It was during an English class for new immigrants I was helping teach at a local charity when the idea first occurred to me that wisdom and humility, though certainly perceived by most people as separate attributes, were possibly one and the same thing, or at least, very closely related.
A Chinese woman in the class had overheard a conversation at work where a coworker had described someone as being very “humble”. She didn’t know what humble meant, and so when she got home, asked her ten-year-old daughter, who, like so many children of first-generation immigrants, spoke much better English than she, what “humble” meant. Her daughter didn’t miss a beat, explaining that it described someone who was wise.
As I assume the other teacher did, I chuckled to myself at the child’s naivete. Humble, I initially thought, doesn’t mean that one is wise. Humble is just an attribute wise people possess. How could someone be wise and not be humble? But then I thought, could someone be humble and not be wise?
The more I considered it, the more it seemed that the two words describe much the same phenomenon, as if each term comprises a set completely overlapping the other. Though it felt as if wisdom and humility were not identical, I could not imagine a case where one appeared without the other.
So then, I turned to the dictionary (American Heritage, 4th ed.), a sometimes authoritative voice for the actual meanings of words. Under humble I found “Marked by meekness or modesty in behavior, attitude or spirit; not arrogant or prideful; or, Showing deferential or submissive respect; or, Low in rank, quality or station; unpretentious or lowly.”
And for wisdom I found “The ability to discern or judge what is true, right or lasting; or, Common sense, good judgment; or, The sum of learning through the ages; knowledge; or, Wise teachings of ancient sages; or, A wise outlook, plan or course of action.”
It seemed the dictionary had no trouble distinguishing the two terms. But the dictionary is not describing the words as they would be used to describe the character of a human being in the vernacular with which human beings are described by others. In other words, the real meanings that words are used to convey are sometimes captured in dictionary definitions, sometimes not, as my attempts to teach people who don’t speak English are rapidly revealing. The question stood: Can someone be described as humble who is not also wise?
Wisdom has something to do with intelligence. It would be hard to know and understand the wisest course of action without the ability to perceive and grasp all the available options and their potential ramifications, assigning a probability to each. It takes some reasonable intellectual heft in order to do wisely assess a situation, but intellect alone will not suffice, not even quantifiably brilliant intellect. In fact, slow-witted intellect grounded in experience might be better than high IQ intellect. But there still has to be something more. And what is that “something more” that is most critical to possess in order that one be wise? It is humility. It is knowing the limits of one’s knowledge. It is knowing where knowledge ends and speculation begins, which is why wisdom might more likely be found in an intellect grounded in experience than one of a quicker caliber. If nothing else, experience has the tendency to humble.
The Oracle at Delphi claimed that Socrates was the wisest man in Athens because Socrates knew how little he knew and understood. In other words, Socrates was the wisest man in Athens because he was also its most humble.
Humility, when not seen as subservience, which is in any case false humility, but humility in knowing and understanding and accepting the limits of one’s abilities, cannot be possessed without wisdom. It takes wisdom to understand what is and isn’t possible, to understand the limits of one’s abilities. So the answer to the question of whether a person can be humble without being wise is “no”. Wisdom and humility are inseparable.
David Hume represents the far extreme of humility when it comes to what can and can’t be known about causation. He observed that just because two phenomena appear together, and even if they always appear together, all that can be conclusively surmised about the two phenomena is that their appearances are correlated. We can’t know for sure whether one phenomenon causes the other, or vice versa. Hume’s view on the capacity for certainty in causation is humble in the extreme.
As just reasoned, wisdom and humility can never singly appear as character attributes. When one appears, the other is always present. But Hume would say that even if true, we can’t conclude with certainty anything about a causative relationship between the two. And in this case, Hume’s humility seems poignant. Wisdom doesn’t cause humility and humility doesn’t cause wisdom, but both are the product of a psychically adult human mind having surveyed the experiential landscape for some time and having thereby surmised that what we know is always puny and insubstantial relative to what we don’t know, and that who we are is always puny and insubstantial to the vastness of the universe. Thus are wisdom and humility indelibly correlated in a person who has lived and learned enough to become a psychically human adult.
You see, it’s all quite simple really—an eleven-year-old first generation American immigrant could understand it. Wisdom and humility are the flip sides of the coin of maturity.