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Philosophy of Reverence and Humility
Henry Flynt (2003/09)
© Henry A. Flynt, Jr.
This is the second of the three essays which I have extracted from “Values, Reverence, Humility” (1997).
Some announcements are needed at the outset so that the reader will not misconstrue, or get lost in secondary issues.
This inquiry is not devotional literature. I’m not advocating reverence and humility; nor am I railing against them as certain secularists might. I was trying to break new ground in philosophical anthropology or personhood theory: to understand what ‘reverence’ and ‘humility’ might mean, to surmise where these affections live.
Broadly, reverence and humility are affections which may be called spiritual, which presuppose that one is at a disadvantage. That said, we need to get behind the words to the situations the words are applied to. We find that given situations have been given opposite interpretations or appraisals by different thinkers. So there are no truisms in the appraisal of these situations. After seeking an understanding of the situations themselves, we may ask what the effect is of uniting them with a single label.
There is no slam-bang conclusion: how far we have fallen, that one has to say that.
Through most of the 1997 draft, I suited myself by pondering the situation of one who “takes the world on one’s shoulders.” The person for whom the determination of reality is within the scope of individual responsibility. (It may be a mistake even to mention it, but Rilke depicted this perspective in conjunction with his character Malte Brigge.) I do not address people who are content to “get along”—except insofar as they provide a milieu and a contrast.
Much of the text, then, is interwoven with genius theory. How did I have the nerve to write about issues which matter to only a few people? Answer: If I had been falsely modest, if I had pretended to be at more of a loss than I am, then I would have bored myself. I insist on being mindful of the altered boundaries of possibility afforded by meta-technology etc. Because the altered boundaries condition the possibility of inspiration.
My path is one of unique wariness toward the shared cognitive orientation. I do not consign the responsibility of judgment to anyone else. My process of disabusing myself of inner deceptions places myself at the vertex of judgment.
My path embodies a requirement of rigor: because my process has to overmatch the part of the inherited culture thought to be unconquerable. The person who wants a legitimate proof of the impossible (if there is one to be had) is after a lever to turn “reality” upside-down. This person risks various social penalties—namely the resentment of the conventionally minded at having their sanity-mirage shattered. He or she reaps a mixed reward. All the same, this venture will shift the universe underneath him or her—public opinion or no public opinion.
The absolute endeavor proposes to pre-empt the entire future of science. To do that changes the arena of the question. The standard goal of cogitation, to discover the truth, is superseded. For me, the escape from mental servility is bound up with the capacity for joy. I only claim to be speaking for myself here.
All the while, through most of the 1997 manuscript, I did pretend to be at more of a loss than I am. The public whom I address has underestimated personhood theory and the “evaluational processing of experience.” To accommodate that public, I confine myself to the familiar in certain respects. I speak of our full stature, of our fate—of ourselves as possibility—and yet: I do not integrate the altered boundaries afforded by meta-technology etc.
I humor common sense: in order to examine zones which the prevailing civilization places in shadow—zones which pertain to our stature or fate. I address ordinary personhood, which is hierarchical, longitudinal, etc.
Speaking to the public about the person-world, I resorted to the language of truth and honesty and their opposites.
I conducted the argument in verbal abstractions, as if I were doing “modern” philosophy, whereas I have expressed major reservations about this modern approach.
The 1997 manuscript weaved back and forth, trying to reach a public, trying not to forget the insights to which my perspective is due. The result was a soup, epistemologically. I have explained that way of working: I’m exploring, searching for results I want to commit to. Once I find them, I hope to reconstruct them at the appropriate level.
What do I discover about reverence and humility? These words have the connotations of groveling. We are secular and democratic enough to be suspicious of groveling; groveling should not be necessary. For all that, I am in a locale which is flooded with postmodernism, punk fanzines, the academic lionization of misbehavior and degradation. These irritants motivated me to take another look at reverence and humility, I said in 1997.
If people were equable to begin with, if they did not start in a theater of defilement, then nothing which connotes groveling would need to be urged as a virtue. What is more, as I said, I concentrate on what ‘reverence’ and ‘humility’ might mean to one who takes the world on one’s shoulders. Or—the 1997 draft is romantic in that I take once-in-a-lifetime cognitive insights, etc., as examples. Occasionally, the 1997 draft became a romanticism of ultimate experiences as I would interpret the phrase.
