The Psychology of Laziness

A person is being lazy if she is able to carry out some activity that she ought to carry out, but is disinclined to do so because of the effort involved. Instead, she carries out the activity perfunctorily; or engages in some other, less strenuous or less boring activity; or remains idle. In short, she is being lazy if her motivation to spare herself effort trumps her motivation to do the right or expected thing.

Synonyms for laziness are indolence and sloth. Indolence derives from the Latin indolentia, ‘without pain’ or ‘without taking trouble’. Sloth has more moral and spiritual overtones than laziness or indolence. In the Christian tradition, sloth is one of the seven deadly sins because it undermines society and God’s plan, and because it invites sin. The Bible inveighs against slothfulness, for example, in the Book of Ecclesiastes: ‘By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through. A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.’

Procrastination

Laziness should not be confounded with procrastination or idleness.

To procrastinate is to postpone a task in favour of other tasks, which, though perceived as easier or more pleasurable, are typically less important or urgent.

To postpone a task for constructive or strategic purposes does not amount to procrastination. For it to amount to procrastination, the postponement has to represent poor and ineffective planning, and result in a higher overall cost to the procrastinator, for example, in the form of stress, guilt, or loss of productivity. It is one thing to delay a tax return until all the figures are in, but quite another to delay it so that it upsets plans and people and triggers a fine.

Laziness and procrastination are similar in that they both involve a lack of motivation. But, unlike a lazy person, a procrastinator aspires and intends to complete the task and, moreover, does eventually complete it, albeit at a higher cost to himself.

Idleness

To be idle is: not to be doing anything. This could be because you are lazy, but it could also be because you do not have anything to do or are temporarily unable to do it. Or perhaps you have already done it and are resting or recuperating.

Idleness is often romanticized, as epitomized by the Italian expression dolce far niente (‘it is sweet to do nothing’). Many people tell themselves that they work hard from a desire to be idle, rather than because they value their work or its product. Although our natural instinct is for idleness, most people find prolonged idleness difficult to tolerate. Queuing for half an hour in a traffic jam can leave us feeling restless and irritable, and many drivers prefer to take an alternative route even if it is likely to take them longer than sitting through the traffic.

Recent research suggests that, though our instinct is for idleness, people will pick upon the flimsiest excuse to keep busy. Moreover, people feel happier for being busy, even if their busyness is imposed upon them. In their paper, Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness (2010), Hsee and colleagues surmise that many purported goals that people pursue may be little more than justifications for keeping busy.

This, I believe, is a manifestation of the manic defence: the tendency, when presented with uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, to distract the conscious mind either with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings. ‘To do nothing at all,’ said Oscar Wilde, ‘is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.’ I discuss the manic defence at some length in my book Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Albert Camus introduces his philosophy of the absurd in his essay of 1942, The Myth of Sisyphus. In the final chapter, he compares the absurdity of man’s life with the plight of Sisyphus, a mythological king of Ephyra who was punished for his chronic deceitfulness by being made to repeat forever the same meaningless task of pushing a boulder up a mountain, only to see it roll down again. Camus optimistically concludes, ‘The struggle to the top is itself enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’ [‘La lutte elle-même vers les sommets suffit à remplir un coeur d’homme. Il faut s’imaginer Sisyphe heureux.’]

It should be noted that many people who can seem bone idle are, in fact, nothing of the sort. Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s favourite prime minister, extolled the virtues of ‘masterful inactivity’. As chairman and CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch spent an hour a day in what he called ‘looking out of the window time’. Adepts of strategic idleness use their ‘idle’ moments, among others, to observe and enjoy life, find inspiration, maintain perspective, circumvent pettiness, reduce inefficiency and half-living, and conserve their health and energies for truly important tasks and problems.

Evolutionary theories of laziness

Our nomadic ancestors had to conserve energy to compete for scarce resources and to fight or flee enemies and predators. Expending effort on anything other than short-term advantage could jeopardize their very survival. In any case, in the absence of conveniences such as antibiotics, banks, roads, or refrigeration, it made little sense to think long term. Desire led to action, and action led to immediate gratification, without much need for proposing, planning, preparing, and so forth.

Today, mere survival has fallen off the agenda, and it is long-term strategic activity that leads to the best outcomes. Yet, our instinct is still to conserve energy, making us reluctant to expend effort on abstract projects with delayed and uncertain payoffs.

Intelligence and perspective can override instinct, and some people are more future-oriented than others, whom, from the heights of their success, they deride as ‘lazy’. Indeed, laziness has become so closely connected with poverty and failure that a poor person is often presumed lazy, no matter how hard he might actually work.

Psychological theories of laziness

In most cases, it is deemed painful to expend effort on long-term goals that do not provide immediate gratification. For a person to embark on a project, he has to value the return on his labour more than his loss of comfort. The problem is that he is disinclined to trust in a return that is both distant and uncertain. Because self-confident people are more apt to trust in the success and pay-off of their undertakings (and may even overestimate their likely returns), they are much more likely to overcome their natural laziness.

People are also poor calculators. Tonight they may eat and drink indiscriminately, without factoring in the longer-term consequences for their health and appearance, or even tomorrow morning’s hangover. The ancient philosopher Epicurus famously argued that pleasure is the highest good. But he cautioned that not everything that is pleasurable should be pursued, and not everything that is painful should be avoided. Instead, a kind of hedonistic calculus should be applied to determine which things are most likely to result in the greatest pleasure over time, and it is above all this hedonistic calculus that people are unable to handle.

Many lazy people are not intrinsically lazy, but are lazy because they have not found what they want to do, or because, for one reason or another, they are not doing it. To make matters worse, the job that pays their bills may have become so abstract and specialized that they can no longer fully grasp its purpose or product, and, by extension, their part in bettering other peoples’ lives. A builder can look upon the houses that he has built, and a doctor can take pride and satisfaction in the restored health and gratitude of his patients, but an assistant deputy financial controller in a large corporation cannot be at all certain of the effect of his labour—and so why bother?

Other factors that can lead to laziness are fear and hopelessness. Some people fear success, or do not have sufficient self-esteem to feel comfortable with success, and laziness is one way in which they can sabotage themself. Shakespeare conveys this idea much more eloquently and succinctly in Antony and Cleopatra: ‘Fortune knows we scorn her most when most she offers blows.’ Conversely, some people fear failure, and laziness is preferable to failure because it is at one remove. “It’s not that I failed,” they tell themselves, “it’s that I never tried.”

Other people are lazy because they see their situation as being so hopeless that they cannot even begin to think through it, let alone address it. Because these people do not have the ability to think through and address their situation, it could be argued that they are not truly lazy, and, to some extent, the same could be said of all lazy people. In other words, the very concept of laziness presupposes the ability to choose not to be lazy, that is, presupposes the existence of free will.

