On Humility: A Commentary

I read the other day about the famous duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, the duel in which Hamilton was mortally wounded and Burr politically ruined.

This tragedy is a bit of a mystery.   No one can say why, at some point, they didn’t withdraw from the duel.   But I have a good guess.

They lacked the humility.

Humility is associated with religious values.   It is generally thought to be a private concern.   But humility has cross-over value.   It is a virtue that is in service to others, because humility is the essence of dialogue.   And politics without dialogue is mere tyranny.

A humble dialogue presumes a simple skill.   Listening.   That simple skill, however, has some demanding habits.   The habit of validating the concerns of others.   The habit of suspending one’s own bias.   The habit of recognizing the full humanity of another.   All these have serious implications for civic discourse.

True humility is liberating, because it allows citizens to understand their role within the larger community.   In this sense, humility is the quintessential civic virtue.

Civic humility begins in a question.   Is public discourse better served by my silence?

Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no.   But history is not lacking for instances wherein the community, religious and secular, would have been better served by more silence and less chutzpah.

The Catholic Church would be better-off if most bishops had listened to victims of sexual abuse, if bishops had let the justice system do its work.

Iraq would be better-off if Pres. Bush had listened to, well, the world.

Humility might have given our country some insight into the history and culture of Vietnam.

And, yes, Hamilton and Burr might have had many more years of public service if they practiced a bit of humility.

Civic humility is a virtue in service to the local level as well.   Aldermen, for example, would be better served by listening to the poor rather than dictating to them.

It is worth taking a moment to note what humility is not.   Humility is not a neurosis that leaves one immobile.   Humility is not self-loathing.   Nor does humility imply that people devalue their insight, lucidity or expertise.   Above all else, humility is not a disguised version of pride.   Thomas Jefferson didn’t invent democracy.   He listened to great philosophers, then took-up his pen.

It is worth repeating that humility is not self-effacement.   For example, the G. I. Bill transformed the nation, and this veteran, for one, is glad people spoke forcefully in favor of it.   I am equally grateful to the people who listened.

As music is defined by sound and silence, so too is dialogue made-up of respectful speech and humble listening.   And I mourn for the loss, these days, of this respect, this humility.

With the exception of the Watergate crisis, I cannot recall a time when the divisions in our country were so rigid and acrimonious.   Everybody has the answer, and nobody has the answer.   Bishops tell parishioners to sit-down and shut-up, and parishioners tell bishops to sit-down and shut-up.   The poor live on one side of town, and the rich on the other.   CEO vs. union.   The US vs. the UN.   Rural vs. urban.   Does anyone doubt that, during the next election, there will be vicious attack ads that midlead the public?

Where’s the humility?

A republic is defined by its dynamic dialogue.   Such a dialogue presumes the give-and-take of loyal opposition.   To put it differently, we are a great nation because we have the freedom of speak.   But that’s only the first half of the equation.   When we are at our best, when we are at our most democratic, we are a great nation because we have the humility to listen.

And when we think of the leaders we love, when we ponder a Lincoln or a Washington, don’t we love them more for their humility than their army?

Filed under: John Samuel Tieman, Prose