Humility, Identity

By Thomas Horton ’15

“We are the 1%,” said President Tilghman at Opening Ceremonies at the start of this year.  And indeed we – the members of the Princeton community – are privileged by virtue of our being here at Princeton.  With that knowledge, we can either think highly of ourselves or fully realize our responsibility and serve the world well.  We cannot do both.

Speaking of our potential in the world beyond Princeton, President Tilghman said, “We are agnostic about what you choose to do, but we do insist that it have a purpose that is larger than you.”  The last bit is crucial: that what we do be larger than us.  We must realize that it isn’t about us.  It’s about something bigger than us.  We must humble ourselves in order to see the big picture and be able to give credence to the University’s informal motto: Princeton in the Nation’s Service, and in the Service of All Nations.  President Tilghman was spot on about this need for humility, and I certainly commend her for pointing that out.

But, aside from this glancing reference in a speech, the Virtue of Humility seems to lay forgotten under the amoral detritus of our culture which glorifies individualism and the promotion of self-identity.  This culture is particularly pronounced here at Princeton where we are frequently reminded that our unique identities and the diversity that this multiplicity of identities fosters yield an ideal climate for learning and mutual understanding that are necessary for a prestigious University on the global scene.  In some sense, this is a valid claim.  Certainly, having a healthy variety of perspectives and opinions at such an academic institution as Princeton does promote increased dialogue and sharing of ideas.  However, this notion carries with it a danger as well and of this we ought to be cautious.

The danger is this:  That in being taught to be highly sensitive to others’ identities, we are also implicitly being told to cling to and take pride in our own identity.  This is where the danger creeps in.  Pride is a vice.  In the Christian tradition, Pride is regarded as a Deadly Sin.  C.S. Lewis, an esteemed twentieth century thinker, called it “the essential vice, the utmost evil” because “[p]ride leads to every other vice.”

Be assured; this criticism of pride in our identities is not a condemnation of our actual beings, be us intellectual, gay, poor, straight, man, woman, rich, black, Christian, white, Muslim, or any permutation of these or any other traits.  Rather, what I criticize is the vociferous notion of “identity” that loudly and proudly seeks to assert itself for no other reason than pride.  After all, as noted by Lewis, pride spawns a multitude of other vices that cause many societal problems – a fact that can be seen widely here at Princeton today.

What is Humility?

            In defining humility, it is important to begin with clarifying what it is not.  It is not a castigation of yourself as low and stupid and fat and lazy and uncoordinated and whatever other lousy attribute you think to add to that litany.  No.  Humility is not humiliating.  Neither is it humble simply to deny your strengths.  On the other hand, it is obviously not humble to flaunt yourself as some sort of gift to society that everybody should worship.

Humility is to be found at a precise point in between those two extremes.  It is honest behavior in the acknowledgement of truth.  Let’s put this definition to the test.  Step back from yourself for a moment and consider the vastness of things.  For instance:  Firestone Library has over seven million books.  No human being can grasp even 1% of all of that knowledge (unless you presume to be able to read 70,000 books and retain it all).  We are all limited.  We cannot know everything, we cannot do everything, and we certainly shouldn’t pretend that we can.  The honest behavior, then, in the recognition of this truth of our limitation is the avoidance of pretense; that is, we know that we do not know (as per Socrates) and accordingly seek to learn without pretending that we know what we do not.

The Branding Problem

What about identity?  Is it not just an acceptance of the truth of what we are?  Not quite.  Who one is – their identity – is presumably a truth.  The honest behavior regarding the truth, however, is where the University’s espousal of identity-driven diversity is at fault.  Identity, as Princeton posits it, is a matter of personal dignity that is to be held almost as sacred.  Individual identity, therefore, is a matter not only of what someone is, but a matter of pride to be asserted by that person.  Philosopher and essayist G.K. Chesterton criticized this modern attitude saying, “The new philosophy of self-esteem and self-assertion declares that humility is a vice.”

In this whole “identity” business, we often fall into a very basic trap of pride: Personal Branding.  Pride causes us to “brand” ourselves with attributes so as to “create our own identity” rather than realize who we actually are or which facets of ourselves are more important.  In other words, we are selling ourselves as this, that, or the other identity for the sake of promoting ourselves rather than simply honestly realizing who we are.

Let’s consider a few examples.  Blacks are frequently reminded that “race matters” (as per Cornel West) and that they should actively seek to project that aspect of their identity without asking why.  Some Christians noisily brand themselves as saved while forgetting to critically self-evaluate and realize the sin that still remains within them.  Gays are told not simply to declare themselves openly as is merely honest but, moreover, to take pride in it.  The fact that “Pride Parades” or “Pride Week” is termed as such only attests to the point at hand.  Namely, that branding ourselves as this or that identity is not ultimately about addressing the truth of who we are so much as projecting to the world a proud message of “I.”

