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Image for Humility: Moral, Religious, Intellectual


Dismantling Walls: How Humility and Love Help Us Make It to the Other Side

Robert C. Roberts

Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
September 10, 2017

The central New Testament texts for the virtue of humility are Philippians 2:1–11 and John 13:1–16. In the Philippians letter, Paul explicitly connects humility with love and the kind of oneness of mind in the Philippian congregation that is to be fostered by the members’ love for one another. Just as the second person of the Trinity humbled himself out of love for humankind and took on human form, not insisting on his privileges as the eternal God, even dying the horrible death of a criminal, so the Philippians are to humble themselves before each other, not insisting on their individual privileges but conceding to others more importance than themselves. In John 13, the word ‘humility’ doesn’t occur, but John says that “having loved his own who were in the world, [the Lord Jesus] loved them to the end.” And then he recounts that Jesus humbled himself to the work of a servant and washed his disciples’ feet as an example of how they should be towards one another.

Humility and Love of People

Humility and love are intimately intertwined in the New Testament and consequently in the Christian tradition, and both virtues are distinctive of Christianity in contrast with the ethics of the ancient Greeks. Both Plato and Aristotle were strongly elitist in their understanding of humanity and the dignity of human beings. The idea that some people are naturally more important as persons than others was an explicit assumption of their ethical thought. So the idea that indiscriminate love, agape, love of neighbor, whether the neighbor be Greek or Jew, male or female, low or high in the social world, strong or weak, righteous or unrighteous, mentally disabled or brilliant, was or would be very strange and even offensive. And similarly strange (and offensive) was the idea that a lord should kneel humbly before his subjects and wash their feet. It was in the proper nature of a lord to stand on his privileges, his superiority, to maintain his honor by insisting on his subjects’ inferiority and subservience.

In the New Testament, humility is an openness to the neighbor, to a kind of communion or meeting of the souls with another human being in beneficent appreciation of the other’s dignity and beauty of personhood.

Paul mentions two vices of pride that the Philippians should empty themselves of to honor Jesus. Eritheia is translated ‘selfish ambition,’ ‘selfishness,’ ‘strife,’ or ‘rivalry,’ and kenodoxia is translated ‘conceit,’ ‘vainglory,’ or ‘vain conceit’ (Philippians 2:3). Jesus warns against similar vices when he criticizes the “hypocrites” who parade their fasting and almsgiving so that others will honor them for being so pious. Such people, he says, “have their reward,” paltry as it is (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16). He criticizes the sons of Zebedee for their presumption and spirit of domination when they seek special positions of power in the coming kingdom (Matthew 20:20–28). He criticizes the self-righteousness of the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14) who takes such pleasure in his moral superiority to tax collectors and other sinners. In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–39), Jesus implicitly criticizes those Jews who despise the Samaritans and other “outsiders” as inferior ethnicities.

Humility and Love of Truth

Humility and love are not always connected in the way that Jesus and the apostles connect them. In the New Testament, humility is an openness to the neighbor, to a kind of communion or meeting of the souls with another human being in beneficent appreciation of the other’s dignity and beauty of personhood. It’s a breaking down or elimination of the blockages to this kind of connection with the other that are created by such “self”-serving vices as selfish ambition, rivalry, envy, vanity, and conceit. (I write “self” in scare-quotes to indicate that the “self” that is served by these vices is a false self, a misconception of human selfhood.) These barriers block our “access” to the neighbor, making him appear to us as something alien, a rival, a danger, a threat to our interests, and blinding us to his humanity, the beauty of his personal dignity.

Humility liberates love, and love rushes across the opening that humility has provided.

But these vices can also block our access to the truth. They can make it look threatening if, say, our sense of importance as persons is tied up with our intellectual achievements, the respect or adulations of our intellectual community, or our sense of ourselves as experts. We can be vain and conceited about our intellectual reputations, our knowledge, and our skills in argument. If the truth looks as though it may wound our vanity or bruise our conceit, such vanity and conceit can close us off to hearing new arguments from new sources, ones of which we are not masters. They can block our access to the truth in much the way they can block our “access” to the neighbor.

Both kinds of case involve love — or rather, the stifling of love, the prevention of love’s reaching its object. Just as the Philippians’ humility would free them to love one another by taking down the vice-barriers between them, so intellectual humility would free us to love truth and so get into genuine loving “communion” with it, by taking down the barriers created by treating “truth” as in the service of our reputation and our intellectual importance. (Again, I write “truth” in scare-quotes to suggest that what our interest is going out to is not really truth.)

