August 17, 2012

“Leucocephalus” Phil Hansten

What we can’t think about: genuine humility is not just a becoming human trait… it is necessary for rational thought.

Composer and comedian Oscar Levant once said, “What the world needs is more geniuses with humility; there are so few of us left.” Levant died just before “Denial of Death” was published, so he could not have been talking about Ernest Becker… but Becker clearly fits the bill.

Becker’s intellectual humility permeates his work. In the preface to Escape From Evil he said, “As in most of my other work, I have reached far beyond my competence and have probably secured for good a reputation for flamboyant gestures.” Becker also repeatedly and graciously expressed his intellectual debt to thinkers such as Otto Rank, Norman O. Brown, and Robert Jay Lifton. The irony, of course, is that Becker himself was arguably one of the most important thinkers in modern times, yet he was regularly shining the spotlight on others.

Sages throughout the ages have recognized that intellectual humility is required for wisdom. Socrates, of course, knew that he knew nothing, but many of the deepest thinkers since Socrates have expressed similar views. Montaigne’s famous motto was “What do I know?” and yet Montaigne—like Becker—was enormously learned. Becker and Montaigne (along with Nietzsche) are my intellectual heroes; one cannot read their works without sustaining a permanent change in how one thinks. (Keep in mind that we are talking intellectual humility here; one need not go to the lengths of Montaigne, who observed that the women sometimes criticized his performance in bed!)

Blaise Pascal didn’t think much of Montaigne’s lack of piety, but he agreed with him on the importance of intellectual humility. Pascal observed that we all start life in ignorance, but a few “noble souls” explore, learn, and think, eventually reaching the point of “wise ignorance”… that is, such people are self-aware enough to understand what they do know (a little), and what they don’t know (much). Most of us, however, reverse this; we learn only a little and yet imagine that we know much. Most pundits, politicians, and our growing cadre of plutocrats fall into this category, and they are the ones who, according to Pascal, “upset the world.” Pascal should see how they are messing up the world today!

But what about Nietzsche, you ask? The man was certainly a genius, and yet the chapters in his last book Ecce Homo, written in his Turin apartment before his breakdown, include Why I Am so Wise, Why I Am So Clever, Why I Write Such Good Books, and Why I Am a Destiny. (True!) But I won’t give you that as an exception because Nietzsche, as usual, was trying to be a provocateur. Some Nietzsche scholars feel Ecce Homo was actually an exercise in philosophical humility for Nietzsche, but at the very least he was being ironic.

In his long poem The Task, William Cowper beautifully captures the point of intellectual humility.

Knowledge and wisdom, far from being one,
Have ofttimes no connection. Knowledge dwells
In heads replete with the thoughts of other men;
Wisdom in minds attentive to their own.
Knowledge, a rude unprofitable mass,
The mere materials with which wisdom builds,
Till smoothed and squared and fitted to its place,
Does but encumber whom it seems to enrich.
Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much,
Wisdom is humble that he knows no more.

Knowing what you don’t know is critical to rational thought and reasoned discussion, yet we humans are inclined to vastly overestimate our understanding of the world. Yogi Berra certainly had intellectual humility, and perhaps he got it right when he said, “It ain’t the heat, it’s the humility.”



  1. …”Knowing what you don’t know is critical to rational thought and reasoned discussion, yet we humans are inclined to vastly overestimate our understanding of the world.”…

    Certainly. Isn’t that how we construct a reality to inhabit?

    I understand the attractiveness of humility because nobody likes a know it all, they make us feel like something the cat dragged in and that is irritating. “Intellectual humility” in a person is a kind of friendly thing and we like it. But we have to act. Realizing that we don’t know jack-shit and keeping that realization alive and well into old age may be what wisdom is about, but, you can’t make nothing out of nothing. Surely there can be something good said about “upsetting the world”. There doesn’t seem to be much point in acquiring knowledge if one isn’t to use it, all the while keeping the air around you thick with philosophical humility, of course.

    • I agree. Knowing when one has reached “the threshold for action” is crucial, and it is one of the the issues that I bring up with my students regularly. As John Locke said, “It is not possible to achieve certainty in our knowledge of the empirical world, but we can deviase workable approximations and act on them.” The problem with people without intellectual humility is that they often act on what they imagine to be true, rather than what the empirical scientific evidence actually suggests.

      • I can’t argue with that Philip Hansten.

        To clear it up for me a little more, are you suggesting that religious people, with “paranormal beliefs”, who find themselves diametrically at odds with “empirical scientific evidence” have abandoned all hope of cultivating “intellectual humility”? And, isn’t that almost everybody?

