The Bible is pretty clear about the staggering toll assessed against the proud, the arrogant, the boastful. Legal, prophetic, wisdom, song, story, and apocalyptic literature in both testaments regularly embed sentiments which dog the steps of those who think themselves special, better, advantaged. Consider passages like “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn” (Isa 14:12); “How the mighty have fallen…” (2 Sam 1); “Pride goes before destruction …” (Prov 16:18); “I have need of nothing … you are wretched …” (Rev 3:15-22).
The Bible is also clear about the highly valued traits of humility, deference, confession: “Walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8); “You have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol” (Ps 86:13); “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land …” (Zeph 2:3); “I have not learned wisdom” (Prov 30:3); “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3); “… in humility count others better than yourselves” (Phil 2:3).
Biblical battle lines have long been drawn between hubris and humility. Between pride and arrogance on the one hand, and self-effacing modesty on the other. In fact some have argued that the very nature of transgression in the original meaning of the term, depicts a haughty arrogance that rebels against and defies divine directions, thinking less of God and God’s advice than of themselves. And that “salvation” is the humble recognition that we cannot do this on our own and need God in order to accomplish anything in life.
I have become intrigued, however, with another take on these freighted terms. A practical take in an educational setting; after all, Proverbs is all about the practicality of wisdom. A take informed by political science. My introduction to this new idea came from a short online piece by Nuno Monteiro,[i] who was trying to understand why some university students were more successful than others. He referred to a concept he picked up from his major professor, with applications to life lived off campus in the real world too.
John J. Meirsheimer, a widely published political scientist (and Monteiro’s professor) at the University of Chicago, in his Aims of Education address in 1997, referred to his collaboration with Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist Stephen Van Evera in creating an assessment tool for evaluating success among university students. They called it the “hubris-humility index.” Simply put, they recommended that to make lasting and worthwhile contributions to the life of the mind and to the common good, students should have high scores in both hubris and humility. In his words:
… in teaching you to think critically, we encourage you to acquire both hubris and humility. These two qualities are somewhat contradictory, but nevertheless it is important that you have large doses of both. Let me explain. We promote hubris simply by encouraging you to be bold. We urge you to ask big questions, to challenge prevailing truths when you think they are wrong, and to offer your own views on important subjects. We want you to stand up when the time is right and say that the emperor has no clothes. That requires a certain amount of hubris. At the same time, however, we promote humility by encouraging you to recognize that your thinking about a particular issue may be wrong. The line of argument you are pushing might not cut the mustard and might not be worth pursuing, while someone else may have an argument that is ultimately more convincing than yours. Therefore, it is especially important to listen carefully when others criticize your argument and avoid getting locked into defending your own position when the evidence tilts against you. In short, it is important to be thoughtful.
… The index is designed to measure the amount of hubris and humility packed into any individual. To get a high score on the hubris-humility index, which is desirable, it is essential to have large quotients of both hubris and humility. If an individual has an abundance of one quality, but a shortage of the other, then he or she gets a low score. A lot of hubris cannot compensate for a lack of humility, and vice versa. In short, you need hubris and humility if you are to be a first-rate thinker….
… For example, if you are a doctor, you will frequently be called upon to offer your opinion on what ails the patient. The available information or evidence about the patient’s ills will sometimes allow for different diagnoses. You will have to offer your own assessment and then listen carefully to different assessments by other doctors. Since doctors sometimes deal with life and death situations, it takes real hubris to make judgements [sic] that might be the wrong ones, which is why it is important to be humble as well as bold.[ii]
While biblical broadsides against hubris and doxologies in celebration of humility offer tried and true principles, especially in wisdom literature like Proverbs 30, there exists in the life of individuals and communities the practical need to balance the two for success. On a very pragmatic level, something the book of Proverbs embeds and exudes, without boldness and the pride of accomplishment, very little of value gets done. On the other hand, without humility, openness, and some self-doubt, very little gets done well.
[ii] The University of Chicago | The College
Aims of Education Address 1997, September 23
Presented by: John J. Mearsheimer. R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science, Co-Director of the Program on International Security Policy
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/6706