Sunday, April 13, 2008

Standing Humbly Before Nature

By: Lisa Gerber

Humility is a virtue that is helpful in a person’s relationship with nature. A humble person sees value in nature and acts accordingly with the proper respect. In this paper, humility is discussed in three aspects. First, humility entails an overcoming of self-absorption. Second, humility involves coming into contact with a larger, more complex reality. Third, humility allows a person to develop a sense of perspective on herself and the world.

One hot summer I went to visit my sister Sue in southern Utah where she was working for the Forest Service. On her day off we went to a small lake, a water hole, really, surrounded by brown sandy soil. We put our towels down on the beach and Sue promptly fell asleep, exhausted after working several days with the fire crew. I walked to the lake, letting my body slip out of the hot sun and into the cool water. After swimming, I went back to my towel. There was a small, rigid sac attached to my blue lycra suit. Not knowing what it was, I sat still and watched. Slowly, a dragonfly began to hatch. Time stretched to eternity as this creature pulled herself out of her shell. Her body lengthened and expanded, almost like she was unfolding. Her abdomen grew and her crumpled wings stretched out. I watched the whole process, completely absorbed and awed. Finally her stretched wings were dry and she flew across the beach. For years, as a reminder, I kept her thin, delicate shell tucked safely in a small canister.

This is one of my experiences of humility. I remember this experience both in its concrete aspects and in the knowledge gained from this experience. At the lake, I was able to set aside my preoccupation with self and with my day-to-day concerns. I came into contact with nature. I was humbled by the beauty and intricacy of the natural world, awed by this birthing of a dragonfly. This concrete experience allowed me to gain a better understanding of myself and the natural world. This is knowledge that I hold with me, knowledge of the intricacy of nature, knowledge of the incredible act of this dragonfly. Experiences like this act as a reminder of the beauty and complexity of our world and as a reminder of what is important.

The idea of humility that I present is quite different from a conception of humility as a form of self-denigration, or thinking lowly of oneself. Most dictionaries define humility as thinking lowly of oneself. And this is not merely a common definition. Philosophical and religious thinkers have conceived of humility as having a low opinion of oneself. For example, Bernard de Clairvaux believed that humans should have a low opinion of themselves, since humans were lowly despicable creatures. And David Hume believed humility was a particularly debilitating vice that made men weak. Clearly, it is hard to imagine why humility would be a good thing under these conceptions. Yet, if we make the connection between humility and awe we will be able to see past these negative versions of this virtue. Considering humility before nature is particularly illuminative, because it is hard to miss the connection between humility and awe.

Humility is a virtue that is particularly useful in our relationship with nature. It helps us move away from arrogance to an appreciation of nature. A humble person can see value in nature and acts accordingly with the proper reverence and respect. This essay, then, is an exploration of humility. The best way to proceed is to consider humility in three parts, simply for conceptual clarification. First, humility involves an overcoming of self-absorption; the object of attention is not oneself. Second, humility involves contact with a larger, more complex reality; nature is one example. Here we will be able to see the connection between humility and awe. Awe is the appropriate response to the grandeur, beauty, or complexity of nature. Third, humility involves a sense of perspective on oneself and the world.

This idea of perspective is an important aspect of humility. This perspective includes a cognitive component and a normative component. Cognitively, a person can understand his place in nature or his relation to another complex reality. Much of the recent philosophical work focuses on the third aspect of humility, that of perspective. The thought is that humility is having a proper perspective on yourself. This would include non-overestimation of yourself, not exaggerating your accomplishments, and being aware of human limitations. (1) This perspective is a type of self-understanding in which a person gains a proper perspective on who he is and his place in the world. With regard to nature, this will be a type of perspective on oneself in relation to nature; this includes an understanding of oneself as a part of nature. Normatively, a person can understand what is valuable and can act in light of that understanding with respect and reverence. A humble person sees value in nature and acts accordingly. (2)

