Humility used to be a vice. Ancient philosophers like Aristotle thought it contradicted the deeply entrenched honor–shame system that set greatness as the crown of personal character. Greatness of soul. The Greek word is megalopsychos, or “great-souledness.” Yes that sounds to the contemporary ear like a combination of “megalomaniac” and “psycho,” but think like an ancient person for a moment. In the ancient honor–shame system, to be a good person and have a good life meant greatness. You wouldn’t want to move too close to vanity or conceitedness. That’d be taking greatness to the extreme. But you wouldn’t want to be humble either. The mikropsychos, or smallness of soul, meant you undervalued yourself. It meant shame and humiliation.
Here, the operative virtue might be translated “Magnanimity.” Now we’re in Latin. Greatness of soul. Pusillanimity is the smallness of soul. To think of oneself and one’s contribution to society as totally worthless. Just remember that to the ancient pagan mind, greatness in the world was the highest calling.
Make America Great Again or Make America Magnanimous Again?
What is greatness? C.S. Lewis talks about the reintegration of magnanimity in The Abolition of Man. He called it the virtue of the chest. To be “men without chests” is for us modern people to fail to live into the great moral potential of what it means to be human. He calls for a renewed sense of integrating our minds, emotions, and wills toward The Good. But Lewis’ calling us to be great again is consistent with humility. Greatness for him meant fulfilling our moral and political purpose, standing up for human dignity, but in fact came along with rightly aligning our sense of self in society.
Proud to Be Humble: Presidential Candidates Show Off Their Humility
What is humility? Some philosophers think of humility as owning our limits (as Jason Baehr and his co-authors do in a recent paper on intellectual humility – access might be restricted for this article). Others think of humility as low concern for status or self-importance (as Robert C. Roberts and J. Wesley Wood do in their book Intellectual Virtues: An Essay in Regulative Epistemology).
Here is a fact: Hundreds—maybe thousands—of Americans think they should be president. Really. Here are a few we know of. Is it possible to offer your services as the “leader of the free world” and be humble? Well, I hope so! But just how we can walk the razor’s edge of (a) proving our greatness in leadership and simultaneously (b) owning our limits or having low concern for status/importance… that seems extremely difficult.
Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Gary Johnson have all commented on humility, albeit in much different ways.
Hillary Clinton on Humility, in which she quotes Henri Nouwen
On February 3, 2016 at a Townhall event in New Hampshire, Jonathan Spira-Savett of Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire took Hillary to task (in a way only a good rabbi can do!) on exactly the oxymoronic nature of this question of “humble politicians.” Moreover, his expression of the question was beautiful, and really gets to the point of the Judeo-Christian perspective on humility:
Rabbi Simcha Bunem, taught that every person has to have two pockets and in each pocket they have to carry a different note. And the note in one pocket says: the universe was created for me. And in the other pocket the note says: I am just dust and ashes. And I want you to take a moment and think about what you would tell us about your two pockets. How do you cultivate the ego, the ego that we all know you must have, a person must have to be the leader of the free world, and also the humility to recognize that we know that you can’t be expected to be wise about all the things that the president has to be responsible for?
You can watch her response below, and read more about it here.
Here’s what she said:
“I think about this a lot. I feel very fortunate that I am a person of faith… that I was raised in my church and that I have had to deal and struggle with a lot of these issues about ambition and humility, about service and self-gratification—all of the human questions that all of us deal with. But when you put yourself out into the public arena, I think it’s incumbent upon you to be as self-conscious as possible. This is hard for me.”
Hillary is constantly accused of lying and posturing. I’m not going to talk about that here. Out of a principle of charity, and for the sake of argument, suppose she’s being honest. She expresses exactly the quandary I’m trying to point out: Politicians are obligated (by the very nature of media-based electioneering and campaigning) to be hyper-aware of themselves. To be a prudent, good politician appears to require an abnormally high concern for oneself and one’s status in the public eye.
She goes on to talk about the need for balance between an honest appraisal of and faithfulness toward her skills on one hand, and her limitations on the other. She’s invoked both ways of thinking about humility: concern for self and owning one’s limits. And she stipulates that she doesn’t know the answer.
“I don’t know that there is any ever absolute answer. Like, ‘Okay universe, here I am, watch me roar!’ or ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t do it, it’s just overwhelming, I have to retreat.”
This is her expressing the limits-owning approach to humility. Owning limitations means being aware and accepting of the ways in which we are finite and unable to do certain things, unable to know the right thing to do, or be certain of our moral and political and religious beliefs. It is to “right-size” oneself—not too small (pusillanimity) or too large (vanity or conceitedness). Note: I’m not calling Hillary humble. But the way she talks about humility expresses the tension of being a humble politician.
She went on to talk about how her faith is operative in handling this tension, citing Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son.
“Everybody knows that I have lived a very public life for the last 25 or so years. And so I’ve had to be in public dealing with some very difficult issues and personal issues, political, public issues. And I read a treatment of the prodigal son parable by the Jesuit Henri Nouwen, who I think is a magnificent writer of spiritual and theological concerns. And I read that parable and there was a line in it that became just a lifeline for me. And it basically is ‘practice the discipline of gratitude.’
So regardless of how hard the days are, how difficult the decisions are, be grateful. Be grateful for being a human being, being part of the universe. Be grateful for your limitations. Know that you have to reach out to have more people be with you, to support you, to advise you, listen to your critics, answer the questions. But at the end, be grateful. Practice the discipline of gratitude. And that has helped me enormously.”
