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Image for Humility: Moral, Religious, Intellectual


An Introduction to Humility

Kent Dunnington

In the Christian tradition, humility is considered both the beginning and the end of the virtues.

Associate Professor of Philosophy, Biola University
April 8, 2019

Chapter 1: “Look Who Thinks He’s Nothing!”

Entering his empty sanctuary during the high holy days, a rabbi was suddenly overcome with emotion and threw himself onto the ground proclaiming, “Lord, I am nothing!” The cantor felt this was a fine gesture so he too prostrated himself and cried out, “Lord I am nothing!” The synagogue janitor, standing in the back, got caught up in the fervor and joined in. “Lord, I am nothing!” Seeing this, the rabbi nudged the cantor and whispered, “Look who thinks he’s nothing!”

This Jewish joke captures what is so maddening about humility. Our attempts to be humble so easily backfire. Our wish to be humble turns out to be motivated by a deeper desire to be better than others. Our display of humility turns out to be an occasion of pride. But how can we become humble if not by desiring humility and acting humbly? Maybe the pursuit of genuine humility is a fool’s errand, after all.

David Hume thought so. Hume was an 18th century Scottish Enlightenment philosopher who was suspicious of Christianity. He was particularly suspicious of many of the virtues that Christians like to herald—he called them “monkish virtues.” Take humility, for example. It’s true we appreciate people who are modest, but do we really value humility that, as Hume puts it, “goes beyond the outside”?1 Who wants to hang around someone who really thinks they’re nothing? Who wants to hire such a person? What we really appreciate, Hume suggests, is someone who is outwardly modest, but inwardly confident, self-assured, aspirational, and secure. That kind of person makes for an interesting friend and a valuable member of society. So don’t waste your time trying to become genuinely humble. In the unlikely event that you succeed, you’ll make yourself useless! Humility, Hume said, is really a vice.

We modern folks are inheritors of both the Christian promotion and the Enlightenment demotion of humility. That’s partly why we’re so confused about humility—about what it is and whether we should want it for ourselves and others. Most Americans, for example, would list humility as a virtue instead of a vice. Yet our president is a man whose most immediately evident character trait is his unwavering egomania. It’s not just that Donald Trump brags more than any other president in U.S. history. It’s that his braggadocio appears to have helped him win the presidency. His refusal to admit weakness, to apologize, or to acknowledge failure signaled to many voters the kind of brash self-assurance that would be necessary to “make America great again.”

And yet, even among those who think Trump’s lack of humility will make him better as a president, few would claim this lack makes him better as a person. So we are confused. We think humility will make us better people, which is just another way of saying we think humility is a virtue. But we worry, with Hume, that humility will prevent us from flourishing, which is just another way of saying we worry humility is a vice. So is humility a virtue or a vice? And what is it, anyway?

Chapter 2: “Almost the Whole of Christian Teaching Is Humility.”

The Christian tradition unanimously affirms that humility is a virtue, in one way or another the preeminent Christian virtue. Christians did not invent humility as a virtue; it is already there in the Hebrew scriptures. But Christian scripture and subsequent Christian thought put humility at the center of the moral life in a dramatic and unprecedented way. Jesus apparently thought of humility as the best measure of a person’s kingdom-readiness. “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” he taught (Matthew 18:4). And the Christ-hymn of Philippians 2 identifies humility as the defining characteristic of the incarnate Christ and the one that his followers should most seek to imitate. Indeed, scripture appears to support the claim that humility is a sufficient condition for the reception of God’s grace. 1 Peter 5:5 is most explicit about this—“God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble”—but the principle that humility attracts God’s favor is all over scripture (Psalms 138:6, Proverbs 3:34, Proverbs 29:3, Matthew 23:12, Luke 1:52, James 4:6). Indeed, there is no case in all of scripture in which a humble person is denied by God, whereas not everyone who calls Jesus “Lord” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:23).

