The Problem With Humility

‘Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.’

So says the New Testament of the Bible—the basis for the dominant Christian ethics of our society, and for much of the Western world.

I don’t understand it, and therefore I don’t agree with it.

One thing I don’t understand is: If being humble is good, then why is there a reward for it only later—presumably, in an afterlife? Why will one be rewarded for being humble only after death?

I do understand that virtuous behavior—rationally defined, such as honesty and integrity—sometimes does not show immediate results. The results only appear in a larger context, throughout all of life, through the personal rewards that come from being known as (and knowing yourself to be) an honest, reality-oriented person. But these long-range rewards are still to be found in this life.

It seems to me that if humility is the right way to live, then one should be exalted for being humble in this life—not only the supposed next one.

And if humility is not the right way to live, then I don’t see why an all-good and all-wise Being would reward us for this immorality down the road ‘ after dying, no less!

It makes no sense: Not even on its own terms; not even if you accept the idea that self-exaltation is bad, and not even if you accept that there is a God, and there is an afterlife.

Another thing I don’t understand is why self-exaltation—which this quote clearly does not support—is morally bad or wrong.

I take self-exaltation to mean: A love of life, which necessarily includes a love of one’s consciousness and one’s body—i.e., one’s self.

I take this quote to imply that self-exaltation is bad. Yet however one defines good—even if one defines it as humility—how is one to practice a virtue if one is indifferent to one’s own life?

Whether you’re living on the streets of an impoverished country, attempting to help people better cope with their poverty and despair, or whether you live a more self-interested life—either way, you’re demonstrating a concern for your life, and what you do with it.

The Christian philosophy, as well as the more modern ideologies fostered by ethicists such as Immanuel Kant, insist that the self must be removed from the equation in order to uphold a virtuous life. This is what most of our political, spiritual and intellectual leaders preach daily.

But I’m still confused, by Kant as well as by the Christians. If self refers to our consciousness and our biological existence—then why must self be removed from ethics?

I know that most will reply, ‘Well, you’re not supposed to commit suicide. You’re allowed to live, and have some level of pleasure and survival. But not too much.’

But we’re talking principles here. That’s too vague. It’s the Christians and the modernists who insist that we must establish and follow ethical principles. I agree with that much. The question is: What should those principles be? And if adherence to a particular principle—only not ‘too much’—is to be an ethical standard, what kind of a standard is that?

If life is the standard of value, then I don’t understand how self-defeating behavior—in the extreme case, self-sacrifice or self-destruction—is the highest, most morally proper way to live. We don’t call an animal “successful” at living if it bites itself to death, or eats a poisonous plant and perishes. Why do we call human life successful—ethically speaking—only by, in some measure, renouncing or hampering life?

I realize these are deep questions that few will take the time to consider. But how can you ever establish mental or emotional health—self-esteem or general psychological well-being—if you don’t have some clue to their answers?


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