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A Brief Sketch on Humility

by Andrew Pinsent

An Ongoing Series of Sketches from the Contributors of Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, co-edited by Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett (Eerdmans, 2012). More info can be found at www.beinggoodnews.com.

Given its popular association with being deferential and submissive, what place does humility have in our present day world? And indeed, in the light of the many achievements of humanity, why should we be humble? What can humility do for us except inhibit our efforts to excel? Is it not better to strive for greatness, to reach for the stars rather than crawl in the dust?

In my chapter of Being Good, I argue that not only is humility compatible with greatness, and even with an acknowledgement of one’s own greatness, but that it is a precondition of the only true and lasting greatness. Humility’s importance, however, is most readily perceived by examining what is wrong with its opposing vice, namely pride. The four traditional marks of pride are:

(a) ascribing an excellence to oneself that one does not possess;

(b) thinking that one has acquired for oneself some excellence that one has received as a gift;

(c) thinking that some excellence that one has received as a gift is due to one’s own merits;

(d) thinking that some excellence that one possesses is greater insofar as others do not have it.

Humility opposes all these forms of pride, but has a unique importance in Christianity because the excellence offered is a personal relationship with God. This supernatural goal is utterly inaccessible to any unaided natural human capacity. The pride by which a person attempts to make himself like God, to seize participation in the divine nature, is not only insane but is incompatible with that divine friendship that alone makes such participation possible.

Given its importance, how then can we become humble? Since the very nature of humility disposes us to receive God’s gifts as gifts, I argue that it is not, in fact, within our power to acquire humility for ourselves as if humility itself is not a gift. A self-help book entitled How to be Humble or Teach Yourself Humility would miss the entire point.

The whole history of Christianity suggests that God forms humility in his people in a most unusual way, constantly disrupting the apparent but false association that reason tends to make between natural powers and supernatural fruitfulness. Indeed, he often entirely inverts the natural order of strength and weakness in such things, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree” (Luke 1:52).

So while it is true that God sometimes makes use of a person’s exceptional natural gifts, such as intelligence or political ability, God can just as easily make use of someone’s simplicity, weakness or foolishness. Indeed, he frequently seems to make someone weak, or allow a person to fall, precisely to bring about the disposition of trusting in him alone. It is only when Peter has betrayed Christ and been forgiven that he is humble enough to be the leader of the church; it is only when Paul has persecuted Christ to the point of murdering his followers that he is conscious enough of his own failures to be the greatest of all missionaries. Humility properly disposes us to receive God’s gifts as gifts – and even that disposition is itself the fruit of God’s grace.

If you enjoy this chapter, I invite you to explore the works of other philosophers who have written on this theme and whose writings are referenced in the chapter. I also invite you to examine a book I have just published that explores these themes further, The Second-Person Perspective in Aquinas’s Ethics: Virtues and Gifts (Routledge, 2012).

The unusual emphasis on humility in Christianity, as well as the many other non-Aristotelian virtues examined in Being Good, has led me to conclude that we need a radically new way of conceiving of a ‘virtue’. In this new book, I argue that the key is to be found in so-called ‘second-person relatedness’. A fitting metaphor to understand the life of grace and the infused virtues is that these dispositions remove a person’s ‘spiritual autism,’ enabling the kind of second-person relatedness with God manifested vividly in Augustine’s Confessions. For additional work on second-person relatedness, especially applied to the problem of suffering, I also recommend Stump, Wandering in Darkness (OUP, 2011).  Over the next few years, I am keen to develop further the idea of a specifically second-person virtue ethics and I invite you to join me in this enterprise.

Andrew Pinsent
Oxford University

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