• Abelard’s method made some people nervous because it could work against – or even ignore – humility. One of the most disturbed was Bernard, an early member of the Cistercian order known also today as the Trappists. There is a caricature of Bernard as an enemy of learning. He wasn’t, but what concerned him was an unchecked exploration of knowledge for its own sake or for the glory of the author. Bernard wasn’t anti-intellectual, but he stridently warned that pride could easily take over discussions of topics that should be approached humbly. Was the scholar seeking insight or fame, he asked. Was cleverness outrunning proper limits? Could being inquisitive and speculative lead to trouble for a person’s psyche or soul? Bernard feared so. Abelard disagreed. (View Highlight)
  • The medieval mind had a phrase for this conundrum: learned ignorance. But why would anyone want to be ignorant? Some people think it’s bliss. Charles Darwin noted in the introduction to The Descent of Man (1871) that often people who don’t know much are sure that they do – which is quite dangerous: ‘ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.’ Some people won’t try to learn because they have no desire to be taught. Why? Because they don’t think anyone can tell them anything. That’s hubris, not humility. (View Highlight)
  • The notion of learned ignorance recognises that there’s always something more to learn, which should make even the most accomplished expert humble. If we think we know all there is to know about a topic, we must admit and accept that there will be later developments that can change our minds and fill out the picture all the more. In the early 17th century, Galileo Galilei saw Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons, but in the 1990s the Hubble telescope saw far beyond our solar system. If Galileo declared that he’d seen all there was to be seen, he’d have been a fool. (View Highlight)
  • What is the danger of not being humble and of being sure that we know it all? We can pursue more answers from the past via Al-Ghazālī (c1056-1111), a Persian philosopher and mystic who spent much of his career in what is now Syria, Iraq and Iran. In The Beginning of Guidance, Al-Ghazālī described pride, arrogance and boastfulness as chronic diseases of ‘man’s consideration of himself with the eye of self-glorification and self-importance and his consideration of others with the eye of contempt. The result as regards the tongue is that he says “I…I…”.’ In giving advice, the proud person can be cruel; when he gets advice, he rudely dismisses it. What is Al-Ghazālī’s guidance on how to learn from others? Study with a humble heart and mind. ‘If he is a scholar, you say, “This man has been given what I have not been given and reached what I did not reach, and knows what I am ignorant of; then how shall I be like him?”’ (View Highlight)
  • Thomas Aquinas (c1225-74) split this Gordian knot of knowing and not knowing with his helpful thoughts about pride and humility. Aquinas addressed these topics in several questions in his Summa Theologica within the larger context of virtue and vice, but particularly modesty. He equated moderation with a reproof to zeal, especially when tempering the drive to study with unchecked curiosity. It was Aquinas’s position that humility curbs the notion that we think we can know everything. But he also advises that humility can help us to figure out what we can know using reason, and to understand the stopping point where reason fails. (View Highlight)
  • Pride, on the other hand, pushes your thoughts about yourself and what you know out of proportion and perspective. When it goes way too far, we have hubris, which the ancient Greeks warned against, especially when humans tried to reach up to the gods. As Darwin would note centuries later, Aquinas is concerned that you’re tempted to be overconfident, overblown, and presumptuous: ‘excessive self-confidence is more opposed to humility than lack of confidence is.’ Strutting is dangerous. Aquinas applauds keenly applying an astute mind to a problem but admonishes against thinking that you can ever be a complete expert in that problem. To his credit, he understood this in his own life. Aquinas had a heavenly vision that put him in a stupor and drove him to try to burn all of his writings, which he likened to straw in light of what he’d experienced. He’d seen for himself the benefit of learned ignorance. (View Highlight)
  • To demonstrate this visually, we turn to a German thinker named Nicholas of Cusa (1401-64). In De Docta Ignorantia, or On Learned Ignorance (1440), he offered the image of a polygon drawn inside a circle. Our understanding of a specific topic is represented by the polygon; full knowledge of that topic is the circle. Even if we could enlarge the polygon inside to get as close as possible to the circle that frames it, the polygon would still never be a circle. Our understanding is always finite: we will never know all there is to know about the topic we’re studying. ‘Therefore,’ he writes, ‘it is fitting that we be learned-in-ignorance beyond our understanding, so that (though not grasping the truth precisely as it is) we may at least be led to seeing that there is a precise truth which we cannot now comprehend.’ (View Highlight)
  • If you’re not born humble, are you out of luck? The history of humility says we can learn to be humble, or at least a bit humbler, than we are now. We often say that we want our children to grow up confident and resilient. Humility is a virtue that helps with both of those goals if we dare to practise them. Aristotle said that we are what we repeatedly do. We build character with practice that develops habit. We learn by doing. Words are cheap. Actions are hard, but they reveal character. An openness to humility can be cultivated early, starting when our children are young. Little ones have an admirable open-mindedness that our cynicism buries as we age; we adults need to fight that tendency. (View Highlight)