It’s time to explore a lost virtue, one that doesn’t make it onto any Pagan list: humility.
We associate humility with Christianity, with traditions that espouse a concept of sin, with self-abnegation. Monks in rough-woven habits, flagellating themselves in a dark cell while begging for mercy from a judgmental god. A serf laboring under a master’s whip. An elderly widow begging on the side of the road.
Where the heck is the virtue in that?
“Humility” and “humble” are ultimately linked with “humus,” the earth itself — an ancient word that has Indo-European roots including the Russian zemlya, part of the name of Moist Mother Earth; the Sanskrit ksam; the Greek cthon. To be humble is to be close to the Earth: small in stature or bent to the ground in labor. It is the virtue of the third function, the farmers and laborers — the antithesis of the arrogance or pride manifest in warriors and nobility.
Humility is out of fashion. Our talk is more of pride — pride in our gender or religion or race, pride in our nation, pride even in our ability to endure suffering. “Proud” comes from an Old English Word meaning arrogant; it’s roots ultimately derive from the Latin “prodesse,” to be of worth.
When we are proud, we feel our worth. When we are humble, we feel our insignificance.
It is through humility that we forge relationships — with other humans, with the spirits, with the Gods. It is our humility — the sense that we, as individuals, cannot define or encompass the Other and instead must approach it with openness and vulnerability — that makes true relationship possible. It is a recognition that we are, indeed, close to the Earth in stature, that we are born of her and will die back into her, that all we are and all we have done shall dissolve into dust.
Humility is a recognition of mortality and our identity as mortals. It is the reality of the ground under our feet rather than the headiness of our illusions and delusions. It is the virtue of the stablehand mucking out the stalls, the farmer plowing in the rain, the mother cleaning the shit off her baby’s ass time and time again. Humility is the recognition of the “dirty” work we do to survive — dirty because it comes from the Earth, and underscores the rules behind bodily existence.
A humble man doesn’t expect to piss rosewater. He recognizes, too, that he can make mistakes and it’s his duty to make amends. He doesn’t expect others to bow to his will, and so asks for what he needs.
I’ve heard of some warrior-type reconstructionists who refuse to bend a knee to the Gods, rejecting the concept of humility. In ancient times, such an act would have inspired gestures of warding from his neighbors to keep off bad luck. Without humility, one can commit the error the Greeks called “hubris,” which essentially means insolence. Hubris inevitably brings a cosmic counterbalance to remind the culprit of his or her mortality. Or as the Christians say, “pride comes before the fall.”
Hubris is the foundation of tragedy: Bellerophon reaching for Olympus on his winged horse, only to end up as a cripple. Phaethon, struck by his father from the chariot of the sun. Gilgamesh insulting Ishtar and watching his lover Enki die for it. CuChulainn insulting the Morrigan, only to fall into her web of geas-breaking inevitability. Hubris is thinking that your ambition, emotions, self, desires, needs override all else. It is losing what Aedh Rua calls “misneach,” or perspective.
The correction can be brutal. I’m reminded of a passage from Stephen Crane’s excellent story, “The Open Boat,” which concerns a shipwreck and the struggle to survive:
When it occurs to a man that nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no brick and no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with his jeers.
Then, if there be no tangible thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying: “Yes, but I love myself.”
A high cold star on a winter’s night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the pathos of his situation.
Humility, then, is a subset of truth, of honesty. It’s a recognition of what we really are — individuals, yes, but one among billions, no more important than anything or anyone else. The powerful can be rendered powerless. The fit can become frail. Nothing is permanent except our vulnerability and our mortality.
It’s an unsettling truth, and one that’s actually essential — at least in my view — to deep spiritual experience.