Humility, The Fallacy of

The fallacy that humility is a natural qualification for good judgment.

Humility is a virtue. Its absence closes the mind, leaving the victim defended from inconvenient truth. Its presence suggests a willingness to consider a contrary view, to defer to the unexpected, to encounter distinctiveness and difference. But humility as an abstraction, as an aim, an achievement in its own right, can make trouble. All too easily, it is a form of Pharisaism: since I am humble, my motives are above suspicion; if you disagree, that is a sad sign that you lack my plain and humble nature; being humble, I am free of the aggression and greed which I see and deplore in those who disagree with me. I will express my sorrow at their misguidedness, but I will forgive them. With any luck, it may provoke fury and violence, and I will forgive them for that, too.

But more than that, humility can be greedy; it can crowd out, and make obsolete, that complementary characteristic, fortitude. Fortitude is one of the cardinal virtues, a necessary condition for the other three—justice, prudence and temperance. It is, however, the neglected one, usurped by indifference and guilt, hesitating at the prospect of having to justify action against all possible criticisms. It is less easy to justify and explain than compassion, the impeccably authorised but dangerous virtue which gives comfort to the reliably less fortunate, but tells us nothing about obligations among equals. Fortitude smells of old leather, but there is work for it to do. It affirms loyalty to the places and narratives that make identity; it is identity’s defence; and identity is the foundation for rationality—for sense.

The link between fortitude and sense is at risk because, in an age addicted to abstractions, fortitude has little to sustain it. It depends on the particular—particular narratives, loyalties, actions, practices, ceremonies, places. The philosopher David Miller illustrates this with an imagined dialogue from The Wind in the Willows. Mole accepts that water rats have a preference for river banks, but he asks: “What’s so special about this river bank? Why is it a better place than any other river bank beyond the Wood?” Rat could only have one reply: “This is my place; I like it here; I have no need to ask such questions.” It does not sound as though he will be easily persuaded to change his mind. His identity and his place are joined-up. He can believe what he is (Home).H33

It is the arbitrariness of fortitude that is critical. Rat’s insistence on his particular stretch of river bank seems to come from nowhere—that is, from no reason beyond the existence of the place itself, and his own presence in it. Certainly, there are no moral distinctions here, no inference that his river bank is right and others are wrong, but still he prefers his. It is the map on which rattish reason is located. Humility can simply mean a refusal to accept the map, for if this arbitrary preference cannot be explained, how can it be justified? And if it cannot be justified, how can insisting on it express humility? Actually, the fortitude to affirm the place you live in as special does come from somewhere: it comes from the story of you and the people you know, set in the place you know, which asserts your robust presence among creatures who would find imported abstractions of any kind rather out of place. If there is no local story, the space can be filled by humility’s refusal to do anything or believe anything without reasons kitted-out and made impressive with abstractions. But that does not make it a virtue.H34

And there is a still darker side to humility which—unlike low self-esteem—is often, and confidently, claimed to be a virtue. As the market economy weakens, the democracy which it supports will weaken. Whether the acute energy shortages and a destabilised climate and population will provide conditions capable of supporting authoritarian regimes is as yet unclear. But one of the strengths of authoritarian regimes is their ability to recruit the humble. They need people who will accept decisions without causing difficulties, and then carry out missions without taking it upon themselves to be moved by reason, common sense, or pity. They need supporters who will defer to the language. For example, as Françoise Thom shows in her study of the wooden doubletalk—langue de bois—of tyranny . . .

. . . [b]y stating: “It is necessary to show increased vigilance”, the orator testifies simultaneously to his loyalty to the ideological fiction of the ‘enemies within’ and to his aggressive intentions towards his fellows. Langue de bois has therefore this unique quality, without precedent in human communication: it can exhibit at the same time both the humiliation of the individual, his inner abasement, and his willingness to pass on the same degradation to others.H35

But, for all that, back to the good side: humility can mean the recognition that there are qualities in the other, in the person or practice or thing, which you have not yet understood, and which may be too complex, too deep or too unseen for you (at the moment at least) to understand. It is good manners, encounter, an encouragement to listen. It is that sanctuary of imperfect comprehension which gives the other person his otherness and independence: you may destroy him, but you can never comprehend him. With humility, you know your limits; you may reflect on the medieval poet Giovanni Boccaccio’s question (about himself and his fellow men): “O wormës meate, O froth, O vanity: why art thou so insolent?”H36


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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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