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The Essence of Humility | Basic Tenets of Jewish Philosophy

Baruch Spinoza wrote in his book of ethics (volume 4, pages 53-54) that in spite of the fact that the people of the world think humility is a good thing, it is really bad because it is an emotion of the soul, which is saddened by its failures. Therefore, in his opinion, wise men should not show any humility. On the other hand, he feels that it is good to continue to teach the ignorant masses which are drawn to follow their lusts to show humility, because that is the best way to get them to accept the words of the wise men, with humility. One the other hand, Spinoza is very much opposed to pride (page 55), which he defines as when a man does not know his true status.

Spinoza’s approach is diametrically opposed to the Torah outlook, which praises the master of all prophets as “more humble than any other man on the face of the earth” [Numbers 12:3].

There must be some substantive theological reason for this difference between the impure and the pure, which can be attributed to the general world outlook of Spinoza, who has a reputation of being a master of ethics. Evidently his rejection of humility stems from his refusal to accept the Divine unique trait, the transcendental aspect of the Creator. Since according to Spinoza’s approach G-d is essentially nature, in the end man himself is a deity, and he is therefore not required to belittle himself in deference to anybody else. According to this approach, humility is nothing more than weakness. As opposed to this outlook, those who really know G-d and understand the absolute gap between the infinite deity and the world achieve an exalted type of humility which leads them to an uplifting, and the result is a joyful attachment through a light which is beyond their apprehension.

These considerations can help us solve a dilemma in Ramchal’s book, Messilat Yesharim. Ramchal first notes that it is necessary to condemn pride in the earliest stages of improving behavior. However, in the details of the trait of “cleanliness” (Chapter 11), which is a necessary trait for a person to fulfill his obligation to become righteous (beginning of Chapter 13), he delays the explanation of the essence of humility until much more advanced stages of ethical development (Chapters 22, 23). This is because it is not possible to achieve real humility without first gaining an understanding of G-d, which can be learned only upon reaching a state of righteousness. If I truly know G-d it follows as a matter of course that I will be filled with humility towards Him. This is not simply a rejection of the foolishness of pride but rather a clear recognition of the status of humanity, which has nothing other than what G-d has given it.

Based on these considerations, it is clear why the Rambam views the concept of humility in a different way than Muhammad Al-Farabi, a renowned Arab philosopher, although the Rambam usually accepts his outlook on the soul. Al-Farabi feels that as for other traits the proper way is the middle road, not to take an extreme position. However, when the Rambam gives practical advice about humility he advises an extreme approach – that is, complete humility. And this is the difference between Yisrael and the other nations.

Source: “THE ROOTS OF FAITH: Basic Tenets of Jewish Philosophy” – a biweekly column in Shabbat B’Shabbato (Zomet Institute). See: – Va’eira 5777, issue 1658.

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