I’m not sure we need an exhortation to be reverent and humble. All that is required is not to have a chip on your shoulder; all that is required is to be able to listen. People shouldn’t have to be exhorted to be equable and level-headed and curious; if they do have to be, it means they were ruined by the time you got to them. They had drowned in self-hatred when you got to them. Unfortunately, that may be a common condition.
I’ve just said that the 1997 draft was motivated by the sense of being flooded with postmodernism, punk fanzines, churlish flippancy which disguises itself as depreciating relativism. In many passages, I’m holding up “irony man” as if I were debating him; I reply to gibes which sound idiotic but are supposed to be brilliant. OK, there may be something to be learned by saying exactly what is wrong with “radical” gibes.
We may try to elucidate reverence and humility by contemplating their polar opposites. But infinite cynicism doesn’t work as an iconoclastic absolute: it is trivially self-defeating. Postmodernism is not an iconoclastic absolute like the brend theory or cognitive nihilism or the civilization in one mind.
The mystique of infinite cynicism cannot usefully be understood in a historical vacuum the way an iconoclastic absolute can. Postmodernism subsists only in a socio-historical arena: in which a civilization is nearer to the end of a life-cycle than to its beginning. The bluff of sophistication hides a decline in competence. The slogan is that it is chic to be ruined; why do you suppose that someone would say that? It is pride struggling to hide a defeat it cannot recover from. It also bespeaks retardation.
In the 1997 draft, I ponderously worked my way to the conclusion that Postmodernist impudence was a wretched bluff—or less than a wretched bluff. Now it is clear that my 1997 grappling with the social threat of Postmodernism impeded the thread of the argument. This time around, I move all that to the third essay. There is just one point which we need here. Irony man’s “disproofs of the truth” are bluffs, or less than bluffs.
In fact, irony man’s ploy is very old, and should be familiar to every philosopher. If you want to defend a belief which is anachronistic and intellectually indefensible, what do you say? That nothing can be known, that everything is kerflooie—so we “might as well” go back to believing that the earth is flat or whatever the trash is.
• • •
I. Person and Life-course
A. This essay has no topic without a concept of the person, without a human self-definition. Most of our reflections concern the self—taking the individual (or individual subjectivity) as the arena of “the development.” So we need an account of the self; in this text, the account is a shifting compromise. In “Analytical Sketch” (January 1997), I offered the following:
Each of us is a goal-seeking creature with self-consciousness, in a field of shared ideas, under an imperative of “development,” of making its “identity.”
We consist of caring and striving—and tone, or morale. This essay would have no topic if indifferent inertness were our character. A person has likes and dislikes, and has norms, aims, ideals. Phenomenally, once one is past early childhood, one is always on the way from norms and ideals to other norms and ideals. In lived experience, the self is not norm-free or ideal-free.
One progressively makes, shapes one’s identity. The complexities of the phenomena teach us that one’s developing identity, one’s course of self-creation, unrolls on many levels. There are common turns of phrase for reconsidering one’s direction:
“I can’t go on being the dupe.”
“If this is how it is, something must be done.”
Am I becoming what I ought to be?—can I become what I ought to be? The outcome can be favorable or unfavorable. One wins oneself or fails to do so. In 1997, I was needlessly vague, calling it one’s fate.
The drama of winning oneself?—I can imagine the objection that many people’s lives meander without a point; they only “accomplish” what somebody forces them to accomplish. Well, there are problems with philosophy argued in broad abstractions; there is no help for that here. Aside from that, the objection simply picks the wrong moment to be condescending. I don’t want to give it any more space.
Pride looms large here. The pride which everyone has is the desire of self-admiration. For the balance of people, pride is inseparable from one’s surmises about one’s standing with other people. (Pride is desire of approval by self and others.) In “Analytical Sketch,” I found pride to be people’s paramount motivation.
Elsewhere, I place the emphasis differently. A human being’s personal identity (thematic identity) subsists in imagination, in the realm of comprehended meanings. Given that an individual has an ideology, to assign oneself a place in that ideology is a procedure of the imagination. In other words, to align one’s personal identity with the meaning of existence and the cosmos is an imaginative procedure.
Humans seek or enjoy material comfort, but not mindlessly. They interpret their aspirations. One receives or gains material comfort in a journey of meaning; it has to be legitimated. In the social landscape, the most important thing to a human being is self-realization in this imaginative realm.
