On Pride and Humility

Not that long ago, someone on Curious Cat asked me a pretty good question, and it’s something that’s been sitting with me for a while now:

People constantly complain about ‘baby witches’ and the inefficacy/infantilization of mainstream pop-culture “magic” on Witchblr, but on the other hand, instead of behaving like the mature and levelheaded adults they purport themselves to be, these Super Serious Traditional Ceremonial Magicians tend to be extremely rude, condescending, narcissistic and outright boorish in their treatment of others.

It’s like they’re reenacting outcast goth teen fantasies of being Powerful Darksided Magicians able to kill their enemies in a fingersnap. I mean, is this a prerogative in becoming a devoted and serious practitioner of magick? Because if so, I proudly throw in the towel.

While some questions I can answer on my phone on the go, there are others that I’d rather sit down with at a proper keyboard, think about for a bit, and type up a better thought-out answer than not.  This was one such question, and in reply, I said:

There’s a reason why so many religions prescribe humility as a virtue to be cultivated. And I know that I, myself, can lack it at times, though I try to keep it a focus for myself, too.

No, there’s no prerogative to being a pompous, prideful, supercilious bastard when it comes to magic. But when you have people getting into occult stuff—and it occurs as much with witches as it does with ceremonial magicians, even if ceremonial magicians have a reputation for it—it’s easy to get carried away when we start realizing all the power we now have access to. Fr. Rufus Opus (who at least admits that he’s overly cocky now and then) warns against “Insufferableprickitis” or “Moses-off-the-mount syndrome”, where we finally think that we truly Get It and have all the keys to the power of the Almighty. Even if it’s true, you don’t want that newfound radiance to be so overbearing and annoying that you treat other people like they’re utterly unenlightened and fools for not yet being on their level.

Everyone, no matter what field or hobby or profession or culture, thinks that they’re better than others or that they have a better way of doing something. It’s good to take pride in your accomplishments, whether it’s in software engineering or publishing anthologies of poetry or in plying the forces of the cosmos for theurgy and thaumaturgy, but it’s not okay to disparage or despise others because of those accomplishments.

There’s also an undercurrent of “oh you’re doing this because it’s popular now”, too. Big whoop. Fads come and go. If they’re meant for it, they’ll stick with it, and if not, they won’t, regardless of what mean things are said to them.

Plus, you’re reading stuff on the internet. It’s extraordinarily too common for people to get huffy and enraged and self-aggrandizing on the internet. Relax, take a deep breath and a step back, and don’t let people get to you that way, whether you’re the recipient of that kind of talk or just a witness to it. Let your work, instead, focus on making yourself better, sharing (but not enforcing) the skills you have according to your means and ability and desire, and making the world a better place.

It’s true that many occultists—myself included—can be on the pompous, arrogant, egotistical, and pretentious side, and it’s an especially common accusation lobbed at ceremonial magicians, and not without due cause.  The way I see it, there are two main influences going on here:

  1. Occultists (including witches) in general are liable to feel this way.  When you’re presented with a materialistic world and find a non-materialistic way to bend or break the rules without getting into trouble, i.e. magic, you’re going to feel powerful, and that realization will lead you to get a bit puffed-up, especially when other people say that what you do is impossible or frowned upon.  The thrill of doing stuff that society says you can’t and shouldn’t be doing can be exhilarating.
  2. When we say “ceremonial magicians”, we typically refer to those in Hermetic and Solomonic styles of magic, where we call down immense forces of the cosmos or call up demons and devils of all kinds, often with imperious threats and provocations in order to make sure that the cosmos hears us and, more than that, obeys us.  I mean, just look at the prayers in the Lemegeton Goetia, the Heptameron of Pietro d’Abano, or the rituals of the Munich Manual.  The modus operandi of browbeating the world to obey us is a common one, even going back to classical mystery traditions and the rituals of the PGM two thousand years ago and more.

I’m sure there are other reasons, too, but those are the two big ones that occur to me.  Another thing that I mentioned in my answer above is, simply, that we’re on the Internet, and it’s easy to say a lot of things without repercussions like getting punched in the face or spat on or having a drink thrown at you because there’s an element of anonymity and facelessness that lets us feel more righteous and dignified than we properly have a right to be most of the time.

Being overweeningly proud is a problem, to be sure, but it’s not one that’s necessarily limited to ceremonial magicians, or to occultists in general, but to a lot of people in the world.  Pride is, after all, considered to be one of the seven deadly sins (and by some accounts, the most serious of them all), but I think it’s important to recall what pride is.  A proper kind of pride is akin to greatness of soul and magnanimity, bound up with nobility and goodness of character; it’s possible to take pride in the things we’ve done, placing value and greatness on our accomplishments or abilities, and it’s good to do this within reason.  Taking too much pride, however, tends to vanity, self-worship, vainglory, narcissism, and all-around hubris, and that’s where the danger comes into play.  Hubris, in the classical sense, is having pride beyond what is deserved to be proud of, which leads to ill-treating others for one’s own satisfaction and gratification.  And that’s a real problem which was truly fitting of punishment direct from the gods themselves, a notion that was carried on in Christianity to this day.