Overcoming Self-Absorption

The first aspect of humility that I want to consider is the idea of overcoming self-absorption. When a person is humble, she moves the focus away from herself. Suppose a person is hiking in the Rocky Mountains and she is thinking about her job. She laments that she should have finished the project she started last week, and that she should have said something different to her colleagues. Perhaps she thinks about having a little party or muses about the great tennis match on television. These thoughts have nothing to do with hiking in the Rocky Mountains and in fact detract from her ability to be humble before nature. She is too self-absorbed to notice, much less appreciate, nature. Henry David Thoreau speaks of his experience of being preoccupied with himself and his daily concerns. He shows how this preoccupation detracts from awareness of the natural world. He writes:

Of course it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is—I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? (3)

To be out of your senses is to miss the sights, sounds, and smells of the world around you. Part of being humble is coming into contact with and finally appreciating an external reality. This is impossible if a person is self-absorbed or otherwise preoccupied with himself and his daily concerns. You must move the focus away from self. Part of humility is gaining a new perspective on self and the world, because a person has come into contact with something like nature. The idea is that a person becomes aware of an incredible, complex external reality and this shifts her vision from herself. A person who is self-absorbed is unable to be humble because she cannot see past her own concerns.

Humility includes letting go of grandiose and denigrating thoughts of yourself as well as letting go of thoughts about your daily concerns, plans, goals, desires, resentments, or loves. Many people make a claim that sounds similar to the one above, but which is quite different. For example, Philippa Foot (1978) claims that humility corrects our thinking too much of ourselves. (4) Her idea is that virtues are corrective, each one standing at a point where there is some temptation to be resisted or some deficiency of motivation to be made good. Her thought is that people in general tend to think too much of themselves. Humility, then, would correct this general tendency. Yet, I am not referring to a self-boastfulness or arrogance. My claim is much broader. I am referring to self-absorption, and this could include arrogance as well as thinking lowly of oneself. A person who is self-absorbed spends too much time reflecting on herself and her concerns. Rather than saying that humility corrects thinking too highly of oneself, my claim is that a person whose thoughts tend to come back to herself and her daily concerns is unable to be humble. In this sense, humility would correct thinking too much of oneself in the sense of time spent reflecting on the self.

Rather than saying that humility is having a low opinion of oneself as opposed to a high one, it makes more sense to say that being humble is moving the focus away from self. This allows a person to overcome self-absorption in a way that allows something else to take root in awareness. To be humble before nature is to move the focus away from self and to allow oneself to respond appropriately to nature.

A Larger, More Complex Reality

However, not every experience of overcoming self-absorption leads to humility. Humility is the proper response to a greater, more complex reality. If you were to move the focus away from self and contemplate a trash can or a fork, this experience would not lead to humility, because the trash can or fork does not merit humility. To function, humility needs a reality greater than ourselves; a reality that inspires awe. Nature in its beauty, complexity, and vastness does afford us a sense of the sacred and profane. Nature is complex, intricate, spontaneous. Think of the migration of geese, or the sunrise. Visit the Grand Canyon, or walk among the exposed and open rock of southern Utah. Late at night look up and watch the stars. Or during spring, crouch and watch a bean sprout coming out of the ground. At some point you will stop and say, "Wow. This is incredible. Beautiful. Amazing." To fail to see this, to fail to be moved by the awe-inspiring qualities of nature, is to lack humility. We understand humility through the awe-inspiring qualities the virtuous person can see.

Humility comes from contact with a greater more complex reality. That is, a person stands before something that inspires awe. This is an element in many historical conceptions of humility. For example, the Christian virtue of humility functions before an all-powerful God; God is revered. Einstein was humble before the complexity of the universe; the universe is respected. Recent writers think that we should be humble before an ideal of human nature; a possibility of humanity is idealized and revered. God, the universe, and human nature all represent external realities. Yet, a person needs the sensitivity to recognize and see these external realities. This is a sensitivity to others which involves seeing something outside ourselves. This is made possible by overcoming self-absorption.

Humility stems from a person's relationship to something greater. Jay Newman, in "Humility and Self-Realization" (1982), offers a helpful account of this relation in which a person has an opportunity for self-evaluation. "In evaluating himself," writes Newman, "one considers himself in relation to something external—God or other people" (p. 282). Newman argues that we can be humble before an ideal of what the person is in the process of realizing. There must be something external in order for humility to function. We need to be humble before something, whether it be our potential, nature, God, or gods. Proper humility only makes sense before something great, beautiful, or complex; something that is greater than ourselves.