The solution

I could have ended this article with a self-help pep talk or the top-10 tips to overcome laziness, but, in the longer term, the only way to overcome laziness is to profoundly understand its nature and particular causes: to think, think, and think, and, over the years, slowly find a better way of living.

The Perils and Privileges of Loneliness

Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt In solitude, where we are least alone. —Lord Byron 

Loneliness is a complex and unpleasant emotional response to isolation or lack of companionship. It can be either transient or chronic, and typically includes anxiety about a lack of connectedness or communality.

Loneliness is so painful that, throughout history, solitary confinement has been used as a form of punishment and torture. More than just painful, loneliness is also damaging. Lonely people eat and drink more, and exercise and sleep less. They are at a higher risk of developing psychological problems such as alcoholism, depression, and psychosis, and physical problems such as infection, cancer, and cardiovascular disease.

Loneliness has been described as ‘social pain’. Just as physical pain has evolved to signal injury and prevent further injury, so loneliness may have evolved to signal social isolation and motivate us to seek out social bonds. Human beings are profoundly social animals, and depend upon their social group for sustenance and protection. Historically and still today, to be alone is to be in mortal danger.

Causes of loneliness

The infant is especially dependent upon others, and loneliness may evoke and evolve from early fears of abandonment and neglect.

In later life, loneliness is an outcome of social isolation or an absence of meaningful social relationships.

It can be precipitated by breakup, divorce, death, or the sudden loss or undermining of any important long-term relationship. Such a split entails not only the loss of a single meaningful person, but also of that person’s entire social circle.

Loneliness can also result from disruptive life events such as moving schools, changing jobs, immigrating, getting married, or having a child; from social problems such as racism or bullying; from psychological states such as shyness, agoraphobia, or depression; and from physical problems that restrict mobility or require special care.

Loneliness is a particular problem of industrialization and modernization. One American study found that, between 1985 and 2004, the proportion of people reporting that they had no one to confide in almost tripled. In 1985, respondents most frequently reported having three close confidants; in 2004, nought close confidants.

These findings may be explained by such factors as smaller household sizes, greater migration, heavier media consumption, and longer life expectancy.

Large conglomerations built on productivity and consumption at the expense of connection and contemplation can feel profoundly alienating.

Aside from being intrinsically isolating, long commutes can undermine community feeling and compromise time and opportunities for socializing.

The internet has become the great comforter, and seems to offer it all: news, knowledge, music, entertainment, shopping, relationships, and even sex. But in the longer term, it stokes our envy and longing, distorts our needs and priorities, desensitizes us to violence and suffering, and, by creating a false sense of connectedness, entrenches superficial relationships at the cost of living ones.

The paradox of modern living

Man has evolved into one of the most social of all animals. Suddenly, he finds himself apart and alone, not on a mountaintop, in a desert, or on a ship at sea, but in a city of men, in reach but out of touch.

Such is the paradox of modern living.

Despite our fear of being alone, our society is highly individualistic and materialistic, so much so that people are no longer called people but individuals; and no longer defined by their social role or needs and aspirations but by their commercial function or consumer status.

A doctor is no longer a doctor but a healthcare provider or service provider, and his or her patients are no longer patients but clients, consumers, or service users. Anyone with an involvement or interest in their relationship is a stakeholder. Stakeholders include investors, creditors, commissioners, managers, administrators, suppliers, collaborators, contributors, commentators, and competitors.

All these parties train in communication, negotiation, and conflict handling skills, and schedule time and organize activities for team building, group bonding, and networking. Yet they cannot find the opportunity or humanity to listen, think, or feel, or even to exercise elementary common sense.

In March 2013, while facing the Health Select Committee to defend his record over the death of patients admitted to Stafford Hospital, the then Chief Executive of the National Health Service (NHS) Sir David Nicholson confessed to Members of Parliament that “during that period, across the NHS as a whole, patients were not the centre of the way the system operated.”

Loners

Some people actively choose to isolate themselves from the rest of society, or, at least, not to seek out social interactions. Such ‘loners’ (the very term implies abnormality and deviousness) may be on a spiritual or religious quest, or simply dislike or distrust others. Of course, not all loners actively choose to be lonely, but many do.

Timon of Athens, who lived at around the same time as Plato, began life in wealth, lavishing money upon his flattering friends and, in accordance with his noble conception of friendship, never expecting anything in return. But when he ran out of money, all his friends deserted him, reducing him to the hard toil of labouring the fields. One day, as he tilled the earth, he uncovered a pot of gold, and his old friends returned just as quickly as they had left him. Rather than take them back, he cursed them and drove them away with sticks and clods of earth. He publically declared his hatred of mankind and withdrew into the forest, where, much to his chagrin, people sought him out as some kind of holy man.

The psychology of loneliness

Did Timon feel lonely in the forest? Probably not, for loneliness is not simply a response to isolation or lack of companionship, but a response to their perceived lack.

Because Timon no longer valued his friends or their companionship, he could not have desired or missed them, even though he may have pined for a better class of man, and, in that limited sense, felt lonely.

Broadly speaking, loneliness is not an objective state of affairs, but a subjective state of mind, a function of desired and achieved levels of social interaction, and also of type or types of social interaction. Thus, lovers often feel lonely in the specific absence of their beloved, even if completely surrounded by friends and family.

Lovers who have been jilted feel far lonelier than those who are merely apart from their beloved, so it is not only social interaction in itself that matters, but also the potential for, or possibility of, social interaction.

Conversely, it is common to feel lonely within a marriage because the relationship is no longer validating or nurturing us, but instead diminishing us and holding us back. As the 19th century writer Anton Chekhov cautions, ‘if you are afraid of loneliness, do not marry.’

Ironically, marriage comes about not merely or even mostly out a desire for companionship and sexual intercourse, but also and above all from a desperate desire to escape from the loneliness that plagues us throughout our life, from a desperate desire to escape from our inescapable demons.

And so it can only be a matter of time before the loneliness resurfaces, often with a vengeance; for, ultimately, loneliness is not the experience of lacking, but rather the experience of being, and inalienable from the human condition.

Existential loneliness

On this account, loneliness is the manifestation of the conflict between our desire for meaning and the total absence of meaning from the universe, an absence that is all the more glaring in modern societies which forsake traditional and religious accounts of meaning and replace them with thin truth.

So much explains why people with a strong sense of purpose and meaning, or simply with a strong narrative, such as Nelson Mandela or St Anthony of the Desert, are protected from loneliness, irrespective of their actual social circumstances.

St Anthony of the Desert sought out loneliness precisely because he understood that it could bring him closer to the real questions and real value of life.

