The problem with most humans is not that they think too highly of themselves: it’s that they think too little of themselves. They exhibit what G.K. Chesterton called a “weird and horrible humility.” To put it bluntly, we’ve been trained to perpetually self-accuse.
We grow up to question ourselves endlessly, to stay worried that we might screw something up. The law teaches us that we’re always on the edge of being punished. All the years we spend in school teach us to fear mistakes. And unfortunately, many religions teach us that we’re always on the verge of falling into sin and damnation.
The truth, however, is that we’re not that bad. We just think so.
Of course, we do sometimes screw things up… but not remotely as often as we mistrust ourselves. And a large percentage of those screwups occur precisely because we don’t trust ourselves!
“Human Nature Has Been Sold Short”
Humans have deeply devalued themselves, and I’m hardly the first person to say so. Here’s what psychologist Abraham Maslow wrote:
Human history is a record of the ways in which human nature has been sold short. The highest possibilities of human nature have practically always been underrated.
And here’s the Chesterton quote (from The Defendant) that I referred to above:
There runs a strange law through the length of human history—that men are continually tending to undervalue their environment, to undervalue their happiness, to undervalue themselves. The great sin of mankind, the sin typified by the fall of Adam, is the tendency, not towards pride, but towards this weird and horrible humility.
And as long as we’re bringing up Adam, it’s worth noting that the Bible’s 82nd Psalm says something that many people find shockingly un-Biblical:
You are gods.
This statement was repeated, by the way, by none other than Jesus. Interpret that any way you like, but these men were clearly not calling us born and degenerate losers.
The truth is that we are far more and better than we’ve given ourselves credit for, and it’s time to stop treating ourselves like dangerous beasts.
Agents of Creation
Humans are agents of creation in the universe. For example, we’ve taken the raw materials of the physical universe and turned them into things of much greater value.
We’ve turned dirt and rocks into metals, then into vehicles, then used them to generate electricity through invisible forces that we learned how to control. We’ve built amazingly complex electronic devices, gathered all the information of the world, and made it available to ourselves on devices that we hold in our pockets. We’ve sent men to the moon and probes outside of our solar system. We travel the oceans and skies on a routine basis… we’ve unraveled DNA and split the atom… and much, much more.
Are we to receive no credit for any of this? Are we to ignore it all, because we’d rather cling to our habitual misery?
The individual human is an incredible entity in the universe—far higher and better than anything else we can see.
And yet, most of us feel bad about ourselves most of the time. It’s silly, wrong, and even masochistic, and yet this self-devaluing continues unabated.
Yes, as many people will leap to point out, humans have done some very bad things. But those are some humans, not all of us. The vast majority of humans cooperate through the vast majority of their lives. They love their families and work with their friends. Aside from momentary lapses, they mainly build and produce. Yes, there is now a large dependent class, but mostly because they’ve been tempted, pushed, or fallen into it.
Even business—often thought to be a place of competition—is far more about cooperation than anything else. The business owner must induce his employees, suppliers, banks, and customers to cooperate with him. If he fails to engage that cooperation, he has no business.
In fact, the evils of humanity serve to buttress my point. I won’t have space to cover this at length (I did in issue #25 of my newsletter), but let’s begin with a statement made by Hannah Arendt, who studied human evil carefully:
The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.
Most actual evil is not done willfully, but by people who abandon their wills. They find themselves weak and shaped by circumstances. This is precisely what we’ve been talking about in this article: the people whose cooperation was essential to evil, cooperated precisely because they devalued themselves. They didn’t feel worthy of asserting their own opinions.
So if these basically decent people thought better of themselves—felt confident enough to assert themselves—most human evil would simply evaporate.
“The Goodness of Existence”
Here’s another of Chesterton’s passages from The Defendant:
Every one of the great revolutionists, from Isaiah to Shelly, have been optimists. They have been indignant, not about the badness of existence, but about the slowness of men in realizing its goodness.
Both Chesterton and Maslow were right, and the sad truth is that human history has been dominated by people who sold themselves short as a matter of course. They were too intimidated to defend and follow their own thoughts.
We’ve dwelt on our inabilities more than our capabilities, and by a very large margin. We’ve been animated by the fear of failure, rather than the pursuit of our desires. We’ve been intimidated and confused, sure there was something deficient with ourselves.
But that was a wasteful illusion, not reality.
It’s time for us to stop believing that it’s our role in life to be ordered around, lest we embarrass ourselves. And it’s time to start trusting our own judgment, to start acting on our own will.
I’ll close with a few lines from a song called Already Gone, by the Eagles.
So oftentimes it happens
that we live our life in chains,
and we never even know we have the key
We do have the key, and it’s turned by accepting that we are better than we thought we were… and acting upon that belief.
A Free-Man’s Take is written by adventure capitalist, author, and freedom advocate Paul Rosenberg. You can get much more from Paul in his unique monthly newsletter, Free-Man’s Perspective.