What we can’t think about: genuine humility is not just a becoming human trait… it is necessary for rational thought.
Composer and comedian Oscar Levant once said, “What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left.” Levant died just before “Denial of Death” was published, so he could not have been talking about Ernest Becker… but Becker clearly fits the bill.
Becker’s intellectual humility permeates his work. In the preface to Escape From Evil he said, “As in most of my other work, I have reached far beyond my competence and have probably secured for good a reputation for flamboyant gestures.” Becker also repeatedly and graciously expressed his intellectual debt to thinkers such as Otto Rank, Norman O. Brown, and Robert Jay Lifton. The irony, of course, is that Becker himself was arguably one of the most important thinkers in modern times, yet he was regularly shining the spotlight on others.
Sages throughout the ages have recognized that intellectual humility is required for wisdom. Socrates, of course, knew that he knew nothing, but many of the deepest thinkers since Socrates have expressed similar views. Montaigne’s famous motto was “What do I know?” and yet Montaigne—like Becker—was enormously learned. Becker and Montaigne (along with Nietzsche) are my intellectual heroes; one cannot read their works without sustaining a permanent change in how one thinks. (Keep in mind that we are talking intellectual humility here; one need not go to the lengths of Montaigne, who observed that the women sometimes criticized his performance in bed!)
Blaise Pascal didn’t think much of Montaigne’s lack of piety, but he agreed with him on the importance of intellectual humility. Pascal observed that we all start life in ignorance, but a few “noble souls” explore, learn, and think, eventually reaching the point of “wise ignorance”… that is, such people are self-aware enough to understand what they do know (a little), and what they don’t know (much). Most of us, however, reverse this; we learn only a little and yet imagine that we know much. Most pundits, politicians, and our growing cadre of plutocrats fall into this category, and they are the ones who, according to Pascal, “upset the world.” Pascal should see how they are messing up the world today!
But what about Nietzsche, you ask? The man was certainly a genius, and yet the chapters in his last book Ecce Homo, written in his Turin apartment before his breakdown, include Why I Am so Wise, Why I Am So Clever, Why I Write Such Good Books, and Why I Am a Destiny. (True!) But I won’t give you that as an exception because Nietzsche, as usual, was trying to be a provocateur. Some Nietzsche scholars feel Ecce Homo was actually an exercise in philosophical humility for Nietzsche, but at the very least he was being ironic.
In his long poem The Task, William Cowper beautifully captures the point of intellectual humility.
Knowledge and wisdom, far from being one,
Have ofttimes no connection. Knowledge dwells
In heads replete with the thoughts of other men;
Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.
Knowledge, a rude unprofitable mass,
The mere materials with which wisdom builds,
Till smoothed and squared and fitted to its place,
Does but encumber whom it seems to enrich.
Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much,
Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.
Knowing what you don’t know is critical to rational thought and reasoned discussion, yet we humans are inclined to vastly overestimate our understanding of the world. Yogi Berra certainly had intellectual humility, and perhaps he got it right when he said, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”