After spending 15 years in a tomb and 20 years in an abandoned fort in the desert of Egypt, his devotees persuaded Anthony to leave the seclusion of the fort to instruct and organize them, whence his epithet, ‘Father of All Monks’ (‘Monk’ and ‘Monastery’ derive from the Ancient Greek ‘monos’, ‘alone’).

Anthony emerged from the fort not ill and emaciated as people had been expecting but healthy and radiant, and lived to the grand old age of 105, which in the 4th century must in itself have counted as a minor miracle.

Solitude

St Anthony did not lead a life of loneliness, but one of solitude.

Loneliness is the pain of being alone, and is damaging. Solitude is the joy of being alone, and is restorative, even empowering.

Our unconscious requires solitude to process and unravel problems, so much so that our body imposes solitude upon us every night in the form of sleep. Historically, people have delivered themselves from the oppression of the other or others by entering into a trance state, a phenomenon which, as a psychiatrist, I sometimes observe in my patients.

By removing us from the distractions, constraints, and judgements visited upon us by others, solitude frees us to reconnect with ourselves and derive ideas and meaning.

The 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argues that men without solitude are mere slaves because they have no choice but to parrot culture and society. In contrast, anyone who has unmasked society naturally seeks out solitude, which becomes the guarantor of a higher level of values and achievements. In The Dawn, Nietzsche writes,

I go into solitude so as not to drink out of everybody’s cistern. When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think I really think. After a time it always seems as if they want to banish my self from myself and rob me of my soul.

Solitude delivers us from the hustlebustle of everyday life into an eternal and universal consciousness which reconnects us with our present, past, future, and deepest human nature, and also with the natural world, which quickens into our muse and companion. This lends us the depth and distance to dissociate from earthly concerns and bitter and irrational emotions, and stimulates problem-solving, creativity, and spirituality.

Solitude enables us to regulate and adjust our life, and, in so doing, to create the strength and security for deeper solitude and the meaning that guards against loneliness. Just as loneliness opens up a vicious circle, so solitude opens up a virtuous circle.

The life of St Anthony may leave the impression that aloneness is at odds with attachment. But this need not be the case, so long as the one is not pitted against the other. For the early 20th century poet Rainer Maria Rilke, the highest task of lovers is that each stands guard over the solitude of the other.

Sadly, not everyone is capable of solitude, and, for such people, aloneness merely results in loneliness. Younger people often find aloneness difficult, while more mature people may relish it and actively seek it out. So much suggests that solitude, the joy of being alone, stems from a state of maturity and inner richness.

Concluding remarks

Far from being a scourge, aloneness has an important role to play in any human life, and the capacity and ability for solitude are a pre-requisite for individuation and self-realization.

In his book of 1988, Solitude: A Return to the Self, the late psychiatrist Anthony Storr convincingly argues that,

The happiest lives are probably those in which neither interpersonal relationships nor impersonal interests are idealized as the only way to salvation. The desire and pursuit of the whole must comprehend both aspects of human nature.

References:

McPherson, M et al. (2006): Social Isolation in America: Changes in Core Discussion Networks over Two Decades. American Sociological Review 71 (3): 353-75.

Empathy and Altruism: Are They Selfish?

In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German ‘Einfühlung’ (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. At the time, German philosophers discussed empathy in the context of our aesthetic evaluation, but Titchener maintained that empathy also helps us to recognize one another as minded creatures.

Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize, feel, and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing the other’s condition or situation from her perspective; and, second, sharing her emotions, and, in some cases, also her distress. Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are all reactions to the plight of others.

Pity is a feeling of discomfort at a people, person, or thing in distress, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. Implicit in the notion of pity is that the person being pitied does not deserve his plight, and is more or less unable to alleviate, reverse, or transform it. Compared to either empathy, sympathy, or compassion, pity is a more distant and superficial feeling: the mere acknowledgement of another person’s plight.

Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by the wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities, and greater personal investment. However, unlike empathy, sympathy need not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions. Indeed, sympathy is often more about the person sympathizing than the person being sympathized with. Empathy and sympathy often lead to each other, but need not do so.

Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of the other. With empathy, you mirror the other’s emotions; with compassion you not only share them but also elevate them into a universal, transcending experience. Compassion is one of the main motivators of altruism.

Like empathy, altruism is a modern term, coined in the 19th century by the French philosopher Auguste Comte from the French ‘autrui’, which itself derives from the Latin ‘alteri’ (‘other people’). It refers to unselfish concern for the welfare of others. The classical notion that most approaches altruism is probably almsgiving, which derives from the Greek ‘eleos’ (‘pity’), and means giving to others as an act of charity. In Christian theology, charity is, properly speaking, the love of man for God, and through God, for his fellow men.

It goes without saying that pity, sympathy, empathy, compassion, and altruism often blur and overlap.

The empathy paradox

My friend tearfully confides that, when she was a child, she was sexually abused by her father. Moved by her plight, I try to comfort her. “I know just how you feel.” To my surprise, she seems annoyed by what I just said. “No, you don’t know how I feel! You can’t!”

In claiming that I cannot know how she feels, my friend is implying that she knows how I feel—or, at least, that however I might feel, it is not how she feels. But if she is correct in asserting that I cannot know how she feels, then how can she know how I feel, and that how I feel is not how she feels?

A similar paradox is raised in the Zhuangzi, which is one of the two foundational texts of Daoism.

Zhuangzi and Hui Shi were strolling on the bridge above the Hao river. Zhuangzi said, “Out swim the minnows so free and easy, this is the happiness of fish.” Hui Shi said, “You are not a fish. Whence do you know the happiness of fish?” Zhuangzi said, “You are not me. Whence do you know I don’t know the happiness of fish?” Hui Shi said, “Granted that I am not you, I don’t know about you. Then granted that you are not a fish, the case for your not knowing the happiness of fish is complete.” Zhuangzi said, “Let’s trace back to the root of the issue. When you said, ‘Whence do you know the fish are happy?’, you asked me already knowing I knew it. I knew it from up above the Hao.

Theory of mind

Empathy rests on ‘theory of mind’, that is, the ability to understand that, being different, others see things differently from us, and perhaps also differently from reality, and that they have different beliefs, intents, desires, emotions, and so on. Theory of mind is innate (‘from up above the Hao’), first apperaring at about four years of age. It improves over time, and, for each individual and in general, can be trained in extent and accuracy. Importantly, it enables us to posit the intentions of others and to explain and predict their actions.

It has been suggested that the neural basis of theory of mind resides in ‘mirror neurons’, which fire when we carry out a particular action, and also when we observe that same action in another. The neurons ‘mirror’ the actions of the other such that they become ours, or like ours. This enables us to interpret the actions and infer the beliefs, intents, desires, and emotions that motivated them. Mirror neuron abnormalities may underlie certain cognitive disorders, in particular autism.

