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Image for Humility: Moral, Religious, Intellectual


Humble Pie: A Lesson from Lincoln

Robert C. Roberts

Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
August 24, 2017

In 1864 Abraham Lincoln was elected for a second term as President. During the first term, Salmon P. Chase, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, had connived, behind Lincoln’s back but not without Lincoln’s knowledge, to be nominated by the Republican Party in place of Lincoln for the 1864 election. Just before the election, Roger B. Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, had died, leaving a vacancy for Lincoln to fill. In December, Lincoln offered the cherished post to Chase.

Swallowing Pride as a Substitute for Humility

When he told Chase’s friend John Alley what he had done, Alley exclaimed, “Mr. President, this is an exhibition of magnanimity and patriotism that could hardly be expected of anyone. After what he has said against your administration, which has undoubtedly been reported to you, it was hardly to be expected that you would bestow the most important office within your gift on such a man.”

Lincoln replied, “To have done otherwise I should have been recreant to my convictions of duty to the Republican Party and to the country. As to his talk about me, I do not mind that. Chase is, on the whole, a pretty good fellow and a very able man. His only trouble is that he has ‘The White House fever’ a little too bad, but I hope this may cure him and that he will be satisfied.”

Lincoln’s act of “magnanimity” (generosity, forgiveness) toward Chase seems to be, at the same time, an act of humility. It’s generous because of the prized good that he bestows willingly on another, but it’s humble because it seems that Lincoln is not reacting at all to the blows against his “dignity” that Chase repeatedly dealt him by belittling his presidency. His “ego” seems to present no barrier to his acting as he should towards the Republican Party and his country: “As to his talk about me, I do not mind that.”

In a letter, Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Nicolay, wrote that,

Probably no other man than Lincoln would have had, in this age of the world, the degree of magnanimity to thus forgive and exalt a rival who had so deeply and so unjustifiably intrigued against him. It is however only another most marked illustration of the greatness of the President. (The quotations are in Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, p. 680.).

Perhaps Lincoln minded a bit more than he admits here. He later told someone else that he “would rather have swallowed his Buckhorn chair than to have nominated Chase,” but the decision was right for the country. The Buckhorn chair went unscathed, but in nominating Chase Lincoln apparently did swallow something that felt pretty prickly going down—his pride. The flavor and texture of this pride are Lincoln’s personal resentment at Chase’s disrespect, and a consequent urge to take revenge, or at least withhold the honor that Chase treasured.
Had Lincoln satisfied this resentment, as many in his position would have, he might have experienced a delicious satisfaction in the thought of Chase’s disappointment. In handing Chase the nomination, Lincoln denied himself that petty and merely personal pleasure, and kept his sights trained on the good of the country and the doing of his duty.

Some pride is a very good thing—good for us and good for our family, community, and work, and good in itself.

That Lincoln needed to swallow his pride to do what he took to be the right thing clearly shows that he had some pride to swallow. Had his statement about not minding been literally true, it would have expressed an extraordinarily perfected humility. But apparently Lincoln was more like the rest of us than that. Doing the “humble” thing in the circumstances required swallowing his pride.

Pride and Pridefulness

Not all pride needs to be swallowed. Some pride is a very good thing—good for us and good for our family, community, and work, and good in itself. For example, pride in our work may be a due appreciation of its worth and its larger significance, and a motive for doing it well. Pride in our children can be a bond of affection that communicates to them their worth and an assurance of their parents’ commitment to their excellence and wellbeing. Pride in one’s country can be virtuous patriotism. Swallowing such pride (suppressing it) wouldn’t be an act of virtuous humility, but of self-destructive foolishness.

I’m sorry to say that Christians have sometimes practiced such destruction on themselves, their congregations, and their children, by lumping all pride together for suppression. For an example, see the “Litany of Humility.” To wit, “Deliver me, Jesus, from the desire of being loved, …praised, …approved.” (The example is Catholic, but Protestants are as often the perpetrators.) To deny our desire to be loved and appreciated might seem heroically spiritual but (if we can do it at all) would be to crush something lovely and basic in our humanity.