William Kittredge (1984) is a Montana writer who makes explicit the connection between humility and nature. In a beautiful essay Kittredge writes of the humility we can learn from "the great ursus arctos horribilis, the grizzly." The grizzly is described as a magnificent creature; one to be revered and feared. Kittredge sits in a fire lookout, with Doug Peacock and Peacock's wife Lisa, reminiscing about the grizzly. He articulates his own fear of the grizzly, the fatal grizzly attacks in Yellowstone and Glacier, and the loss of habitat of this bear. Kittredge's friend Peacock had survived the war in Vietnam and had come back crazy and unable to talk to anyone. Kittredge writes: "the indifferent, dignified otherness of the animal touched Peacock in a way that forced his craziness and anger out into the open, where he could see it as something other than the natural condition of life" (p. 128). Kittredge's reference to the dignified otherness of the grizzly sets up the grizzly as something external. The grizzly is not part of a narcissistic gaze, but is separate, distinct, and great. The bear in the essay is great and powerful. Kittredge wonders if, we cannot, as Peacock claims, have a true North American wilderness without the great and dangerous and emblematic bear out there feeding on bulbs of blue camas and tubers of yampa, on biscuit-root, pine nuts, and stinking dead-over-winter carrion. [He wonders] if wilderness must indeed, by definition, be inhabited by some power greater than ourselves. (p. 131)

It is not simply that a grizzly could kill you, which it could. The description of the grizzly is of a powerful, awesome creature. A beautiful animal. The grizzly, like the wilderness, is something external which is greater and more powerful than ourselves. Kittredge takes the further step and equates humility with this great and powerful creature:

As the sky broke over the peaks of Glacier, I found myself deeply moved by the view from our elevation, off west the lights of Montana, Hungry Horse, and Columbia Falls, and farmsteads along the northern edge of Flathead Lake, and back in the direction of sunrise the soft and misted valleys of the parklands, not an electric light showing: little enough to preserve the wanderings of a great and sacred animal who can teach us, if nothing else, by his power and dilemma, a little common humility. (p. 136)

Humility is a proper response to the power and dilemma of the grizzly.
Kittredge's views are common among nature writers as well as among environmental philosophers. Thomas Hill (1983) writes that his argument for our appreciation of nature, "appeals to the common idea that awareness of nature typically has and should have a humbling effect.

The Alps, a storm at sea, the Grand Canyon, towering redwoods, and the 'starry heavens' move many a person to remark on the comparative insignificance of our daily concerns and even of our species and this is generally taken to be a quite fitting response" (p. 219). This is to say that the Grand Canyon, the towering redwoods, the grizzly all merit our humility. These are external realities and properly fill us with awe and respect.

Not every aspect of nature is as intense as the Rockies or as powerful as a grizzly. Yet, this is not to say that the more ordinary aspects of nature do not or should not have a humbling effect. Each part of nature is complex and intricate. For example, the small lichen that grows on rough rock is an incredible plant. Lichen are really two plant forms living in symbiosis. The algae provides food for the fungus which, having no green chlorophyll, is unable to manufacture food. The fungus furnishes the algae with moisture saving the algae from drought. These two plants thrive together and make way for other plants to grow and take root. Lichen are able to survive on the barest of rock and they live and decay providing humus for other plant life. There is also a beautiful sunrise, or the hatching of a dragon fly. One can be humble before a flowering rose, or a spider web. These aspects of nature are external to us, as are human ideals, God, other people, or the grizzly. Given the more delicate and overlooked aspects of nature, it is crucial that we acknowledge the need to overcome self-absorption. Often it must be a conscious choice, a deliberate attempt to let go of self-absorption in order to allow contact with the something external that is rich and complex. Nature provides us, in an increasingly busy and alienated world, with an opportunity to come into contact with something that is greater and more powerful than ourselves.