Benefits of empathy

From an evolutionary standpoint, empathy is selected for because it promotes parental care, social attachment, and prosocial behaviour, and so the survival of the gene pool. It facilitates social interactions, group activities, and teaching and learning, to say nothing of social manipulation and deception. It enables us to forsee patterns and problems, and to respond quickly and successfully to ever-changing needs and demands. Because it is one-step removed from us, it creates the distance or detachment required to make moral and normative judgements about others, and to take into account their long term good. Finally, in most cases, empathy brings about a positive state both in the person empathizing and the person or people being empathized with.

While empathy does of course promote prosocial behaviour, it can also distort perceptions of the greater collective good, leading us to violate moral principles and to privilege the welfare of a few above that of the many. Almost by definition, empathy is tolerable to the person on its receiving end, but can be exhausting for the person on its giving end. Our abilities to empathize are limited, both in accuracy and extent. A surfeit of empathy can lead to personal distress, and excessive demands on our empathy can end in ‘compassion fatigue’ and burnout. For all the reasons, we often restrict or even suppress our empathy, not from callousness or unconcern, but to conserve ourselves and ‘help ourselves to help others’.

Altruism

Empathy leads to compassion, which is one of the main motivators of altruism. Another, less flattering motivator of altruism is fear. In this case, altruism is an ego defence, a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his problems and anxieties by stepping outside himself and helping others. By concentrating on the needs of others, people in altruistic vocations such as nursing or teaching may be able to push their own needs into the background, where they can more easily be ignored and forgotten. Conversely, people who care for a disabled or elderly person, or even for healthy children, may experience profound anxiety and distress when this role is suddenly removed from them.

Regardless of its motivator, altruism is good for our karma. In the short term, an altruistic act leaves us with an euphoric feeling, so-called ‘helpers’ high’. In the longer term, altruism is associated with better mental and physical health and greater longevity. Kinder people are happier, and happier people are kinder, setting up a virtuous circle of altruism.

At a more social level, altruism acts as a signal of interactive and cooperative intentions, and also as a signal of resource availability and, by extension, of mating or partnering potential. It also opens up a debt account, encouraging others to reciprocate with resources and opportunities that are potentially of much greater value to us than those that we felt comfortable to give away. More broadly, altruism helps to maintain and preserve the social fabric that sustains and protects us, and that, for many, not only keeps us alive but also makes our life worth living.

No surprise, then, that many psychologists and philosophers argue that there can be no such thing as true altruism, and that so-called empathy and altruism are mere tools of selfishness and self-preservation. According to them, the acts that people call altruistic are self-interested, if not because they relieve anxiety, then perhaps because they lead to pleasant feelings of pride and satisfaction; the expectation of honour or reciprocation; or the greater likelihood of a place in heaven; and even if none of the above, then at least because they relieve unpleasant feelings such as the guilt or shame of not having acted at all.

This argument has been attacked on various grounds, but most gravely on the grounds of circularity: “the acts that people call altruistic are performed for selfish reasons, therefore they must be performed for selfish reasons.” The bottom line, I think, is this. There can be no such thing as an ‘altruistic’ act that does not involve some element of self-interest, no such thing, for example, as an altruistic act that does not lead to some degree, no matter how small, of pride or satisfaction. Therefore, an act should not be written off as selfish or self-motivated simply because it includes some unavoidable element of self-interest. The act can still be counted as altruistic if the ‘selfish’ element is accidental; or, if not accidental, then secondary; or, if neither accidental nor secondary, then undetermining.

Only one question remains: how many so-called altruistic acts meet these criteria for true altruism?

The Psychology of Greed

Greed (or avarice, cupidity, or covetousness) is the excessive desire for more than is needed or deserved, not for the greater good but for one’s own selfish interest, and at the detriment of others and society at large. Greed can be for anything, but is most commonly for food, money, possessions, power, fame, status, attention or admiration, and sex.

The origins of greed

Greed often arises from early negative experiences such as parental inconsistency, neglect, or abuse. In later life, feelings of anxiety and vulnerability, often combined with low self-esteem, lead the person to fixate on a particular substitute for what she once needed but could not find. The pursuit and accumulation of the substitute not only seems to make up for her loss, but also provides comfort and reassurance, and distracts from frightening feelings of emptiness and meaninglessness. As far as she can see, life is a simple choice between greed and fear.

Greed is much more developed in human beings than in other animals, no doubt because human beings have the unique capacity to project themselves into the future, and, in particular, to the time of their death and beyond. Throughout our short life, the idea of our mortality haunts us. Not only that, but it conflicts with our strong survival instincts, giving rise to anxiety about our purpose, meaning, and value. This so-called existential anxiety, though it may be mostly subconscious, yet manifests in the form of compensatory behaviours, and, of course, greed is one such compensatory behaviour.

To help cope with our existential anxiety, we inhabit a larger culture which elaborates a narrative of human life and death, and, through that narrative, furnishes us with the purpose, meaning, and value for which we yearn. Whenever existential anxiety threatens to surface into our conscious mind, we naturally turn to our culture for comfort and consolation, and, in doing so, embrace it ever more tightly. What other choice do we have, if we are not strong or educated enough to question our culture?

Now, it so happens that our culture—or lack of it, for our culture is in a state of flux and crisis—places a high value on materialism, and, by extension, greed. Our culture’s emphasis on greed is such that people have become immune to satisfaction. Having acquired one thing, they are immediately ready to desire the next thing that might suggest itself. Today, the object of desire is no longer satisfaction, but desire itself.

Can greed be good?

Another theory of greed is that it is programmed into our genes because, in the course of evolution, it has tended to promote survival. Without greed, a person, community, or society may lack the motivation to build or achieve, move or change—and may also be rendered more vulnerable to the greed of others.

Greed, though an imperfect force, is the only consistent human motivation, and produces preferable economic and social outcomes most of the time and under most conditions. Whereas altruism is a mature and refined capability, greed is a visceral and democratic impulse, and ideally suited to our dumbed down consumer culture. Altruism may attract our admiration, but it is greed that our society encourages and rewards, and that delivers the goods and riches on which we have come to depend.

Like it or not, our society mostly operates on greed, and without greed would descend into poverty and chaos. Indeed, greed seems to be the driving force behind all successful societies, and modern political systems designed to check or eliminate it have invariably ended in the most abject failure.

In the film Wall Street (1987), Gordon Gekko says,

Greed, for the lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind.

The 20th century economist Milton Friedman has argued that the problem of social organization is not to eradicate greed, but to set up an arrangement under which it does the least harm. For Friedman, capitalism is just that kind of system.