  2. Well, I think you are correct that we all–no matter what our scientific background or religious beliefs–have trouble cultivating intellectual humility. That’s why I am so fond of people like Montaigne and Becker, because compared to me they were smarter, more learned and insightful, and yet… were genuinely humble!

    • Compared to me too!

      It’s hard for me to come up with anything more delightful in a person than humility. Thank you for a very nice discussion.

  3. Phil,

    I’m a little late getting to your essay (been on the road). I enjoyed it. I sometimes think that the two cardinal virtues are courage and humility. Put them together and you have, say, a Socrates or a Montaigne. We admire physical courage, but, as Yeats says, sometimes it takes more courage to face the dark and terrifying truth of the human predicament.

    Courageous men like Becker, who dive deep into the ocean of Terrifying Knowlege understand, it seems to me, that an individual person, compared to the mysterium tremendum, is hardly fit to manifest any kind of intellectual arrogance.

    What comes to my mind for some reason is Yalom’s book “Staring At the Sun.” I am referring specifically to Yalom’s words on the deaths of his two mentors. We are, all of us, dying animals. One who understands this, knows it in his marrow, is inclined to face the world with humility, not so much in his day-to-day encounters with others (this person my not tolerate fools easily), but in that haunted mansion of the self where the specter of singular self-consciousness lurks.

    I’d add that anyone who knows anything about Oscar Levant will recognize that his comment intimating that he is one of a few humble geniuses is pure irony.

    Swell essay. Good comments too. The civility of the exchange touched me. It’s how we members of the EBF should talk to one another.


    • Bruce,

      Thanks so much for the insights and the kind comments! I had not previously thought much about how courageous Becker was, but you are right… he had both of your cardinal virtues of courage and humility. (I agree that these are at the top of the virtue list, perhaps along with honesty.)

      And Oscar Levant instantly became one of my favorite people when I read up on him for this essay. A tortured genius who struck terror into the hearts of TV censors everywhere! And I envy people like Levant who can come up with the witty riposte instantly, because it usually takes me hours or days to come up with mine. And by that time the intended recipient of my clever comment is long gone!

      Take care,

  4. Phil,

    I meant to mention it in my earlier post, but I forgot: apropos Nietzsche, you may want to read, if you haven’t already, Leslie Chamberlain’s “Nietzsche in Turin.” It’s an account of Nietzsche’s last days, or, I should say, those days before he went insane on that January day in 1889. It’s all so strange. We all know how he threw himself upon a horse being flogged, cried out at the barbarity of this beating of an animal. He then passed out. When he came to, he was mad. One short sleep and his mind was gone.

    We know he’d linger for about eleven years trapped in madness. I think we members of the EBF find it terrifying, and existentially absurd, that perhaps the greatest mind of the nineteenth century was destroyed by a spirochete. How easily the symbolic man, the fragile thing clinging to the illusion of character, can be erased by nature. When we ask, “Who am I? or “What am I for?” Nietzsche’s fate obliterates any comforting answer. We are all one bug bite away from madness, not to mention death.

    You will remember in “DoD” that Becker, in his chapter “The Recasting of Some Basic Psychoanalytic Ideas” quotes two lines from Swift’s poem about the young man losing his “wits” because the sees what is deposited in Caelia’s chamber pot (p. 33 in my edition). The young man is torn with contradiction between beauty and bodily functions.

    I’d say that the strongest Beckerian, the one who can reconcile the beauty of a woman with her animal functions, is really more appalled when he applies Becker’s (or Brown’s) theory of anality (I am talking here of a contradiction so strong we can hardly cope with it) with what he sees deposited in the bed where Nietzsche lies in complete and utter madness. Think of having to behold this sight! My God, we all must tremble and fear the fall of night.

    I might add that Chamberlain’s book is relatively short, extremely well-written and informative, blessedly free of any clotted and convoluted academic prose.


    • Bruce,

      Beautifully put. Yes, the account of Nietzsche trying to protect the horse who was being beaten always brings tears to my eyes. How fitting that this most misunderstood of men should spend his final sane moments trying to help a defenseless animal.

      And I loved Chamberlain’s book, which I read a couple years ago before making a side trip Turin to find Nietzsche’s old apartment… which was not an easy task, by the way! Julian Young’s recent “Friedrich Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography” is also a great read. Young does a remarkable job of combining Nietzsche’s philosophy with what was happening to him at the time he wrote each of his books.

