Humility versus Modesty
May 15, 2013 10 Comments
One of the areas where I catch flak as a ceremonial magician is that people constantly assume I’m some kind of spiritual control-freak. It’s true, lots of Solomonic literature makes use of perilous heavy-handed conjurations against demons and the like, but that’s not the kind of work I often find myself faced with. I mean, far be it from me to grab Astaroth or some Old One by the tentacles and whip them around the planes to get me a lil’ more coin in my purse. I’d rather go the route of respect and honor, which is just as much an exchange of effort as anything else and even more effective in the long-term. Working in a framework of respect involves being humble when needed, but the notion of humility is something that not a lot of people understand. I suppose magicians have this problem extra-bad, and it’s not unwarranted that I hear tell of haughty magicians whose photos are in the dictionary under “hubris”.
As in many religions, humility is seen as a virtue, usually meaning a recognition of oneself, one’s talents, one’s skills, and one’s accomplishments, with nothing (good or bad) added and nothing (good or bad) removed. Similar definitions exist across cultures, but that’s the general idea. I like to use its etymology (as always) to help me clarify what it means; in this case, the word has its origins in the Latin word humus, meaning “earth”. Humility is the state achieved by being brought low, down to the earth, or with your feet on the ground. It’s often seen as diametrically opposed to pride, which I don’t quite agree with, because pride is often needed to drive one on to act. There are also times when I find some expressions of humility to be ungainly debasing or badly humiliating that achieve nothing but hurt or harm, so it might be helpful to break these two words out into four: humility and modesty, pride and boastfulness.
To me, pride and humility are very similar concepts. Pride is recognition of all that you are and can be or do; humility is recognition of all that you are and have done in the grand scheme of things. In other words, these things are statements of truth. Boastfulness or hubris, on the other hand, and its inverse of modesty are essentially lies we tell to ourselves or others. Boastfulness is the lie we tell to make ourselves to be more than we actually are; modesty is the lie we tell to make ourselves less than we actually are. I ended up with this four-way distinction by combining my two favorite sources of religious and spiritual philosophy, Buddhism and Hermeticism.
In my early days in studying religion, I was really into Theravada Buddhism. It’s a simple, elegant, and effective tradition of Buddhism that was easy enough for a middle schooler to read into and understand the basic tenets of. I recall reading somewhere (but I can’t seem to find it anymore) that, once upon a time, Buddha was confronted by someone who thought he wasn’t being humble at all. The Buddha in the old sutras did often expound on how difficult, how rare, how unfathomable the thing he did (complete and total enlightenment) was in the grand scheme of things, even though he frequently told his students to give up exaggerating and lying and boasting of all kinds. After all, if the Buddha could obtain enlightenment, everyone could, so it couldn’t be as rare as he said so!
Not so, replied the Buddha. If enlightenment were as common as his prosecutor was suggesting, then other people would be following those teachers and the Buddha would just be another arhat. The Buddha was recounting a fact that there hadn’t been anyone like him in quite some time, that there wouldn’t be anyone like him for another stretch of time, that the road he took to get to his point was not easy, that he had in fact accomplished a miraculous release from samsara. He was also recounting that anyone could, in theory, accomplish this, and he was teaching a method that other people could accomplish to attain the same states. After all, the Buddha was human, too, and as such indicates that all humanity can obtain enlightenment. Whatever the Buddha did, anyone else can do; that they haven’t indicates how difficult it was. What the Buddha was not doing was lying about his attainment, neither overstating what he was doing or making himself out to be some cosmic savior and redeemer of all things that exist (though he would have liked to, I’m sure), nor was he making the path out to be easy or kind to people and making himself seem like a weak or intellectually simple person.
In other words, he was humble about his attainment, but he wasn’t being modest about it. Lying goes against the Five Precepts of Buddhism, which includes exaggeration of any kind, be it for one’s own sake (boasting) or against one’s own sake (modesty).
Granted, modesty does mean “to keep due measure” or “freedom from self-exaggeration”, or a synonym of humility, but often enough it’s used to belittle oneself and make one seem less than they are. Consider a woman’s beauty, which is often kept regulated in many cultures: I’m against head-coverings, face-veils, and the like because it turns a beautiful form into a shapeless blob so that they won’t tempt men with their sultry ways and sex-radiating hair. Less severely, consider a servant before his king. Let’s say that this servant is an expert in several fields of engineering, but due to his stature before the regent, he can’t discuss his accomplishments or expertise without being directly prompted, and even then he has to defer to the excellence of the king. He’s making himself to be less than he is for the sake of modesty, which reduces his worth instead of increasing it unless the king is somehow made to know of the servant’s actual expertise.
As for pride? Pride is accepting that we have accomplished and learn things, and that we can accomplish and learn yet more. It’s something that keeps us going and something that helps us establish our value and rank in the world. As opposed to Buddhism, Hermeticism informs my notion of pride. It’s bad to be prideful, or literally “full of it”, but it’s no bad thing to be proud of oneself. After all, humanity has an important role to play in the world, both for the spirits and for our fellow mankind, and it’s just as important to realize that we’re awesome. In the Hermetic view, we’re considered the children of God/the gods and, as such, given permission and ability to interact with and communicate with our older sibling spirits, if not outright granted authority to act over them and the world around us. It’s bad to lord it over other spirits (a la boastful Solomonic invocations), but as children of the gods, it’s also our job to manifest, create, order, and reckon the cosmos according to our roles in it. And, as the angel Michael once told me, when something in the cosmos does not do their job and their job needs to be done, we need to make them do it. Qabbalistically, humankind is seen as the angelic choir of Malkuth, meaning that it’s our job to maintain and uphold the order and functionality of this material world of ours and its connections to the worlds and cosmos around us.
It’s a fine line to walk between pride/humility and boasting/modesty. Often enough, I err on the side of caution and go into modest-mode, since the lying incurred by that rings a little less harmful than the lying incurred by boasting. Still, I often get on some of my friends’ nerves by being humble to the point of modesty, but that could just be the culture I find myself in which finds more value in pride than humility. I frequently comment on how awesome and fantastic (in the senses of awe and fantasy) the things I do are, but I always back it up with how little I feel I’m actually doing, coupled with how little I’ve been studying and practicing this stuff. As of this writing, I’ve only been at my Hermetic stuff for just over two years, and my geomancy stuff at six or so. These are not long periods of time, and even though I had a head start and good resources to work with, I know that other people with less than me in any sense can make just as good progress just as fast as me. People trust me with the messages and forecasts I deliver with divination, and I try my hardest to get it right with them, despite that the techniques I use are barely occult or arcane at all. The stuff I do as a service for the world is important and needed, which I’ll do when there are no others to do the work, which I’ll help when there are, and which I’ll teach when there aren’t any yet but there are those willing to learn.
That’s both my humility and my pride.