Drawbacks

While greed may be good for economies, it may not be so good for individuals. A person who is consumed by greed becomes utterly fixated on the object of his greed. Life in all its richness and complexity is reduced to little more than a quest to accumulate and hoard as much as possible of whatever it is that he craves. Even though he has met his every reasonable need and more, he is unable to adapt and reformulate his drives and desires.

If the person is embarrassed by his greed, he may take to hiding it behind a carefully crafted persona. For example, a man who craves power and runs for political office may deceive others (and, in the end, perhaps also himself) that what he really wants is to help others, while also speaking out against those who, like himself, crave power for the sake of power.

Deception is a common outcome of greed, as is envy and spite. Greed is also associated with negative emotional states such as stress, exhaustion, anxiety, depression, and despair, and with maladaptive behaviours such as gambling, scavenging, hoarding, trickery, and theft. By overcoming reason, compassion, and love, greed undoes family and community ties and undermines the very values on which society and civilization are founded. Greed may fuel the economy, but, as recent history has made all too clear, uncontrolled greed can also lead us unto a deep and long-lasting economic recession. Moreover, our consumer culture continues to inflict severe damage on the environment, resulting in rising sea levels, more frequent extreme weather events, deforestation, desertification, ocean acidification, and species extinctions, among others.

Greed and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The 20th century psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that healthy human beings have a certain number of needs, and that these needs are arranged in a hierarchy, with some needs (such as physiological and safety needs) being more primitive or basic than others (such as social and ego needs). Maslow’s so-called ‘hierarchy of needs’ is often presented as a five-level pyramid, with higher needs coming into focus only once lower, more basic needs have been met.

Maslow called the bottom four levels of the pyramid ‘deficiency needs’ because a person does not feel anything if they are met. Thus, physiological needs such as eating, drinking, and sleeping are deficiency needs, as are safety needs, social needs such as friendship and sexual intimacy, and ego needs such as self-esteem and recognition. On the other hand, Maslow called the fifth level of the pyramid a ‘growth need’ because it enables a person to ‘self-actualize’, that is, to reach his fullest potential as a human being. Once a person has met his deficiency needs, the focus of his anxiety shifts to self-actualization, and he begins—even if only at a subconscious or semiconscious level—to contemplate the context and meaning of life.

The problem with greed is that it grounds us on one of the lower levels of the pyramid, and thereby prevents us from acceding to the top level of growth and self-actualization. Of course, this is the precise purpose of greed: to defend against existential anxiety, which is the type of anxiety associated with the highest rung of the pyramid.

Greed and religion

Because greed keeps us from the bigger picture, because it prevents us from communing with ourselves and with God, it is strongly condemned by all major religious traditions.

In the Buddhist tradition, craving holds us back from the path to enlightenment. In the Christian tradition, avarice is one of the seven deadly sins. It is understood as a form of idolatry that forsakes the love of God for the love of the self and of material things, forsakes things eternal for things temporal. In Purgatory, Dante has the avaricious bound prostrate on a hard rock floor as a punishment for their attachment to earthly goods and their neglect of higher things.

This neglect of higher things is the mother of all sin. For St Paul, greed is the root of all evil: radix omnium malorum avaritia. Similarly, in the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna calls covetousness a great destroyer and the foundation of sin.

It is covetousness that makes men commit sin. From covetousness proceeds wrath; from covetousness flows lust, and it is from covetousness that loss of judgment, deception, pride, arrogance, and malice, as also vindictiveness, shamelessness, loss of prosperity, loss of virtue, anxiety, and infamy spring, miserliness, cupidity, desire for every kind of improper act, pride of birth, pride of learning, pride of beauty, pride of wealth, pitilessness for all creatures, malevolence towards all… 

The Fear 

A modern, secular version of this tirade is contained in The Fear, a sarcastic song by the English singer and songwriter Lily Allen.

Here are a few choice lyrics from The Fear by way of a conclusion.

I want to be rich and I want lots of money

I don’t care about clever I don’t care about funny

And I’m a weapon of massive consumption

And it’s not my fault it’s how I’m programmed to function

Forget about guns and forget ammunition

‘Cause I’m killing them all on my own little mission

I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore

And I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore

And when do you think it will all become clear?

‘Cause I’m being taken over by The Fear

 

The Psychology of Gratitude

I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought, and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder. —GK Chesterton

‘Gratitude’ derives from the Latin ‘gratia’, which, depending on the context, translates as ‘grace’, ‘graciousness’, or ‘gratefulness’.

Gratitude never came easily to us human beings, and is a diminishing virtue in modern times. In our consumerist society, we focus on what we lack, or what other people have that we don’t, whereas gratitude is the feeling of appreciation for what we already have.

It is the recognition that the good in our life can come from something that is outside us and outside our control—be it other people, nature, or a higher power—and that owes little or nothing to us.

Gratitude is not a technique or a stratagem, but a complex and refined moral disposition. It has poetically been defined as ‘the memory of the heart’ (Jean Massieu), ‘the moral memory of mankind’ (Georg Simmel), and ‘the queen of the virtues’ (Cicero).

It is easy, both for the beneficiary and the benefactor, to mistake indebtedness for gratitude. Indebtedness is a much more contained and restricted obligation (or perceived obligation) on the part of the beneficiary to recompense or otherwise compensate the benefactor, not because recompense is a pleasure, but because obligation is a pain. Unlike gratitude, indebtedness can lead the beneficiary to avoid and even resent the benefactor.

Gratitude should also be distinguished from appreciation, which is the recognition and enjoyment of the good qualities of a person or thing, but without the dimension of awe or wonder or profundity or humility that is the essence of gratitude.

Gratitude is magnified if the conferred benefit is unexpected, or if the benefactor is of a higher social status than the beneficiary. If a benefit comes to be expected, both it and the benefactor tend to be taken for granted by the beneficiary—a common feature of tired relationships.

Gratitude is also magnified if, in benefiting us, the benefactor touched or moved our feelings. Without being moved, we are apt to respond to the benefactor not so much with gratitude as with mere appreciation. Thus, the teachers whom we best remember are not, in general, those who taught us well, but those who inspired us and opened us up to ourselves.

In paying homage to something that is outside us, gratitude enables us to connect with something that is not only larger than ourselves but also fundamentally good and reassuring. It opens our eyes to the miracle that is life, something to marvel at, revel in, and celebrate, rather than ignore or take for granted as it flies us by. It encourages and heightens life-enhancing states such as joy, tranquility, consciousness, enthusiasm, and empathy, while inhibiting painful emotions such as anxiety, heartbreak, loneliness, regret, and envy, with which it is fundamentally incompatible.

All this it does because it opens up a bigger and better perspective, shifting our focus from what we lack or strive for to what we already have, to all that we have been given, not least life itself, which is the fount of all opportunity and possibility. By turning us to the outside, gratitude enables us to live not merely for ourselves but for life at large. For just this reason, Cicero described it as the greatest virtue, and, greater still, the parent of all the other virtues.