A Sense of Perspective

Since humility stems from a relation between ourselves and something external, we can also learn about ourselves from this relation. When we are humble before something great and awesome, we can gain a perspective on ourselves. We also gain perspective on value and respectful action.

Let's look at the idea of perspective first and then move on to the ideas of value and right action. In the essay, "Is Humility a Virtue?" Norvin Richards (1988) argues that humility "involves having an accurate sense of oneself, sufficiently firm to resist pressures toward incorrect revisions. Only here [as opposed to dignity] the pressures are to think too much of oneself rather than too little" (p. 254). For example, you may think you deserve more praise for an accomplishment than you actually do. As Richards puts it, "you have yielded to a temptation to cast yourself in a more central role where the spotlight ought to linger and the player entitled to dominate the action" (pp. 254-5). In this case, a person has succumbed to a temptation to exaggerate the importance of his accomplishments and thus exhibits a lack of humility. This does not mean that a humble person could not be prideful. Richards writes that "proper humility doesn't require that you take no pride at all in what you do, but only that you take less pride than a far greater accomplishment would have merited (p. 255). Thus, the idea is that humility is a form of self-knowledge in which a person keeps herself and her accomplishments in proper perspective. This perspective is gained from confrontation with a larger system, whether this be the other people's accomplishments in a particular field or accomplishments of people in general.

Nancy Snow (1995) argues that Richard's definition of humility works well for some conceptions of humility, but not for others. Resisting the temptation to exaggerate your importance and keeping yourself and your accomplishments in proper perspective does explain certain types of humility. For example, Snow argues that this conception does explain examples of being humble about one's capabilities as a cellist, or about one's talents as a detective. Here humility would be a matter of resisting temptations to exaggerate. However, she shows that some examples of humility need further explanation.

Snow looks at two cases which are relevant in our exploration of humility before nature: "Einstein was humbled by the scientific complexity of the universe," and "I was humbled before the grandeur of the Rockies." She writes that these examples are not merely a matter of resisting a temptation to exaggerate; they also involve a recognition of deficiency and an awareness of limitation. In these cases, a person is confronted not merely with his own deficiencies, but also with an awareness of the limitations of human nature. In these cases, "he has an inkling of a larger, more complex reality [and this shows] human limitations. Confrontation with human finitude brought about by an awareness of a more complex reality is humbling" (Snow 1995, 206). To facilitate her point, Snow distinguishes between narrow and existential humility. Narrow humility is about "specific personal traits perceived as deficiencies." This is akin to the definition of humility given by Richards. Existential humility, on the other hand, "goes beyond humility about specific person characteristics to include an aspect of the human condition in general, human finitude" (Snow 1995, 206). It is clear that Snow falls prey to the idea of humble as somewhat derogatory. Her language overflows with negative connotations. Humans are deficient and limited.

We would be misguided to assume that humility is simply a matter of understanding human limitations or deficiencies. When we are before the complexity of the universe, or the grandeur of nature, we are awed by them. The universe and nature give a person pause. We are actually made better rather than smaller from the encounter, because we touch something that is greater and more complex than ourselves. We may see the insignificance in some of our daily concerns, but this is a good thing. It always helps to get a perspective on what is important.

There is also a sense, of course, that humans are limited. We cannot understand all the complexities of the universe, nor can we create the beauty of the sunrise on the Tetons. But the awe-inspiring quality of nature gives us cause to rise above the mundane and touch beauty. If we keep in mind the awe-inspiring qualities of the greater external reality we can resist the temptation to think that limitation and smallness are negative. We become embedded in a larger reality and this can be cause for wonder and celebration. Listen to the way Rick Bass describes his awe and humility:

I was already in love with these woods; I did not understand there could be a thing deeper than love. The thing in our blood that makes us love beauty—and beauty's depth, beauty's electrical charge—who would even consider that such a thing can be measured?

