A Study in Humility

“Freedom from pride or arrogance; the quality or state of being humble”: the definition of ‘humility’ according to Merriam-Webster. But what is humility, really?

A Study in Humility
“Freedom from pride or arrogance; the quality or state of being humble”

The definition of ‘humility’ according to Merriam-Webster. But the concept of humility is much more interesting.

Origin of the Word

The word derives from Latin humilis, meaning ‘lowly, humble,’ and the root humus meaning ‘earth.' You might first think of the verb ‘humiliate': “to make (someone) ashamed or embarrassed,” then followed by ‘humiliation,’ which you could say is the state of being humiliated. Psychiatrist Neel Burton claims the word means,“to be humbled or reduced to lowliness or submission.”

But I’m talking about humility as a character trait, and less of an emotion or state of being. ‘Humility’ and ‘humbleness’ are interchangeable, in a sense, but there's just something about humility that makes it have a different flavor than humbleness to me.

The wording that Merriam-Webster uses (all definitions I use are from them, #notsponsored) makes it seem like, to me,  if you were to be humble, then you are actively choosing to not be arrogant or full of yourself. And to have humility it would mean that you don’t need to be arrogant, you don’t need to prove your worth. That you know intrinsically that you are important and have worth, and that you know that it’s okay to not be the best at everything. Really sounding like a line to boost teenage girls’ self confidence.  

Humility and the Sexes

Women are different from men. Welcome to the world! But I mean more along the lines of the way that the sexes learn how to navigate the world. Men get praised for this and that, things that are often expected from a woman (i.e. doing their own laundry, or participating fairly in a conversation). That concept of being seen as less important, even if not explicitly stated, often bleeds into the rest of the woman’s thoughts.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has demonstrated this. Most world leaders speak English, and Merkel is no exception. Her 2014 speech to the UK parliament started in English, however, she stopped to apologize for her poor fluency and switched to speaking with a German translator.

YouTuber and political journalist J.J. McCullough discussed the event, saying that it “strikes [him] as a good example of the sort of humility that people sometimes say that women have, which is to say a woman is much more likely to be self-conscious of her limitations whereas a man is much more likely to just barrel through.”

Merkel at UK Parliament, image from The Guardian

McCullough then uses a clip of french president Emanuel Macron absolutely butchering the English language to exemplify his point. And I’d say it’s true: I notice all the time when men just don’t seem to care that they can’t possibly know everything there is to know, or can’t acknowledge that they aren’t naturally born savants in every possible skill.

Great example: mansplaining. If you happen to be living under a rock, ‘mansplain’ is a portmanteau of ‘man’ and ‘explain,’ and it’s the phenomenon of men thinking they need to explain something to a woman, even though the woman sure as hell already knows what there is to know about the subject matter.


The Flight of Icarus by Jacob Peter Gowy

This reminds me of the concept of hubris. Hubris is the downfall of basically every tragic Greek hero. Hubris means “exaggerated pride or self-confidence.”

Interestingly, ‘hubris’ is of Greek origin, and ‘humility’ is of Latin origin. Despite sounding similar, they aren’t related etymologically, which I find fascinating. My first thought of the Latin equivalent to hubris would be ego, but ‘ego’ just means “the self especially as contrasted with another self or the world.” Merriam-Webster even says that a synonym of ‘ego’ is ‘self-respect.’ We first started using ‘ego’ in connection with ‘conceitedness’ most likely due to absolute legend Sigmund Freud.

Many Greek heroes, such as Achilles and Oedipus, suffered from hubris. Overconfidence caused the heroes to try and exceed human limitations and become godlike, which the gods didn’t think to be so cash money. Greek gods are swift to end your mortal life, it seems.  


And now I’m going to connect humility to racism. Or ‘humiliation,’ rather. Peter Gabel, editor of Tikkun, a magazine for philosophical discussion, wrote about the connection between humiliation and racism: “Racism is like a disease in the sense that one may have a mild or severe case of it (though never mild to its victims), depending upon how traumatic the laying down of one’s inner humiliation of non-recognition has been.”

Gabel explains that in order to not feel inadequate in certain areas, racists inflate themselves with the idea that they are inherently better than people of color because they are white. They then go on to humiliate people of color (in the sense of lowering their social status), because they themselves are afraid of being humiliated. Or something along those lines, I’m really not qualified to speak here but I encourage you to learn more† because reading about this stuff is fascinating.

Humility and Self-Esteem

There is this sense of helplessness. That they are stuck in their situations with no way out of the hole because of the way that our society is structured. The feeling of helplessness is tied to low self-esteem. My definition of humility, which is that you don’t need to constantly prove to others that you are worthy of respect, can be viewed as a form of low self-esteem.

“People with low self-esteem often feel unlovable, awkward, or incompetent,” according to Lena Firestone, a freelance writer. “Low self-esteem is characterized by a lack of confidence and feeling badly about oneself.”

But I don’t feel like having humility is the same as having low self-esteem. To me, low self-esteem is more like feeling badly about your shortcomings, and feeling badly about yourself in general. Feeling like you have no worth, and that people shouldn’t waste their time paying attention to you.

Even if you make mistakes, that’s okay. To err is human, as they say. It’s okay to not be the best at everything. In fact, it’s impossible to be the best at everything: we only get so many stat points to spend at our character customization screen. Knowing your limitations can help you in life, I believe.

You don’t need to be arrogant, you don’t need to constantly prove your worth. You are important and deserve respect. “Humility is not to think lowly of oneself, but to appreciate the self one has received,” claims Rabbi Johnathan Sacks. To have humility is to know this, even when you make mistakes and even when you act like a right fool. Acknowledge that you have faults, and acknowledge those faults as well.

If you know that you are lacking in one area, you can do something about it. Let’s say that you are falling behind in a class, and that class really isn’t your strong suit. That’s okay. Acknowledge that you aren't perfect, and acknowledge that you need to do something about it. Go ask for help, for tutelage. Go study more, or be more present in class.

When you’re in a group setting, and you know that you’re awfully good at procrastinating, that’s okay. Acknowledge that you have a bad habit and acknowledge that you need to do something about it. Put someone in the group that has a good sense of time, set a rigid schedule and allow for people to hold you to it.

That’s what humility is to me. Knowing that you are what you are. It’s perfectly fine to have problems. Lord knows I’ve got enough. Like giving up on writing all of my articles in the more ‘professional’ third person and avoiding first and second person pronouns. That went out the window. Along with caring about whether my articles are way too long. I mean, if you’ve read this far it clearly wasn't that big of an issue.

I know where my strong points are, and I like to think that I know where my weak points are. Being able to exercise what you’re good at and being able to navigate and overcome what you’re weak at, that’s what’s gonna make you succeed in life. But I could be lying, I mean I just turned 18, so I’ll have to put my theory to the test.

Fear of Humiliation as the Root of Racism - Peter Gabel, Tikkun

Racial Humility - New Discourses

This Overlooked Trait is the Key to Allyship - Lincoln Hill, Forge