We might call these two applications of humility “moral humility” and “intellectual humility.” In both cases, there is a barrier keeping us from the “beloved,” a barrier made up of the vices of pride. Humility is the absence of that barrier, an absence of the vices of pride. But to cross to the place from which the barrier used to prevent access (so to speak), another virtue is needed that supplies the attraction to the other side. And this second virtue is love—the love of neighbor where the humility is of the moral kind, and where it’s of the intellectual kind, the love of truth. Humility liberates love, and love rushes across the opening that humility has provided.


Walls of Emotion as Inhibitors of Human Greatness

Walls are separators, blockers of the way, preventers of passage. They can be useful when it’s important for passage to be prevented. Those little walls in your egg carton, for example. Without them keeping the eggs apart, you might arrive home from shopping with scrambled eggs-on-the-half-shell.

But when a wall separates what ought to be joined together in harmonious communion, what ought to mingle for the sake of love, that wall needs to be opened up or torn down. The Berlin Wall. The wall that our new president threatens to build on our southern border. The Israeli West Bank barrier. The apostle Paul tells his Gentile readers that:

now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace, who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law of commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new human being in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby bringing the hostility to an end (Ephesians 2:13–16).

The love that Christ taught and exemplified, even to the point of offering himself as a blood sacrifice for his enemies, is a love that recognizes none of the barriers that typically divide us from one another. We are divided by our ambitions, our love of power and domination, our privileges and entitlements, our sense of superiority to those who are less intelligent, less able, less rich, less sophisticated, less beautiful, less prominent, to those with less wonderful religious views, to those whose physical appearance or culture and way of life seem less human to us. Christ offers his body to us all with our individual differences, yet without any of the mentioned discriminations, and invites us similarly to join in fellowship with one another.

Humility and agape love are both about one central issue: the importance of persons. Vicious pride, which is what humility eliminates, is thinking, feeling, and caring about one’s own importance in distorted and corrupt ways. And love is thinking, feeling, and caring about other people’s importance in just the right way. An important element in pride’s distorted thinking about self is the distorted way it thinks about the importance of other people, and an important element in love’s correct way of thinking about other people is its correct thinking, feeling, and caring about one’s own importance. This is why pride throws up spiritual walls between people, preventing their communion in love. And it’s why humility, by eliminating the walls of pride, liberates us to love the neighbor.

Your soul will be great, according to Jesus, if you have risen above the need to lord it over others, to build yourself up by co-opting their agency, and have come to appreciate their full humanity and value as persons.

It’s been often noticed that Aristotle has no room in his ethical thinking for the virtue of humility —and also, that his description of the “great-souled” person sounds to Christian ears like a description of vicious pride. I repeat: Aristotle was an elitist. He thought that some people were intrinsically more important than others. Some are born to be slaves, and to be used for services by greater people. To be great-souled is the crown of the virtues for Aristotle. If I am great-souled, I recognize my great importance, and in the light of my importance, which is greater than any honors that I might be given, I evaluate the sometimes pitiful honors that lesser persons bestow on me (see Nicomachean Ethics, Book 4, chapter 3).

Jesus, too, speaks about greatness. And he invites his disciples, who are suffering from pride, to give it up so as to become greater-souled:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you, but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave; even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25–28).

Your soul will be great, according to Jesus, if you have risen above the need to lord it over others, to build yourself up by co-opting their agency, and have come to appreciate their full humanity and value as persons. In other teachings, Jesus commends the humility and freedom in which we are no longer interested in being honored by others, and no longer seek entitlements and privileges that make us feel superior to others, but simply rejoice in their excellence and love (Matthew 20:20–24). And at several moments of his ministry, Jesus embodied and taught the humility that consists in recognizing the equal humanity of ethnic outsiders like Samaritans (Luke 10:25–37; 17:11–19). To be great as Jesus understands greatness is to reject Aristotle’s elitism, as well as the elitism that is drummed into our hearts by the images of “success” and the institutions of rivalry and the appeals to our natural narcissism that surround us, elitism that seeps unnoticed into our bodies and invades our consciousness daily.

Aristotelian “greatness” erects walls between people. The walls are not made of brick or stone or barbed wire or galvanized steel, but of emotions. They’re not physical; they’re spiritual. But they are just as forbidding—preventing fellowship, keeping people apart. Aristotle’s great-souled man doesn’t consort with “inferiors.” He looks down on them in a kind of detached, forbidding contempt, and perhaps they look up at him in distance-keeping awe and fear. The humble heart of Jesus’s great-souled person, by contrast, allows him to welcome the other, invites him lovingly to come close, looks her in the eye and sees there a lovely, though perhaps troubled, person of dignity and value. And the other, sensing that humble openness, that lack of barrier, that welcome of love, perhaps dials down his fear a bit and relaxes.