She has said in the past that The Return to the Prodigal Son was one of the most influential books in her life. She said in this article for Oprah Magazine:
“One sentence hit me like a lightning bolt: ‘The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.’ … By consciously reminding myself of my blessings, I could move from pessimism to optimism, from grief to hopefulness.”
There is some connection between gratitude and humility. To receive a gift (perhaps in one way of thinking about it) is to acknowledge one’s need and limitations.
That’s how Hillary Clinton talks about humility. She talks in a way we’d expect a politician to talk. Donald Trump does not do this.
Donald Trump on Humility
There are at least three instances from the past year when Donald Trump has directly spoken about humility. He is not an intellectual elite, and I think I can make a modest guess that he hasn’t read Henri Nouwen (I’d be happy to be proven wrong about that). [Insert joke about 2 Corinthians here.] Trump is also big on greatness. But when he says, “It’s gonna be great,” is he talking about the greatness of honor that Aristotle envisioned for the magnanimous man? Is he thinking of the greatness of soul or chest that C.S. Lewis presents in ordering our lives toward the highest moral good? I don’t know.
Here’s what he has said.
Call Me “Humble”
Back in October 2015, when there were still 17 Republican candidates for president, the hopefuls were asked which Secret Service code name they would choose for themselves. There is a very fascinating practice by the Secret Service to use code names for all those under their protection. Barack Obama is “Renegade”; Ronald Reagan was “Rawhide”; Al Gore’s daughter was “Smurfette” (at least someone’s having fun in the Secret Service).
As they went down the line, you heard “Harley,” “Secretariat,” “Gator,” “Duckhunter”…. Trump chose “Humble”—of course, it was a joke. But, it was a joke. Which reveals his awareness of the same tension that Hillary calls out (why else would that be funny?), only Trump doesn’t deal with that tension so existentially. But the fact that its funny and completely unexpected for a presidential hopeful to be called “Humble” does reveal something about society in the way jokes do: It’s laughable to suggest that a politician is humble. Should that trouble us?
Donald was eventually given the codename, “Mogul.”
More than You Know
When Leslie Stahl asked Trump directly about his regard for himself on 60 Minutes, Trump didn’t respond with a long-winded explanation of his struggle with owning his limits or caring too much for his status.
LESLEY STAHL: You’re not known to be a humble man. But I wonder —
DONALD TRUMP: I think I am, actually humble. I think I’m much more humble than you would understand.
There. He said it. It sounds a bit like a riddle, like there are layers of interpretation. If you understand humility to be low concern for self and status and importance, it’s hard not to see this as a self-defeating claim. But if you understand humility as owning limits, then perhaps it is a meaningful utterance. Here’s another similar instance of Trump talking like this:
“[There’s] more humility than you would think, believe me. We’re all the same. I mean, we’re all going to the same place, probably one of two places, you know. But we’re all the same. And I do have, actually, much more humility than a lot of people would think.”
(In the video at this link it’s at 14:54.)
Can the magnanimous, great-souled man admit his limitations? Why not? Has Donald Trump admitted his limitations? Not very often. He just asserts that he is humble. Again, the tension I’m trying to note: Politicians, apparently of necessity in the media-driven political circus, must not admit limitations or they will undermine their ability to be elected. In this context, to be tested with the question of whether you are humble or not feels like trickery. But the fact that it feels like trickery is itself an indicator that something has gone awry. It suggests that somehow, humility doesn’t belong in politics.
Proud to be Proud
Charging someone with a vice is a serious matter. I don’t take it lightly. Here, I am trying neither to praise nor blame. But I find this question personally and politically perplexing. Anyone who seeks to lead has probably thought of the self-defeating and undermining nature of publically positioning one’s self as a humble person. As soon as you recognize your humility, you lose it. As soon as you overcome your vainglory, you have something to brag about. As soon as you point out and own your limitations and gratitude in front of 6 million people on TV, you appear proud to be humble.
Proud to be humble or proud to be proud. I don’t know which is worse. All of us manage our appearances. “We are unknown, we knowers, to ourselves,” says Nietzsche. We deal in self-deception. To know thyself, as the ancient Greek philosopher Thales said, is perhaps the hardest thing in life. (Incidentally, the easiest thing, he suggests, is to give advice! So I make no pretense of advice here!) Insofar as humility is a proper and truthful self-knowledge, an owning of limits, or low concern with your self and what others think of you, all of us struggle with the calling of humility. Pride, St. Augustine suggests, is the fountain from which all other sin flows.
Make America Least Again: The Least and the Greatest
To be a politician is to wield power. We’re all politicians in some sense. Not all of us have as much power as the next person, but it’s (fallen?) human nature to vie for power. James and John believed in Jesus’ power and wanted to weild that themselves, asking (through their mother no less!) to sit on Jesus’ right and left hand. Jesus’ response: “You have no idea what you’re asking.” (Mark 10:38; Matthew 20:22)
42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.
The radical humility that Jesus suggests leaves Christians in tension. The least is the greatest. Make America Least Again. Does that statement have any meaning? America is an honor-shame society. It is the City of Man. It appeals to standards of the City of Man. But the City of God, is an upsidedown city where leaders are servants. I’m not suggesting that the “leader of the free world” can’t be humble, or that we should decide on presidents according to their humility or even magnanimity. But the tension of following Jesus in radical humility in a social media society where greatness and machismo and image and ego and certitude all set the standard for leadership, it’s hard to be humble.