New York Times columnist David Brooks listens during a pre-taping of “Meet the Press” in January of 2009.
In the spirit of the holiday season, news surfaced this week that the noted New York Times conservative columnist David Brooks will teach a global studies seminar on modesty and humility at Yale University this spring.
The course, entitled simply “Humility,” will feature the works of a range of ethical thinkers throughout world history. According to the course description at Yale’s Online Course Information, the course will examine:
“Traditions of modesty and humility in character building and political leadership. Contemporary understandings of character and character building. The premise that human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance, and weakness. The concept of humility in works by and about Homer, Moses, Augustine, Montaigne, Burke, Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, Jr., and others.”
Brooks has broached these themes in various ways in the last few years through his newspaper column and his public appearances.
In 2011, he gave a well-received speech at Georgetown University that discussed the negative effects of pride in “today’s self-obsessed world.”
This summer, at the Aspen Ideas Festival, Brooks gave a “Modesty Manifesto,” which critiqued the rise in the emphasis on self-esteem in today’s culture. In the speech, he argued that the move toward personal sexual liberation in the 1960s and the trend toward personal financial liberation in the 1980s were two sides of the same overall trend. Both were ways of separating the individual from the community, of celebrating the self rather than the whole.
However, “the humble person has the ability to be ‘unselved,’” Brooks argued in a 2011 column.
In a column earlier that year, the political commentator had even extrapolated the argument out to the larger public sphere as an explanation for today’s political paralysis: “Most pervasively, I wonder if there is a link between a possible magnification of self and a declining saliency of the virtues associated with citizenship.”
Throughout his speeches and writings, Brooks sets up a dichotomy between those who see human nature as fundamentally good and those who see humanity as inherently fallible. Brooks places himself on the side of the pessimists, of those who see the human capacity for evil. He contrasts this belief with contemporary movements in humanistic psychology, led by thinkers like Carl Rogers, who argue that people are born good, and only become evil due to a lack of self-love. Those thinkers believe that the key to stamping out evil is promoting an ever increasing degree of self-love.
It is this excessive love of self that ultimately leads to evil, Brooks believes.
Self-love, or self pre-occupation, becomes pride and hubris, he says, and this pride results in an inability to see one’s own faults. In his speech at Aspen, Brooks quoted Reinhold Niebuhr, a mid-century American philosopher featured in the course: “Evil in its most developed form is always a good which imagines itself or pretends to be better than it is.” Thus modesty and humility become the great foundations of good in the world.
Brooks previously taught a public policy course at Duke University in the fall of 2006, which featured works from some of the same thinkers as his upcoming humility course.
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