So. In the arena of the self-regulated self and of longitudinal thematic identity, I commit and strive, in interaction with others. And I must pay attention to the identities and conduct codes which people share. Given that we are striving creatures, the avenue we pursue cannot be an indifferent consideration. Either our deeds honor what awes us—or we despise ourselves. [[When we hear claims to be above it all, or to be indifferent to it all, we again meet pride struggling to hide a defeat it cannot recover from.]]
Desire of approval by self and others—self-realization relative to a legitimating consensus—these depictions of motivation shade into each other. (Only the emphasis is different.) To continue with pride, it becomes preposterous, or self-endangering, if it is due to a “complacency” which is completely unprepared to be challenged. Or, pride can consist in a person’s gyrations to contrive an admiration for self in the face of suspicions that there is little to admire. When pride underestimates an adversary, or refuses to admit a need for help, it can be mortally dangerous to the prideful person.
Consider an individual’s direction in life. Such a “choice” of direction pertains to a person-world which extends distantly, which is temporal. Longitudinal identity is at issue.
There is another respect in which “choices” of this sort highlight the variegation of the person-world. A “chosen” type of conduct or direction in life has concurrent consequences throughout the person. It plays out among affections and among postures of denial.
Seriousness and originality are vanishingly rare. One is not able to cause them. They emerge first, and then impel uncompromising comportments (as well as risk-taking, and safeguarding of the self). They are correlative to respect for oneself, and to personal authority: which is to say that they “do to” culturally more than they are “done to.” Nobody concocts my seriousness and originality; it arrives—and it does to, rather than being done to. [A possible synonym is “passion.”]
Various types of conduct cannot be mere matters of taste. The conduct has correlatives throughout the person; or, types of conduct are not freely available—are not arbitrarily obtainable or obtained. The conduct implicates the whole person. People make their identities.—But within ranges determined by the natures they possess or lack. A given conduct reflects the possession, or the lack, of a faculty (say). And “making a different value judgment” cannot alter it. A conduct may be expressive of an entire personal fate. (A different sense of ‘fate’ in the 1997 draft.) What, then, of winning oneself? It means, whether I gain the reward of the constrained direction, or forfeit that reward through demoralization, folly, etc.
A life-path is not a mere matter of taste—when uncontrived élan enables it. Or when hollowness and failure, and preposterous scorn, dominate—and one wills one’s own defeat on a certain level. Or—if it involves taking stock of oneself, of what one has come to. Or—if it involves the perception of whether one has a nature one will honor.
B. Philosophical anthropology may well take
—personal mastery (i.e. control of one’s fate)
as human tropisms. The life-affirming tropisms, let us say. That’s not even to speak of honesty, for example, which I grapple with in much of my writing on human relations. I don’t think there’s a tropism for honesty; there is an ingenuous candor, but children also discover craftiness of themselves. [FN All the while, there are many occasions when misdirection and concealment are benign or warranted and impose no shame on the person who practices them. Honesty and dishonesty are both penalized from without. The inner penalty to “dishonesty” is actually a penalty to delusion and betrayal, and it would take us far afield to speak about it here.]
If someone turns from a life-affirming course, the usual assumption is that he or she has been abused earlier in life. Most people have the tropism to self-preservation and well-being—or we wouldn’t have lasted this long. [FN Where self-aggrandizement may sabotage itself is in the aggregate. The myopically selfish pursuit of more and more powerful weapons.]
What indeed are we to make of the person who turns from a life-affirming course? Is it possible that people are so utterly different that the atypical individual is not created by abuse, but is born kinky? Born for senseless destruction? (The cannibal Armin Meiwes who became a public figure in Germany in 2003—actually, it was his victim who was really baffling.) If we were all like that all the time then we wouldn’t be here.
The question of whether people are different for some reason other than “environment” has proved to be politically sensitive. It’s a real question and official knowledge does not offer a trustworthy answer.
