If there is one trait that all forms of life share, it must be self-assertion. From the simplest to the most complex, all living entities seek to persist in their state and reproduce. And doing so requires pushing relentlessly against other entities, often to the point of annihilating them. That makes life a scene of cruelty of cosmic proportions. But “cruel” may be the wrong word, for it applies human judgment to something that, by definition, is anything but human. The process of life unfolds beyond any human concerns — spontaneously, blindly, tyrannically. Humans are caught up in it just like any other species. Far from having a say in the process, we are used and abused by it — brought into being, instrumentalized, and discarded. We think we fall in love, but that’s just one of the tricks life uses to reproduce itself; we devise some better tool and think ourselves smart, blissfully ignorant that we are just playing life’s game of self-assertion. We live in a comic farce and call it happiness.
When it reaches Homo sapiens self-assertion takes a specific form: power. Being especially sophisticated creatures, we are rarely content just to satisfy our primary needs and impulses. We also need others to submit to us; we know we’ve got power only when we can see it in the lowered eyes of the other. There are many ways to size up power, yet the best one is based on the extent of the other’s humiliation. A brutal epiphany of self-assertion, power is intrinsically erotic: it is nothing unless it’s manifested and felt, showed off and taken in. Power doesn’t truly exist until it leaves a mark on the minds and bodies of others.
The fascinating thing about power is that its exertion, however intense, never exhausts it — on the contrary, the more you spend, the more you have. In our chronic hunger for power, we instrumentalize others, we manipulate, humiliate, and degrade them, but that only increases our appetite. We stop not when we “have had enough” (that rarely happens), only when we can sense that the other is positively crushed. Then we have won: we have asserted ourselves. And the more thorough the others’ crushing, the more satisfying our self-assertion. What fuels our pursuit of power is precisely its subtle eroticism. To make others bend to your will, to know that you can make and unmake them, that they are at your disposal, can transport you in a way the most intense of orgasms cannot. This hunger and the things we do to satisfy it shapes every detail of the human story. It rules over all human affairs, big and small — spontaneously, blindly, tyrannically.
It’s due mainly to our hunger for self-assertion that human history looks rather like a slaughterhouse, but it would be a mistake to think that power is the exclusive playground of Caesars, Napoleons, or Stalins, or that its practice is limited to wars, revolutions, or politics. Power is like water: it seeps into any crevice it can and, insidiously, changes everything. From government offices to corporate boardrooms, from classrooms to chatrooms, no place is too small to become a theater of power. No matter what they gather for, the meetings of the Homo sapiens usually turn into orgies of self-assertion. Our quest for power shapes the way we act and behave, how we think and what we feel. And, in the process, it corrupts us — however slightly or imperceptibly, and ever so sweetly. Given power’s insidious nature, even its lightest touch may be too much for one’s integrity. In the long run, like life itself, power is a deadly disease. To become properly human, we need to go against both.
It must be one of the most remarkable paradoxes of our condition that, to be properly human — to understand life’s process, to see “right through it,” to sense the vanity and unreality of it all, and to rise above it — we need to go against life itself. We can fulfill our humanity not by self-assertion (that would only tighten our bondage), but though self-denial. Given the hungry animal that we are, we’ve got only one chance: the more we starve the animal, the more human we become. And not a bit today and a touch tomorrow, but all the time; this is truly a lifetime project. For to become properly human is a highly demanding job — no wonder so few of us have mastered it. Schopenhauer thought that only a handful of mortals could save themselves from drowning in the stream of life: a few artists, a few compassionate souls, some radical practitioners of asceticism.
