Self-effacement is presented by standard dictionaries as the disposition of a withdrawn personality lacking self-assertion or social sensibility. To not take initiative and stake out one’s ego, even in an ephemeral situation, is seen as a character flaw, a lack of personality, or more serious on the spectrum of social disorders.

This notion of self-effacement is quickly refuted in the anecdotes of historical hermits.

Self-effacement was a virtue among historical hermits, not because it was a useful device for dropping out of situations but because it was a reflection of a deeper philosophy of living, wherein helping others was not to be taken as a credit or exception, and withdrawal not to be taken as a weakness but strength, transcending the momentary. The project of the historical hermit required a declining of the worldly, tacitly expressed in self-effacement.

— Meng-hu, “Self-Effacement


Ah! How reluctant I am to force my own ideas upon another! How I rejoice in any mood and secret transformation within myself which means that the ideas of another have prevailed over my own! Now and then, however, I enjoy an even higher festival: when one is for once permitted to give away one’s spiritual house and possessions, like a father confessor who sits in his corner anxious for one in need to come and tell of the distress of his mind, so that he may again fill his hands and his heart and make light his troubled soul! He is not merely not looking for fame; he would even like to escape gratitude, for gratitude is too importunate and lacks respect for solitude and silence. What he seeks is to live nameless and lightly mocked at, too humble to awaken envy or hostility, with a head free of fever, equipped with a handful of knowledge and a bagful of experience, as it were a poor-doctor of the spirit aiding those whose head is confused by opinions without their being really aware who has aided them! Not desiring to maintain his own opinion or celebrate a victory over them, but to address them in such a way that, after the slightest of imperceptible hints or contradictions, they themselves arrive at the truth and go away proud of the fact! To be like a little inn which rejects no one who is in need but which is afterwards forgotten or ridiculed! To possess no advantage, neither better food nor purer air nor a more joyful spirit — but to give away, to give back, to communicate, to grow poorer! To be able to be humble, so as to be accessible to many and humiliating to none! To have much injustice done him, and to have crept through the worm-holes of errors of every kind, so as to be able to reach many hidden souls on their secret paths! Forever in a kind of love and forever in a kind of selfishness and self-enjoyment! To be in possession of a dominion and at the same time concealed and renouncing! To lie continually in the sunshine and gentleness of grace, and yet to know that the oaths that rise up to the sublime are close by! That would be a life! That would be a reason for a long life!

— Nietzsche, Daybreak