View of basalt stack Hvitserkur at Vatnsnes peninsula

A few months ago I participated in a conference centered on the theme of humility at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. And ever since I have been thinking a lot about humility, its nature as a virtue, its problematic tendencies. One the one hand I do feel, as I’m sure a lot of us do, that humility is rather under-valued—not to mention difficult to find—in American life today. On the other hand I suppose I am enough of a Nietzschean to feel that there is something a bit off-putting about this alleged virtue. (Or perhaps a Humean – it was Hume, after all, who famously disparaged humility as a “monkish virtue.”)  Doesn’t humility involve putting ourselves down? Doesn’t it conflict with pride, and with confidence, both of which, surely, do have some positive value, at least when appropriately felt and expressed? Moreover, doesn’t humility involve pretending to think worse of ourselves than we really do, thus committing us to dishonesty and insincerity?


Perhaps I find humility particularly perplexing because the first person I think of when I think about humility is Socrates, and in particular the Socrates of Plato’s Apology. The Apology, as I read it, is all about humility, and in particular about intellectual humility. Of course, it is also about courage. Socrates displays a magnificent courage throughout that dialogue; he stands firm against his accusers, indeed he achieves a majestic role reversal, becoming the accuser of his accusers, putting on trial those who have brought him to trial. He so mercilessly goads the Athenian jury that he practically forces them not only to convict him but to condemn him to death, even as it is obvious that there were a great many things he could have done—falling on his knees and begging for mercy, promising never to practice philosophy again, proposing exile as a penalty during the sentencing phase—that would have saved his life. Socrates’ own explanation of his courage—and this, really, is the heart of the Apology—is that it is grounded in humility. He does not fear death, because he is humble enough not to pretend to know what he does not know; not knowing what death is, or whether it is a good or a bad thing, he thinks it not only unreasonable but unvirtuous to fear it. (He shows his humility in other ways, too. In particular, contrary to the claims of his accusers, he refrains from asserting grand metaphysical claims about the nature of the universe and such. How would he know such things? In this, it is worth noting, he differs greatly from the Socrates of Plato’s later dialogues, who—serving as Plato’s mouthpiece—is happy to assert sweeping and speculative metaphysical positions.)


Socrates’ complaints against his accusers, and indeed against the Athenians in general, are more than anything else directed toward their lack of humility, their insistence that they understand things they clearly do not understand. Socrates has spent his life exposing such pretenders (and thereby made a lot of enemies). He points out that the Athenians as a whole spend little time or energy on self-reflection, let alone self-criticism. They have settled for a deeply inadequate theory of the good life, one that focuses on reputation and worldly wealth and neglects both inquiry and virtue. They act as if they possess a fully adequate understanding what it was to live a good human life; yet—as is so easily demonstrated—they have given barely any thought to that matter at all, and all they have to offer on the subject are banal clichés.


The thing is, though, that the Socrates of Plato’s Apology does not strike us as a humble man. He is prideful. Indeed, he is arrogant. He goads the Athenians, and he looks down on them. He tells them that no one has served the city as well as he, that they will likely never find a man as good as him to replace him, that a fitting “punishment” for his lifetime of service to Athens would be to be feted in the Prytaneum. His so-called “human wisdom” consists in his knowing how little he knows; but he accepts the claim of the Oracle at Delphi that, precisely because he knows how little he knows, he is the wisest man in Athens. And it is clear both that he takes great pride in this and that he holds his fellow Athenians in a certain degree of contempt.


I find this combination of humility and arrogance—a combination where the two seem not merely to exist side by side (human beings are complex, as we know, and can contain multitudes), but to be intimately linked—quite fascinating. And every once in a while I come across another example of what seems to me the same combination. Nietzsche, at times, seems to exhibit it. My favorite contemporary example is the novelist John Banville. In an interview with the Paris Review,[1]  Banville was asked, “Do you really hate your own novels?.” He responded, “Yes! I hate them. I mean that. Nobody believes me, but it’s true. They’re an embarrassment and a deep source of shame. They’re better than everybody else’s, of course, but not good enough for me.”


Perhaps Banville was simply making a joke. I don’t think so. I think he meant what he said, that while he was probably exaggerating a bit for effect—I am not convinced that Banville truly believes his novels are better than those of any other contemporary writer—he was being, for the most part, sincere. I would say, too, that he is one of the few contemporary writers who could get away with saying such a thing. He is a brilliant writer. And it matters, in this context, that he is a brilliant writer, because the remark, made by any lesser artist, would not mean the same thing and would not be interesting at all. It would be an expression of misguided arrogance, and nothing more. Whereas, coming from John Banville, the statement seems to represent something quite different: a sincere attempt to come to grips with the recognition that a given body of work might simultaneously be, on the one hand, among the best that is being produced, and on the other hand, deeply disappointing.