So perhaps St. Augustine was not exaggerating when he wrote that “almost the whole of Christian teaching is humility.”2 Elsewhere, in a letter responding to a young student named Dioscorus, Augustine wrote, “If you were to ask me, however often you might repeat the question, what are the instructions of the Christian religion, I would be disposed to answer always and only, ‘Humility.’”3

St. Thomas Aquinas is more systematic than Augustine. He explains why humility is preeminent. “Certain virtues may be said to precede faith accidentally, in so far as they remove obstacles to belief. . . . Humility removes pride, whereby a man refuses to submit himself to the truth of faith.”4 In other words, humility is a precursor virtue to faith because it removes the primary obstacle to faith: pride. Thomas thinks that although humility is not the most important Christian virtue—that honor belongs to charity (love)—it is the beginning of Christian virtue, because without humility we cannot be in a position of openness to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And since Christian virtues are bestowed by the Holy Spirit, without humility we cannot live lives of Christian holiness.

The Reformers made humility central, too. John Calvin claimed that “there is no access to salvation unless all pride is laid aside and true humility embraced.”5 And so closely connected are humility and faith for Martin Luther that they are often presented as two sides of one coin. The great champion of justification by faith alone also wrote, “humility alone saves.”6

“…[H]umility isn’t just about thinking accurately about your strengths and weaknesses; it’s more centrally about the way in which you care about those things.”

It’s no overstatement, then, to say that Christians see humility as the gateway to a life of holiness. To follow Hume and label humility a vice would be to effectively abandon a Christian vision of the good life for human persons. But if humility is so central to the Jesus way, it would be nice to get a firm grip on what exactly humility is.

Learn more from Kent Dunnington in his segment on Humility in our ecourse, “Seeking Christian Wisdom for Life’s Biggest Questions.”

Chapter 3: “The Fat, Relentless Ego”

How should we begin to get a grip on the nature of humility? Some people think we should begin with intuitions that everyday people have about humility, and then offer an account that best captures those intuitions. A pitfall of this approach is that people today might be deeply confused about humility for all we know, so that building an account of humility on commonsense intuitions would only lead to more confusion. Perhaps, then, we should start at the other end and develop an account of humility by examining its meaning in some authoritative text, maybe scripture. But this assumes that scripture sets forth a unified and systematic account of humility, or that one account of humility will capture all the scriptural usages better than any other account. There are pitfalls everywhere, and no way to avoid them. It’s best to just dive in somewhere, and thoughtfully move back and forth between contemporary intuitions and older sources of wisdom.

I begin with contemporary philosophical attempts to grasp the nature of humility, mainly because philosophers are good at distinguishing what is essential to a concept from what is accidental to a concept. The distinction between what is essential and what is accidental to a concept is akin to the distinction between what is a root cause and what is a symptom of an illness. Deformed red blood cells are a root cause of sickle-cell anemia; loss of vision is a symptom. Symptoms come and go, but they are indicative of something deeper. Similarly, philosophers want to differentiate the symptoms or “marks” of humility from what humility really is at the core.

Think of the most humble person you know, and list off their attributes. The first person that comes to my mind is a former colleague named Matthias. Here are some of Matthias’s attributes:

  • He’s quick to laugh at himself.
  • He’s quick to admit when he has made a mistake.
  • He typically positions himself as learner rather than teacher.
  • He delights in the successes of others.
  • He doesn’t posture or pretend to have knowledge or abilities he lacks.
  • He reveals his fears and vulnerabilities.
  • He asks for help when he needs it.

These are the marks of a humble person, as I envision humility. We usually think of a virtue as an underlying character trait that disposes people to behave well. So what is the core of the character trait that makes Matthias like this?

There are lots of contemporary philosophical efforts to answer this question, but I think three have emerged as worthy of serious consideration. I’ll call the first account the PROPER ESTIMATION account. On this account, the essence of humility is thinking of yourself in the right way. The humble person is the person who has a fairly accurate estimation of her worth, skills, achievements, status, and entitlements, and who is particularly resistant to overestimating those things.7 So on the PROPER ESTIMATION account of humility, the core of Matthias’s humility is the way he thinks about himself: he knows himself well, and where he errs he tends to underestimate himself rather than overestimate himself.