But again, let’s be clear. If some people are born without the life-affirming tropisms, It would have to be rare. When we come to Postmodernism, and its lionization of corruption and degradation, to seek an explanation in heredity does not help. Postmodernism offers itself to a broad public as an ideology. It plays on stereotypes of “outsiders” by announcing that the values of deceit and squalor and corruption and hollowness nurture outsiders. The youth rebel’s self-destruction. “Bad is good.” In this theater, and that is what it is, only “squares” are honest and constructive. (I have met ambitious “others” who believe that in affirming deceit and squalor and corruption and hollowness, they are advocating for themselves.) It’s so ill-conceived that I can’t believe I have to write about it. The reason Postmodernism has swept the culture has to reside in the civilization’s life-cycle, in the stage we have arrived at.
Are some people born different? If it is a serious possibility, then philosophical anthropology is a dubious enterprise. Let us set aside the destructive deviance of cannibal Meiwes etc. (Could it be advantageous in the aggregate in reducing the population?) A tiny number of us are running away from opportunism, from pretenses in the service of inferior aims. It makes us the opposite of the rest of humanity. Nobody instructed us to be this way; they weren’t qualified to so instruct us. There is a patent difference here; and the burden of proof is on anybody who would call it superficial. So, is there one description of “the self” for all people? Hennix said no. It’s a risky conclusion, but I can’t rule it out. Limiting my observations to personal familiarity, it has not been proved that Hennix, or I, is assembled from the same pieces as the average person. It has not been proved that Pandit Pran Nath was assembled from the same pieces as the average person.
Even so, the gulfs between people are not the whole story. The atypical and the typical have much in common. None of us walks on air. Then, the atypical individual is a singularity who produces no lineage of like individuals. Then, the exceptional achievement which is publicly visible presupposes a continuum between people. The atypical individual springs from a culture which is a collective creation, a collective witness. An environment of receptivity enables the atypical ones to extend themselves. Just here, the individual’s fate is bound up with interpersonal relations.
• • •
One of the capacities comprising spirit (so-called) is studious detachment; and to that we may add a comportment called analytical thought or ratiocination. It is worth remarking that European commentators at the beginning of the twentieth century placed opposite interpretations on clinical observation. Some commentators avowed that clinical observation presupposes reverence. Other commentators insisted that it is hampered by reverence.
Some said that you have to be reverent just to study a rock as a geologist. Presumably, meaning that the geologist has to be serious, sincere, persistent—cannot be dismissive, jeering, resentful, perfunctory, numb. (Reverence proposed as an antonym of mockery, impatience, narcissism.)
In the supplements to this manuscript, I will offer a definition of piety. The twentieth-century secularists avowed that to understand what is atypical or formidable requires one not to be pious. You cannot appreciate the object if you set your faculties aside and seek a pleasant vagueness or dreaminess. [wish the object to sweep over you, sweep you away, overwhelm you, transport you.]
My snap reaction to this imaginary debate between the pious and their critics is: if reverence is an affection which presupposes that one is at a disadvantage, it does not help for the geologist to come to the rock reverently. The attitude of confidence, the attitude that I have an advantage, is as productive or more so. What is needed to cognize the rock is the simple absence of contempt (and/or patience, receptivity); that is not piety. Studious detachment is clinical acuteness. No awe is needed; awe is a hindrance. The simple absence of contempt would be a matter of course: if one were not submerged in the affections of dismissiveness, resentment, mockery (these affections are reactive).—If one were not submerged in the affection of numbness (a facet of subjugation).
The ingenuous acceptance which we call for—is it similar or the same as the child’s virtue of curiosity-not-clouded-by-ridicule-and-resentment?
A limited creature (a pet, an infant) presumably can express gratitude via affection, but does not feel reverence (in the word’s principal meaning). Even pathetic gratitude and affection already recognize their object as a person, a creature of sentience and volition who has the advantage of oneself and wills benevolence.
A benefit from an inanimate source is called the beneficiary’s good luck. If school is snowed out on the day you didn’t do your homework, you shouldn’t feel reverence for the snow. In offering this explication, we come closer to the normative meaning of reverence. (“Reverence for a rock” was a usage which we found to be explicable, but overwrought.)
Reverence, properly speaking, accompanies an understanding (a deluded understanding?)—even if the moment of reverence is a moment of feeling and not of ratiocination. Understanding in itself is not reverence, however; and reverence may be an obstruction to understanding, as well as a consequence of it.
Intimidation, fear, etc. are phases of respect which presuppose that the object is a threat to me. Of themselves, they are not reverence. (Of course, cultural messages do not present clear-cut distinctions. The God of the Bible is on a hair-trigger of vanity and so is continually hurting his favorites because they didn’t serve his vanity enough. You must love the one who harms you to escape additional harm. And personal relationships may not present clear-cut distinctions.)