Yet the cure based on radical self-denial that Schopenhauer, in the footsteps of the Buddha, proposes is not for everyone. Mortification is difficult business. Fortunately, there is another solution. It may not be as spectacular as sainthood or Nirvana, but it’s practicable and within reach: humility. Thanks to the practice of humility, we can extricate ourselves, however provisionally, from the race of life and look at it from a distance, with detachment and serenity, even irony. It may not save us from drowning in the long run, but it gives us some breathing space. To the extent that humility is the capacity to unmask life and expose it for what it is — a bloody theater of power — it is the opposite of humiliation, which power always engenders. Humiliation is what you get when you are not savage enough to play the beast of prey, and yet insufficiently wise to realize it’s all just a game. Humility instead prevents us from entering the game of power in the first place.
Humility, however, is much more than just about table matters. It is, above all, about visibility and insight. Iris Murdoch defined humility, memorably, as “selfless respect for reality.” Granted, it places the viewer at a rather low angle — the word after all comes from the Latin humilitas (“lowliness”), derived in turn from humus (“earth”). Yet just as in the films of a Yasujirō Ozu, where low camera angles bring forth a surprisingly comprehensive vision of the world and offer singular insights into people’s minds and hearts, humility lends one privileged access to the reality of things. The view from above, when one is only human, is just a glamorous illusion, and sometimes the best way to miss the point.
The ultimate gift of humility — for it does offer gifts at times — is precisely this knowledge from the inside out, which those with power cannot even suspect exists. It is the kind of understanding of the world and its intimate workings that Ivan Denisovich acquires while relegated to the lowest of life’s stations in the Soviet Gulag. Page after engrossing page, Solzhenitsyn reveals Denisovich as someone who has truly got it: he sees everything and understands everything and forgives everything. Compared to the humble prisoner, Stalin — for all his boundless, crushing power — hasn’t understood anything worth understanding. For human beings, writes Simone Weil, “are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening.”
It is not for nothing that mystics and philosophers have often connected the practice of humility to a vision of truth. Bernard of Clairvaux writes: “The way is humility, the goal is truth. The first is the labor, the second the reward.” For Vladimir Jankélévitch, “humility equals truth,” and André Comte-Sponville eloquently defines humility as “loving truth more than oneself.” In Gravity and Grace, Simone Weil, whose entire work and life were defined by a profound ontological humility, writes that God “loves that perspective of creation which can only be seen from the point where I am.” But she finds she is in God’s way: “I act as a screen,” she writes. “I must withdraw so that he may see it.” Leaving out Weil’s God for now, we may extend her insight: we always act “as a screen” even to ourselves, we are in our own way. To have a full view and a better grasp, then, we need to “withdraw.” That’s exactly what humility does: it removes us from the picture so that things can reveal themselves. It’s only then that we can be said to be contemplating the world.
Unsurprisingly, major religions, from Buddhism to Christianity to Islam, place emphasis on humility. And so do countless codes of secular ethics. Indeed, any civilization worth its salt seeks to rein in our propensity for hubris and excessive self-assertion. (Just think of the uncommon length people in Japan, for example, go to embody humility in everyday life.) Yet, for all our efforts, this is, in the end, a losing battle. Civilization is weak and precarious, and life, ever stronger and more savage, always comes out on top. Self-assertion is natural, gratifying, erotically charged, whereas self-denial is anything but. Of all the animals, the human variety may be the most difficult to tame. And this is precisely why humility is so important. Through it we can learn how to tolerate ourselves and others, and make ourselves a touch less abominable. For good or ill, it is the best tool we have to tame the beasts that we are.
There is nothing shocking about this. If anything, it is one of the most banal — or should I say humble? — philosophical ideas. From the Buddha to the Sufi masters to Schopenhauer to Bergson and Weil, mystics and philosophers, East and West, have not in essence said anything else. If hearing it again does shock us, it is only because we have, perhaps like never before, become so blindly, erotically entangled in the race of life that we have even forgotten that we have eyes to see.
Costica Bradatan is the author, most recently, of Dying for Ideas: The Dangerous Lives of the Philosophers. He serves as the religion and comparative studies editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Banner image by Peter Halling Hilborg.