It is easy to see where this view falls short, because it is easy to imagine Matthias having perfect self-estimation but still lacking all the marks listed above. Suppose, for example, that Matthias was perfectly attuned to his being a mediocre lecturer but he was so embarrassed by this fact that he tried to hide it from his friends and colleagues: he couldn’t admit it, he couldn’t ask for help with it, he certainly couldn’t laugh about it, and he couldn’t delight when others were celebrated for their excellent lectures. Wouldn’t this show he lacked humility? I think so. So this is a strike against the PROPER ESTIMATION account. And it seems to reveal the following: humility isn’t just about thinking accurately about your strengths and weaknesses; it’s more centrally about the way in which you care about those things.

The other two leading accounts of humility on the contemporary philosophical scene both take note of the importance of what a person cares about. They both take it that the core of humility is in what philosophers and psychologists call the affective dimension of our lives. One of these views, which I’ll call the PROPER UNCONCERN view, holds that the essence of humility is the absence of a certain range of personal concerns. Most of us are concerned, indeed intensely so, about our own worth, skills, achievements, status, and entitlements. Have you ever done a good deed only to have it overlooked or, worse yet, attributed to someone else? The horror! The (rare) humble person is the one who couldn’t care less about such things. She has an especially low level of concern about her worth, skills, achievements, status, or entitlements. So says the PROPER UNCONCERN view.

Here’s a quick counterexample to the PROPER UNCONCERN view as I’ve stated it thus far. Suppose someone gets a lobotomy and as a result they lose all interest in themselves. Have they become humble? Probably not. The humble person is not just someone who happens to be unconcerned with herself; she’s unconcerned for admirable reasons. So let’s state the PROPER UNCONCERN position like this: The humble person has an especially low level of concern about her worth, skills, achievements, status, or entitlements, because of an intense concern for other apparent goods.8 Humility is present wherever one’s intense concern for some apparent good crowds out what Iris Murdoch calls the “fat, relentless ego.”Obviously this will be a matter of degree. The more one’s love of other goods drives the ego from the center of one’s concern, the more one grows in humility.

This seems to me to be a major advance over PROPER ESTIMATION. But some philosophers think it still misses the heart of humility. They will point especially to Matthias’s tendency to admit his errors, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities, and to seek out help whenever needed. And they will claim that these dispositions reveal, not an underlying unconcern about worth, status, etc., but rather an underlying concern Matthias has to own up to his deficiencies. So on this account—let’s call it the PROPER LIMITATIONS-OWNING account—what is at the core of Matthias’s humility is that he is more concerned than you or I with owning up to his deficiencies and limitations. Whereas you or I tend to want to minimize, downplay, or flat-out ignore our deficiencies, Matthias confronts them head-on and brings them out into the open.

So the PROPER LIMITATIONS-OWNING account agrees that humility is fundamentally about our cares. But whereas the PROPER UNCONCERN focuses on getting rid of a range of concerns, PROPER LIMITATIONS-OWNING focuses on taking on a range of concerns about one’s limitations. The humble person owns her limitations: when appropriate, she takes them seriously, is disturbed by having them, does everything possible to be rid of them, regrets yet accepts them, and does her best to control and minimize their negative effects.10

Which of these three accounts best captures the core of Matthias’s humility? From my perspective, it’s either PROPER UNCONCERN or PROPER LIMITATIONS-OWNING. PROPER ESTIMATION is out because humility seems to be so evidently a matter of the heart, a matter of what grips us and matters to us. But is humility fundamentally about lacking a set of ego-centric concerns or possessing a set of concerns about limitations? It’s an interesting question, and I have my views, but we don’t need to settle the matter. The benefit of thinking through the contemporary options is the discovery that these two attitudinal postures—unconcern about the self and concern to own our limitations—are very near the heart of humility. But what does any of this have to do with God?

Chapter 4: “The Monkish Virtue”

Given my observation earlier that it was really Christianity that put humility front and center in the moral life, you might find it odd that I could survey the major accounts of humility on the contemporary philosophical scene with no mention of Jesus, or Christianity, or religion at all for that matter. And you would be right! It is an odd feature of contemporary scholarly discussions about humility that there is so much enthusiasm for humility but so little enthusiasm for the religious tradition that made humility prominent in the first place. I am convinced that theology—what we think about God and our relationship to God—matters deeply for how we think about humility, but since this is easily obscured in the contemporary conversation, we need to do a little digging to figure out what happened.

