Humility as a Virtue

by Mortimer J. Adler, Ph.D.


Religious leaders are always preaching the virtue of humility to us. It is supposed to be wrong to push ourselves forward or to think too much about ourselves and about what we have coming. But is this really a virtue? Shouldn’t an adult have a realistic sense of his qualities and attainments, and not be ashamed to claim whatever rewards rightfully belong to him?

Dr, Adler responds: The different evaluations placed on pride and humility by classical antiquity and by the Judaeo-Christian religions afford an instructive example of the difference between philosophical and religious ethics.

Aristotle, in his famous work on ethics, says that the noblest type of human being is the magnanimous, or “great souled,” man. Such a man is justifiably proud of the virtues of character and mind that he possesses. He is secure in his own proper self-esteem and self-respect. The magnanimous man welcomes honor as “the prize of virtue,” provided it is rightly bestowed by men who are worthy to judge virtue. He despises the good opinion of inferior men — popular acclaim or “fame.”

In this view, justifiable pride is a virtue and undue self deprecation is a vice. Vanity and humility are, for Aristotle, the two extreme vices opposed to the virtue of magnanimous pride. A vain man wants more honor than he deserves. A humble man does not think enough of himself; he seeks less honor than he deserves, or none at all. Hence the humble man is just as odious and ridiculous as the vain man. He lacks proper self-respect, which, for Aristotle, is essential to a noble human life.

Now, if we turn to the Bible and to Christian moral teachings, everything seems to be turned upside down. Pride, self esteem, self-sufficiency — these are the worst sins. Humility, a sense of unworthiness, and dependence — these are the supreme virtues. The Psalms teach that we are to trust in God alone as the eternal rock and security. The Gospels teach that “the poor in spirit” — not those who are justifiably proud of their own worth — are the blessed among men.

Jesus preaches that men should avoid honors and privileges, even the title of teacher. The highest model for the Christian is the servant or slave, not the lord or master. The Christian does not seek high place or honor. “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” This preaching is concretely exemplified in Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet.

The Biblical view does not deprecate human virtue, but it ascribes it, like all good things, to God. It is always God that is magnified or glorified, not one’s self or one’s virtues. The Song of Mary, the “Magnificent” in the Gospel of Luke, is a model of the Biblical attitude. So, likewise, is the Jewish memorial service, which glorifies God, not the dead person or his virtues. In the Biblical view, only God is good or great.

The modern writer who most vividly expresses the Christian idea of humility is Feodor Dostoyevsky. His novels try to show the redemptive value of humility and self-sacrificing love. The modern writer who most cogently opposes Christian humility is Friedrich Nietzsche. He considers Christian ethics a subversive revolution which turned things upside down, a “slave morality” which expresses the revenge of the weak and lowly against the strong and great.

Thomas Aquinas attempts to reconcile the virtues of magnanimity and humility. He holds that a Christian rightly practices magnanimity when he considers himself “worthy of great things” because of the virtues he possesses — as a gift of God. The “great things” are perfect works of virtue, in fulfillment of the nature which God has bestowed on man. Similarly, the Christian practices humility when he considers him self unworthy because of weaknesses inherent in his nature, or his failure to fulfill God’s gifts. Humility leads him to honor and esteem others as better than himself insofar as they embody the God-given virtues.

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