The great American preacher and social reformer Henry Ward Beecher famously said: “The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one come from a strong will and the other comes from a strong wont”. This could apply equally to the difference between arrogance and humility. Arrogance is about being obdurate and inflexible in one’s own opinions and infallibility; an unyielding ‘wont’. Humility is about recognising one’s limitations and possessing the ability to change one’s stance, a strong ‘will’.
We’re living in an age of unbridled arrogance. From politicians to preachers, business leaders to community figures, there’s a sparsity of modesty and an excess of inflated pride. So many of the leading politicians across the world are characterised by their inflated egos and exaggerated opinions. And it’s like a virus on the internet – all that breathless self-promotion, those opinionated blogs…
So what’s so bad about exaggerating our worth and power? Well, for a start, the Torah and Jewish thinkers see pride or arrogance as the most basic human flaw and the gateway to so much unproductive and harmful behaviour. Isaiah’s satirical piece against the haughty Babylonian tyrant is a telling example:
You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to heaven;
Above the stars of God
I will set my throne on high…
I will make myself like the Most High.”
But you are brought down to Sheol,
To the depths of the Pit.
Those who see you will stare at you,
And ponder over you:
“Is this the man who made the earth tremble,
Who shook kingdoms,
Who made the world like a desert
And overthrew its cities,
Who did not let his prisoners go home?”
(Isaiah – 14:13-19)
These lines are reminiscent of Shelley’s memorable evocation of Ozymandius ‘King of Kings’ whose broken statue and boastful words lie crumbling in the desert sands… They are also an incisive reflection on the presumptuous builders of the Tower of Babel (in this week’s parasha) trying to ascend to heaven.
Further, they’re a warning about the humiliating downfall that usually follows overweening pomposity. Pride does too often precede a fall.
Jewish philosophers and thinkers through the ages were deeply concerned about the pitfalls of excessive pride. They reminded us that Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden because they wanted to be just like God. For the Rambam (Maimonides), while virtue is usually the mean between two extremes, when it comes to arrogance, he cautioned that it is so corrosive that it is better to lean towards the extreme of modesty. The Chassidic teacher Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav contended that God delights when a person’s heart is broken in humility, “The Lord is close to the broken hearted, those crushed in spirit, he delivers” (Psalms 34:19).
Psychotherapist and Professor of Jewish Education, Solomon Schimmel notes that our culture is ambivalent about hubris. We encourage our children to dream of achievement and conquest. We recommend people take pride in their work and achievements; stand tall and proud. Yet we are painfully aware of the inadequacies of our political and social structures and our inability to solve our problems from parenting to drug-dependence, abuse to violence.
The truth is, notwithstanding Rambam, we need to cultivate the balance between self-respect and self-delusion. We need to have self-love (“love your neighbour as yourself”) but not self-infatuation, dignity but not immodesty.
We should also recognise that humility is not about thinking less about ourselves but rather thinking more of others. Humility requires honest and integrity and avoiding the paradoxical temptation of becoming proud of your own modesty! Churchill quipped about how rival Clement Atlee “has much to be modest about”, and columnist George Will wrote that “A nation that constantly worries about its pride should worry… (it uses) foreign policy for psychotherapy”.
Moses was a charismatic and powerful leader, but he was also the most modest of all men. He wielded his power and influence with a deep sense of his own limitations. In an age of arrogance, we need to work even harder at limiting our ambitious egos, at teaching our children and ourselves to walk humbly with our God and quietly with our fellow human beings.