But other pride, the kind marked by rivalry, disrespect, insistence on being self-made and having one’s own way, and an invidious satisfaction in the other’s inferiority and defeat, is untruthful, nasty, unloving, unforgiving, destructive, petty, selfish, blinding, vengeful, and divisive. A resentment against Chase that would take vengeful pleasure in his professional disappointment is a symptom of this kind of pride. It is contrary to the virtue of humility and should always be swallowed in the interest of the good. The words ‘pride’ and ‘proud,’ then, are ambiguous, sometimes denoting virtue, and sometimes vice. The words ‘pridefulness,’ ‘prideful,’ and ‘pridefully,’ by contrast, seem to denote vice less ambiguously.


Saving Face

If Lincoln hadn’t nominated Chase for Chief Justice, it wouldn’t have resulted in his losing face. As both Alley and Nicolay testify, nobody would have expected him to do otherwise. But often when we’re called on to swallow our pride, the resistance we feel against doing so is our distaste for losing face.

Our literal face is, in a way, our most public body part, the most central marker, for others, of our identity. It is what people look at when they want to know who just walked into the room. Because of its potent association with our identity, we naturally want our face to be looked upon with favor and respect, rather than disgust and contempt. As a metaphor, ‘face’ is reputation or public persona; it is our self as presented to the world. It is the personal identity-image that we project. When we seek to save face, we are seeking to preserve the respectability of our public persona.

Sometimes, when we’re faced with a decision whether to swallow our pride, swallowing it involves losing face.

We have a conception of our “face,” and it is a reflection of what we take others to “see” when they “see” (think about, consider) us. Shame is the emotion in which we see our “face” reflected in others’ disgust or contempt. Efforts to save face are efforts to preserve the respectability or “honor” of our public persona, in the context of some threatened dishonor; to lose face is to lose that respectability, and to acquire a dishonorable public persona.

Sometimes, when we’re faced with a decision whether to swallow our pride, swallowing it involves losing face. That’s what makes it go down so hard. When Lincoln swallowed his pride and nominated Chase, the swallowing was hard because the revenge of disappointing Chase’s ambition would have tasted so sweet. In the interest of the public good, Lincoln denied himself a petty pleasure.

In contrast, consider the case of a senior pastor who gets in a power struggle with the associate pastor. She suffers from the vice of domination—being a control freak—and the associate wants to expand the church’s ministry in a direction different from, though really not incompatible with, the senior pastor’s own ministry. The two chief lay elders within the congregation both advise her to give the associate some slack, and to allow him to take the ministry of the church in a somewhat new direction, which they take to be interesting and potentially fruitful. In effect, they invite the senior pastor to swallow her pride.

They’re asking the senior pastor to relinquish some of her control of the church’s ministry, to allow for a fresh direction of the church and the development of the associate’s talents. Because her concern to dominate is so strong, she finds their advice very hard to take, and also feels that their “siding” with the associate is a humiliation of her dignity.



She insists that the “upstart” younger pastor be fired. If he can’t act like a team member, let him be on his way! The church council reasons that they’d better let her have her way; it will be very hard to find an equally distinguished senior pastor in case she gets really disgruntled and leaves herself.

When the congregation hears the associate pastor is being let go, they are up in arms. He has been a favorite and they love the freshness of his ideas and initiatives. The result is deep turmoil in the congregation, and about a quarter of the church membership leaves for other congregations.

Humble Pie

Humble pie is humiliation. It tastes very bad. Its flavor, as well as its real presence, is a consequence of vanity and other vices of pride like domination and arrogance and invidious pridefulness. Eating humble pie is involuntary swallowing of pride, involuntary forfeiture of face.

The senior pastor eventually had to eat a big helping of humble pie. Because of the charism of the associate and the inspiration of a large part of the congregation by his ministry, his dismissal was mightily protested, and the senior pastor had to choose between retaining the associate and the break-up of the congregation. She chose to retain the associate, but lost considerable credibility with the congregation through the episode.

Had she been well developed in the virtue of humility, the issue would never have arisen. Had she been undefensive about sharing power and credit, she would simply have seen the value of the associate’s ideas about ministry and would never have been called on either to swallow her pride or to eat humble pie. But failing a full humility, she could have avoided being stuffed with humble pie by swallowing her pride early on. It would have been less painful to her, and less detrimental to her ministry and her congregation.