Reverence is something more obscure than gratitude for a kindness. You feel reverence not for a deed, but for a state of affairs, a condition. Reverence is a feeling which follows, accompanies, ostensible understanding. The essential qualities are fascination—and an understanding that a condition benefits you which you could not have manufactured. You resonate emotionally with an other who has the advantage of you; you do so because its intentions are beneficial to you. (Immensely beneficial on balance.) Reverence pertains to an entire state of affairs, not to another’s beneficial deed.
Reverence, in the normative sense, has an object which is personal. Then—indeed—which “others” are persons?
In reverence, that which confronts you has the advantage of you [is perhaps more vivid to you than yourself]. Reverence is affection and gratitude toward something you understand as beneficent and as having the advantage of you.
You resonate with what you behold, you are attracted and fascinated by it. Now—a continuum from reverence to piety? You suspend your own authority and analysis and seek to be transported by the object’s advantage of you. You suspend authority and analysis, say, and seek a pleasant vagueness or dreaminess. Again cf. the supplements to this manuscript.
In general, I would have said that reverence and humility are simply mystification. Why is reverence needed at all? Why aren’t understanding, and ingenuous attentiveness, sufficient for a complete person? Evidently the universe does not militate entirely for me or against me. Why do I have to have an emotional reaction to a totality, given that it is not all one thing or the other? Why do I have to personalize the universe? Where am I getting my expectations? What do I suppose the universe has promised me?
[Am I supposed to be grateful for existence? It’s an amenity, an opportunity, which I couldn’t have earned. Well, causal thinking is implicit here. I return to the topic in the “Light of Being” manuscripts.]
As the conventional objects of reverence are presented to me, I am going to say that the understandings which recommend them as objects of reverence are deluded. We only disable our possibilities: by suspending our own authority and our faculties and wanting the power of the object to mesmerize us, to transport us.
Reverence is evidently a transfer of gratitude and affection to an impersonal situation, depending heavily on what is ostensibly understood. Just for that reason, it is at risk of being inappropriate. The awe people had in ancient times for the celestial bodies turned out to be based on preposterous notions about what those bodies were.
[[As I already said, we assume an account of the person, the self, to have something to talk about. Then the person has to be complemented by other people and by “an entire universe.” What is the account of them? I don’t want to simply affirm common sense. At the same time, we have to hew to a recognizable landscape to have anything to talk about. Again, a shifting compromise. These provisos are unavoidable when we speak of “reverence for the astrophysical universe.”]]
Let us not stop with individual celestial bodies. When the apologist for the supernatural demands reverence for the universe, he shows how jerry-rigged his apologism is. The astrophysical universe-picture is a speculation, a product of conceptualization. The religious apologist demands an ultimate commitment to this speculation; and yet it is a category mistake to cultivate reverence for a mindless and indifferent “universe.” Indeed, if the universe-picture is that of astrophysics, then it militates against the moral-theological conclusions which the apologist wants. So the apologist is left with an ultimate commitment to a totality which he cannot even define coherently.
These observations can be extended to the asceticism which religions occasionally require. (See the supplement; in our time, asceticism is seen as a chump’s game.)
Reverence has an “aesthetic” side. The object not only tests my understanding; it fascinates me and appeals to me. Actually, an inanimate object which fascinates me, and which I do not earn or manufacture, can evoke my feeling. A seashell. But the object has no intention toward me. Unstrained thought would be unable to locate a benevolent intention as its cause. Then any so-called reverence I felt for it would be an aesthetic reaction. I would be gratified that such an object exists, presents itself.
Reverent curiosity: a word for it is wonder.
Our full stature, or possibility, has a rationale like self-consciousness. We always extend farther than the “plays” we set in motion. Our stature extends above any heights we know how to invent and install. What we are towers above any hierarchy of goals we can invent.
All the while, we are not lords of all we survey; we remain partly helpless no matter what. Moreover, we are incapable of an equilibrium of pleasure. This assures that we are always “unsatisfied” in our longitudinal thematic existence. [There are episodes in which dissatisfaction is turned off. The word ‘overjoyed’ implies that gratification need not be an equilibrium.]
