Intellectual humility

— Sumit Paul


Apropos a news item in a premier daily that ' Intellectual humility makes one a better person.' Showing 'intellectual humility'-recognising that you might be wrong about what you believe-is a reliable marker of how good people are at making choices and understanding, according to a new study. The Buddha said that' humility is a great quality but greater is to accept your errors wholeheartedly and say I'm wrong.' Human life is so complex that there're chances of your opponent/s being right many a time. And the acceptance of that is cerebral humility. Intellectual or cerebral humility is not a new phenomenon. Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan explained it in his Oxford Series of Essays in 1954. His own life exemplifies it. Once when he was a Spalding Professor of Eastern Religions and Ethics at Oxford, he explained Ramanujacharya's Vishistadvaitvaad in a manner that it had certain errors, One very bright student stood up and politely said that he (Dr Radhakrishnan) inadvertently missed a few steps in his elucidation. Dr Radhkrishnan was immensely happy to have been corrected by his own student! He invited the student to come and explain the points he missed. And when his brilliant student enumerated upon those points overlooked by the great professor, Radhakrishnan requested the then Chancellor of Oxford Sir Elwyn Hunte to appoint that student as the next Associate Professor of Philosophy! This is intellectual humility. Anyone in Dr Radhkrishnan's place would have taken umbrage and harboured at least a modicum of rancour. But Radhkrishnan not only encouraged that student to advance his arguments, but also recommended his name to the Chancellor of Oxford. How many professors and 'intellectuals' have this kind of intellectual humility? One ought to be great and liberal like Radhkrishnan to accept one's limitations and be open to learning even from the students and juniors. Mandan Mishra also showed the same degree of humility when he touched the feet of Adi Shankara who was younger than his own son. It's worthwhile to state that none could defeat Mandan Mishra in discourses. Shankar defeated him but Mishra didn't take the defeat to his heart and acknowledged Shankar's intellectual superiority openly.

'To be humble is to be a better person,' Laotse succinctly put it. Intellectual humility opens up the heart and mind and widens our horizons. Anyone can be humble but very few can be intellectually humble because latter entails acceptance of other person's superior wisdom and one's cerebral limitation/s. Nelson Mandela would often discuss his plans with yet another peace activist and fellow Nobel laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu because Mandela believed that one man's planning reeks of hubris and intellectual despotism. When an idea is discussed with others, it gets new perspectives. He called it ' intellectual openness and humbleness of mind.'

Human beings become great because of their ingrained humility. It's a quality that cannot be developed or nurtured. It's innate. One's imbued with it. Humility is a sure sign of future greatness. When Gandhiji went to meet South African General Smuts in his office for the first time, he removed his footwear outside his cabin. Seeing that, The General asked him not to remove the footwear. But Gandhiji stunned him with his reply, ' General, By removing my footwear, I maintain the decorum of your office and also put my ego outside.' Smuts was so impressed by this reply that he told Winston Churchill to learn humility from ' this frail Indian gentleman.'

Humility is a quality that comes only with great wisdom and life's vast experiences. It's said that knowledge is arrogant but wisdom is humble. Wisdom indeed is humble. Humility is the cornerstone of individual greatness. Look at all the great in the history of human civilization. They all have a common virtue. They were humble to the core, even to a fault. Sir Issac Newton said, 'I've got nothing of my own, all my ideas are improvement upon earlier ideas and hints given by much greater predecessors of mine.'

To succeed in life, the quality one needs is humility. Remember the Scottish adage, 'Be humble and you won't tumble.'

About the Author
Sumit Paul is a Poona-based advanced research student of Semitic languages and civilizations. He contributes to world's premier publications and portals in several languages, viz, Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, French, Spanish, Dutch, Hindi, English among others.

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