I have, by some coincidence watched three videos – and two of them in a row which dealt with humility. It is not much of a surprise, since YouTube’s algorithms would easily be responsible for that.
The first video on humility came from Father Mike Schmitz, the second from author J. R. R. Tolkien. I will try to deal with these in tandem. I also vaguely recall some time ago, humility mentioned by ex-psychotherapist Daniel Mackler.
I’ll discuss the one by Mackler first, since it came to me quite a while ago, although I can’t provide a definite link for it. The other two were the ones that came on the same day. Mackler’s conception of humility is that it is the thing that is needed for a successful, honest self-analysis. When a person is not learning from their mistakes, or display an inability to be reflective, it is because they lack humility. If you think you are perfect, then you will feel you have nothing to learn. Humble people make the best leaders and are the most engaged with people around them. Mackler goes into a number of ways by which our self-honesty is blocked, and it is usually out of the mistaken thinking that humility is a weakness. A psychology-based website gives six markers for people who display humility: 1) self-honesty; 2) an accurate perception of our place in the world; 3) an ability to acknowledge our mistakes and limitations; 4) openness; 5) low self-focus; 6) an appreciation for the value of all things.
For me, Mackler’s definition is straightforward. Father Schmitz has another straightforward one, obviously from the Bible (the Catholic Bible, since the book of Sirach is mentioned).
Humility is high enough on the Christianity totem pole that it is listed as one of the Seven Heavenly Virtues; the other six being chastity, temperance, charity, diligence, kindness, and patience. The opposite of these are the Seven Deadly Sins, which are: pride, lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, envy, and wrath.
Schmitz gives in his homily a punchy, straightforward set of talking points on humility. The main thing is that humility is not the same as thinking less of yourself, since that is the popular conception. Rather than thinking less of yourself, humility is thinking of yourself, less. Humility is taking an interest in and paying attention to others. Humility is always taking opportunities to be thankful to people, and to show gratitude. Humility is also the willingness to acknowledge the truth about yourself and your shortcomings, at least to yourself, and to learn from that. Schmitz and most clergy are more interested in aiming their homilies at getting through life and into heaven, and so he doesn’t say much on humility’s application in making you a better leader.
J. R. R. Tolkien would say less about the latter, although all three volumes of Lord of the Rings are replete with lessons of the value of humility. The One Ring of Power tempted everyone who laid eyes on it. But the most tempted were the ones with traces of status given to them by their race and birth: elves, dunedain, dwarves, men. Hobbits had so little status, that most of these other denizens of Middle Earth hadn’t even been aware of their existence for quite some time. So simple a folk were they, that it appeared they had no ego to bruise, no pride to hurt, no magical ability, and so a hobbit like Frodo could carry the ring of power without anywhere near the damage it would have done to any other race described in the story. But as we find out, it will still do damage, even to hobbits.
Isildur took the ring from Sauron, but succumbed to the temptation of pride and power of the ring and so refused to throw the ring into Mount Doom, and died while carrying it. The ring thus became known as Isildur’s Bane. Gandalf knew he couldn’t carry the ring; neither could Galadriel. Boromir also fell into temptation of obsessing over the ring, and died. The creature Gollum wore and possessed the ring for centuries as it stretched his lifespan and fell into a life of long hardship, isolation and loneliness. The skeletal, wiry Gollum we read of in these volumes used to be a hobbit, and went by the name Smeagol. His brother Deagol found the Ring of Power, and Smeagol murdered him over it, and took possession of it.
The feelings expressed most often in response to the ring are lust, envy, and greed. The characters in the story either overcome these deadly sins, or they themselves die at some point. So, LOTR works as an epic-sized morality play, where good triumphs over evil. It is no suprise that the author chose the most humble characters he could, two hobbits, to finally throw the ring into the fire, to show the triumph of good over evil. But as the video discussion from Inspiring Philosophy tried to get across, virtue itself is not responsible, it just provides conditions for the ring to be destroyed. In the actual story, Frodo also succumbed to weakness at the worst possible moment, only to be outdone by a much less virtuous character, Gollum, both whose ring and himself end up falling into the fires of the volcano in Mount Doom. Frodo just needed to be an imperfect Frodo; Gollum just needed to be a deeply conflicted creature who has succumbed to the ring; and Good would triumph, since that is the way Eru Iluvatar designed the world in the beginning, according to the tale. There needs to be no other hero except Eru Iluvatar, the God figure of the story, with all others being an instrument of Eru’s will.
What I have a slight problem with, is, the idea that the entire saga has as its backdrop the “races” issue, and with it the conception that some of them rank higher than others. It appears to be roughly: Maiar > Wizards > Elves > Dwarves > Dunedain > Men > Hobbits, with equivalent rankings among “evil” beings. It means that a precondition of humility in this story is that you know your “station” in life in connection to your race. The consequences of rising above that station are tantamount to rebelling against God’s design, and instead making your own meaning and way in life that is separate from God’s plan. This was shown in The Silmarillion with Melkor wanting to do just that in the form of creation of the new world, leading ultimately to the downfall of evil at the end of the three volumes of LOTR.