What guise should our awareness, our appreciation, of our full stature, our “sentience,” have? Accepting that we will discuss self-scorn in essay III, what is the affirmative opposite of self-scorn? Is it clinical detachment? If such a neutral apprehension of our full stature were possible, would it be a lucid apprehension?—or would it be stupid?
We are creatures of inspiration. If we apprehend ourselves while favorably disposed, why wouldn’t our caring, striving, life-tone carry forward in that self-apprehension? (What is there to be clinical about?) The favorable self-apprehension is an understanding-feeling about the one who understands and feels. (To turn all feeling off wouldn’t expand us, it would truncate us—and anyway, it’s a pose, we don’t actually do it.) The feeling to be appreciated lives in appreciation’s center, feeling’s center. Depending on understanding and perception, this apprehension is also a discovery in the realm of feeling and life-tone, a relish of life which has not been earned or manufactured.
Extending beyond the purposes we invent, our possibility has the advantage of us in our favor. (We may need to stop refusing to be impressed—then:] To admit to our stature is inspiring. It switches on our capabilities.
One who claims to see human possibility without reverence would in effect claim to surpass oneself immeasurably. In fact he or she would see nothing, would evince a blindness of stupidity or denial. (Or, perhaps, the callowness of the child who has not yet been challenged, who has not yet had to insist on itself in the face of derision.) If we are not awed, we have not apprehended our full stature lucidly.
Again: As observer and observed, as an interested party and an oriented one, we can’t validly be condescending to ourselves, even if we want to be. One owes reverence to one’s sentience and possibility—and presumably to that of others.
Any such reverence has to be squared with: the reality that specific other people threaten to harm me—both because they are deficient and because they are selfishly abundant. There is no implication here that we ought to be saintly fools.
Sentience and possibility—those defining conditions of persons—are open to:
—one’s full stature (“reality-type”)
—winning oneself (relative to the constrained direction).
[Reservations. Are these conclusions supposed to be based on a shell of humanness independent of the human self-definition of any particular civilization? And-what of the speculative limitations of philosophical anthropology from I.B above?]
Afterward on justice
If we characterize history as “tragedy” because of the aggression, the selfishness, the sadism, then we impose justice norms on society (mentally or in discourse). Let us take a step back. Where was it written …? There never was an initial external promise that humanity would be able to live up to “the” justice norms. All the while, the authorities claim that justice exists and that they have a monopoly of it.
At this point, let me offer some universalist reflections which bring us back to an idea we have just floated. (The very universalism of the argument may be out of fashion today, but that doesn’t make it a mistake.)
What shall we base ourselves on? Shall we judge what society delivers by the ideals which the authorities associate themselves with? Or shall we base ourselves on the lack of an initial external promise that humanity is rational and decent? If we consider that rationality and decency were never promised by anybody with the capacity to deliver, then to complain about injustice in history may make the mistake of judging the tiger by the principles of pacifism. The tiger is a predator by nature, we say. Even if we confine the tiger, we do not instill new values in it. The tiger will never undertake to be a pacifist.
There is another analogy with the tiger. Aggression and selfishness may have been indispensable to the elaboration of human powers over thousands of years, just as predation is to the tiger’s nourishment. Even if humans were capable of primitive harmony, that doesn’t prove that it would have brought us to our full stature.
But is the tiger a fair comparison with humans? The tiger cannot reflect on what it does. We do. The supposition that nothing a priori tells against the ruthless use of people is contradicted by the case for reverence for our possibility in the abstract—give or take the reservations I expressed after making that case.
• • •
We might be wary of demands for humility just as we are wary of demands for reverence. Is it not subservience that is being demanded? Are we not now secular and democratic? Knowledge is no longer sacred. It does not test the prospective knower morally. The aristocracies have been overthrown. Only merit can elevate a person above me, and that elevation pertains only to one excellence, not to our relative status as persons.
This is all very brave. It proposes that subservience is merely a product of upbringing. Even worse, if we count Freud’s occult psychology as modern, subservience may be an ingrained comportment that persists from childhood even as the sufferer does not recognize it for what it is.
Well, I don’t know that it gets us any farther forward to announce that subservience is merely a product of upbringing. It makes me think of romantic selection (object-choice, in psychoanalysis). Whom you select may be a matter of an instilled fixation. That you select could as well be innate. What democratic dogma pre-judges, I don’t want to pre-judge.
