The Virtue of Not Being Above Average

The essayist Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) wrote, “I consider myself an average person, except for the fact that I consider myself an average person.” Montaigne was onto something: study after study reveals that most of us consider ourselves above average, whether that be in terms of IQ or driving ability.

Quite aside from the statistical problem that this human propensity presents, it also creates a social problem: we humans just don’t do well as lone wolves. Being “ahead of the pack” just isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Sure, having a high opinion of oneself helps get us up in the morning, but it also leads to anti-social behavior.

The English word “humble” comes to us from the Latin word for the ground — “humus.” In the English language “the humble” has the taint of classism about it, and perhaps this is one reason we don’t talk about humility all that much. Yet for the author of the Book of James in Christian scripture, the virtue of humility was not in question: “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (KJV 4:6). That’s humility in both thought and social location.

Humility isn’t just about getting right with the divine, however. Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Why are you discontent? Because people are bad? Remind yourself that rational animals are here for each other and that enduring is part of living justly. People are bad involuntarily. Think of how many have died due to grudge, hate, suspicion, and warfare — think of how many have been laid out dead and burned to ash. This should give you pause. Are you discontent with the lot the universe has given you? The universe is change; life is opinion. (Meditations IV.3)

This passage underlines the Stoic practice of denigrating the accomplishments of the self. According to the Stoics, the true and virtuous accomplishment — and one we can all achieve — is being a good, humble, social animal.

One step in that direction is being a bit more like Montaigne: “I consider myself an average person, except for the fact that I consider myself an average person.”

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