The Value of Humility

by Scott Preston edited by O Society

There is an etymological connection between the words “humus” (soil, earth), humility, and human. Whenever we break this connection, and become estranged from the earth, we get the predictable results we see today.

Genesis 2:7 states: “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”

The Hebrew word for man is Adam, and Adam is related to the Hebrew word for ground or earth, Adamah. Adam literally means the “ground man;” the man who was made from the ground.

English gets the word human from the Latin with a similar etymology as the name Adam in Hebrew. In Latin, homo means man, humanus means human, and humus means ground. It should be easy to see the relationship between the concepts of “man” and “ground,” even if we don’t hold these original meanings as literal anymore.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to think about these historical relationships and speculate on how they might give us a fuller sense of our own creation. Following this train of thought, in English (and Hebrew) a human is a “ground man,” or an “earth man.”

The Buddha’s earth-touching gesture (Bhumi-sparsha mudra) also is an affirmation of the spiritual bond between the human and the Earth.


Literally Bhumisparsha translates into ‘touching the earth’. It is more commonly known as the ‘earth witness’ mudra. This mudra, formed with all five fingers of the right hand extended to touch the ground, symbolizes the Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree, when he summoned the earth goddess, Sthavara, to bear witness to his attainment of enlightenment.

The right hand, placed upon the right knee in earth-pressing mudra, and complemented by the left hand, which is held flat in the lap in the dhyana mudra of meditation, symbolizes the union of method and wisdom, samasara and nirvana, and also the realizations of the conventional and ultimate truths. It is in this posture Shakyamuni overcame the obstructions of Mara while meditating on Truth.

The second Dhyani Buddha Akshobhya is depicted in this mudra. He is believed to transform the delusion of anger into mirror-like wisdom. It is this metamorphosis the Bhumisparsha mudra helps in bringing about.

It is also what informs Nietzsche’s dictum: “Be true to the Earth!”

“I teach you the Overman! Mankind is something to be overcome. What have you done to overcome mankind?

All beings so far have created something beyond themselves. Do you want to be the ebb of that great tide, and revert back to the beast rather than overcome mankind? What is the ape to a man? A laughing-stock, a thing of shame. And just so shall a man be to the Overman: a laughing-stock, a thing of shame. You have evolved from worm to man, but much within you is still worm. Once you were apes, yet even now man is more of an ape than any of the apes.

Even the wisest among you is only a confusion and hybrid of plant and phantom. But do I ask you to become phantoms or plants?

Behold, I teach you the Overman! The Overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: The Overman shall be the meaning of the earth! I beg of you my brothers, remain true to the earth, and believe not those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poisoners are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying ones and poisoned ones themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so away with them!

Once blasphemy against God was the greatest blasphemy; but God died, and those blasphemers died along with him. Now to blaspheme against the earth is the greatest sin, and to rank love for the Unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth!

Once the soul looked contemptuously upon the body, and then that contempt was the supreme thing: — the soul wished the body lean, monstrous, and famished. Thus it thought to escape from the body and the earth. But that soul was itself lean, monstrous, and famished; and cruelty was the delight of this soul! So my brothers, tell me: What does your body say about your soul? Is not your soul poverty and filth and wretched contentment?”

You can tell we are in a post-Christian universe by all the hyperbole surrounding “pride”: “Straight Pride”, “Gay Pride”, “Proud Boys”, “CanadaProud”, and so on. Pride meets Proud and a tussle ensues. It’s a Hall of Mirrors. So, you can just tell we are in a very narcissistic and egoistic time.

On the other hand, Christianity teaches “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall”, and Jesus spent much of his own life as a demonstration of the value of humility and for using a sense of defeat and humiliation for spiritual development and self-overcoming. And it was Nietzsche, ever the ironist, who took this seriously.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (Hamlet). An astute observation by Shakespeare: an exaggerated conscious attitude is typically over-compensation or a disguise for an opposite and contrary unconscious attitude. “Persona“, after all, means “mask”. Fascism and its ridiculous “master race” models took hold in European countries which suffered a humiliating defeat in the First World War, and the greater the haughtiness, the more painful the sense of humiliation to accompany defeat.

It’s notable none of our present neo-fascists and master race supremacists actually resemble at all their ideal. They are, as Nietzsche would put it, “apes of their ideals”.


An example of this kind of over-compensation from personal experience: I have a neighbour who claims to be Buddhist (and he’s more than a bit obnoxious about it as well). One day he told me it is his “duty as a Buddhist to radiate joy and happiness,” and he does this to an off-putting degree. Part of his “duty”, it seems, is to play his damned bachata music over and over and over at ear-splitting levels so the whole neighbourhood can appreciate his radiations. Until someone complained, he even left it playing on loop all day while he was at work. The effect of his “duty” is to produce an opposite outcome and effect.

