Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Progress, Hubris, and Humility

Dear Reader,

It was as a student of evolution that I first remember articulating the myth of progress. I thought it was true, as most people do, that history, or evolution, or something about the human condition was like a child growing up and getting better, a linear progression from worse to better.

We believe medicine is better today, that we live longer, that we are better educated, that we are more enlightened, less racist, less sexist, more free--in short, better in most ways than our ancestors. We believe mammals are more "advanced" than fish, which in turn are more "advanced" than worms, which are more "advanced" than bacteria. We believe creating a nuclear power plant is a greater accomplishment than knitting a really comfortable, warm sweater. We believe someday we will fly through space in great ships, and we believe that will be better than living on Earth. In one field of study or belief after another, we strive to organize the entire world into a hierarchy with ourselves and our dreams on top. This myth of progress serves us by appealing to something essential to human nature, one of its defining characteristics, a state we find ourselves in all the time, unconsciously.

This is a state of perpetual defensive hubris, of overweening pride. Why does everything have to proclaim our greatness? Why do we work so hard to stack the deck in our own favor? Why isn't it enough to strive to be good? Why do we insist everything demonstrate that we are the best, that others are worse? Why are we so insecure? Why aren't we willing to work to be great? Why do we look for these cheats of definition to demonstrate we are great without our having to work for it? Why are we so lazy?

Heraclitus wrote that it was more important to extinguish hubris than to extinguish a fire. That is, hubris is so terrible it constitutes a life-threatening emergency.

History shows he was not overstating the case. Faith in the superiority of the Aryan race over the Jewish (and heterosexuals over homosexuals, and Catholics over Jehovah's Witnesses, and fascists over communists, and so on against all the other target groups history unfairly erases from the Holocaust) was used to justify the mass exterminations by the Nazis. Faith in the superiority of human industry over nature was used to justify the Soviet destruction of their own ecology--and all industrialized countries fall prey to the same myth to varying extents. Faith in all kinds of superiority was used to justify European theft of land from the Native Americans. The history of our efforts to define ourselves as superior in order to justify the crimes we want to carry out goes on and on, our own mirror relentlessly reflecting back to us the source of our own problems. We must acknowledge the pervasiveness of this self-promoting self-deceit, and the universal tendency of the human species to fall prey to it; it appears to be one of our most essential defining characteristics, since we all fall prey to it.

In making this criticism of human nature, I am not arguing for nihilism--the belief that nothing matters. There is meaning in the cosmos; all things are not relative and all people are not equal. Hubris is not the belief that some things are better than others. Hubris is more pride than is warranted by the truth, pride out of balance with reality, unearned pride, pride for its own sake.

The proper level of pride is not its opposite, overweening shame; nor its negation, nihilism/relativism/scientism; but simple humility. We can take pride in our simple successes without inflating their significance to ourselves or others. Just because so many others can lift more weight than you does not mean you should not take pride when you can lift another five pounds than you could before. Humility is the harmony between your estimation of you and yours with the truth about you and yours.

Likewise, we must beware of hubris by association, the borrowed pride of "We're Number One!" It is every bit as irrationally arrogant to lie about some organization with which we associate in order to puff ourselves up by association with it. The hubristic human ego is cunning, and will happily disparage itself to hide under false humility as long as it can puff up someone or something else and then cuddle up close to it, basking in its borrowed false pride. Jingoistic flag-waving and fanatical boosterism are just hubris by proxy, as far from true patriotism as hubris is from humility.

We can strive for excellence without giving in to hubris. The solution to the quest to become the best at something is not to short-circuit the work by claiming victory at the outset, nor even at the end. The point of excellence is not some trophy or acclaim or finish line or record, but rather the effort to improve, and the gradual ongoing improvement, and the humility that comes from putting ourselves into proper context with the world, learning about what is truly better or worse in some way. In that quest to better ourselves, our families, our neighborhoods, our countries, our species, our world, in that quest to leave things better than we find them, we must be ever vigilant against the myth of progress and other ploys of one of our true enemies in life--the hubris of our own grasping egos.

The more fully we resist our own hubris to embrace proper humility, the more we tune ourselves to the hidden harmony of the cosmos.

Yours truly,

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