Today, science is in the process of catching up with Cicero. Studies have linked gratitude with increased satisfaction, motivation, and energy; better sleep and health; and reduced stress and sadness. Grateful people are much more engaged with their environment, leading to greater personal growth and self-acceptance, and stronger feelings of purpose, meaning, and specialness.

Gratitude connects people into a mutually supportive and sustaining mesh of social relationships, which, of course, it acts to strengthen and develop. It is the foundation of the type of society in which people can look after one another without coercion, incentives, or governmental interference, which, unlike gratitude, demean rather than exalt us.

Gratitude can be for future benefits as well as past and present benefits. Gratitude for future benefits promotes optimism, and optimism faith. Both Western and Eastern religious traditions emphasize gratitude. In many Christian traditions, the most important rite is the Holy Communion or Eucharist—a term which derives from ‘eucharistia’, Greek for ‘thanksgiving’. Martin Luther himself spoke of gratitude as ‘the basic Christian attitude’. More than a mere feeling, Christian gratitude is a virtue, or disposition of the soul, that shapes our thoughts, feelings, and actions, and that is developed, refined, and exercised through a remembered relationship with God and His creation.

In contrast, ingratitude on the part of a beneficiary is hurtful, because it negates the efforts and sacrifices of the benefactor, thereby affronting him or her, and, more than that, affronting life itself. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Lear says,

Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend,

More hideous when thou show’st thee in a child

Than the sea-monster!

How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is

To have a thankless child.

For philosopher David Hume, ingratitude is ‘the most horrible and unnatural crime that a person is capable of committing’. For philosopher Immanuel Kant, it is, quite simply, ‘the essence of vileness’.

Ingratitude, which, of course, has become the norm, corrodes social bonds and undermines public trust, leading to societies built on rights and entitlements rather than duties and obligations, societies built on me rather than us, and in which every aspect of human life has to be regulated, recorded, monitored, and managed.

Despite the great and many benefits that it confers, gratitude is hard to cultivate, because it opposes itself to deeply ingrained human traits, in particular, our striving to better our lot, our need to feel in control of our destiny, our propensity to credit ourselves for our successes while blaming others for our failures, and our belief in some sort of cosmic equality or justice.

Since human nature does not leave much place for it, gratitude is an attainment associated with emotional maturity—which is why children taught to parrot ‘thank you’ never really mean it. Conversely, many grown-ups express gratitude, or a semblance of gratitude, simply because doing so is useful or the ‘done thing’. Expressing gratitude is good manners, and the aim of good manners is to ape profundity when profundity is lacking.

In contrast, true gratitude is a rare virtue. There is a fable in Aesop about a slave who pulls a thorn out of the paw of a lion. Some time later, the slave and the lion are captured, and the slave is thrown to the lion. The hungry lion rushes bounding and roaring toward the slave, but, upon recognizing his friend, he fawns upon him and licks his hands like a friendly dog. ‘Gratitude’, Aesop concludes, ‘is the sign of noble souls’.

Like all virtues, gratitude requires great cultivation, until such a day as we can say,

‘Thank you for nothing.’

Pride: Vice or Virtue?

Pride derives from ‘prodesse’, Latin for ‘be useful’. Like embarrassment, shame, and guilt, pride is a self-conscious emotion that is strongly influenced by sociocultural norms and values.

Pride as a vice

On the one hand, pride is seen as a vice, and, on the other, as a virtue.

Pride as a vice is close to hubris or vanity. In Ancient Greece, hubris meant to defile or denigrate the gods, or to place oneself above them, and led to destruction or nemesis. Today, hubris denotes an inflated sense of one’s status, abilities, or accomplishments, especially if accompanied by haughtiness or arrogance. By definition, hubris is out of touch with reality, promoting conflict, enmity, and prejudice against out-group members.

Vanity is similar to hubris, but refers to an inflated sense of one’s image or appeal in the eyes of others. Vanity derives from ‘vanitas’, Latin for ‘emptiness’, ‘falseness’, ‘futility’, or ‘foolishness’. In the Book of Ecclesiastes, the phrase ‘vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas’ is usually rendered as ‘vanity of vanities; all is vanity’, and refers not to vanity as such but to the transience and futility of earthly goods and pursuits and, by extension, of life itself. In the arts, a vanitas, often a painting with prominent symbols of mortality such as a skull, burning candles, or wilting flowers, invites us to reflect on our mortality and live with a greater sense of perspective. Vainglory is an archaic synonym for vanity, but originally meant ‘to boast in vain’, that is, groundlessly.

Many religions look upon pride, hubris, or vanity as self-idolatry. In the Christian tradition, pride is one of the seven deadly sins. More than that, it is the original and most unforgivable sin, for it is from pride that the angel Lucifer fell out of Heaven and became Satan. Pride is the sin most hated by God because it gives rise to all the other sins, because it blinds us to truth and reason, and because it removes us from God and religion. Just as in the Greek tradition, pride leads to destruction. ‘Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall’ (Proverbs 16:18). Thus, in art, pride is sometimes symbolized by a figure of death—or else by Narcissus, a peacock, or a naked woman attending to her hair with comb and mirror.

Pride as a virtue

As a virtue, pride is, in the words of St Augustine, ‘the love of one’s own excellence’. More prosaically, pride is the satisfaction or pleasure or exhilaration or vindication that arises from the egosyntonic choices or actions of the self or another, or of a whole group of people—as, for example, with national pride or gay pride. By ‘egosyntonic’ I mean that the choices or actions must be consistent with the person’s self-image and needs and goals. Because the success or status belongs to the self or is associated with the self, it leads to pride rather than admiration, tolerance, indifference, or envy. If pride is ‘the love of one’s own excellence’, the opposite of pride is shame. Just as shame can in itself be shameful, so pride can in itself be a source of pride.

‘Shame’ derives from ‘to cover’, and often manifests itself as a covering gesture over the brow and eyes, a downcast gaze, and a slack posture. In contrast, pride manifests itself as an expanded or inflated posture with arms raised or rested on the hips, together with a lifted chin and small smile. This stance has even been observed in congenitally blind individuals, suggesting that it is innate rather than learned or copied. Pride and its accompanying stance serve as a signal of acceptance, belonging, ownership, or status. But aside from functioning as a social signal, pride promotes more of the same kind of choices and actions that led to it, and is associated with greater self-respect, self-confidence, productivity, creativity, and altruism.