I think it is one reason that the Amazon Prime Video creation Rings of Power came into existence. For all of its overt and largely unnecessary political correctness, what it tries to do is to do away with this “station in life” thing. I agree with the sentiment that we do away with such things in connection with “humility”, since it acquiesces in the powers-that-be and prevents us from questioning it or doing something about it. In the world of LOTR by contrast, Hobbits should just shut up and tend their gardens, eat their food and keep smoking pipeweed; dwarves should just shut up and hide inside their mountains, make Mithril and stone carvings; and the world of Men should just be stewards of the earth going into the fourth age, as the other magical beings run away to the Undying Lands. What the Maiar decide to do with Middle Earth is beyond their ken and they have no right to an opinion about it or to ask questions. This describes a world built on Providence: a world where God is responsible for setting the conditions for the universal order (similar to the creation story involving Eru Iluvatar in “Ainulindalë: The Music of the Ainur” in The Silmarillion), and the only freedom the rest of us have is to accept God’s conditions and go about the lives we were born to live.
There is a kind of old-school Catholic sensibility to this, since Vatican II didn’t occur until 25 years after LOTR was written. The mentality that priests withheld more spiritual knowledge than they knew, as it was thought the congregation would never be smart enough to understand the deeper questions of life, follows this pattern. The laity would go about their lives, only to visit Church on Sunday, where the readings, psalms and homilies would give us a little glimpse into the spiritual mysteries of the world. After church, parishoners might have briefly reflected, if they did that at all, and then went about their lives. Pre-Vatican II, knowledge appeared to be something for the Church to hoard, then give in minute doses to the general public, and only when absolutely necessary. The thinking behind this being, I would suppose, that the Church provides the conditions for its flock to go about their lives without needing to ever seriously ask the larger questions. Indeed, providing for such conditions would require the asking of deep questions that no one else would need to bother with. Since the Mid-1960s and after Vatican II, there was a recognition that inquiry into deep questions of life is healthy and is something we all should do; and access to such sources of information should be open to everyone. The Church became more open in later decades, even as the number of parishoners began diminishing.
But Rings of Power overdoes it in that it also appears to do away with the very idea of humility, leading us back to a morality of the ends justifying the means, even if the “good guys” do bad things for good. I will stop short of what the vloggers at Inspiring Philosophy began to dignify with Nietzchian nihilism. My feeling is that there was no such thought process going on with the writers of Rings of Power. Based on some of the reviews I have read and heard about, there might even have been a problem with basic plot and character development. So it sounds like most of the $150 million per season appears to be sunk into making cinematic visuals and spectacle.
People who try to “make their own way” in life take freedom into their own hands, and with freedom comes responsibility. The demands on them are much greater than a hobbit who spends their lives eating, drinking and tending their crops and gardens. They need to learn more deeply about the value of taking responsibility for one’s own decisions and actions. They need to learn more about the world and about life and have a voracious curiosity about it as a result. In fact they would definitely need to be humble, since they are constantly up against how little they know about nearly everything. In fact, humility will be the way to the light when nearly everything else feels like darkness. Our world is full of ways of finding things out; of investigating and of looking before you leap. Such people have to learn to constantly take advantage of that. If you are beset with pride and think you know everything, you won’t see any of it, and you won’t last long in this lifestyle.
It is strange that this last way of conceiving of humility is rarely spoken about. The problem is not humility; the problem is that the humble person is beginning to show curiosity about matters that are deemed to be beyond their ken. They are not supposed to be asking these questions. But when this happens, these people are often spoken of in dark tones, and seen as breaking from God, breaking from family, breaking from society, breaking from the Church. It is said to lead to discord; to anarchy and chaos. They are often charitably referred to as “lost sheep”, or uncharitably as excommunicating themselves from God. It is a necessary illusion that keeps the rabble in line. And to maintain the illusion, it is important to prevent intelligent discussion about it. Even as we now live in a world full of people who make their own way in ways I could never imagine – transgenders, gay and lesbian, and other forms of gender bending – the bulk of the discussion is either immature-sounding or couched in obscure jargon and stilted rhetoric that appears to produce more smoke than light, and pitch these people against society more than normal. Intelligent, sane discussion shorn of its jargon is difficult to discern. Labelling is often unhelpful in understanding people or the world around us and we would be better off in a world without labels. Yet many of these people who would benefit from fighting off labels not only label themselves but the rest of us (binary versus nonbinary for example). Doing so might appear to give them a sense of strength and control, but it remains a false sense, thus falling into the same trap as the larger society fell into with such labelling.
Carrying a discussion where people are labelled only works if the people who are labelled accept the label. If they do not, they are usually not part of the discussion, and those labellers are left discussing their lives in an echo chamber where their isolation from mainstream society is intensified. Indeed, this is what has happened. “Discussions” about things like transgenderism with mainstream society often amount to lectures where adherents of transgenderism are very nearly the only ones doing the talking. There is no recognition that labelling is the central problem of the entire enterprise. Labelling is really more of an impediment to understanding of our fellow humans. Labels are used to separate people, and intensify social isolation. As a result, labels ultimately dehumanize those who are labelled. Even self-labelling is problematic and is self-dehumanizing.
There is the other question as to whether anyone would be brave enough to part with a lifestyle where everything is figured out and decided for them, in favour of a lifestyle where you have to decide everything for yourself. It is a scary prospect, and few would take the risk of taking over control of their lives in any profound way for this reason. For those who decide the former, they can turn off their thinking brain and go on autopilot through life. For those who decide the latter, there is no autopilot.
Due to circumstances beyond our control,
we are master of our fate and captain of our soul.