Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire

HUMILITY.

Philosophers have inquired, whether humility is a virtue; but virtue or not, every one must agree that nothing is more rare. The Greeks called it “tapeinosis” or “tapeineia.” It is strongly recommended in the fourth book of the “Laws of Plato”: he rejects the proud and would multiply the humble.

Epictetus, in five places, preaches humility: “If thou passest for a person of consequence in the opinion of some people, distrust thyself. No lifting up of thy eye-brows. Be nothing in thine own eyes — if thou seekest to please, thou art lost. Give place to all men; prefer them to thyself; assist them all.” We see by these maxims that never Capuchin went so far as Epictetus.

Some theologians, who had the misfortune to be proud, have pretended that humility cost nothing to Epictetus, who was a slave; and that he was humble by station, as a doctor or a Jesuit may be proud by station.

But what will they say of Marcus Antoninus, who on the throne recommended humility? He places Alexander and his muleteer on the same line. He said that the vanity of pomp is only a bone thrown in the midst of dogs; that to do good, and to patiently hear himself calumniated, constitute the virtue of a king.

Thus the master of the known world recommended humility; but propose humility to a musician, and see how he will laugh at Marcus Aurelius.

Descartes, in his treatise on the “Passions of the Soul,” places humility among their number, who — if we may personify this quality — did not expect to be regarded as a passion. He also distinguishes between virtuous and vicious humility.

But we leave to philosophers more enlightened than ourselves the care of explaining this doctrine, and will confine ourselves to saying, that humility is “the modesty of the soul.”

It is the antidote to pride. Humility could not prevent Rousseau from believing that he knew more of music than those to whom he taught it; but it could induce him to believe that he was not superior to Lulli in recitative.

The reverend father Viret, cordelier, theologian, and preacher, all humble as he is, will always firmly believe that he knows more than those who learn to read and write; but his Christian humility, his modesty of soul, will oblige him to confess in the bottom of his heart that he has written nothing but nonsense. Oh, brothers Nonnotte, Guyon, Pantouillet, vulgar scribblers! be more humble, and always bear in recollection “the modesty of the soul.”

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 18:25