“Christians began to privilege the virtue of humility because they came to understand God in a new way, as a God that we could only imitate and draw near by abandoning the quest for independence.”

What a culture has to say about humility is a nearly perfect barometer of the extent to which Christianity exerts pressure on that culture’s atmosphere. For instance, pre-Christian ancient Greco-Roman culture had nothing positive to say about humility at all. The “humble” people—the humiliores—were just the lowly, the poor, the massive underclass of society who were of no interest to those who mattered, those few well-bred elites whose privilege allowed them to aspire to virtue and excellence. In fact, the root of “humility,” humus, just means ground or soil, and the humiliores were those who lived near to the humus, eking an existence from the dust.

It’s not that the humiliores were considered bad people. They were hardly thought of as people at all. They had the status of second-class human beings, so needy and feeble that they could not possibly attain virtue. Virtue, after all, was a measure of one’s independence and strength. Aristotle, for example, holds up as the paragon of virtue the magnanimous man, someone who is better than everyone else and knows it. “He is the sort of person who does good but is ashamed when he receives it; for doing good is proper to the superior person, but receiving it is proper to the inferior.”11 Shaped as we are by Christianity, we can’t help but thinking this guy sounds like a real jerk. But remember that Aristotle’s god was the Unmoved Mover, completely self-secure and blissfully beyond depending on anyone or anything else for peace and happiness.

So you can imagine how preposterous it was when a rag-tag group of Jews began to assert all over the Roman Empire that the God of the universe was a wayfaring peasant from Palestine, who taught and lived as though the humiliores were the truly blessed people of the earth, who was executed as a criminal by the Roman state, and who now reigned as Lord over all of human history. This dramatic reversal is the backdrop to Augustine’s claim that the whole of Christian teaching is humility. The Christian moral universe was a near-complete inversion of the Greco-Roman one, with humility—now understood as a glad acceptance of our fundamental weakness and neediness—replacing pride as the characteristic moral posture of the person who would be happy and at peace.

Typically, the story of this inversion focuses on sin as the catalyst, as though Christianity’s radical proposal is that we are all especially bad and therefore should not get the big head. That way of telling the story misses the point entirely. Christianity’s radical claim was that neediness, weakness, and meekness are not obstacles to flourishing but rather avenues to flourishing. This is what the beatitudes are about. Jesus says that if you want to be blessed, you’ll have to sooner or later learn to rest in your neediness, weakness, and meekness. And then Jesus demonstrated in his life and resurrection that one could really live this way. The Christian story of cross-and-resurrection completely changed the narrative of what a successful human life would look like. Christians began to proclaim that exaltation and humiliation were not opposed but, somehow, two sides of the same coin.

Relatedly, the Christian doctrine of the Trinity dramatically challenged the Greco-Roman picture of God as Unmoved Mover. The radical claim of the doctrine is not the mathematical mystery that three can be one; rather, the radical claim of the doctrine is that relationship, interdependence, and mutuality are features of the divine life. Christians began to privilege the virtue of humility because they came to understand God in a new way, as a God that we could only imitate and draw near by abandoning the quest for independence. To give just one concrete example: for Aristotle, the most pathetic thing you could be is a beggar, but medieval Christians came to see begging as a holy vocation. Certain groups of monks went around begging so as to visibly remind all Christians that our destiny is to eternally receive the abundant gifts of God.

But beggars are not good for the economy. That, in a nutshell, is the modern critique of the virtue of humility. Here is how David Hume put it:

Celibacy, fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, humility, silence, solitude, and the whole train of monkish virtues; for what reason are they every where rejected by men of sense, but because they serve to no manner of purpose; neither advance a man’s fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment.12

Hume’s point is simple. Just to the extent that humility undercuts ambition, it is counterproductive in everyday life. According to Hume, the character trait that produces ambition is proper pride, that swelling sense of self-satisfaction we get when we reflect on some excellent quality or accomplishment of our own. Indeed, Hume argues, without such satisfaction we would have little motive to pursue excellence. “All those great actions and sentiments, which have become the admiration of mankind, are founded on nothing but pride and self-esteem,” he wrote.13

Notice what is going on here: the standard that Hume is using to calibrate what counts as a virtue and what counts as a vice has shifted from the standard used in the pre-modern era. For pre-modern Christians and ancients alike, the standard was an eternal one. They began with a standard of transcendent perfection and worked backward to characterize the virtues. Aristotle’s ideal is the Unmoved Mover, and accordingly his central virtue is magnanimity, pride in one’s self-sufficiency and independence. Augustine’s ideal is eternal union with the Trinity, and accordingly his central virtue is humility, glad acceptance of one’s status as a dependent and relational creature. But Hume’s ideal is…being a valuable member of society. This loss or rejection of a concrete transcendent ideal that could function as an index of human flourishing is part of what we might call the secular project.

