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Humility and the Ego by Dr. Ivo Coelho, Philosopher and Priest
In the ancient Greek world, as represented by Plato and Plutarch, humility suggests the condition of someone held in low esteem by self and others. In the Old Testament, the humble are the little people, unfortunate sufferers, discreet, self-effacing, and reserved within their community. Against this background, therefore, it is interesting to find that Thomas Aquinas relates humility to magnanimity on one side and to pride on the other – which is of course, the Aristotelian technique of defining virtue by relating it to its extremes on one side and on the other.
Thus Aquinas is able to say that it is not against humility to aim at high actions worthy of praise, for magnanimity, ‘greatness of soul,’ is itself a virtue, one that implies a certain aspiration of the spirit to great things. Humility, then, does not mean running away from actions that might win praise and recognition. “People are praiseworthy when they despise recognition by refusing to act meanly to gain it, and when they do not esteem it too highly. But it would be deplorable if they despised recognition by not bothering to perform acts worthy of it. In this way magnanimity is concerned with recognition, in that it is eager to do actions worthy of it, but not so as to overvalue recognition by men.” (Summa Theologiae II-II 129, ad 3m) The truly humble person has also largeness of soul: she does not hesitate to undertake acts worthy of praise; the point is that she will not stoop to meanness in obtaining recognition, and will have a healthy moderation in her esteem for human praise.
The magnanimous person of course runs many risks: the risk of ambition, or the excessive search for fame and honour; presumption, or relying on oneself for something beyond one’s powers, not seeking God’s help; vainglory, or seeking personal glory or display of one’s virtues. But there is also the opposite of magnanimity, which is pusillanimity, or falling short of one’s capability, refusing to extend oneself to achieve an aim that is commensurate with one’s own powers.
True humility, then, is founded on truth: a realistic self-estimate, one that is true and realistic also in this sense, that it gives due recognition to the author and source of one’s capacities, God. Humility, then, is deeply allied to prayer.
In the Thomist tradition, however, humility remains a human, not a theological, virtue. It is first in the order of time, in that it clears obstacles to the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. It is these latter that are superior to humility in the order of perfection, because it is they that bring us directly into contact and communion with God.
It would be interesting to ask whether humility understood in this way is equivalent to the absence of ego, anatta, selflessness of the Oriental traditions.
A theistic tradition such as that represented in the Bhagavad Gita does distinguish niskama karma, disinterested action, from the love bestowed by God on the human being, and the human response to this love.
In a non-theistic tradition such as classical Buddhism, instead, it is anatta or selflessness that seems to be the superior and more extensive category: it is the selfless one, the Enlightened One, who is full of karuna, compassion. In nirvana, there is no place for self, selfishness, and ego. And this is, with all probability, the great point made by the Buddha: leave aside all metaphysical speculation, and concentrate on suffering, and on the way out of suffering. Marvellously, in his discovery of this way, he discovered also the great virtue, karuna. Anatta is deeply and wonderfully related to karuna. True selflessness leads to deep compassion for those who are still embroiled in the vicissitudes of I and mine.
In the light of this, what might we make of Nietzsche’s attacks on the weakness promoted by Christianity and other religions, on their exaltation of the humble and the defenceless as a sort of revenge of the weak on the strong, in an attempt to give the powerful a bad conscience? One has to make one’s choice, I guess. And perhaps Nietzsche was simply reacting against degenerate understandings of humility. The Buddha and the Christ in their time, and Gandhi and Mandela in ours, are far from weak figures. They stand out magnificent in the serenity of their choices and the strength of their gentle compassion. Theirs is not a humility that is pusillanimity. They rejoice in their gifts while also acknowledging the precariety of the human condition. Jesus spends nights in prayer and communion with his Father, from whom he receives all things, and is able to walk tall and free even at the moment of his trial and humiliation. The Buddha teaches us the secret of vipassana, and is able to smile serenely at the Brahmin who throws insults at him. Prayer, as Raimundo Panikkar has explained well, is related to our precariousness, our fragility, as becomes becomes so evident in the Italian word for it, preghiera. Opposite to it is the inability to bow before the Throne, as reported by Carl Jung in one of his strange dreams. This is the ultimate choice, the ultimate root of true humility and anatta: to bow or not. It is a Luciferian choice.