But isn’t it arrogant to be disappointed in what one acknowledges to be the best there is, to hold oneself up to inhuman, godlike standards? Isn’t this, in itself, really just an indirect way of complimenting oneself, of saying, I believe myself to be capable of such greatness that I hold myself to standards the rest of you could not possibly aspire to, perhaps could not even conceive. When Banville says that his novels are “not good enough for me,” the clear implication is that they would be good enough for the rest of us—isn’t it?


Perhaps, though, this is to focus in the wrong place. Perhaps Banville’s dissatisfaction with his own work is not so much a reflection of his view of his own capabilities, but rather a principled dissatisfaction, the kind of determination that moves even the greatest artists—and, perhaps, the most admirable moral saints—to be unsatisfied with what they have done, no matter how impressive it is. Perhaps it is what moves them to keep trying to achieve on a completely different, even unprecedented level. (Many notable altruists, too, have been profoundly dissatisfied with their contributions to the world, despite the fact that they have sacrificed and accomplished far more than the rest of us.) Viewing things from this angle may encourage us to adjust the way we think about humility, to think of it as being naturally and directly opposed not so much to pride, or even arrogance, but rather to complacency. We might take a view, that is, that resists defining humility as having a low assessment of oneself and one’s abilities, or anything of the sort, but rather equates it with a tendency to be, as a matter of principle, perpetually unsatisfied with oneself and one’s abilities, and to be committed to developing and improving them.


One way to fail to be humble, then is to be fully satisfied, to the point of complacency, with oneself as one is: to feel that one has achieved enough, has contributed enough, has achieved a sufficiently comprehensive and sophisticated understanding of the world, etc. (This, again, is the failing Socrates sees everywhere around him in Athens; if we look, we may find it everywhere around us, and inside us, as well.) Exhibiting this kind of humility seems fully compatible with holding a realistic assessment of one’s own achievements—even if you happen to be a genius or a saint, a John Banville or a Socrates. It does not require arrogance; it may, indeed, undermine arrogance, and whether or not it does so it will surely help prevent one of arrogance’s most harmful effects, which is to encourage us to so love ourselves as we are that we become reluctant to admit that we might sometimes be wrong or that it is possible for us to improve and important that we do.


As someone who works in higher education, thinking about humility in this way not only helps me appreciate its value, it helps me appreciate how endangered it is in our current cultural environment. Students need a sense of the world’s vastness and complexity, a sense of how much there is for them to learn, if they are to prosper in university. Without this sense they will miss the fact that university is a site for exploration, a place that offers myriad possibilities for becoming a fuller, more complete person, and a place at which their goals and desires can not only be sharpened and deepened, but altogether altered, perhaps even discarded in favor of new and better goals and desires. But the dominant model of education, and of American life, does not encourage such a sense. Rather, students often arrive at university with a set of pre-established goals they are rigidly committed to, deeply inclined to discount the possibility that they might learn there something that will reshape their sense of who they are and what they might want out of life. Approaching the university as consumers—which is how today’s university administrators for the most part seem to think of them—they are seeking not self-improvement or self-development, but a well-defined product to fit into a pre-defined and often shallowly conceived slot.


Many incoming university students, moreover, tend to have absorbed an attitude of radical egalitarian neutrality that has led them to think not only that everything they might study and pursue at university is equally valuable (so long, that is, as it contributes to their career goals) but also that all views and opinions are equally valid, regardless of why one accepts them or what one has to offer in support of them. Indeed, a great many people in our society suffer from this, both inside and outside the university. It is difficult for people who have accepted such attitudes to believe that they have anything to learn at university – or, for that matter, anything to learn from open conversations with their fellow citizens, or by reading newspapers whose viewpoints they are not guaranteed already to agree with. It is difficult, in such an environment, for people to take seriously the idea that their beliefs, and their ways of forming and evaluating beliefs, might be improved—and, in particular, improved by encounters with people who come from different backgrounds or have different commitments and beliefs. What recognizing this requires is, precisely, a certain sort of of humility. It would be good for us to find ways of teaching and encouraging this kind of humility, because the fact that it is in such short supply is, it seems to me, a major contributor to bleakness of the situation we find ourselves in today.



Troy Jollimore holds a PhD in Philosophy from Princeton and currently teaches at California State University, Chico. He is the author of three books of philosophy, including Love’s Vision and On Loyalty.   He is also the author of three collections of poetry: At Lake Scugog, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry, and Syllabus of Errors.  He has received fellowships from the Stanford Humanities Center, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, and the Guggenheim Foundation.

