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Image for Humility: Moral, Religious, Intellectual


Humility and the Vices of Pride

Robert C. Roberts

Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
August 14, 2017

The Christian tradition has sometimes designated pride as the chief of human sins, and humility, therefore, as a very important virtue. We have come in for a lot of criticism on this account, and the character of the criticism is this: when people deny their dignity, thinking themselves to be worthless sinners and incapable of doing any good, they risk believing themselves, thus making themselves actually as wretched and worthless as they think they are.

Self-Evaluating Animals

As Charles Taylor notes, we are fundamentally self-evaluating animals, so that what we think we are, and repeatedly tell ourselves we are, has a tendency to end up proving true. This is also a theme of cognitive therapy. Of course, this “negative” thinking doesn’t work all by itself, but coordinates with other human functions: if we think we’re scum, we’re more apt to act like scum, and thus to develop scummy habits, which tend to verify our low opinion of ourselves. Also, self-abasing thoughts are likely to lead to feelings of shame and impotence, and these feelings, in which we perceive with our gut what miserable specimens we are, lead to more negative thinking and discouraged behavior, thus creating a whole mutually reinforcing team of self-sapping psychological functions. By thinking of ourselves in humble terms (so goes the criticism), we shape ourselves, in the words of Bernard Steinberg, for “social paralysis, infantile dependency, and obsequious obedience,” not to speak of self-disrespect. But if self-interpretation is tantamount, almost, to self-creation, then to think that humility is a human virtue—a state of human excellence that we ought to pursue—is a kind of racial suicide.

Children of the Enlightenment

Some medieval Christian devotional books seem vulnerable to this criticism. For example, in The Ladder of Perfection, an English book from the 1300s, Walter Hilton says,

First, it behoveth thee to have humility on this manner: thou shalt in thy will and in thy feeling judge thyself unfitting to dwell among men and unworthy to serve God in conversation with His servants and as unprofitable to thy Christian brethren, wanting both skill and power to fulfil any good works of active life in help of thy neighbour, as other men and women do. And, therefore, as a wretch and an outcast and refuse of all men art shut up in a house alone, that thou shouldst not grieve nor offend man or woman by thy bad example, seeing thou canst not profit them by any well-doing (chapter 15, section 1).

As children of the age of Self-Esteem, our gut reaction to such recommendations is to dismiss them out of hand as shameful and disgustingly destructive. The way to happiness and fulfillment is to affirm myself, to love myself, and to busy myself with satisfying my needs for affirmation and love. Pico della Mirandola, the Renaissance philosopher, also reacted against the Hilton kind of self-perception in his Oration on the Dignity of Man. Pico stresses God’s gift of the self-creative powers of the human race. God speaks: We have made you a creature neither of heaven nor of earth, neither mortal nor immortal, in order that you may, as the free and proud shaper of your own being, fashion yourself in the form you may prefer. It will be in your power to descend to the lower, brutish forms of life; you will be able, through your own decision, to rise again to the superior orders whose life is divine.

Humility can’t be the same as contrition because Jesus Christ is our paradigm of humility, and being sinless he has no need of contrition.

This power of self-choosing, unique among creatures, already suggests a reason for pride in human nature; but then, suggests Pico, wouldn’t it be a shame to use this beautiful and awesome power to make ourselves like cattle and hogs, whose highest pleasure is eating and copulating?

We, therefore, imitating the life of the Cherubim here on earth, by refraining the impulses of our passions through moral science, by dissipating the darkness of reason by dialectic—thus washing away, so to speak, the filth of ignorance and vice—may likewise purify our souls, so that the passions may never run rampant, nor reason, lacking restraint, range beyond its natural limits. Then may we suffuse our purified souls with the light of natural philosophy, bringing it to final perfection by the knowledge of divine things.

Of course, it’s compatible with a high view of our basic human and individual nature to criticize ourselves for falling short. That’s compatible with, and even implied by, pride. Pico implies the criticism in his Oration when he chides us for wasting our precious choice on brutishness. Such selective self-criticism seems to be the special job of the virtue of contrition. Humility can’t be the same as contrition because Jesus Christ is our paradigm of humility, and being sinless he has no need of contrition. But maybe it’s a mistake to think of humility as any kind of self-criticism or self-evaluation at all.