Thus, this is where humility comes in.  Though it can be used to mean having a low self-regard or feeling unworthy, it’s also a recognition of our place in the cosmos, how little we are, and that we should be selfless compared to selfish.  Consider the etymology of the word itself:

humility (n.)
early 14c., “quality of being humble,” from Old French umelite “humility, modesty, sweetness” (Modern French humilité), from Latin humilitatem (nominative humilitas) “lowness, small stature; insignificance; baseness, littleness of mind,” in Church Latin “meekness,” from humilis “lowly, humble,” literally “on the ground,” from humus “earth,” from PIE root *dhghem– “earth.” In the Mercian hymns, Latin humilitatem is glossed by Old English eaðmodnisse.

In other words, to be humble is to be down-to-earth in a way that reminds you that you are of the earth.  Yes, Hermeticism has much to say about us having divine origins and that we’re made in the likeness of God and all that, sure, and all that’s all well and good, but let’s be honest: as human beings, part of us is divine, but being human is being human, living on the Earth and living in Heaven.  Heck, the word “human” itself has the same ultimate origin as the word humility:

human (adj.)
mid-15c., humain, humaigne, “human,” from Old French humain, umain (adj.) “of or belonging to man” (12c.), from Latin humanus “of man, human,” also “humane, philanthropic, kind, gentle, polite; learned, refined, civilized.” This is in part from PIE *(dh)ghomon-, literally “earthling, earthly being,” as opposed to the gods (from root *dhghem- “earth”), but there is no settled explanation of the sound changes involved. Compare Hebrew adam “man,” from adamah “ground.” Cognate with Old Lithuanian žmuo (accusative žmuni) “man, male person.”

To be properly human is to be humble.  Yes, we all belong to God and it is to God our souls will return, but our bodies are made from dust, and to dust our bodies shall return.  We have to remember and set ourselves apart from the gods and spirits we work with, because we are incarnate, mortal, and finite as opposed to discarnate, immortal, and infinite.  We have to remember that we are humans, and have far more in common with other humans and the human world we live in than with the spirits and their non-human world.  For that reason, we need to remain humble, not only to avoid reaching too far past our proper station as humans, but also to avoid putting ourselves on too high a pedestal above other humans.  We have to take care of ourselves, recognizing that no matter how much we might be capable of, we are only capable of but so much.  As Tzadqiel, the angel of Jupiter, once told me long ago:

You see those stars?  They’re kings, just like the Sun here.  They rule over their parts of the sky, their worlds.  They are small and distant, however, and they are not kings here.  As they travel their light to other places, they cease to become kings and become equals or even less to the places they travel.  They rule only over what they rule, and no more.  Just so do you rule only what you rule, and you do not rule over everything, even though you may think you do.  You will one day become as a star, but even stars are outshone by the ones higher and brighter than them, especially the highest Light.

Humility is a virtue even in the greatest kings.  Humility is the beginning of greatness.

Now, it’s important to distinguish humility from modesty, because the two are vastly different.  As I wrote about back in 2013, humility is more being meek in the facts of a situation, while modesty is more about understating something to the point of reverse exaggeration, and that’s essentially lying against oneself.  But I also brought up that there’s a similarity between (proper) pride and humility: (proper) pride is recognition of all that you are and can be or do, while humility is recognition of all that you are and have done in the grand scheme of things.  Pride is accepting that we have accomplished and learn things, and humility is accepting that we can accomplish and learn yet more.  To be properly proud as well as humble is to be honest and truthful about yourself to the world in the world you live.  Boasting, on the other hand, is having too much pride, the lie we tell to make ourselves seem more than we actually are; modesty, likewise, is the lie we tell to make ourselves seem less than we actually are.

I bring up all this because I want to bring up one of my favorite prayers today, the Litany of Humility.  I think I first brought it up on my blog in another post from 2013, where I meditated on what might make me special, but more importantly, how my being special doesn’t make anyone else less special.  This prayer, as seen in a number of Christian, and especially Catholic, texts, is often attributed to or outright claimed to be written by the 19th/20th century Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val, although it doesn’t seem like he actually wrote it.  Instead, the real origin of the Litany seems to be lost to history—a fitting end, I suppose, for one who prayed for no glory of the world, instead giving their work to the world freely.  At any rate, the Litany of Humility isn’t like the usual litanies of the Christian Church, at least, not like those commonly used in the formal liturgies like the Litany of the Saints; while it can be used liturgically, it reads and feels more like a personal plea and a way to remind oneself of the good things we should aim towards and the bad things we should aim away from.