I appreciate Hume’s honesty. If everyday earthly success is the horizon of human excellence, Hume is right: we ought to transfer humility and all the other “monkish virtues” to the “catalog of vices.”14 But few have been as prepared as Hume to abandon the virtues directly tied up with the Christian legacy. The modern world, though in many ways “post-Christian,” is still profoundly shaped by the great reversal that Christianity introduced into the moral imagination. Thus, after Hume, the project for many moralists has been how to rescue humility and other Christian virtues from their entanglement with a Christian outlook.

Immanuel Kant is a perfect instance of this effort. Kant was bothered by Hume’s critique. On the one hand, he saw that Hume was right: humility as articulated and practiced by radical Christians like the monks is not good for modern, capitalist society. But on the other hand, he just couldn’t shake the sense that something is lost if we return to a pre-Christian moral outlook according to which pride is the foundation of human excellence. For one thing, Kant rightly noted that the ancient moral outlook was not one that promoted the equal dignity of all human persons (remember the neglected humiliores). So Kant wanted to leverage humility as a virtue that could promote equal human dignity without invoking all of the esoteric theological speculation about our eternal union with the Triune God. (Kant famously said the Trinity is irrelevant to ethics.) Thus Kant undertook a rescue operation on humility. “The consciousness and feeling of one’s insignificant moral worth in comparison with the law is humility,” Kant claimed.15 Notice that there is still a transcendent standard here—“the law”—but this standard requires no mention of God. That is because, for Kant, the transcendent moral law is but an idealization of natural human reason.

Here is why humility matters, Kant says: it reminds us that we are equal with everyone else insofar as we all fall drastically short of the demands of the perfect law (Kant grew up Lutheran). Not only should this recognition promote equal dignity between persons; it should also guard against the kind of glory-quest that can be disruptive to the smooth functioning of modern societies. But is such humility incompatible with pride? Not at all, Kant says. On the contrary, proper pride is a natural correlate of humility because, at the same time that our contemplation of the moral law reminds us how far we fall short, it also reminds us how special we are since we are capable of such lofty rationality. So proper humility, Kant says, will promote modesty and an egalitarian spirit, but it will not endanger proper pride or the ambition that are essential to worldly success. Thus Kant celebrated humility but was mortified by beggars. Indeed, he supported a city ban on begging since he thought nothing could be more corrosive to the spirit of ambition and independence than the sight of a beggar.

Chapter 5: “Divinity Become Weak”

That whirlwind tour of intellectual history positions us to consider again the two prominent contemporary accounts of humility—PROPER UNCONCERN and PROPER LIMITATIONS-OWNING—with a fresh question. Specifically, we should ask: what is the ultimate goal or ideal that calibrates just how unconcerned we are to be with ourselves, or just how much we should own our limitations. You’ll now notice the significance of the word “proper” in each of these accounts. These accounts are what philosophers call formal accounts. PROPER UNCONCERN tells you that the humble person is the one with the proper amount of unconcern, but just how much is proper the account does not say. PROPER LIMITATIONS-OWNING tells you that the humble person is the one who owns her limitations in the proper way, but the proper way is never exactly specified.

Suppose you thought, as the earliest Christian monks did, that your destiny was to be united in intimate relationship with the triune God, indeed to be drawn into the inner life of the triune God. And suppose you thought that such a life would so intoxicate you with the beauty and goodness of the triune love that you would lose a grip on where “you” end and where “God” begins, not because there is no difference, but because your attention and desire would be so consumed by the beauty and goodness of God that you would have no interest in “introspection” or “self-love,” no interest in “knowing yourself” or “having an identity.” In other words, suppose you thought your destiny was one in which the typical projects of human self-development, of ceaseless introspection in an effort to clarify, enrich, and secure a strong sense of self—suppose you thought that whole project was passing away and, in the end, would be the last obstacle to being united in complete peace and joy with God.