At what point should we set down our microscopes and tape measures, with respect to the woods and say, All right, enough; this thing—nature—is larger than we can understand. We are only a part of it, at the tail end of it—nothing but a curious fat little comma, near the end of a very long sentence. (Bass 1996, 47)

There are two important themes to notice in this quotation. First is the incredible awe that Bass experiences. Part of humility is the awe at coming before the immensity and beauty of nature. Second is that nature is larger than we can understand, but we are part of it. We can now see what perspective humility before nature, as opposed to other people or gods, can give us. From our contact with nature, we can come to understand ourselves as part of the natural world—a small part of a vast system.

One of the most interesting aspects of humility before nature is the recognition that we are part and parcel of nature. We, too, have the spontaneous beauty of natural things. Our physicality gives us cause to understand what it means to be part of nature. For Thomas Hill, self-acceptance includes recognizing that we are part of nature and that we share biological aspects. "A storm in the wild," writes Hill, helps us appreciate our animal vulnerability, but equally important, the reluctance to experience it may reflect an unwillingness to accept this aspect of ourselves. The person who is too ready to destroy the ancient redwoods may lack humility, not so much in the sense that he exaggerates his importance to others, but rather in the sense that he tries to avoid seeing himself as one among many natural creatures. (Hill 1983, 222)

So, thinking that we are immune from nature, that we can control our mortality, that we can avoid being hot, cold, tired, or old is in part a lack of humility in that we fail to recognize that we are part of nature. As Hill says, we are one among many natural creatures.

Yet, there is more to this idea than simply self-acceptance. For if we remember humility's connection with awe, we can recognize our bodies as being able to merit wonder and awe. Poet Gary Snyder asks the question, "Do you really believe you are an animal?" He responds to this question with delight. "It is a wonderful piece of information," he writes, "I have been enjoying it all my life and I come back to it over and over again, as something to investigate and test" (Snyder 1990, 15). He continues along this vein, describing the body as he would a natural wonder. He writes: "Our bodies are wild. The involuntary quick turn of the head at a shout, the vertigo at looking off a precipice, the heart-in-the-throat in a moment of danger, the catch of the breath, the quiet moments relaxing, staring, reflection—all universal responses of this mammal body" (16). He describes the body with a wonder at its responses, the wildness of our selves. Wildness that is spontaneous. For humility does not require that we lament our lowliness, physically, mentally, or spiritually, but rather that we respond appropriately with wonder and awe.

So, humility before nature gives a person a sense of perspective. She is part of a larger whole, part of the complex, external reality of nature. She is part of it in her ability to respond with awe and her awareness of herself as part of nature. In a sense, she becomes imbedded in a larger whole. Humility, then, is not about a person's lowliness, rather it involves a person's relationship with a larger, more complex reality.

There are two ways in which a person can be said to show a lack of humility. First, a person can fail to be properly moved by nature. This, in part, is the problem of self-absorption. For example, a person can fail to be humble before the first pasqueflower of the season or before the ancient Fremont pictographs in southern Utah. Second, a person's actions can show her lack of humility. A humble person wouldn't purposely squash the pasqueflower, or use the pictographs for target practice.

It does not make sense to say that a person was humble if he responded with awe and then destroyed or harmed that which inspired awe. For example, if someone exclaimed, "wow, look at this beautiful pasqueflower," and then crunched the flower under her boot, we would think that there was something wrong with this person. Similarly, imagine a person who admired the wonderful pictographs, standing in awe of the traces left by ancient people and then he took a shotgun and blasted holes in the rock. We certainly would not think this person virtuous. Certainly, we would not say that he was properly moved by these pictographs, but failed to have the appropriately normative response. No, we would not describe this person as humble or virtuous. Rather, we would characterize this person as pathological and as an aberration. In most cases, people who do recognize the value in an external reality will respond properly and with respect. That is, if a person recognizes the value in nature, certain acts of destruction will be unthinkable. This is because a person cannot be humble before nature without recognizing the value of nature. And recognizing the value in nature makes certain acts unthinkable.

The following two examples will illustrate a lack of humility and humility, respectively. In the first, some people destroyed a beautiful sandstone arch. They lacked the ability to see the value in the landscape. Their actions clearly reflect a lack of humility and would have been unthinkable to a person who was moved by the landscape. In the second example, we will look at Rick Bass, who is humble before nature and acts accordingly with respect.