While I originally used the standard modern Christian version in my prayer practice, reciting it at least once a week for a good long while, as my practice has shifted, I’ve been less and less…I don’t want to say “comfortable”, but less inclined to call on explicitly Christian names and phrases when I can avoid it in favor of more general deistic language.  Plus, it’s been a long time since I’ve recited or read it (dropping out of a regular practice will do that to you), so I think it’s time to take another look at it.  While I still think the original Christian version is an excellent one that we should all bear in mind, I also think it’s worthwhile to make it more usable by others who aren’t Christian.  To that end, I sat down with it and amended it somewhat for my own personal use, and thought I might share it for others to consider using in their use, should they so desire.  Below is the variant I use now that basically keeps the same text, with a slightly different opening and a different invocation for each request.  Rather than being Jesus-centric, e.g. “from the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, Jesus”, I’ve substituted every invocation of Jesus with simply “o Lord”.  This way, the prayer is more accessible to those within a more broadly Abrahamic, deist, or non-Christian Hermetic practice.  The sentiment is the same: we invoke God and pray that we might begin to possess the virtue of humility while shedding from ourselves the vice of pride.

O Lord, hear my prayer, and grant me, I beg you,
the blessing to be humble of heart,
the power to crush my pride,
and the grace to master myself that I may more fully serve you.

From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being loved, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being honored, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being praised, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being preferred, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, o Lord.
From the desire of being approved, deliver me, o Lord.

From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being despised, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being rebuked, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being maligned, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, o Lord.
From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, o Lord.

That others may be loved more than me, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than me, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may grow and I diminish in the opinion of the world, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than me, provided that I might become as holy as I should, o Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.

Amen.

I think it’s important to remember all that being proud entails, and what being humble necessitates.  That goes for both ceremonial magicians and witches, both occultists and scientists, and all people, especially myself.  I’ve come a long way since those posts in 2012 and 2013 when I discussed these things before, but I know that I’ve only come but so far, and there’s still so much for me to do, and no matter how far I might reach, there are still yet others who are (properly and well-deservedly) better than me.  It’s all I can do to do all I must do, and that’s for the best.  I’m happy to have recalled this prayer up, because I think it’s high time for me to reincorporate it back into my prayer routine regularly again.  Perhaps there are others who might find it useful, too.

Humility versus Modesty

One of the areas where I catch flak as a ceremonial magician is that people constantly assume I’m some kind of spiritual control-freak.  It’s true, lots of Solomonic literature makes use of perilous heavy-handed conjurations against demons and the like, but that’s not the kind of work I often find myself faced with.  I mean, far be it from me to grab Astaroth or some Old One by the tentacles and whip them around the planes to get me a lil’ more coin in my purse.  I’d rather go the route of respect and honor, which is just as much an exchange of effort as anything else and even more effective in the long-term.  Working in a framework of respect involves being humble when needed, but the notion of humility is something that not a lot of people understand.  I suppose magicians have this problem extra-bad, and it’s not unwarranted that I hear tell of haughty magicians whose photos are in the dictionary under “hubris”.

As in many religions, humility is seen as a virtue, usually meaning a recognition of oneself, one’s talents, one’s skills, and one’s accomplishments, with nothing (good or bad) added and nothing (good or bad) removed.  Similar definitions exist across cultures, but that’s the general idea.  I like to use its etymology (as always) to help me clarify what it means; in this case, the word has its origins in the Latin word humus, meaning “earth”.  Humility is the state achieved by being brought low, down to the earth, or with your feet on the ground.  It’s often seen as diametrically opposed to pride, which I don’t quite agree with, because pride is often needed to drive one on to act.  There are also times when I find some expressions of humility to be ungainly debasing or badly humiliating that achieve nothing but hurt or harm, so it might be helpful to break these two words out into four: humility and modesty, pride and boastfulness.

To me, pride and humility are very similar concepts.  Pride is recognition of all that you are and can be or do; humility is recognition of all that you are and have done in the grand scheme of things.  In other words, these things are statements of truth.  Boastfulness or hubris, on the other hand, and its inverse of modesty are essentially lies we tell to ourselves or others.  Boastfulness is the lie we tell to make ourselves to be more than we actually are; modesty is the lie we tell to make ourselves less than we actually are.  I ended up with this four-way distinction by combining my two favorite sources of religious and spiritual philosophy, Buddhism and Hermeticism.

