The Spirit of Humility
MARCH 01, 1958 by FREDERIC WALKER
Mr. Walker is a public relations consultant and journalist much concerned with the methodology of freedom.
The prodigies who launched the La Guardia reform era did not last long. They moved to national and global fields. When my friend Adolf Berle was leaving, he said to me, "Bob, it’s all very well for you to fuss with street openings. As for me, I’m off to settle the Chinese question."
- Robert Moses, The New York Times Magazine, September 8, 1957
Well, the Chinese question is still with us, and Adolf Berle did not settle it. We did not expect him to; what surprises us is that he thought he could. Such delusions denote a serious shortage of humility.
How often, in thumbing through history, we can see leaders and followers alike shed all humility as they relentlessly drive to impose their well-intended reforms on a skeptical and reluctant society. Roman soldiers are seen crucifying One whose message was love and persecuting those who sought to practice the ideal of peace on earth, good will toward all men. Add to this the violence of the Crusades, the horrors and atrocities of religious wars, mass murder of innocent men and women and children, the physical and mental enslavement of man by man, the burning of "witches," the purgings by guillotine and machine gun. Certainly, the power of the sword, of the mob, and of mighty armies is seldom, if ever, wielded in humility.
Nor is the historical evidence of ruthless, arrogant action confined to these examples of war and forthright violence. The destructive force often is concealed and works indirectly in the area of public affairs, political action, government enforced reforms of all kinds.
The modest sense of his own significance, displayed by many a person in his private life, seems to desert him when he turns to public affairs. A man who can’t or won’t make a simple personal decision, or advise his wife or child concerning small matters of his own household, can and will tell emphatically how he’d run the state or the nation if he were Governor or President.
Arbitrariness Breeds Trouble
One soon learns, when dealing with family or friends or business associates, that arbitrary action and a cocksure attitude may lead to trouble. At that level of affairs, a mistake comes home to roost in a hurry. But there isn’t that same direct personal confrontation in case of an error in public policy, even though it affects millions of people and causes untold harm. The impersonality and vastness of public affairs may explain why they tend to be advocated and conducted with so much arrogance — so little humility.
For example, who ever heard of a farmer’s killing his own little pigs, or urging his neighbors to slaughter theirs, as a sound business procedure? But this destructive theory once was enforced on a national basis by "farmers" who had lost all humility when put in charge of the United States Department of Agriculture.
The organization of United World Federalists, designed to tell everybody from Madagascar to Omsk how to achieve a peaceful utopia is perhaps the most grandiose and lofty political concept of all time. Yet, this is a principal enthusiasm of suburbanites who face insoluble local problems of traffic control, overcrowded schools, rising taxes, water shortage, sewage disposal, juvenile delinquency, and congestion generally. If the good intentions of such persons were accompanied by an equally fine sense of humility, they might attend to the problems on their own doorsteps before remodeling the rest of the world.
"Whereas I formerly believed it my bounden duty to call other persons to order, I now admit I need calling to order myself." Dr. Carl Jung, in making this statement about himself, also might have offered it as a basis for political action. What would have happened in this century if the demonic political figures who have led the world into confusion, war, and chaos had felt as Dr. Jung does? Conceive, if you can, such a humility in a Marx, a Hitler, a Lenin, a Stalin; they were all too certain that they must call other people to order. The results are all about us. Coming home, we have heard our leaders, supremely confident of their own rightness, tell us that war "would end war" and "make the world safe for democracy."
The Anomalous Mr. Cobden
One of the most successful political leaders and reformers of all time was Richard Cobden. That Victorian statesman accomplished many things and without bitterness. Why? There was no arrogant, antagonistic sense of self-righteousness about him. According to Walter Bagehot, "Mr. Cobden was very anomalous in two respects. He was a sensitive agitator. Generally, an agitator is a rough man… who says anything himself, and lets others say anything. ‘You peg into me and I will peg into you, and let us see which will win,’ is his motto. But Mr. Cobden’s habit and feeling were utterly different. He never spoke ill of anyone. He arraigned principles, but not persons. Very rarely, if even ever in history, has a man achieved so much by his words — been victor in what was thought at the time to be a class struggle — and yet spoken so little evil as Mr. Cobden. We may on other grounds object to an agitator who lacerates no one, but no watchful man of the world will deny that such an agitator has vanquished one of life’s most imperious and difficult temptations."* Can such praise be truthfully accorded any political figure in our own time?
The confident feeling of certainty that what we believe is right and therefore should become public policy has motivated too many of us. Much of what is now described as Toryism or reaction is merely humility in operation — a lack of confidence in the new proposals designed to supplant principles which have stood the test of time. What is in operation can be seen; what is proposed for future operations is far less obvious. Certainly the violent upheavals and revolutions of our time are not conducive to a whole-hearted commitment to social reform. "Progress is commonly the substitution of one nuisance for another," wrote Havelock Ellis. Czarist
The global reformer or revolutionist, absolutely certain of his rightness, becomes an absolutist when he gains power, killing those who disagree, or consigning them to slave labor camps or exile. The lack of humility can go no further. There is light for all of us in what we can see happening. Too cocksure, too certain, and we, too, could become political absolutists. "After all," said Montaigne, "it is setting a very high price on one’s convictions to burn a man alive for them."
A great teacher of nearly 2,000 years ago offered his life as a lesson in humility. Would that we in this twentieth century might understand and practice that message!
¤"Mr. Cobden" from Biographical Studies by Walter Bagehot.
Ideas On Liberty
A Poor Wise Man
I have also seen this example of wisdom under the sun, and it seemed great to me. There was a little city with few men in it; and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siege works against it. But there was found in it a poor wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man. But I say that wisdom is better than might, though the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded.
The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.
(From the Revised Standard Version
of the Bible. Copyrighted 1946 and 1952)
The Citizen and the Legislator
Alike to the citizen and to the legislator, home-experiences daily supply proofs that the conduct of human beings baulks calculation. He has given up the thought of managing his wife and lets her manage him. Children on whom he has tried now reprimand, now punishment, now suasion, now reward, do not respond satisfactorily to any method; and no expostulation prevents their mother from treating them in ways he thinks mischievous. So, too, his dealings with his servants, whether by reasoning or by scolding, rarely succeed for long; the falling short of attention, or punctuality, or cleanliness, or sobriety, leads to constant changes.
Yet, difficult as he finds it to deal with humanity in detail, he is confident of his ability to deal with embodied humanity. Citizens, not one-thousandth of whom he knows, not one-hundredth of whom he ever saw, and the great mass of whom belong to classes having habits and modes of thought of which he has but dim notions, he feels sure will act in ways he foresees, and fulfill ends he wishes. Is there not a marvellous incongruity between premises and conclusion?
Herbert Spencer, The Man Versus the State