      I share your feelings about what it must have been like to see this man of incomparable genius lying in his bed, and wasting away in a state of total madness. As I mentioned, Nietzsche, Becker, and Montaigne (and the Stoics) have had a profound influence on my life… not just my intellectual life, but life in general. By the way, if you have a really strong stomach and 15 minutes to completely waste, I describe the practical ways that Nietzsche has affected my life in the following YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWEsIF7yk_4

      Best, Phil

      • Phil,

        Quite the contrary, Phil, I didn’t find your commencement address a “waste” at all. Frankly, I think it’s best commencement address I’ve ever heard. God knows, I’ve heard enough inane ones. I enjoyed it immensely, and so did my wife, who watched it over my shoulder while it played on Youtube. I confess my dog slept through it.

        If it’s not I being the waster of time, I’d like to add just a bit on what you said about the “tragic sense of life.” You are right on target with what you said. You and I know the word “tragedy is often misused. It’s not tragic if it rains on the day of our picnic. A hurricane hitting the coast is not a tragedy. Nixon’s disgrace in office is not a tragedy.

        Tragedy, and I’m no expert on the term, seems to me to mean either a profound kind of contradiction or an almost cataclysmic reversal. Tragedy, then, would be, would it not, the symbolic person’s understanding, beyond doubt, that he or she is a mere animal, food for worms, and yet all the time the symbolic person, even knowing the truth, cannot erase itself (can we ever dismiss our symbolic self?), and having to live with this terrible contradiction (my character is not a character at all; it is an illusion) is the tragedy of life: the creature who can imagine himself or herself a creature next to the angels, greater than angels since angels don’t make art, is merely food for worms, of no more importance to the great grinding mindless process of the universe than is a senseless clod.

        It’s a tragedy when a blind Oedipus must tap his way with a stick. What a reversal. Lear dying with dead Cordelia in his arms. What a reversal.

        You will remember that when Nietzsche’s companions came toTurin to take him, I think, to Basel, the madman would not leave unless he could wear his landlord’s nightcap. The greatest mind of the nineteenth century, a man of unparalled taste and insight, was ushered to the train station wearing what in essence was the hat of a harlequin. On the train, I seem to recall, he sang and shouted, that silly hat perched upon that noble head now brought to ruin, those bright eyes now stagnant, lost in foul pools of insanity. I think of what Macduff says when he finds out Macbeth has slaughtered his entire family: “Did heaven look on / And would not take their part?” Could God look upon this mockey of Nietzsche and not feel shame? Oh, we know that answer. It’s not even germane, is it? No matter, I hurl it at the heavens right now!

        You’re right: one can do nothing at this sight but sit down and weep. Behold the tragedy of Nietzsche. Behold the tragedy of the self-conscious animal. It’s oxymornic, but we bear the unbearable, but if Becker is right we can find a cosmic heroism in facing the anxiety of the meaningless of the universe, finding meaning, beauty, and purpose. As you said, out of the tragic sense of life comes the reason to sing the sun up and to endure stoically it’s setting. It is to step into the fleeting quotidian of life, to ride bavely and courageously the inexorable torrent of time cascading us into nothingness.

        “The rest is silence”–Hamlet’s last words.


      • Bruce,

        Thanks for the kind comments. I was absolutely petrified to be giving that commencement address, so I worked on it for many months!

        We are of like mind regarding the role of tragedy in human existence and the importance of reversal to tragedy. The fundamental tragedy of existence–the ultimate reversal–as you said, is that we are basically food for worms. I suspect that this is why you and I (and others) find Becker’s writings so compelling. Nietzsche, as you said, fits this reversal definition of tragedy perfectly… from towering genius to babbling madman in but a moment.

        What first attracted me to Nietzsche were his insights on the absolute necessity of suffering to a flourishing human life. I was in my 40s and was going through profound suffering in my life when I discovered Nietzsche’s writings. Nietzsche found, in your words, “meaning, beauty, and purpose” despite betrayals, loneliness, and almost unbearable physical afflictions. It is truly astonishing.

        At the very end of “The Myth of Sisyphus” Camus describes Sisyphus returning to his rock, and says, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

        By the way, given the election season, I re-read Camus’s short essay “The Artist and His Time.” In it, Camus explains why he did not retire to the ivory tower, but rather concerned himself with “The miner who is exploited or shot down, the slaves in the camps, those in the colonies, the legions of persecuted throughout the world…”

        Camus goes on to observe that we are all connected, and that he was constitutionally unable to ignore the oppressed, not because he had superior moral sensibilities, but because he simply couldn’t endure it: “Not through virtue, as you see, but through a sort of almost organic intolerance, which you feel or do not feel. Indeed, I see many who fail to feel it, but I cannot envy their sleep.”


  5. This is one of the best posts and series of exchanges I have read on here in a while. Thanks!

    • You are very kind, Brad… I appreciate it! (And I agree that the comments people made in response to this post were outstanding.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: