Humility: The Forgotten Virtue

Jan 2, 2014

On New Year’s Day, many of us make resolutions to do certain things for self-improvement.  The ancient Greeks thought that becoming a better person was the product of taking on certain traits of excellence, called virtues, traits like courage and justice.  One learns virtues by imitation:  imitate a good person, and you will become a good person.

Two good men highly praised in recent weeks are Pope Francis and the late Nelson Mandela.  They are leaders of a singular type—ones who embody a particular virtue scarcely seen in most leaders, but one that our society seems to hunger for:  humility.

Named for the humble saint Francis of Assisi, the self-effacing Pope has exchanged many of the ornate trappings of the papacy for simplicity.  He has washed the feet of female convicts, kissed the face of the deformed, and made service of the poor and oppressed the center of his life and ministry.

Nelson Mandela walked out of a twenty-seven-year imprisonment under the masters of apartheid to become president of South Africa.  But as Dov Seidman, who advises C.E.O.s on governance observes, Mandela’s leadership arose precisely out the fact that he did not make the transition out of apartheid about him.  By making himself small, Seidman argues, Mandela was able to inspire others to do the work of reconciliation.

Humility is not self-denial as such.  Rather, it is having the character to acknowledge one's limits and debts in addition to one's strengths.  Humility makes the whole greater than the self.  It stands with the lowliest among us first.  Among its fruits are gratitude, solidarity, responsibility, and reconciliation.

While humility is a personal virtue, there are two reasons for renewing our interest in it as a civic virtue as well.  First, as Francis and Mandela illustrate, humility is an important source of moral authority, an essential element for the leadership necessary to reverse moral decline.  The oft-heard criticism that politicians “just don't get it” is essentially a rejection of political self-promotion over service to others.  Self-serving leadership cannot heal a nation’s divisions.  Mandela reached out to include his former enemies, rather than take revenge or seek their elimination.  Think of how a little humility might have spared us the politics of extortion that caused the government shutdown, for example.

Second, the success of any dialogue on divisive issues requires that all parties place the common good and devotion to the truth above personal or special interest.  Yet, humility also recognizes that no person, institution, or tradition possesses the entire Truth. 

Aren't these the sort of things that people look for to ameliorate the growing cynicism and divisions in American culture and politics?  One wonders why, then, in the worldwide outpouring of praise for Francis and Mandela we don’t see more people acting like them?

The biggest reason, I suspect, is that our culture and its dominant institutions do little to foster the humble character.  Spheres of real power—such as politics and business—rest largely on the values of self-promotion, individualism, and competition.  And our culture encourages people to imitate the successful members of these spheres much more than it does the humble servant.  It mistakes humility for weakness.

Religious traditions would seem uniquely situated to provide examples of those who humble themselves before others great and small.  A moral tragedy of our times is that much of contemporary American Christianity, whose God comes humbly as a suffering servant, born in a barn, has accommodated itself too much to the dominant values of culture.  Or at least it has often lacked the courage to provide powerful and prophetic critiques of culture for fear of alienating the comfortable.  It strays when it emphasizes certainty in dogma rather than the humility of nonjudgmental love.  That’s why Pope Francis stands out as such a refreshing character.

Mandela’s school in humility arose from the depths of suffering, another experience which, while not desirable in itself, has been expunged of any purpose in our times.  It is rarely viewed as an opportunity for forming character.

So as we look into a new year with hope, perhaps it is time we hold not just ourselves but our leaders to the virtues embodied by figures like Francis and Mandela.  Imagine political leaders congratulating their opponents for good ideas, or standing with the poor, rather than blaming them.  Imagine religious leaders not claiming God’s knowledge in doctrine but humbling themselves in service.  Imagine people taking responsibility not just for their own behavior, but also for the behavior of those around them and for the social conditions that influence it.

But don’t just imagine it.  Expect it this year—of ourselves first, then of others.  Maybe we don’t all have the gifts to be as Pope Francis or Nelson Mandela, but I believe that we, and our world, would be better off if we tried.

  Happy New Year everyone.

This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.