On a rainy memorial day weekend in 1997, some people floated down the Missouri River in central Montana. Like many people before them, they would visit the Eye of the Needle, a delicate, eleven-foot, white sandstone arch on the high bluffs along the river. This area is not easily accessible. To get there you need to float down the river. You need to know when to stop and get out of the boat in order to hike to the arch.

The arch is not directly visible from the river below, unless you are farther downstream. This means that these people floated the river, stopped at the place where the Missouri runs wide and deep, then scrambled up a steep cliff to get to the area. Once at the Eye of the Needle, they could gaze at the river. The prairie, the mountain ranges, the river, and sky, all were framed by the delicate structure of the arch. They were the last to see it this way. The next person on the scene would find the sandstone arch broken, and several pillars and formations knocked over. BLM and Forest Service officials say this was clearly an act of vandalism, since not only was the arch toppled, but many toadstool formations were destroyed also. This vandalism is a sad testimony to what had taken the wind, rain, and sun tens of thousands of years to create.

If we think about the people who did this, it is clear that they failed to respond appropriately, both in terms of their characters and their actions. Bonnie Cook, the outfitter who first discovered the vandalized arch, points to a defect in character in the people who destroyed Eye of the Needle. "People may start out on a hike or a float with intentions to harm," she says, "but the forest or rivers tend to change their attitude along the way. It scares me to think that people now intrude upon the wilderness and manage to keep their rage intact" (Cook 1997, A16). The implication here is that these people failed to respond appropriately to nature. There is a sense that the mountains and rivers have the power to change people's attitudes. These people, however, lacked part of humility, that of overcoming self-absorption. The rafters, as Cook points out, managed to keep their rage intact, even while floating down a stunning stretch of the river. The people who destroyed the arch lacked the capacity to feel awe where awe was merited. A humble person would have been appropriately moved by the landscape. Destroying the arch would have been unthinkable.

In contrast is Rick Bass's experience while in the Yaak valley where he lives. Bass is hiking and comes upon grizzly tracks. Like Kittredge, he is awed and humbled by this great creature. Bass explains his humility before nature by using an analogy of humility before a person. Listen to his description of humility. He writes, When I couldn't follow after his tracks any more I felt again a burst of reverence, a mix of fear and euphoria. It was as if I'd made a small new discovery in science—as if one curious piece of data suddenly and gracefully connected with another . . . I sat down on a cold rock in the wind and thought about what I had seen. I didn't want to leave the mountain, as I had the sense one has when one is in the presence of a great man or woman, someone who's meant a lot to you, and whom you finally get to meet. You want to savor the moment and say the right thing, but also, especially if the day has been long and that person is old and tired, you don't want to be a stone, a thing that weighs them down, and so you quickly savor the encounter and are reassured, almost relieved, to see that yes, there is something special and different about him or her, some force, something indefinable . . . (Bass 1996, 51)

There are several things to notice in this passage. Bass has come into contact with an external reality, the grizzly. He is humble, comparing his reverence before the grizzly to his reverence before a great person. We understand what it is to be humble before great people and the virtue functions in the same way as a proper response to nature. Bass shows that it matters how we act before greatness and that there is a proper way to treat those whom we revere. So it is not only that humility is a proper response to nature, but also there are proper acts of reverence.

His reverence extends to his time on the mountain, the home of the grizzly. He had been grouse hunting and sees some birds in the bunchgrass. He writes:

I stepped forward to flush them, but did not shoot: and one by one they flew away, fat and juicy and lucky. It was unthinkable to me to shoot a shotgun on this mountain with any grizzly, but especially that grizzly, on it. It would be like walking into a stranger's house, upon first meeting him or her—say the friend of a friend—and blasting a hole through the ceiling of the living room. It just wasn't imaginable. (p. 52)

The language in this passage show Bass's humility; there is a sense of awe and respect. Bass is in contact with the greatness of the grizzly and he thinks it is important to act respectfully. To shoot a gun would be a violation of his respect for the grizzly. His actions are those of a humble person who has been appropriately moved by the greatness of the grizzly. He shows that it matters how a person acts in the face of greatness.

