Humility, dignity and democracy.

Humility is essential to  dignity and democracy, as existential humility and intellectual humility. In this editorial, our focus is on humility’s intellectual dimension in relation to dignity and democracy.

The second aspect or dimension of humility could be called cognitive or intellectual humility. If it is true that existential humility is necessary to encounter our dignity and that of the “other,” cognitive or intellectual humility is necessary to develop our relationship with the “other” in a democratic community. A democratic community is a community in which goodwill and cooperation exist between all parties, all members of the community in question. It does not mean that it is a state in which all parties agree on everything and are of the same opinion and position on all issues. It does not mean that there are no adversarial relationships in which competition is the dominant mode. Unanimity is not a characteristic or requirement of the democratic community, but that all members of the community regard each other, ultimately, with good will, with respect for each other’s dignity, and with a disposition to cooperate. A community that wishes to live and to maintain the democratic way of life must give itself an instrument to permanently and consistently articulate the observance of reciprocal respect for dignity, good will and cooperation. A democratic constitution is such an instrument. A democratic state emerges from a society, a community, which gives itself such an instrument. It is an instrument that allows a society to live together in the observance of mutual respect for dignity, of good will and cooperation so that all matters affecting the community can be resolved in a way that maintains that good will and that cooperation and is in keeping with it.   

An interesting thing to note is that democracy is not a static or forever accomplished situation. In the democratic state there is a constant process of decision-making and of adjusting the instrument that articulates its life so that it remains relevant and effective.

How is intellectual humility necessary for a life lived in democracy? In the same manner that existential humility leads us to that moment when our existential freedom exercises itself in the choice to accept our human vulnerability, our human indigence, our personhood, and thereby encounter our dignity and that of the “other.” Intellectual humility means that we exercise our existential freedom in acceptance of our limitations in the context of specific historical time. We do not possess a privileged access to reality that allows us to grasp reality in its totality and integrity.

From the very start of our conscious lives, we are summoned into the world by the voice of the “other”. Mother, father, siblings, grandparents, family, address us as babies, as toddlers and initiate us in the “to and fro” of language that opens up our world and our participation in the human community. Our very mode of being in the world is constituted, articulated, by that “to and fro,” that dynamic process that is dialogue. The “tango” that is language and requires at least two. Dialogue is not a choice, it is not a tool, it is not an instrument, it is our very mode of participation in the world, in life. 

In the same way that there can be no real justice without the acceptance of our reciprocal dignity, the acceptance that without the dignity of the other, there is no dignity in us either; in the same way that dignity is a dynamic reciprocal relationship, as is justice, in that same way, truth is a dynamic reciprocal relationship. Dialogue is the name of that dynamic reciprocal relationship. Dialogue is the dynamic mode in which truth is available. Human being, human intelligence, has no absolute access to reality, that is, our access is mediated by our social nature, by our finitude. To talk about “human absolute truth” is to manifest lack of intellectual humility, arrogance and ultimately, lack of wisdom. 

Science in the 20th century has come to the realization that its findings, its truth is never absolute. Scientific findings are reported in degrees of probability, conditioned by margins of error. It is a progressive struggle, it is a road a pathway.  Hans George Gadamer, Jurgen Habermas and others have enlightened us in the 20th century about the centrality of language, dialogue, communicative action, and that truth is never absolute. The 19th century witnessed witness to ideologies that claimed absolute truth. Those who disagreed, of course, became heretics to be condemned. That century which gave birth to ideological “isms” left the 20th century a legacy of cruelty and death that expressed itself in the horrors of the Holocaust, and the unspeakable crimes committed by Stalin and Mao.      

It is a paradox, that in the last stages of the 20th Century and the early stages of the 21st Century the worst excesses of Modernity have been supplanted by the regrettable excesses of postmodernity: religious fundamentalism and extreme nationalism.  

Even non-fundamentalist religions that have traditionally tended to express themselves dogmatically have wisely matured, guided by their own philosophical and theological tradition. In the early 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church celebrated an Ecumenical Council, the Second Vatican Council. During a recess between the first session of the Council and the second session, Pope John XXIII granted a press conference to the international press. One American journalist asked the Pope, “Given all the changes taking place and being proclaimed by the Council, are we to conclude that the Gospel has changed?” St. John XXIII answered, “No, the Gospel has not changed, but we are coming to understand it better, and better, and better.” The same humility was exhibited by John Paul II when he apologized for the treatment meted out by the Roman Catholic Church to Galileo and others in earlier centuries.  

That the Gospel has not changed, but “we are coming to understand it better and better” recognizes that understanding is a historical event, it is capable of change and growth and that to assume some absolute grasp, some absolute truth is to misunderstand the very nature of human knowledge and an act of arrogance and lack of wisdom.     

Dialogue begins with the recognition that neither I, nor the “other,” possess the whole truth, absolute truth. It begins with the understanding that truth and knowledge is a process. Dialogue is not a strategy that assumes that I have absolute truth and that sees itself as a way of manipulating the conversation and the “other” to bring her, him, to my position, to my “truth”. Dialogue knows its beginning, but does not know its end. It requires the intellectual humility to recognize each other’s limitations and the courage to assume the risk to end in unknown territory. 

Ideologies and dogmatisms are the enemies of dialogue. Pope Francis, when asked by the editor of the Italian newspaper, La Republica, if he believed that he had “absolute truths,”, responded by saying that the question was misdirected. To accept the question as posed would throw the conversation into the vicious circle of the necessarily empty discussion between relativism and absolute objectivity.  He continued by quoting Jesus in the Gospel when He states: “I am the truth, the life and the way.”  Thereby equating truth with life and with way. Indeed, that is the notion of truth as the dynamic mode in which truth is available to human understanding.   

Caminante, son tus huellas
el camino y nada más;
Caminante, no hay camino,
se hace camino al andar.
Al andar se hace el camino,
y al volver la vista atrás
se ve la senda que nunca
se ha de volver a pisar.
Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.

Antonio Machado captures in that poem the nature of our very mode of being in the world. 

To live in democracy is to live constantly in a process where fundamental humility and intellectual humility come together to allow us to live in the justice of reciprocally recognized dignity and in the truth of dialogue, the reciprocally recognized fact that the “other” has something important to say, something important to contribute, that, in fact, the “other’s” position complements and completes mine.   

  To preserve democracy, it is imperative that citizens constantly renew their commitment to respect each other’s dignity and to behave accordingly. To do so there is no alternative but to embrace intellectual humility as the cornerstone of civic virtues. 

Today it seems as if the pathway of greed, vanity and pride had found a poster child in some of our most prominent government officials. From that pathway flow alarming ideological stances which threaten the very fabric of life in democracy by the practice of a destructive discourse that weakens the commitment to respect each other’s dignity and the possibility of living in true dialogue.  

Let’s pray that the legacy of the founding fathers and their belief in human dignity and dialogue, wonderfully expressed in the Bill of Rights, can overcome the current malaise that affects our society and be carried forward by a new generation of Americans.  

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