May 15, 2009

Opposite of Exaltation?

Besides (1) examining one's own experiences as referents for a puzzling term/concept, (2) reading a dictionary for its list of conventional usages of the term/concept, and (3) investigating the etymology of a term, there is still another approach to better understanding a problematic term/concept: Consider its opposite.

What is the opposite of the meaning of "exaltation"? My unabridged dictionary offers the adjective "humble" as the antonym of "exalted."[1] The noun form, "humility" (from the Latin noun humilitas, "nearness to the ground") means feeling low or being low (on a scale of value), unworthy (of high achievements), and unsuccessful (in action).[2] Those conventional referents of "humility" are indeed opposites of exaltation: being at a high point in the achievement of a core value; being worthy of the accomplishment; and being ultimately successful in pursuit of a value.[3]

From day to day, I meet the phenomenon of humility in two forms. At first they seem to be contraries but actually they share the same root, just as Mother Theresa and Attila are alike in being mystics and altruists. Only their styles differ. The first form of humility that I see is the conventional one: a soft-spoken, bowed, and obsequious individual who is perhaps more common in theocratic or other highly hierarchical (authority-worshipping) societies.

A second form of humility appears in the type of person who is loud, hostile, and arrogant. I more frequently encounter this type of personality in our egalitarian (envy-ridden) culture. Stylistically, this type of person focuses on the small in stature, the low in value, the negative, the demeaning, and the destructive. In my experience, particularly online, the individuals who live by this standard are often those whose communication style includes: hyperbole that deafens a rational audience, not understatements that allow listeners' minds to function fully; insults, not reasoning; profanity, not words of respect; snickering, not solemnity; and buffoonery, not personal dignity.[4]

What do the two forms of humility have in common? They both reject the prerequisites of exalted moments, those moments in which the achievement of one's highest values and recognition of one's own worthiness are expressed in an upright posture, in dignity of manner, and in speech that respects the minds of rational listeners.

Of course, as always in society, there are mixed cases. Some individuals who are fundamentally humble may oscillate between the two styles of obsequiousness and verbal savagery. Other individuals, at a particular time, might be a mixture, with humility and the potential for exaltation fighting a civil war in their souls. Still others, especially young people yearning for an exalted life but sprouting in the cultural mud of humility, are in transition toward the only sort of life worth living: the exalted life. During that transition, they retain some of the mud, but less and less as the years pass.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] The Random House Dictionary of the English Language, 2nd ed., unabridged. [2] Cassell's Latin Dictionary. [3] For Ayn Rand's comments on humility: Ayn Rand, "Humility," The Ayn Rand Lexicon. [4] For mention of the use of understatement as an element of an objective style in writing and speaking: Ayn Rand, The Art of Nonfiction, editor Robert Mayhew, pp. 124-125.


Burgess Laughlin said...

A clarification is in order. If the adjective "humble" is the antonym of the adjective "exalted," then the noun "humiliation" (as an emotional condition, not as an abusive action at a particular time) is an antonym of the noun "exaltation."

The point of the articles remains: What makes life worth living--exalted moments or humble ones? Objective individuals revel in the exalted moments and reject humility.

Daniel said...

Great posts on exaltation!

--Daniel W.

JG said...

Amazing how your exemplifying and making explicit a certain aspect that had been implicit brings about new connections and lightbulb moments in a concrete case that I had been trying to make sense of. That is exactly what happened as I read your post. As I had pondered about (I was unable to pin down her motivation) the film-maker after watching (I was able to get thru only a little bit!) Story of Stuff video (there are couple of Objectivists' posts on it) I was able to identify where her methods and approach were wrong. It was a bombardment of irrationalities that paralyzed a rational mind as it raced to counter all the falsehoods, evasions and blatant disregard for facts. After reading your post I now have a better understanding of what is going on. The film-maker is what you identified as "A second form of humility appears in the type of person who is loud, hostile, and arrogant". Her style as described by you fits close to the T of: "the individuals who live by this standard are often those whose communication style includes: hyperbole that deafens a rational audience, not understatements that allow listeners' minds to function fully; insults, not reasoning; profanity, not words of respect; snickering, not solemnity; and buffoonery, not personal dignity."
[Some qualifications -She does not use profanity and snickering as a tactic has been used in a covert way. She has attempted to portray her opponents as fat caricatures (projected buffoonery)].

The discovery still leaves one feeling revolted with the particular human specimen .

Great observation -sure helped me further understand -thanks!

(A minor point - the use of "mixed cases" had me expecting a point on persons with mixed premises. Not trying to be presumptous here, but if the theme of the post is that both types of personalities are really two sides of the same coin, you may want to rethink the wording of that term - strictly my two cents.)

Burgess Laughlin said...

I am always pleased to receive confirmation and constructive criticism (a redundancy, I think). So, thank you!