Perhaps it is the norm for people to hunger for a master to kneel to. Perhaps democracy makes this human trait worse by throwing the role of lord up for grabs.
Then the conclusion here is that if humility is a fault, modernity does nothing to deliver us from it. We will be able to find humility as often as we find impertinence. Very few people gain their identity by telling themselves that nobody is worthy to be their hero. Imitation is too important as a way of extending ourselves.
I wish that the scientific materialists could be commanded to speak on humility; I wonder what they would say. Humility is a personalistic comportment. One would expect the scientific materialists, as anti-dualists or psychephobes, to dismiss humility as a fiction like all mental comportments.
At the same time, the scientific materialists always forget that they shouldn’t be persons. They gratuitously adopt postures which they have never even thought about defending. They display an abrupt, unreflective sententiousness regarding those moral issues which connect to their social identities. (Forgetting that since they are mere androids—not to say electric fans—they shouldn’t have voluntary social identities.)
In their “human” transactions, the scientific materialists just can’t trip over themselves often enough. In their contempt for the psyche and for humanism, they may decide that humility is for losers. Because they have thrown off their masters, they themselves are masters of all they survey. Others may know defeats, comedowns; not them. They are so cool that nothing gets to them. Of course, that is already wildly incongruous with their sententiousness—but then, these geniuses of logic wouldn’t know consistency if it came up and bit them.
At the Baltimore astrophysics conference of June 2008, Michael Turner said regarding the puzzle of dark energy, “You have a job, to go knock on everyone’s door and say this is the opportunity of a lifetime.” Perhaps this is a very thin example, but the exhortation to mobilize enthusiasm and dedication relative to a consensus goal, which erupts because something remote and abstract has just been understood—isn’t that personalistic? Doesn’t it conjure up more than one future and make the actual future depend on human choice? In their “human” transactions, they seem to have the same problem of “needing to act” that theology does.
All the while, they expect the laity to be humble before science. The truth is counter-intuitive, quantitative, and difficult: maybe you will never understand it. Indeed, their enterprise, science, pitilessly puts you in your place. It teaches you that you are nothing but a speck in an indifferent universe. It teaches you that your understanding that there is something for you to understand is a contemptible illusion. They do not have to be humble, but you have to be humble before them. They do not have to be good, but you have to be good to them.
The value system of today’s youth rebellion industry, or sassiness industry, has a point of tangency with the scientific materialists. Humility is for losers. Honor and trust are virtues only to the pompous. The cool kid adopts a gutter’s-eye view, and proclaims himself lord of all he surveys. Winners only know “fun.” Nothing gets to him: there is no problem that cannot be solved beneath sunglasses by an evil grin.
We have taken note of two postures—one well-organized, one silly—because my readers may be intimately familiar with them. But let us now ponder humility without the restrictiveness of willful folly.
Any particular experience of being outdone
Humility can be an imposed personal experience in anybody’s life. To be individually humbled, to be put in one’s place. It can be an irreparable loss. It can be an opportunity which calls on you to recognize it as such. (If you don’t recognize it, that can expose you as a dolt.)
The comportment called humility is concomitant to an event, namely being humbled. One is palpably overpowered or outdone. It may then be a feeling of helplessness and dependence. To be shown in a particular case that you overestimated your power. To discover in a particular case that your self is inadequate.
We come to humility instinctively when we are palpably outdone, overpowered. Something does not have to be fascinating, appealing, benevolent to humble you. Suppose you swim where there is a warning about sharks, and a shark bites your leg off. The shark humbles you. There is nothing benign about it.
Being humbled in a more recondite way. The emergence, appearance of objective norms which override your norms. To learn that the standards by which you have judged something are themselves the mistake. “I realized that my entire previous life was a lie and a fraud.”
Humility is necessary to reverence, but is not the whole of reverence.
The noble person may well be a person who confronts you with an overwhelming advantage. Their “contribution” may pull your universe out from under you. Is there a humility at the level of reverence, a humility which signifies that an abstract understanding has been deeply felt? If, on the other hand, you do not realize that you have been outdone, it shows you up as numb, stupefied. You lack humility to a fault.