Proper pride vs. false pride

So, on the one hand, pride is associated with falseness, blindness, conceit, and arrogance, while on the other it is associated with elation, self-confidence, productivity, creativity, and altruism. Proper pride is clearly adaptive, but what can explain false or hubristic pride? People prone to false pride often lack in self-esteem. Lacking in self-esteem, hubris may be the only kind of pride that they can express, with the aim of deceiving others and themselves that they too are worthy of respect and admiration. Yes, their ‘pride’ is a con or a shortcut, but it makes them feel better and it pulls them through—if only for now.

Aristotle on proper pride

Aristotle wrote most insightfully on proper pride, or ‘greatness of soul’ (megalopsuchia). In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle tells us that a person is proud if he both is and thinks himself to be worthy of great things.

Now the man is thought to be proud who thinks himself worthy of great things, being worthy of them; for he who does so beyond his deserts is a fool, but no virtuous man is foolish or silly.

If he is and thinks himself to be worthy of small things he is not proud but temperate.

For he who is worthy of little and thinks himself worthy of little is temperate, but not proud; for pride implies greatness, as beauty implies a goodsized body, and little people may be neat and well-proportioned but cannot be beautiful.

On the other hand, if he thinks himself worthy of great things when he is unworthy of them, he is hubristic or vain; and if he thinks himself worthy of less than he is worthy of, he is pusillanimous. Hubris and pusillanimity are vices, whereas pride and temperance are virtues because (by definition) they reflect the truth about a person’s state and potentials. In Aristotelian speak, whereas the proud person is an extreme in respect of the greatness of his claims, he is a mean in respect of their truthfulness, and therefore virtuous. So, for Aristotle, it is not just an excess of pride that is a vice, but also a deficiency of pride.

Aristotle goes on to paint a very flattering picture of the proud person. He says that a proud person is avid of his just deserts and particularly of honor, ‘the prize of virtue and the greatest of external goods’. A proud person is moderately pleased to accept great honors conferred by good people, but utterly despises honors from casual people and on trifling grounds. As a person who deserves more is better, the truly proud person is good, and as he is good, he is also rare. In sum, says Aristotle, pride is a crown of the virtues; it is not found without them, and it makes them greater.

True, the proud person is liable to disdain and to despise, but as he thinks rightly, he does so justly, whereas the many disdain and despise at random (or, I would say, to meet their ego or emotional needs). The proud person may be supercilious towards the great and the good, but he is always unassuming towards the middle classes; for it is a difficult and lofty thing to be superior to the former, but easy to be so to the latter, and a lofty bearing over the former is no mark of ill-breeding, but among humble people is as vulgar as a display of strength against the weak.

Again, it is characteristic of the proud man not to aim at the things commonly held in honor, or the things in which others excel; to be sluggish and to hold back except where great honor or a great work is at stake, and to be a man of few deeds, but of great and notable ones. He must also be open in his hate and in his love (for to conceal one’s feelings, that is, to care less for truth than for what people will think, is a coward’s part), and must speak and act openly; for he is free of speech because he is contemptuous, and he is given to telling the truth, except when he speaks in irony to the vulgar.

In conclusion, proper pride and false pride may look like each other, but one is a crown of the virtues and the other the mother of sin. The trouble is, of course, distinguishing between them.

The Anatomy of Humility

Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it’s thinking of yourself less. —CS Lewis

Our society encourages navel-gazing and celebrates entitlement and exuberance. Economic interests lie not in humility but pride and hubris, while to call something or someone ‘humble’ most often connotes that the thing or person is simple, contemptible, or of little worth.

The first step in defining humility as applied to persons and their characters is to distinguish humility from modesty. ‘Modesty’ derives from the Latin ‘modus’, ‘measure’ or ‘manner’; ‘humility’, like ‘humiliation’, derives from the Latin ‘humus’, ‘earth’ or ‘dirt’. Modesty means restraint in appearance and behavior: the reluctance to flaunt oneself, to put oneself on display, or to attract attention. It often implies a certain artfulness and artificiality, perhaps even inauthenticity or hypocrisy.

The fictional character of Uriah Heep in David Copperfield by Charles Dickens is notable for his obsequiousness and insincerity, often emphasizing his own ‘umbleness’ to cover up the true scale of his ambition. Modesty often poses as humility, but, unlike true humility, is skin-deep and external rather than deep and internal. At best, modesty is no more than good manners.

In contrast, true humility derives from a proper perspective of our human condition: one among billions on a small planet among billions, like a fungus on a tiny fragment of cheese. Of course, it is nearly impossible for human beings to remain this objective for very long, but truly humble people are nonetheless far more conscious of the insignificance of their true relations, an insignificance that verges on non-existence. A speck of dust does not think itself more superior or inferior than another, nor does it concern itself for what other specks of dust might or might not think. Enthralled by the miracle of existence, the truly humble person lives not for herself or her image, but for life itself, in a condition of pure peace and pleasure.

Drunk on his humility, a humble person can seem arrogant to the generality of men. In 399BC, at the age of 70, Socrates was indicted for offending the Olympian gods and thereby breaking the law against impiety. He was accused of ‘studying things in the sky and below the earth’, ‘making the worse into the stronger argument’, and ‘teaching these same things to others’. At his trial, Socrates gave a defiant defense, telling the jurors that they ought to be ashamed of their eagerness to possess as much wealth, reputation, and honors as possible, whilst not caring for or giving thought to wisdom or truth, or the best possible state of their soul. After being convicted and sentenced to death, he turned around to the jurors and said,

You think that I was convicted through deficiency of words—I mean, that if I had thought fit to leave nothing undone, nothing unsaid, I might have gained an acquittal. Not so; the deficiency which led to my conviction was not of words—certainly not. But I had not the boldness or impudence or inclination to address you as you would have liked me to address you, weeping and wailing and lamenting, and saying and doing many things which you have been accustomed to hearing from others, and which, as I say, are unworthy of me. But I thought that I ought not to do anything common or mean in the hour of danger: nor do I now repent of the manner of my defence, and I would rather die having spoken after my manner, than speak in your manner and live.

Throughout his long life, Socrates, who looked like a tramp, had been a paragon of humility. When his childhood friend Chaerephon asked the Delphic oracle if any man was wiser than Socrates, the priestess of Apollo replied that no one was wiser. To discover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of wise men, and in each case concluded, ‘I am likely to be wiser than he to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.’ From then on, he dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking out anyone who might be wise and, ‘if he is not, showing him that he is not.’ His student Plato insisted that, while Socrates devoted himself entirely to discussing philosophy, he seldom claimed any real knowledge for himself.

Was Socrates lacking in humility at his trial? Was he, paradoxically, being arrogant by bragging about his humility? Perhaps he put on an arrogant act because he actually wanted to die, either because he was ill or infirm or because he knew that by dying in this way his thought and teachings would be preserved for posterity. Or maybe genuine humility can seem like arrogance to those who truly are arrogant, in which case the humble person may sometimes need to hide his humility, or certain aspects of his humility, under a cloak of modesty—something which Socrates was unwilling to do.