Through the practice of the virtue of humility a person is able to come into a new and better relationship with nature. A humble person, for example, is able to respond to nature with the appropriate awe and respect. The depth of this relationship is simply lost by systems that place principles before character. A utilitarian, for instance, always works to alleviate suffering, but this does not even entail direct contact with nature. The self is not necessarily changed, or made more aware of the beauty and complexity of nature. Similarly, mere scientific understanding does not entail that the person be appropriately moved by nature. The virtues demand something different from us. We do not simply bring our moral principles to apply, but rather we learn something from responding appropriately to the land.

We need direct contact with nature, but this is clearly not enough. After all, the vandals and Bass had direct contact with nature. Yet, Bass responded respectfully and the vandals did not. The difference is in their characters. Clearly, it is important to develop our characters, in living well and acting rightly. Humility is a good virtue to develop. In its three aspects, humility facilitates a person's relationship with nature. A person overcomes self-absorption and comes into contact with a larger, more complex reality. These two aspects reinforce and strengthen the third aspect of humility where we gain perspective on ourselves, our place in the world, and in acting respectfully. Nature is all around us. This morning I can hear the mourning doves and the robins. Sun filters through the ponderosa. The breeze is cool with a hint of the heat to come. Nature is here; now let us develop ourselves so that we can appreciate our world and act accordingly.


Special thanks to Fred Schueler, Sergio Tenenbaum, and Bryan Benham for comments on early drafts of this paper.

This paper appeared originally in Ethics & the Environment, 7.1 (2002) 39-53

Lisa Gerber teaches philosophy and humanities for the University Honors Program at the University of New Mexico. She has written on environmental virtues and vices, particularly the vice of misanthropy and the virtues of humility, intimacy, and attentiveness. Email:


(1) See for example, Norville Richards, "Is Humility a Virtue?"; Nancy Snow, "Humility"; Thomas Hill, "Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments." Hill's essay is strongly normative also.
(2) For an interesting and helpful discussion of values as secondary qualities see John McDowell, Mind, Value, and Reality, "Values and Secondary Qualities," 131-50. McDowell argues that we cannot characterize value without referring to human sensibility. That is, the awareness of value is like the awareness of secondary qualities. We cannot characterize secondary qualities like color independently of the beings who can see color just as we cannot characterize value independent of human sensibility. A particular situation, place, person, merits an appropriate response, just as a particular object merits a particular response, that is, seeing red. We cannot describe color independent of the way a certain type of being sees the world and we cannot describe value independent of the way a virtuous person sees the world.
(3) Henry David Thoreau, Walking, 8-9. There are many copies of this essay. It can be found in most collections, especially in the collections of Thoreau's nature writing.
(4) Philippa Foot, "Virtues and Vices," 1-18. See especially section II.


Bass, Rick. 1996. The Book of Yaak. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Cook, Bonnie.1997. "Arch Vandals Tear Open Eye of Needle Formations: Montanans Angered by Damage to Nature." Washington Post, 7 June, A1, A16.
Foot, Philippa. 1978, "Virtues and Vices." In Virtues and Vices and Other Essays in Moral Philosophy. Oxford: Blackwell, 1-18.
Hill, Thomas. 1983. "Ideals of Human Excellence and Preserving Natural Environments," Environmental Ethics 5, 211-24.
Kittredge, William. 1984. "Grizzly." In Owning It All. St. Paul, Minn.: Grey Wolf Publications, 122-36.
McDowell, John. 1998. "Values and Secondary Qualities." In Mind, Value, and Reality. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 131-50.
Newman, Jay. 1982. "Humility and Self-Realization," Journal of Value Inquiry 16, 275-85.
Richards, Norvin. 1988. "Is Humility a Virtue?" American Philosophical Quarterly 25, 253-60.
Snow, Nancy. 1995. "Humility," Journal of Value Inquiry 29, 203-16.
Snyder, Gary. 1990. "The Etiquette of Freedom." In The Practice of the Wild. San Francisco: North Point Press, 3-24.
Thoreau, Henry David. 1995. Walking. New York: Penguin Books.

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