Arrogance and Modesty

Q: Is arrogance the opposite of modesty?

A: First, we have to define “arrogance.”

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines arrogance as,

“an attitude of superiority manifested in an overbearing manner or in presumptuous claims or assumptions.”

The definition I prefer is: Arrogance is a sense of self-importance greater than rationally justified. In other words, an arrogant person is someone who thinks he’s more valuable, important or competent than he really is.

Modesty is presumably the opposite. Modesty refers to an attitude in which you underrate your value, importance or competence.

By these definitions, both modesty and arrogance represent distortions of fact and logic. This is because the only way to be rational, on this subject, is to see yourself as you really are. It can be hard to be objective about yourself, but you have to try. You can ask trusted others for facts and observations about how you behave. You can also stand back and consider your own actions and ideas, and evaluate those objectively. The extent to which you conscientiously do this will be the extent to which you avoid the distortions of either arrogance or modesty.

By conventional standards, modesty is a virtue. It’s claimed that to be humble, including to understate your own known (or even obvious) strengths and accomplishments, is a sign of virtue. This is ridiculous, and it’s also inconsistent unless you’re prepared to claim that departures from truth and reality constitute virtue. If modesty is virtue, then lying is too.

Arrogance, while not any more excusable than modesty, is, in a sense, an understandable reaction against the distortions of modesty. “I’m supposed to pretend I haven’t accomplished what I have, and that I don’t have the talents I know I have? That’s ridiculous.” And then the person goes overboard in claiming he’s greater than he really is. That’s where the overbearing manner and presumptuous claims come in.

Genuine self-esteem and self-respect consists of seeing yourself as you are, and accepting your strengths as well as weaknesses. An obsessive concern with not being arrogant will lead one to ignore or minimize one’s good qualities. This isn’t healthy, wise or rational. Psychotherapists spend many hours with many of their clients helping them learn to look at themselves objectively so they can identify their strengths. Somewhere along the line, people with low or faltering self-esteem bought into the idea that because arrogance is bad (it is), that the only alternative is modesty.

In fact, it’s a false alternative.

You don’t fight distortion with distortion. You don’t overcome or avoid arrogance by substituting it with the equally distorting quality of modesty.

Isn’t modesty a good thing? Doesn’t it simply refer to not bragging? It depends what you mean by bragging. Imagine someone says, “That’s a great job you did,” and you know you did a great job, and you reply, “Thank you. I know.” Is this arrogant? No, not if you really did do a good job. Modesty is not called for in these situations. Modesty is a lie, in fact. It’s a deliberate undercutting of yourself and your accomplishments. It’s unhealthy and just plain wrong.

For eons, parents have encouraged their children to be humble and modest at the expense of their own developing self-esteem. They do so by constantly claiming that the only alternative to modesty is arrogance, and that “you surely don’t want to be arrogant, do you?”

Notice how my rejection of both arrogance and modesty relies on an implicit premise, a premise that knowledge — including about oneself — is objective. It’s possible to be certain that you excel at something, or that you’re terrible at something. It’s possible and necessary to pass judgments about your own actions, the same way you should pass judgments about the actions and qualities of others.

In a culture increasingly dominated by the idea that knowledge is not objective, but only a matter of opinion, the world will start to consist of two types of people: The humble and the arrogant. It’s not difficult to imagine the counterproductive psychological course for each group, unless or until both sides start to recognize that because knowledge is objective, it’s entirely possible to replace these bad thinking habits with accuracy, rationality and genuine self-respect.