a good life?” during these times allows us to see change as opportunity, it drives us forward. The Japanese word for crisis most closely translates to opportunity. Flux is akin to a crisis.
In periods of flux doubt arises. Doubt is the precipice of new beliefs and new habits. Doubt allows us to drop certain beliefs and habits for others. However, one can be passive or active in this process. Passivity would be not thinking, and questioning the self and its proper role within certain contexts. These periods of flux are essentially a change of context. Activity would be the contrary, thinking and asking questions in order to guide the process, rather than letting the process guide you. Therefore, the questions one asks are going to be of paramount importance. I submit that the most fundamental of these is that one aforementioned. But what is good?
There are sparsely enough pages in the world to fully comprehend, let alone answer this question. Let me say very briefly my view. It is called pluralism. This is the view that there is a plurality of things that we can consider good, such as happiness, flourishing, virtues, autonomy, communal well-being, and fair distribution of inequities. While some theories privilege one of these things over others, I take a nuanced approach that takes into account many, if not all of these factors when determining what is good and worth pursuing. Weighing these factors against each other is messy, but ethics is a messy science, and accuracy like that found in other fields may be too high a bar to set. However, when asking about how to live one’s life virtues are going to play a very important role.
In contemporary philosophy not much time is spent asking the question how to live one’s life best. Philosophers often ask more abstruse, abstract and technical questions. Those types of questions I often find deprived of any real consequence and void of any reigns of practical reason that the average human being could latch on to, let alone have any use for. It is the task of the philosopher is to love wisdom, that love entails a love for her fellow humans. She must therefore ask questions of pertinence to them, not just those understood by a few. Enough about philosophy and ethics in general, back to the virtue of humbleness.
On one end of the spectrum is self-worthlessness. On the other is Narcissus, complete arrogance. Humbleness is the mean between the two. If you are anything like me then you swing from one end of the spectrum to the other continually. Seldom stopping for a moment to glimpse what it may be like to be humble. This pendulum action brings forth the question; how would we know when we are in fact exercising the virtue? First some more remarks on the virtue itself.
My last entry spent time discussing self-worth and its corollary. The subjective nature of these things shows that what is worthless for some is worth for others, the same holds for the vices and virtue here. The spectrum has a different range for individuals. One person’s humbleness may be another’s arrogance, and vis-versa. Let us then define self-worthlessness as an inappropriate application of pity, and arrogance as the inappropriate application of a sense of grandiosity. Humbleness is those the appropriate application of these two things. Appropriateness is going to be very context and person relative, contingent on a myriad of factors. Nonetheless a continuous medium will arise out of different mediums throughout a span of time.
What makes humbleness good? It is easy to say what makes the corresponding vices bad. The misapplication of pity leads to antipathy. The misapplication of grandiosity leads to scorn form others and failed endeavors. Humbleness helps us avoid these things. It leads to material success, because of the proper application of ones talents lacking apathy and receiving the proper praise from others. Humbleness inculcates a sense of confidence in the self, and through the confidence in the self, confidence in others. Humbleness allows others to perceive you as reliable and honest. All these being good things, so is humbleness.
Now to the question of knowing when we exercise the virtue, I am inclined to say intuition is the guide here. We are intuitively attune and in sync with ourselves more so than any other piece of reality, we therefore are going to be well suited to intuit when an appropriate application of grandiosity and pity is reached. However, it is going to require much more than this. It is going to require active reflection on the application of such things, as well as open curiosity with others for feedback. The other must be used as a sounding board and mirror in order to understand the self. Preferably those that are close to you so that honesty can be a principle to guide the reflective conversation.
The best way to know is to practice humbleness. There will at some point be an intuition that you have arrived, the more it is practiced the more that intuition will arise. Soon it will become such a habit that it will become like recalling a memory, and it is silly to ask why we know that we remembered such and such. You have all the justification you need for that knowledge. Virtue is similar, you become humble, you do not need to know that you are, you just are, it is apparent. Just as apparent that you are a person.