If you believed something like that, as the earliest Christians monks did, then you might say the sorts of things they said. “To go against self is the beginning of salvation,” Evagrius said. Abba Moses counseled, “Unless you think in your heart that you have been shut in a tomb for three years, you cannot attain to self-loss” And of Abba Cronides it was said, “such was the humility which he had guarded right into old age that he considered himself a nonentity.”16 In other words, given the eschatological perspective that calibrated early Christian thought about the virtues, you would think that the proper amount of unconcern someone would ideally show is complete unconcern, since our destiny is to be utterly unconcerned with the self, with where we end and where God begins, with “who we are” over against everyone else and God. And then you would think of humility as not only the beginning of a life of holiness, but also in an important sense the end of the whole “virtue-formation” project insofar as that project is still a project that takes the formation and clarification of a strong self as the end-goal of human life. This is why Augustine, who saw how radically humility challenged the Greco-Roman vision of the good life, was ambivalent about whether it was helpful to even talk in terms of virtues anymore at all. Just to the extent that “virtue” is shorthand for a project of self-development, Augustine and other early Christians could not help but be suspicious of it.

“The lesson is that Jesus matters for how we think about humility, just as he matters for how we think about all of the virtues.”

But suppose instead that the ideal you envision is more this-worldly. Suppose, like Kant, that you aren’t interested in thinking about the good life from the perspective of a possible Trinitarian destiny. Then you would rightly think it foolish to suppose a person should rid themselves of all concern about the self. You would want to draw the line elsewhere. You would be concerned about the kind of excessive self-focus that renders people incapable of civic partnerships and genuine friendships. But you wouldn’t want a person to lose so much self-concern that their “proper prides” were imperiled: those proper prides that ground ambition, pride in one’s work and one’s associates, a strong sense of agency and a confident sense of self. From this perspective, the kinds of things said above by the early Christian monks are reckless and dangerous. From this perspective, humility demands a less radical undermining of the ego than what was envisioned by the Christian monks.

A similar dynamic emerges if we consider what amounts to proper ownership of our limitations. As mentioned above, those who defend this view of humility list among the attitudes required for proper limitations-ownership the following: taking limitations seriously, being disturbed by having them, doing everything possible to be rid of them, regret yet accept having them, and doing the utmost to control and minimize their negative effects.

Surely all of these attitudes are appropriate at certain times, but from a Christian perspective there is an attitude missing from this list, indeed the most important one. Notice, for instance, that the attitudes listed above all presume that limitations are regrettable, the sort of things that a virtuous person would rightly wish to be without. But for Augustine, for example, the humility that Christians are to embody is characterized by glad acceptance of weakness and dependence. He explains what he had to learn from Jesus in order to become a Christian.

To possess my God, the humble Jesus, I was not yet humble enough. I did not know what his weakness was meant to teach. … They [who want to be saved] are no longer to place confidence in themselves, but rather to become weak. They see at their feet divinity become weak by his sharing in our coat of skin. In their weariness they fall prostrate before this divine weakness which rises and lifts them up.17

This is a peculiar kind of “ownership” of one’s limitations. Here, weakness is not seen as a regrettable limitation that we must admit and hope to minimize. No, Augustine sees Christian humility as not merely the acknowledgement of our weakness but the glad embrace of our weakness as that which makes it possible for us to enter into a trusting dependent relationship with God. This is, again, a different specification of what counts as proper limitations-owning, a specification that is keyed, once again, to our destiny as gladly dependent inheritors of the triune life.

The lesson is that Jesus matters for how we think about humility, just as he matters for how we think about all of the virtues. Jesus never sought to secure his own life or identity independent of the Father, and this Christians regard as paradigmatic humility. But it is a strange way to live. Indeed, if our destiny is not eternal fellowship with Jesus in the triune life of God, it is a foolish way to live, sure to destroy us. But if this is our destiny, then our efforts to shore up a secure sense of self, along with our efforts to minimize our neediness and dependence—all these efforts are ultimately futile and passing away. Christianity is an invitation to give up on these projects, which is to say that Christianity is an invitation to a radical understanding of humility.