To be humble is to subdue our ego so that things are no longer all about us, whereas to be modest is to protect the ego of others so that they do not feel uncomfortable, threatened, or small, and attack us in turn. Because the humble man is in fact very big, he may need to slap on an extra thick veneer of modesty.

Socrates is not the only humble person who occasionally comes across as arrogant. In fact I have spotted a certain propensity for such ‘arrogance’ among the most celebrated thinkers and artists. Even doubting Descartes had his moments. In La géometrie, published in 1637 as an appendix to his magnum opus Discours de la méthode, he lets slip, ‘I hope that posterity will judge me kindly, not only as to the things which I have explained, but also to those which I have intentionally omitted so as to leave to others the pleasure of discovery.’

Humble people are disinclined to conceal the truth because they are by nature truth seekers: it is often through philosophy that they attained to humility, and, conversely, humility invites philosophy. What’s more, owing to their proper perspective and the inspiration and direction that this brings, humble people are often highly productive or prolific. So if a person is both insightful and prolific, there are good chances that he is also humble; conversely, if he is stuck in a rut and unable to learn from his mistakes, it is very likely that he thinks too much about himself.

For the 16th century humanist Erasmus, ‘humility is truth’. Given this, religions have naturally been keen to emphasize it in their teachings. In Greek mythology, Aidos, the daimona of shame, reverence, and humility, restrained men and women from wrong. According to the 7th century BC poet Hesiod, after the Golden Age, ‘Aidos and Nemesis [the daimona of divine retribution against those who succumb to hubris, and closely associated with Aidos], with their sweet forms wrapped in white robes, will go from the wide-pathed earth and forsake mankind to join the company of the deathless gods: and bitter sorrows will be left for mortal men, and there will be no help against evil.’ Some of the most vivid Greek myths, such as those of Icarus, Oedipus, Sisyphus, and Tantalus, can be understood as warnings against hubris, which is the defiance of the gods from excessive pride, leading to nemesis. 

In the Christian canon, pride is the original sin, for it is from pride that the angel Lucifer fell out of Heaven and became Satan. Thus Isaiah 14:12-15 (KJV):

How are thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God… I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.

In the Old Testament, the Book of Numbers speaks of Moses as ‘a man exceeding meek above all men that dwelt upon earth’ (Numbers 12:3), and the Book of Proverbs teaches that ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble’ (Proverbs 3:34). Similarly, in the New Testament, St Matthew says that, ‘Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted’ (Matthew 23:12).

The 5th century theologian and philosopher St Augustine argued that humility is the foundation of all the other virtues, for in the absence of humility there cannot be any other virtue except in mere appearance. He held that, while it was pride that changed angels into devils, it is humility that makes men as angels. In one of his sermons, he preached, ‘Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? Lay first the foundation of humility.’

In the Hindu Bhagavad Gita, the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the battlefield of Kurukshetra to allay his scruples about engaging in battle and shedding the blood of his cousins the Kauravas. Krishna explains that, whether or not Arjuna goes into battle, all the men on the battlefield are one day destined to die, as are all men. Their deaths are trivial, because the spirit within them, their human essence, does not depend on their particular forms or incarnations for its continued existence. Krishna tells Arjuna, ‘When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge.’

In the Buddhist tradition, humility is part of the spiritual practice, and an outcome of it; and one cannot attain enlightenment unless one has perfected humility. In Taoism, humility is one of the Three Treasures, or basic virtues, along with compassion and frugality. As for Islam, the very word means ‘submission (to the will of God)’.

But not all thinkers have found it important to emphasize humility. Aristotle leaves it out of his list of virtues, which does however include ‘proper pride’ and ‘proper ambition’. Hume and Nietzsche go so far as to condemn it, and not in the slightest of terms.

In An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, originally published in 1751, the normally cool-headed Hume writes,

Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they everywhere rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment? We observe, on the contrary, that they cross all these desirable ends; stupify [sic.] the understanding and harden the heart, obscure the fancy and sour the temper. We justly, therefore, transfer them to the opposite column, and place them in the catalogue of vices…

Hume is tame compared to Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, our society is evidence of the triumph of Judeo-Christian slave morality over Greco-Roman master morality. Master morality originates in the strong, and is marked by values such as nobility, pride, courage, truthfulness, and trust. Slave morality, in contrast, is merely a reaction in the weak to oppression by the strong, and is marked by such values as humility, sympathy, cowardice, and pettiness. In master morality, the good is whatever is good for the strong; in slave morality, it is whatever opposes the masters. By pretending that congenital meekness is a choice that is both moral and desirable, slave morality makes a virtue out of impotence and subjugation. Thus, pride becomes a vice or sin, humility is elevated to a virtue, and the son of God washes the feet of his disciples and lets himself be crucified like a common criminal. Slave morality is a cynical and pessimistic inverse morality that involves careful subversion of the old master morality. It seeks not to transcend master morality, but, through ‘priestly vindictiveness’, to emasculate and enslave the strong by convincing them that their strengths are evil. 

Nietzsche maintains that democracy, with its obsession with freedom and equality, is in fact the heir to Christianity, even though democrats generally prefer to trace their lineage to Ancient Athens. In our society, the old and natural Greco-Roman morality vies alongside the inverted Judeo-Christian morality. Modern man is confused because he constantly has to juggle their contradictions, while himself, on the whole, being neither Christian nor ancient.

While there may be much of interest in Nietzsche’s master-slave dichotomy, he and Hume seem to confound and amalgamate humility with modesty or meekness. Both modesty and humility involve self-abnegation, but whereas modesty involves self-abnegation for the sake of others or for the sake of receiving praise or adulation, humility involves self-abnegation for the sake of truth and of a higher self.

Indeed, emerging empirical evidence suggests that, rather than being inhibiting, humility is a highly adaptive trait or construct. Scientists have found it to be linked with pro-social dispositions such as self-control, gratitude, generosity, tolerance, forgivingness, and cooperativeness; and associated not only with better social relationships, as might be expected, but also improved health outcomes, better academic and job performance, and even a more effective leadership style.

Because humility de-emphasizes the self, it diminishes the need for self-deception, which in turn enables us to admit to and learn from our mistakes, consider and contemplate alternative possibilities, recognize the qualities and contributions of others, and respect, value, and submit to legitimate authority. Being deeper than modesty, humility is far more stable and resilient and unlikely to crumble under pressure, when, of course, it becomes of even greater use.

In sum, humility could not be more different from mere modesty. If humility resembles anything, it is the ancient concept of piety, or right relations, but stripped or abstracted of piety’s more concrete religious dimensions.

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