His duty! In other words, his “radiations” weren’t spontaneous or natural, but compensation for a completely opposite mood. No one who spontaneously and effortlessly radiates joy and happiness would speak of it as their “duty“. It would be better for the soul to renounce Buddhism or Christianity or any creed held from “duty” than to continue to practice pretense at the expense of honesty towards oneself, even if it is painful.

Embracing one’s own defeats and humiliations as stepping stones to self-overcoming and spiritual awakening without succumbing to self-pity is a large part of original Christianity. It’s the specific Christian form of exercising “non-attachment”. It’s the same principle embodied in Nietzsche’s maxim: “What does not kill me makes me stronger” (Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker from Maxims and Arrows, Twilight of the Idols).


Resentment or resenttiment, for Nietzsche, is the worst of all possible sins, and Nietzsche counters it with his cultivation of a mood of gratitude towards life and for whatever challenges life throws at him. “It is so because I willed it thus”. Always for Nietzsche, the value of a thing, even of humiliations, is assessed by his yardstick question: “what is its value for life?” or equally, what is its value for self-transcendence and self-overcoming?

Humiliation and resentment are pretty closely associated, and in a culture of narcissism, humility and modesty (and moderation) are deemed to have no value. In these terms, we are definitely in a “post-Christian” age despite the pretence and lip-service. Lip-service is what Rosenstock-Huessy calls the disease “decadence”, and this perhaps may be the hardest thing to take about our current period of transition.

“The way in which a man accepts his fate and all the suffering it entails, the way in which he takes up his cross, gives him ample opportunity -even under the most difficult circumstances- to add a deeper meaning to his life. It may remain brave, dignified and unselfish.”

~ Viktor Frankl Man’s Search for Meaning


Jesus certainly taught his followers to find value and strength in humiliations: “turn the other cheek”, or if a man rob you of your cloak, give him also your shirt; or if a Roman soldier compels you to carry his pack one mile, carry it two, etc. These are exactly the same kinds of things Nietzsche teaches as his process of “self-overcoming”.

We find the same in Carlos Castaneda’s apprenticeship, where his teacher, don Juan, explains the value of “the petty tyrant” and encourages him to go out and find his own “petty tyrant” as a practice for getting over his own “precious self”.

Rumi tells the story of a great Sufi sheikh who suffers a despotic and tyrannical wife. His neighbours think him a fool and a weakling for suffering her tyrany, but Rumi sees it very differently — a very bold and strong spirit taking on a very difficult challenge and practice of non-attachment and self-overcoming. Rumi sees a Sufi master where others see only a hen-pecked husband.

Nietzsche also perceives only the very strongest of spirits could suffer humiliations without succumbing to resentment, self-pity, or the desire for revenge. (He remarks at one point his revenge for an insult is to send the offending party “a pot of jam”).

Another anecdote: I recall reading once where a professional boxer and his manager are on a subway train when the boxer iss accosted by some hooligan who has taken it in his head to harass somebody . Afterwards the manager asks the boxer: “why did you take that? You could have flattened that punk with one blow”. The boxer simply replies: “I know”. Remarkable! Supremely confident and assured of his own power, he has nothing to prove, and the hooligan’s insults are of no more effect on him than the buzzings of a mosquito. That’s the example of someone supremely composed. Arnold Schwarzenegger endured something similar in South Africa a few weeks ago:

These are all examples of the practice of mindfulness. Castaneda’s don Juan calls it “living deliberately”. Living deliberately doesn’t mean deliberating over every act, which can lead to a paralysis of the will, rather living attentively or mindfully — “beyond the robot”, as Colin Wilson (or Gary Lachman) might put it.

Non-attachment is not indifference. Those people who witness injustice and then act by putting their own bodies on the line in civil disobedience, willing and prepared to endure the humiliations of police batons or arrest, have to overcome in themselves their fears or their inclinations to avoid humiliation. It takes exceptionally brave and strong and passionate spirits to do this, and this too is an practice of self-overcoming. Perhaps it is the most important practice of self-overcoming in our dissolute times — our willingness to face the petty tyrant and suffer his humiliations.

Mindfulness is not about “coping” or “adapting”, but about conquering, as Nietzsche took to heart. As Plato put it:

τὸ νικᾶν αὐτὸν αὑτὸν πασῶν νικῶν πρώτη τε καὶ ἀρίστη͵ τὸ δὲ ἡττᾶσθαι αὐτὸν ὑφ΄ ἑαυτοῦ πάντων αἴσχιστόν τε ἅμα καὶ κάκιστον

“To conquer yourself is the first and best victory of all, while to be conquered by yourself is of all the most shameful as well as evil.”

Laws (626e)

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