Speaking of a particular experience of being outdone, the addict at the threshold of recovery provides an example. This juncture in a life is utterly prosaic, and yet not prosaic. Berndt reminds us of a commonplace, that the first of the Twelve Steps is to admit that one is powerless over one’s addiction, that one cannot end one’s addiction by will-power. Addiction is master of you. An experience of surrender is the first gate to recovery.
Actually, there is more than one “attitude problem” (if that is what we choose to call it) which you cannot overcome by will power. But each of these attitude problems plays out differently.
The cool kid is often an addict, and at some point he or she may have had enough of being a cool kid, and contemplate recovery. At that point, whether to humble oneself is a life-or-death choice. But where does it take you and how is it effective? On the face of it, one rings in peer communication, a peer network, in place of one’s will-power. Then one’s self-discipline is coming as much from counterpart sentiences as from within.
Addiction is a particular risk to oneself. It is pictured as harming nobody but oneself. It may not be illegal. It is not kept secret from the sympathetic, only from the unsympathetic. It has public constituencies of admiration. (It is an ordeal that proves adulthood—or that horrible Postmodern quality, transgressiveness.) To enter a milieu devoted to sobriety, then, can supply what will-power cannot. To divulge one’s shortcomings to the congregation, and then be congratulated for however much sober time one has, can be another gate to recovery.
It is prosaic because these days, anybody is a recovering addict. But the whole person, as a tangle of causation, has detours, not all of them at the surface of the mind. You cannot do what you need to do by conscious self-discipline alone.
The imperfection of the human lot
Humility is implicit in the human lot. Anybody is the center of his or her microcosm, but it does not follow that he or she is master of all he or she surveys. Anyone is continuously taught his or her helplessness and dependency. Anyone is continuously liable to frustration and suffering.
There is a helplessness I cannot transcend. I am always at risk of being crushed by pitiless powers, whether they are called nature or collective human folly.
We will never be fulfilled in the sense of reaching a sustainable equilibrium of pleasure. The hot button of gratification—conspicuously proffered in the twentieth century by competing schools of naturalism—does not exist. The totality is not harmonious. There are irremediable tragedies. There are wrongs that will never be remedied. There are lost opportunities.
[Again: Is this supposed to be based on a shell of humanness independent of every civilization’s human self-definition?]
The universe does not militate exclusively for me or against me. History is sprawling, and out-of-control—so that “progress” comes about along corrupt paths. Humanity has “ascended” over the centuries via myths—there’s no escaping it.
People who rank low according to wisdom’s values have to be served: Alexander, Napoleon. Hegel tried to be realistic by praising these men as world-historical Caesars. Alexander in particular attained little well-being. The Caesars were killed by enemies they created. Hegel tells us that their service was to History and to their posthumous fame, not to themselves as living selves.
A person who insists on integrity becomes invisible, is forced to exist as an eccentric hobbyist and hermit. One can construct a realm of personal values which one considers superior to public life. One can then deplore public life. If one imagines that one’s work will have a posthumous cash value, one can even imagine that one is being robbed.
One may also envision utopian subversive endeavors, thereby raging against the corruption which pervades collective life.
[One motivation of principle which led me to Communism was the spectacle of “grants” being awarded to “cultural aspirants.” To reward real geniuses would require the authorities to have a framework in which the very standards of worth could be debated—and that doesn’t happen. I couldn’t stand watching it play out. “Grants” go to professional ladder-climbers. In the way of the world, the authorities can’t know which contribution is most deserving. The only just solution is for the collective to provision its members as a matter of principle, separating their survival from the relative worths of their contributions.]
Respect for instruction
There is a humility which you need to peruse my body of work productively. (I would say the same about Hennix’s body of work. Again, I’m limiting myself to personal familiarity.) But let me reframe what to me is a personal lesson in general terms.
Many publicists utter one sentence which destroys trust at the outset. Many tendencies in the public arena are charlatanism, and even know that they are.
Given that a presentation is offered which is free of trust-destroying lapses. How about conceding that you are unfinished and have something to learn? How about considering familiarization as a worthy goal? How about granting that homework may reasonably be expected from you? How about conceding that you may have been disserved by standards of judgment which were inculcated in you?
If I may reasonably ask you to start climbing a high and unfamiliar mountain, if there is a prospect that you will benefit greatly from doing so, then humility well serves you.
At other times and places, all this would have been so truistic that it wouldn’t have been said. Today, it is a shocking novelty that we have to fight for.