“The most promising avenue to humility is to become concerned about something more interesting than ourselves.”

Chapter 6: “No Humility Without Humiliation”

How do we pursue humility? More than other character traits, humility eludes our direct efforts to cultivate it. This is, in part, what makes it a strange candidate for a “virtue” altogether. Most virtues can be cultivated by imitating the people who possess them, but humility is not like this, at least not in a straightforward way. Indeed, attempting to “display” or “practice” our humility often backfires just to the extent that the effort increases our self-involvement. The most promising avenue to humility is to become concerned about something more interesting than ourselves. I have never known a humble person who did not have intense love for some good beyond the self. The cultivation of such loves is the most promising indirect path to humility, and of course Christians think cultivation of the love of God is uppermost here.

Beyond that, our best opportunities to cultivate humility come not from actions we initiate but from our reactions to things that happen to us. This is why Bernard of Clairvaux, the great medieval Cistercian, says that “humiliation is the only way to humility.”18 Bernard is not claiming that humility and humiliation are the same thing. Humility deepens our humanity, but humiliation more often destroys people. So humiliation is no guarantee of humility—far from it. This is why it would always be wrong to subject others to humiliation in hopes they will develop humility, or even to exhort others to respond to their humiliations as opportunities for growth in humility. Still, for those who are ready to practice self-relinquishment, humiliations can be opportunities for growth in humility if we treat them as such.

St. Benedict’s monastic Rule is full of advice along these lines.19 I’ll mention in conclusion four opportunities Benedict suggests we have for turning potential humiliations into training in humility. One way of growing in humility is by practicing obedience to human superiors for the sake of suppressing our own willfulness. Benedict thinks that when your boss asks you to do something you’d rather not do, so long as there is no injustice at stake, you should treat your boss’s request as a way of learning not to take your own prerogatives too seriously. He recommends that we be on the lookout for opportunities to follow rather than lead, advice that is certainly strange given our current obsession with leadership.

Second, Benedict instructs those who would be humble to confess their sins to another person. We all know it is more humiliating to confess to another human being than it is to confess “privately” to God. But when we tell our friend or our priest that we have lied, cheated, committed adultery, or stolen, we are very much exposing the gap between who we publically portray ourselves to be and who we in fact are. It is the gap between who we pretend to be and who we are that makes us appear pathetic, and exposing this gap is humiliating. Benedict seems to be instructing us to take every advantage of such opportunities for humiliation. This advice is countercultural in a society that privileges self-esteem, and it is always ripe for abuse. Still, Benedict thinks simply exposing our frailty and failures honestly will help us get over ourselves.

Third, Benedict thinks we should have a different attitude toward ordinariness than our culture encourages us to have. Our culture informs us in so many ways that people who are not extraordinary are losers. So thoroughly are we shaped by the expectations of extraordinariness, that we experience our own inevitable ordinariness as a humiliation. But Benedict encourages us to embrace our ordinariness. The desire to be extraordinary is the desire to stand out in contrast to the ordinary others, and Benedict cannot find any motive behind such a desire that is not an expression of pride. Of course, everyone needs differentiation at a young age in order to have an identifiable self at all. Benedict, however, thinks at some point the ongoing wish for differentiation is devastating to our spiritual growth because it is an expression of an independence that is in tension with our origin and destiny as utterly dependent creatures.

Finally, because physical suffering threatens us with diminution and death, it provides the most complete opportunity to grow in humility. Physical suffering reveals our fundamental limitation and fragility and we naturally recoil against it. To learn to suffer with patience is to learn to accept such limitation and fragility. To undergo hard and distasteful things without resentment or rebellion is to relinquish our claim to self-sufficiency and independence, the constitutive dispositions of pride. It is because prolonged physical suffering so often threatens to completely destroy our identities as capable and independent persons that such suffering can, by the grace of God, be an opportunity to let go of the quest to make something of ourselves. This is hard counsel. Our identities seem like everything to us because it appears impossible to make sense of our lives without them. To follow the path of the humble Jesus is to discover that we really can give everything away, even our precious identities.