The Vices of Pride

The New Testament is critical of what we might call the vices of pride. When Paul, in Philippians 2, commends humility, he contrasts it with “rivalry” and “conceit” (Philippians 2:3). When Jesus criticizes the sons of Zebedee for seeking special places of power and honor at his right hand in the Kingdom (Matthew 20:20–28), the kind of pride he has in mind is domination, the desire and pleasure of lording it over other people. Their asking is also presumptuous and arrogant, arrogating to themselves a right or privilege that they don’t possess. When Jesus criticizes the “hypocrites” for showing off their almsgiving and the piety of their prayers (Matthew 6:1–6), the vices of pride he has in mind are vanity and pretentiousness.

Vanity and pretentiousness are deformities of our dispositions for calling forth love and respect.

When he criticizes the Pharisee whose prayer in the Temple includes supercilious remarks about the moral laxity of the tax collector at the back of the room (Luke 18:9–14), the Pharisee’s vice is self-righteousness. When the apostle Paul criticizes (Galatians 3:10–14) those who insist on basing their righteousness before God on their own actions (“works”), he is criticizing their vice of hyper-autonomy—the vice of wanting to be self-made and not dependent. When the apostle James criticizes those who, in church, show partiality to the wealthy and well dressed, to the neglect of the poor and shabby (James 2:1–13), their vice of pride is snobbishness. Mark the evangelist (Mark 15:10) reports that Pilate saw that in delivering Jesus up to be crucified, the chief priests were moved by envy. Apparently, they saw Jesus’s importance as a teacher as a threat to their own, and felt they needed to put him down. Envy looks up, as it were, in dismay at the apparently successful rival, while its obverse twin, invidious pride, looks down in satisfaction at the apparently failing rival.

Others’ attitudes, then, are an area of fundamental human need, a requirement for our wellbeing and proper development.

It seems that the New Testament is critical, not of all kinds of pride—perhaps not of the kind that Pico commends—but specifically of the vices of pride; and in endorsing humility as a virtue, is certainly not endorsing the kind of self-disparagement that Walter Hilton recommends. But if humility is not a disparaging self-assessment, what kind is it? What kind of self-assessment is the opposite of the vices of pride? Let us approach this question by getting clearer about the nature of the vices of pride.

I suggest that the vices of pride, of which there are a dozen or so distinguishable kinds, can be arranged into four groups:

    1. The prides of empty self-display (vanity and pretentiousness);
    2. The prides of distorted agency (selfish ambition, domination, and hyper-autonomy);
    3. The prides of corrupt entitlement (arrogance and presumption);
    4. The prides of invidious comparison (conceit, snobbery, self-righteousness, invidious pride, and envy).

If this is right, then each of the prides uses—or better, misuses or abuses—a basic feature of human life. Each of these features—being seen, doing things, having rights and duties, and competing—is social. In other words, these features of life that get corrupted in the vices of pride are all features of our life together. We can function well with respect to them, but we can also misuse them. The vices of pride are all ways to misuse them, thus degrading and spoiling our life together. They degrade our life with one another by turning us inward toward a false self—or more precisely, a false vision of the importance of oneself, a false vision that closes us off spiritually from one another, preventing our loving one another in the best and deepest way. I call this false sense of the importance of oneself self-importance. Each of the vices of pride is a distinct way of seeking or loving self-importance. What I mean by this special term will, I hope, become clearer as we briefly examine each of the kinds of vices of pride.

The Prides of Empty Self-Display (Vanity and Pretentiousness)

As social beings living “in sight” of one another, we are very conscious of how we are being “viewed” by others, and are particularly engrossed, preoccupied, worried, pleased, ecstatic, shamed, doubtful, etc. about others’ emotional responses and attitudes toward us. Fundamentally, we want to be loved and respected; it hurts badly when others we care about, or who are close to us, or people we respect, are contemptuous of us, or we feel that no one loves us, no one values us, no one respects us. In fact, if such frustration goes on for long, or if we never experience satisfying love and respect, we can get quite confused in our sense of who we are, and we can come to hate ourselves and descend into a settled state of shame. Others’ attitudes, then, are an area of fundamental human need, a requirement for our wellbeing and proper development.


Vanity and pretentiousness are deformities of our dispositions for calling forth love and respect. They are distortions of our desire for love and strategies to evoke it. Instead of love and respect, these vices try to evoke awe, admiration, envy, fear, and other attitudes that seem to the vain or pretentious to bespeak their importance as persons. The triviality of the effort, the misguided aim, and the emptiness of the satisfaction make this pursuit of personal importance a pursuit of what I call ‘self-importance,’ as contrasted with real, substantial, importance of self. When a person takes his moral duty seriously, in preference to the applause of people, he treats his self as important. When he rejoices in his friends’ love for him, he treats himself as important. When he repents of his sins and struggles to be a better person, he treats his self as important. When he respects himself despite others’ contempt, he treats himself as important. Such a person is “real,” in contrast with the vain and pretentious.

