Humility: Authentic Virtue or Personal Weakness?

I’ve spent the past few months researching and writing about practical wisdom, courage, self-mastery, and justice, which are described in classical ethics as the cardinal virtues. I released a podcast series on these four virtues and published an e-book entitled The Character Cure: Four Cornerstone Virtues for a More Fulfilling Life.

In my first Character Cure blog post, I’d like to begin exploring some of the other virtues required for human flourishing. Let’s start with humility.

ConfuciusIn teaching his disciples to avoid boasting, Confucius cites the example of a great warrior who had recently performed an act of valor. He was the last man to flee on horseback after his fellow soldiers had been trounced in battle. As he returned late to camp, he immediately deflected attention from his courageous acts with the excuse that his horse was slow.

The point of this anecdote is clear: modesty or humility is a distinguishing feature of noble men. Confucian humility is also a basic duty called for in the presence of your parents and the elderly. And humility is built into the Confucian definition of knowledge. While the wise are confident regarding what they do know, their quest for knowledge makes them keenly aware when they do not know something.

As a religious virtue, humility includes a profound sense of your dependence upon God. It means acknowledging the relatively meager extent of human knowledge and power. People of faith humbly turn to God for the strength and inspiration they currently lack.

Those who claim Jesus Christ as their exemplar have a particular duty to cultivate humility. In their quest to become like their Master, Christians cannot ignore the height of His self-sacrifice, submissiveness, and ultimate humiliation on the cross. Jesus’ triumph over sin and death was made possible by His self-emptying sacrifice.

John Calvin preached the doctrine of predestination largely as an antidote to pride. In Calvinist theology, good works do not factor into God’s unconditional appointment of the elect unto glory. The idea that you are elected through God’s mysterious and unmerited grace induces true humility, an essential requirement for living in God’s presence.

In cultivating the virtue of humility, we cannot ignore the legitimate critique offered by Nietzsche and other modern philosophers. When promoted by those in power, humility can be a tool to subjugate others. Along with virtues such as kindness and compassion, humility is for Nietzsche one of the central features of a “slave morality.”

AristotleAs a contrast to both Confucianism and traditional Christianity, Aristotle’s man of complete virtue wholeheartedly claims well-deserved honor and praise. His magnanimous nature is always truthful. According to Aristotle, high-mindedness rather than humility is the crown of the virtues.

On the surface, the contrast between Aristotelian pride and Christian/Confucian humility is unmistakable. However, if we look deeper, we see a significant convergence between these moral philosophies.

Starting with Jesus Christ as the embodiment of divine virtue, we can recognize that the humility of Christ emanated from his moral perfection.

In a similar way, both Confucius and Aristotle presume the rare achievement of complete human virtue as they discuss humility and high-mindedness. With regard to the vast majority of people, Aristotle speaks against unjustified arrogance just as much as Confucius.

So what is the proper place of humility within flawed human beings?

Perhaps Aristotle and Confucius are right. The question of whether a situation calls for humility or pride might only make sense when it comes to certain narrow areas of our lives where we have risen above mediocrity. If I have mastered a certain art or achieved a specific virtue, I can then decide whether to follow the Confucian and Christian path of humility or the Greek path of magnanimity and high-mindedness. Where I have not achieved excellence, the only question is how hard I am willing to work to achieve it.

Alexander Dumas’s morally flawed Count of Monte Cristo observes, “I maintain my pride before men, but abandon it before God, who drew me out of nothingness to make me what I am.” Such a sentiment has a persuasive appeal in today’s ultra-competitive society. Even though I fully recognize ways in which I am inferior to other people, why should I defer to them or diminish myself in their presence? Measuring my personal weaknesses against other people’s strengths is usually unhelpful.

So keeping your head held high might make sense as a default posture. But if you have definitively achieved some aspect of virtue, a call for humility can offer a helpful warning against arrogance and self-worship.

In the end, we are still faced with a final dilemma. How can we cultivate true humility while rejecting its self-serving forms? The appearance of humility is immeasurably easier to achieve than the authentic virtue that rises naturally from a foundation of moral excellence.

C.S. Lewis may have the best answer: “If you meet a really humble man…probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him….He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.”