One traditional distinction in philosophical and theological reflection about love is that between eros and agape. At the most basic level, this distinction has been framed in terms of the relation between the value we see in the things and persons we love on the one hand, and the love we have for them on the other. In eros, we love the beloved because of some value we see in them: their beauty, their goodness, or their virtue, for example. In agape, in contrast, the order of explanation is reversed: we see value in the beloved because we love them.
Of course, in the sources of these two conceptions of love—respectively, the works of Plato and the Bible—each is developed so as to involve more than what’s contained in these characterizations.
Humility tends to draw suspicious looks. If all it comes to is avoiding arrogance, then of course we’ll cheer it on. But anything more, and something unsavory can seem afoot. The humble concede, submit, and obey. We’re humble, yes, when absolutely necessary—to dot our moral i’s and cross our political t’s. But those who talk about making humility a fundamental life aspiration can seem as if they’ve gone too far: as if what they aspire to is groveling, and thus are on a path to self-destruction, resignation, or worse, to the betrayal of others out of slavish fear. Indeed, so much of our history has been spent trying to extract ourselves from under various boots that the aspiration to humility can thus seem positively reactionary: as if those who have it long for the ‘good old days’ when we were content to be trampled by oppressive power.
Such skepticism about humility as a positive value tends to make for a humility that’s reluctant. If an excess of humility walks us over a cliff, we must, then, only be humble with care, not letting our humility interfere with furthering our own interests, or standing in brave solidarity with others. Is the skeptic right, though? Is humility a dangerous proposition?
I used to think of the book of Job with the utmost contempt. You know, it’s that bit of the Bible where God torments poor Job to win a bet, and then bullies him into being damn well thankful for the favor. As for many people who’ve rejected Christianity, for me the book seemed to embody the worst aspects of religion. It seemed, that is, to be propaganda encouraging us to embrace our own domination and degradation—pawns to be manipulated by a cosmic thug, as well as by anyone who can dupe us into thinking that they wield his authority.
This was before my friend Howie Wettstein introduced me to Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the book. Since then, it’s become one of my favorite works of literature. This isn’t, however, because I’ve embraced Christianity or Judaism, or because I love it on its aesthetic merits alone. Rather, I see it as a text with deep religious significance, but of an unusual, Spinozian sort.