The Prides of Distorted Agency (Selfish Ambition, Domination, and Hyper-Autonomy)

As agents, we human beings are doers, performers of actions. But we seldom act without reference to other people. We act for others, both in the sense of acting in their interest and in that of acting on their behalf; we act with others, contributing to projects we share with them, and we depend on their contributions for support of ours as they depend on our contributions in support of theirs. When we act in these coordinated, interdependent ways, our powers of agency are properly integrated into our social life, and we have genuine importance as persons integrated into our communities.

But if we can act in others’ interest, we can also act against their interest, and selfish ambition is the disposition to act for the sake of our own importance in disregard of others’ interest. If we can act on others’ behalf, we can also attempt to co-opt their agency with ours, to dominate and rule over their actions, in the interest of taking all the credit (importance) in the accomplishment. And if we can depend on others for their contributions to our actions, we can also try to eschew their help, or deny its importance out of a desire to be independent of others, and thus more important ourselves. In selfish ambition, domination, and hyper-autonomy we seek our self-importance, abusing the social dimension of our agency.

The Prides of Corrupt Entitlement (Arrogance and Presumption)

As intelligent social beings living in communities regulated by rights and duties we, as individuals, have rights and duties. Some of the rights are special, belonging to us and not to all members of the community. Special rights are privileges. Privileges can enhance our importance in the community, or seem to do so, by comparison with others who lack the same privileges. (Think of the privileges of membership in an exclusive club, or the privileges of a high-security government employee.) The arrogant and presumptuous claim privileges illegitimately, either by claiming privileges they don’t have or by claiming real ones from the motive of self-importance. One who is humble in this dimension of life claims only the privileges he has, and claims them, not to enhance her self-importance, but for essential reasons—for example, to do her high-security government work.

The Prides of Invidious Comparison (Conceit, Snobbery, Self-Righteousness, Invidious Pride, and Envy)

We compete with others in various ways—for resources, for jobs and grades, for mates, for attention from others and opportunities to speak, and so forth. Our play is often competitive. Competition is essentially comparative. We compete for the better jobs, the better grades, for our share of attention from others, and so forth. Winning a game requires getting more points than the competition. Such competition is sometimes low key and friendly. Our wishing to “win” indirectly implies wishing the competitor to “lose,” but such wishing need not be hostile or unfriendly or direct. There’s such a thing as “friendly rivalry.”

Humility is not having a low opinion of oneself, a disparaging self-perception, because it is not an opinion about oneself or self-perception at all.

However, the vices of invidious comparison turn competition emotionally nasty. Their spirit is unfriendly and even hostile. They tend to think with glee about the other’s losing, or with resentment about the other’s winning, and where the attitude becomes known to the other, to alienate him—weakening friendships and intensifying or confirming hostilities. Envy and invidious pride are paradigmatic for this group of vices. They are twins, basically the same attitude, one from the point of view of successful competition (invidious pride), and one from the point of view of unsuccessful competition (envy). The person who experiences invidious pride when she’s besting the other will feel envy when the other bests her, because she’s seeking the same thing in both cases and seeing both cases in the same invidious terms: she wants a kind of personal importance that derives (as she sees it) from her “winning” and the rival “losing” in competition for some self-value-enhancing “good” like beauty, intelligence, wittiness, social status, possessions, and accomplishments.

What, Then, Is Humility?

I suggest that humility is the absence of the vices of pride. If you are completely without vanity and unpretentious, if you have no interest in domineering over others and no qualms about sharing with others the credit they’re due for your accomplishments, if you are completely without arrogance or presumption, if you are unconceited and without snobbery, self-righteousness, invidious pride or envy, then you are perfected in the virtue of humility. And if you are well below average in these various versions of the concern for self-importance, then, without being completely humble, you are remarkably so. You are the sort of person that would usually be called humble.

If this is correct, then the criticism of humility with which we began is doubly misconceived: Humility is not having a low opinion of oneself, a disparaging self-perception, because it is not an opinion about oneself or self-perception at all. It’s related to self-perception inasmuch as the vices of pride are ways of focusing on yourself as having or seeking self-importance, and humility is the disposition not to see yourself this way and not to wish to do so.

Furthermore, the kind of pride that Pico endorses, which is a kind of self-perception, is perfectly compatible with humility as conceived here. Humility is incompatible with self-importance and the concern for that kind of importance, not with a sense of one’s importance as a person, or the importance of being human or one’s own real importance as a human being.