In my early days in studying religion, I was really into Theravada Buddhism.  It’s a simple, elegant, and effective tradition of Buddhism that was easy enough for a middle schooler to read into and understand the basic tenets of.  I recall reading somewhere (but I can’t seem to find it anymore) that, once upon a time, Buddha was confronted by someone who thought he wasn’t being humble at all.  The Buddha in the old sutras did often expound on how difficult, how rare, how unfathomable the thing he did (complete and total enlightenment) was in the grand scheme of things, even though he frequently told his students to give up exaggerating and lying and boasting of all kinds.  After all, if the Buddha could obtain enlightenment, everyone could, so it couldn’t be as rare as he said so!

Not so, replied the Buddha.  If enlightenment were as common as his prosecutor was suggesting, then other people would be following those teachers and the Buddha would just be another arhat.  The Buddha was recounting a fact that there hadn’t been anyone like him in quite some time, that there wouldn’t be anyone like him for another stretch of time, that the road he took to get to his point was not easy, that he had in fact accomplished a miraculous release from samsara.  He was also recounting that anyone could, in theory, accomplish this, and he was teaching a method that other people could accomplish to attain the same states.  After all, the Buddha was human, too, and as such indicates that all humanity can obtain enlightenment.  Whatever the Buddha did, anyone else can do; that they haven’t indicates how difficult it was.  What the Buddha was not doing was lying about his attainment, neither overstating what he was doing or making himself out to be some cosmic savior and redeemer of all things that exist (though he would have liked to, I’m sure), nor was he making the path out to be easy or kind to people and making himself seem like a weak or intellectually simple person.

In other words, he was humble about his attainment, but he wasn’t being modest about it.  Lying goes against the Five Precepts of Buddhism, which includes exaggeration of any kind, be it for one’s own sake (boasting) or against one’s own sake (modesty).

Granted, modesty does mean “to keep due measure” or “freedom from self-exaggeration”, or a synonym of humility, but often enough it’s used to belittle oneself and make one seem less than they are.  Consider a woman’s beauty, which is often kept regulated in many cultures: I’m against head-coverings, face-veils, and the like because it turns a beautiful form into a shapeless blob so that they won’t tempt men with their sultry ways and sex-radiating hair.  Less severely, consider a servant before his king.  Let’s say that this servant is an expert in several fields of engineering, but due to his stature before the regent, he can’t discuss his accomplishments or expertise without being directly prompted, and even then he has to defer to the excellence of the king.  He’s making himself to be less than he is for the sake of modesty, which reduces his worth instead of increasing it unless the king is somehow made to know of the servant’s actual expertise.

As for pride?  Pride is accepting that we have accomplished and learn things, and that we can accomplish and learn yet more.  It’s something that keeps us going and something that helps us establish our value and rank in the world.  As opposed to Buddhism, Hermeticism informs my notion of pride.  It’s bad to be prideful, or literally “full of it”, but it’s no bad thing to be proud of oneself.  After all, humanity has an important role to play in the world, both for the spirits and for our fellow mankind, and it’s just as important to realize that we’re awesome.  In the Hermetic view, we’re considered the children of God/the gods and, as such, given permission and ability to interact with and communicate with our older sibling spirits, if not outright granted authority to act over them and the world around us.  It’s bad to lord it over other spirits (a la boastful Solomonic invocations), but as children of the gods, it’s also our job to manifest, create, order, and reckon the cosmos according to our roles in it.  And, as the angel Michael once told me, when something in the cosmos does not do their job and their job needs to be done, we need to make them do it.  Qabbalistically, humankind is seen as the angelic choir of Malkuth, meaning that it’s our job to maintain and uphold the order and functionality of this material world of ours and its connections to the worlds and cosmos around us.

It’s a fine line to walk between pride/humility and boasting/modesty.  Often enough, I err on the side of caution and go into modest-mode, since the lying incurred by that rings a little less harmful than the lying incurred by boasting.  Still, I often get on some of my friends’ nerves by being humble to the point of modesty, but that could just be the culture I find myself in which finds more value in pride than humility.  I frequently comment on how awesome and fantastic (in the senses of awe and fantasy) the things I do are, but I always back it up with how little I feel I’m actually doing, coupled with how little I’ve been studying and practicing this stuff.  As of this writing, I’ve only been at my Hermetic stuff for just over two years, and my geomancy stuff at six or so.  These are not long periods of time, and even though I had a head start and good resources to work with, I know that other people with less than me in any sense can make just as good progress just as fast as me.  People trust me with the messages and forecasts I deliver with divination, and I try my hardest to get it right with them, despite that the techniques I use are barely occult or arcane at all.  The stuff I do as a service for the world is important and needed, which I’ll do when there are no others to do the work, which I’ll help when there are, and which I’ll teach when there aren’t any yet but there are those willing to learn.

That’s both my humility and my pride.