A reminder to new readers and commenters on Making Progress, from the November 18 '07 etiquette post:

"If your screen name is not your full true name or does not link directly to a page on which your full true name appears, then sign your comment with your true name at least in some truncated form--e.g., J. Smith for John Quintius Smith III. Unless your first name is unusual (like "Burgess"), state at least an initial for your last name, to avoid confusion with the names of other commenters with the same first name. Make no anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Be sure to at least link to your homepage, unless you are using your full true name. Identify yourself. I want to know, to some extent, the individuals with whom I am communicating. If you prefer anonymity, post elsewhere."

As in the case of someone whose screen name links to an establish weblog, I will occasionally let comments go through even though the commenter doesn't fully comply with the etiquette in a first comment on this weblog.

Again, thank you for all comments.

Burgess Laughlin said...

The point about mixed cases is well taken. Where there is a trichotomy (with one objective, and two false), there seem to be two sorts of mixed cases:

1. In a particular person, which is an issue of psychology, there can be a mixture of opposites. A person might experience and revere exaltation in one area of his life, perhaps his work, but berate himself for not being humble in other areas of his life.

2. In a particular person who is essentially humble, there can be a mixture of the false dichotomies. A person who is essential humble might vacillate between directly demeaning himself and demeaning others.

More generally, where there are trichotomies, the psychological mixtures could go either of three ways. Perhaps rationalism, empiricism, and objectivity are an example. I have met people who are rationalists in respect to God (proof based on arbitrary premises), empiricists in respect to politics (reality is too chaotic to form principles), and objective in their work (building bridges, for example).

I do need to think more about this. Thanks for the stimulating comment!

Largo said...


Suppose I think myself a hot shot computer programmer, with sound knowledge of theory, and promoter of 'best practices' at my workplace(s).

I get a job an an atypical company, one were the programmers really know their stuff. (A Google startup perhaps.) I show up thinking I have a chance to show off a thing or two, but soon learn that they need to show me a host of things before I can even reach the point of being useful to them. Some things might be said, just to get them out of the way.

First, my attitude may have been second-handed -- my sense of self worth depending on showing off my competence, as opposed to using my competence.

Second, my assessment of my programming skills was off, at least with respect to my competence relative to the programming field (forgetting A=A, I failed to account for number of colleagues whose competencies well exceed those of my former colleagues, against whom I had compared myself).

Third, I should view this as an opportunity to learn from the best and the brightest, rejoicing that I have a chance to work amongst people whose competence presently exceeds my own.


Perhaps before rejoicing, I would feel something--a chagrin, a kind of self-embarrassment, an emotion I am not sure of how to name. Not a bad emotion--not one of self denigration--one of renewed circumspection. An emotion tied to the realization that I may have come far, but I have much farther to go to even approach my previous assessment of myself. An emotion reminding me of the dangers of not maintaining due diligence in my assessment of myself and my skill set. An emotion that leads to a state of mind, less fleeting than an emotion, which cautions the same vigilince.

It seems to me that the word 'humility' is apt in describing this emotion and this state of mind. Connotations and etymology may prove otherwise. My interest is in part on the aptness (or lack thereof) of the word. It is also (perhaps more significantly) in the identification, isolation, and assessment of this emotion.

- Bryan Hann

Burgess Laughlin said...

Yes, sometimes I am tempted to use the term "rational humility" to describe that state of mind.

I rejected such an idea until I was about 40 years old and was studying jujitsu. There I saw that a student should be "humble," in dealing with the "master," but not in the sense of being self-degrading. Rather the student needs to always remember that he is a student. He is there in the dojo (or university classroom!) to learn, not to teach. Recognizing that fact is a simple matter of objectivity, that is, being focused on facts held in context.

The referent of that phrase, "rational humility," is indeed a fact and a desirable one. Likewise, the idea of being objective about one's limitations relative to others is itself an objective virtue.

I see the problem with using "humility" as being analogous with the problem of using "selfish." An objective thinker and communicator needs to either:

1. Use the same term (which conventionally names a package deal), but only as a label for an unpacked, objective referent. "By selfishness [or humility], I mean . . . " and then define it rigourously.

2. Reject the term and use another conventional term, if such is available. Perhaps "modesty" is suitable, but it too might have a burden of package dealing. A hero is modest in the sense that he doesn't boast (or even announce) his accomplishments (out of context). I didn't know Ayn Rand personally, but everything I have heard about her from sources I trust indicates that she was very modest. (An illustration is the manner in which she describes her work in places such as The Art of Non-fiction, wherein she treats her accomplishments as technical matters, generally.)

3. Create a neologism -- which is seldom, I think, suitable because it can cut off communication and lead to confused thinking.

Those are my tentative thoughts. This is an intriguing and important subject. It affects one's life, day to day.