Saturday, November 05, 2005


Before discussing the issue of humility from a religious or philosophical viewpoint, the denotative meaning of the word needs to be mentioned. According to Webster’s dictionary (9th Ed.), the noun humility comes from the Latin word “humus,” meaning earth. People considered humble are often described as self-effacing, which comes from the Latin for “face” and means “to make oneself inconspicuous or make indistinct by wearing away the surface.” These definitions go a long way to explain why poverty makes people both downtrodden and invisible: its grinding conditions tend to prematurely age the poor who must toil in the earth. At the same time, their dispirited condition is often mistaken by others as a kind of heroic fortitude the more fortunate should emulate. A famous example in literature is the character of Bontsche in Peretz’s great Yiddish short story, “Bontsche the Silent.” Bontsche is a peasant in tsarist Russia who is literally bent-down with trouble, so much so that his attention appears fixed on the earth on which he toils and which will soon claim his mortal remains. This attitude, the humility that many confuse with meekness, extends into the afterlife: when asked what he would like as his heavenly reward, Bontsche asks for a buttered roll each day. This excessive meekness is the result of trauma and is not a virtue in any positive sense. However, this is a good example of one of the most common connotative meanings of humility in Western culture. How applications of humility differ in occidental and eastern philosophy will be the subject of my next posting.


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