What To Do With Aggression?

Still from the the film Lord of the Flies.

I’m used to Nietzsche’s provocations. Or so I thought. Recently, having taught the Genealogy of Morals to a class of college sophomores—rereading the text through their fresh eyes—I was struck yet again by Nietzsche’s audacity, his willingness to celebrate dark, even heinous, urges—e.g., “the voluptuous pleasure in doing evil for the pleasure of doing evil, the enjoyment of violation.”[1]


In my youth, such exclamations felt like a recognition of sorts, a philosophical expression to sides of myself I had been taught to feel ashamed of. Even if it wasn’t evil per se that I was craving, it was evil insofar as we define it, as Nietzsche seems to define, as violation for sake of violation. It was the pleasure of transgression—transgression of social norms—that I fancied. When I read Nietzsche, I was left with an ethical, even political question: What should I do with my ingrained aggression towards social expectations (even if—and perhaps because—I was very mostly obedient)?


Not long after Nietzsche’s death, Sigmund Freud claimed a disturbing discovery, one that explained some of the former’s provocations: we are all afflicted by a death instinct, thanatos, which drives us to undo the structures and regulations that civilization, especially our modern civilization, imposes on us. While civilization does its best to suppress aggressions, its success is limited, or rather: it causes these aggressions to burst out in immense spectacles of violence. In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud appeals to the horrors of the First World War as an example, and had he not died in September 1939, he could surely add a few more atrocities to his list.


Freud’s diagnosis of modern Western civilization—not unlike Nietzsche’s—was bleak. To the extent that it can master thanatos, the price is growing misery since it bars modern subjects from playing out in-born instincts. I believe, however, that his theory gives rise to an ethically productive question: Can we fashion our lives, as both individuals and members of social institutions, in a way that offers our aggressions non-destructive outlets?


The idea that we have inclinations at odds with rational and socially constructive conduct is an old one. In a dominant strand of ethical thought, the imperative is to tame, or—to use Freudian parlance—suppress such inclinations. Immanuel Kant, for example, portrayed moral conduct as a constant struggle between rational duty (expressed by the Categorical Imperative) and our bodily inclinations. Reason must constantly guard against such rebellious forces. It is with this in mind, perhaps, that Nietzsche jabs at Kant: “The categorical imperative smells of cruelty.”[2]


Hegel, Kant’s most famous successor, also likes to jab at the apparent Kantian hostility towards the living body, fraught as it is with urges and instincts. “There is nothing degrading about being alive,” he says in the Philosophy of Right, “and we do not have the alternative of existing in a higher spirituality.”[3] I’d like to suggest that Hegel offers both an interesting construal of our seemingly antisocial aggressions—one that prefigures some of Freud’s insights—and a constructive ethical proposal for accommodating them.


Hegel characterizes desire [Begehren] as inherently aggressive; it subjugates the desired object to the demands of the desiring subject and thereby asserts the subject’s freedom vis-à-vis the objective world. When I desire an apple, I see it as nothing but a potential meal; when I consume it, I turn it into my meal; I make this formerly independent object a part of my subjectivity.


Importantly, this drama of desire has a rational purpose; it is a necessary aspect of attaining individual freedom. Unlike Rousseau, Hegel thinks that man is born unfree. We are thoroughly dependent on the world; we need it. Desire is a step away from dependency, a step towards freedom. It is not a passive need but the active satisfaction of need; moreover, it gives a specific shape to our needs. Feeling hungry, I may need food, but I desire an apple—thereby actively shaping my relationship with the world, asserting a degree (even if limited) of independence.


Furthermore, it is our desirous nature that explains, according to Hegel, why we sometimes even destroy what satisfies our needs. In a curious discussion of child development in his Anthropology, Hegel makes a passing comment: “the most rational thing that children can do with their toys is to break them.”[4] While he doesn’t quite explain this claim, his notion of desire could fill in the lacuna. Toys satisfy a toddler’s need at a certain developmental phase, helping him build various skills. But, he must show himself and others that he is not dependent on them; in breaking his toys he attains greater independence.


It is not only objects that satisfy our desire. In fact, desiring subjects can be all the more satisfying, insofar as they are able to acknowledge our superiority; we can read in their eyes their recognition of us as free, or rather—as more free than them.


Think, for example, about the fictional character of Don Juan, the womanizer for whom seduction is a never-ending task, a repetitive assertion of his masculine power.