These demographic identities are certainly not the only ones susceptible to the cancer that is pride.  In fact, the most insidious of prides stemming from the “Branding Problem” are wholly unrelated to such superficial demographic attributes.  At Princeton, we are especially liable to tacitly, if not explicitly, brand ourselves as “Intellectuals” or inherent leaders.  The truth is obvious:  we attend the #1 University in the USA (US News & World Report) that excels on almost all fronts.  This blessing, however, is distorted by our behavior when we proudly take to branding ourselves as an “elite” on a different level than other people.  The University must seek to combat this lest we be unable to carry out our Princetonian mantra of national and global service.

Humility in Practice

            Now for the crux of the question: what is it about this absence of humility that prevents us from properly serving our nation and our world?  In short, it blinds us.  It blinds us from clearly seeing the problems of the world.  Furthermore, those we do see we conceitedly presuppose to be able to solve as if we were the panacea for the world.  In reality, we are failing to see one of the biggest of the world’s problems: as humans, we are limited and fallible.

Let’s first consider an example of a pervasive problem that is immediately relevant to the University community:  Facebook.  Think of all the time we waste on the social network: modifying our profiles, updating our status, liking things to brand ourselves with this or that quality or taste.  Don’t get me wrong: Facebook is great for keeping in touch with friends.  Nevertheless, our proud self-preoccupation can easily get in the way of the social interaction that the website is supposed to foster.  The social good of having a Facebook page has, for many people (often myself included), been warped into little more than an advertisement for ourselves.  If we were to take humility a little more seriously, perhaps we wouldn’t get so wrapped up in branding and promulgating ourselves online and thus lose sight of the real world around us.

Yet Facebook is just one small issue among many that pertain to the problem of pride.  Many bigger societal conundrums are also confounded by a lack of humility.  A good example of this is to be found in the realm of economics.  Whether or not you subscribe to the Austrian School, credit must be given to Frederick A. Hayek for exposing “the pretense of knowledge” so prevalent in the dismal science.  He argued that the complexity of an organic thing such as the economy cannot be reduced to the simplicity of data and regressions without losing something.  He combatted those who presume that they know the inner workings of the system to such a degree that they can manipulate it as they see fit.  Hayek, in essence, reminded economists and policy-makers that we are limited and can only truly understand so much.

The opposing top-down approach to the economy ignores innumerable intangible facts that simply cannot be known by one person or even a larger bureaucracy of people.  (Remember the 7-million-books-in-Firestone example?).  Perhaps a more humble approach to economics would cause us to recognize the limits to our understanding.  Perhaps a humble economic approach would call into question the “we, the elite, know better than you” attitude that is commonplace today in broad economic legislation that often takes matters of individual choice and policy out of the hands of individuals and local authorities in favor of federal technocrats.

The litany of examples – large and small alike – goes far beyond these two simplified cases that I observe here.  If what C.S. Lewis says about pride is true, then essentially all problems we encounter in the world stem ultimately from some lack of humility.  Even if that were hyperbole, it is nonetheless clear that the virtue of humility could help to alleviate many of the problems that lay ahead of us.

Humility at Princeton

Earlier this semester, Prince columnist Susannah Sharpless published a piece entitled “Honesty” in which she called for a return to morality for its own sake.  She noted that while “character education” is considered contentious, morality in education is crucial in raising students who will have a positive impact on society.  Princeton University ought to heed her words and uphold such a basic virtue as Humility as integral to the formation of the ideal Princeton student.

Humility is not, however, something that the University could simply bestow upon us like housing, factual knowledge, or free tee-shirts.  Rather, it is something that must be cultivated.  The University administration and faculty must foster a spirit of humility here on campus not only via rhetoric as seen in President Tilghman’s speech at Opening Ceremonies, but also – and especially – by example.

After all, it’s in the University’s interest.  If it wants to uphold the motto of “Princeton in the Nation’s Service, and in the Service of All Nations,” then the University would do best to encourage us to be humble.  For with humility, we will look beyond ourselves and see the true problems of the world.  And then we use what we’ve learned here at Princeton to do what we can within our humble capacities to address the problems we encounter prudently.

As Princeton students, it is undeniable that we will have many doors open to us in the future.  Some of us may become leading policy-makers in Washington.  Others may work on Wall Street.  Others still may blaze a different route through life.  Regardless of where we each decide to go, we must be ready to stave off the temptations to succumb to the “pretense of knowledge,” to “brand ourselves” with this or that identity, or to fall into any other trap of pride.  Let us not fall to hubris like the innumerable protagonists in ancient Greek tragedies. Instead, let us seek to grow in humility with which we will be best equipped to serve our nation and all nations in the years to come.

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One thought on “Humility, Identity

  • January 13, 2013 at 8:36 pm

    There is nothing wrong with thinking highly of oneself, as long as it does not lead to the sin of vanity. Also, people today are so caught up in discussing and theorizing on Twitter and Facebook, they forget to simply go out and DO. Help out at the local homeless shelter. Christmas Carol at a nursing home and actually talk to the residents. Greet the soldiers at the airport as they arrive home from deployment. It does nobody any good to sit at the computer and point out the problems in today’s society (as I sit at the computer and point out society’s problems, ironically). As Saint Francis said, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and when necessary, use words.”


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