Such behavior may strike us as unfortunate, and not for moralistic or anti libertine reasons. It hardly seems like a recipe for a good life. After all, the seducer—even the successful one—seems to be a slave of his own desire, perhaps like a toddler reliant on his toys. Hegel would agree. For him, this basic mode of desire—which treats the world, even people, as nothing but an object for proving one’s superiority—must be transcended if we are to attain more enduring and satisfying freedom.


However, I think Hegel’s originality lies in the realization that this mode of aggressive desire is not only a developmental stage, one we can ideally do away with. We need a sphere in which we can assert our superiority over others, a sphere which serves as an outlet for our inherently aggressive desire. This outlet is the peculiarly modern sphere of civil society, the sphere of the market economy.


In the market economy, the individual is concerned with his self-interest only, “and all else means nothing to him.”[5] He struggles for his subsistence and well-being and accumulates personal property, often by competing with others, outwitting and using them in promoting his own ends. Hegel talks about the modern economic sphere in almost animalistic terms, where “particularity indulges itself in all directions as it satisfies its needs, contingent arbitrariness, and subjective caprice.”[6]


This might seem demeaning, as if human society is no better than a jungle. After all, much of ethical thought is concerned with taking us beyond animalistic urges and behaviors. But Hegel’s point is that such transcendence is impossible, it denies essential aspects of who we are as rational animals. Rather than suppress our animality, we are to offer it a socially constructive playground. This stands to benefit society as a whole, insofar as it increases both personal and social wealth and conduces to innovation and progress.


It appears, however, that the market economy requires precisely what Freud associated with modern civilization, namely, strict obedience to a set of shared norms. How can it afford, then, an outlet for antisocial aggressions? I think that a Hegelian answer could appeal to an alleged similarity between the economy and a collective game. On the one hand, a game requires us to recognize the other participants as peers; we all follow the same rules. In this respect, we must go beyond aggression as a developmental phase, namely, we must recognize others as equals, rather than only as potential satisfaction for our desires. On the other hand, by acknowledging others as peers, we are given a space in which we can assert our superiority over them. Only one (or some) of the players can win the game. One aggression, then, is converted into another, socially constructive one.


It was Marx, Hegel’s most influential critic, who gave us reasons to doubt the idea that civil society—or, specifically, the market economy—is a site of individual freedom. It is not, however, because the market economy is a “jungle” (to use a metaphor many critics of capitalism favor), but because Hegel was still blind to the ways in which the capitalist economy was a site of unprecedented control. For very most of its participants, it is hardly a game—let alone a fair game—in which they can assert their individuality. Nevertheless, even if Hegel’s ethical remedy to our cravings for transgression is a poor one, the problematic that he responded to still calls for attention: What to do with aggression?


[1] Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, Essay 2, §5.

[2] Ibid., § 6.

[3] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §123.

[4] Hegel, Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Addition to §396.

[5] Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, §182, Addition.

[6] Ibid., §185.


Gal Katz is a PhD candidate at the Department of Philosophy at Columbia University. His dissertation explores the relationship between individual freedom and modern skepticism in Hegel’s philosophy.


Varieties of Virtue Ethics collection features our scholars

We are very happy to announce a new book that will be of great interest to researchers, students, and general readers concerned with the many contemporary varieties and applications of virtue ethics: Varieties of Virtue Ethics, Edited by David Carr, James Arthur, and Kristján Kristjánsson, from Palgrave Macmillan (December 2016). Edited by two of our Project Scholars, David Carr and Kristján Kristjánsson, both at the University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, the book explores recent developments in ethics of virtue, and includes three essays by scholars of the project Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.


The collection acknowledges the Aristotelian roots of modern virtue ethics, with its emphasis on the moral importance of character, while also recognizing that more recent accounts of virtue have been shaped by many other influences, such as Aquinas, Hume, Nietzsche, Hegel and Marx, and Confucius and Lao-tzu. The authors examine the influence of virtue ethics on disciplines such as psychology, sociology and theology, and also look at the wider public, professional and educational implications of virtue ethics.

Essays in the volume include a chapter by our Virtue project scholars John Haldane, who is the J. Newton Rayzor Sr. Distinguished Chair in Philosophy at Baylor University, on “Virtue Ethics in the Medieval Period;” our Principal Investigator Candace Vogler, the David E. and Clara B. Stern Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago on “Virtue, the Common Good, and Self-Transcendence; ” Robert C. Roberts, Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, and a joint Chair with the Royal Institute of Philosophy, on “Varieties of Virtue Ethics;” and David Carr, Professor Emeritus, University of Edinburgh and Professor of Ethics and Education, University of Birmingham Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues, on “Educating for the Wisdom of Virtue.”

For more information, including the table of contents, visit