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Humility’s Sorry Fortunes in Society & Philosophy


By James G. Hanink | May 1986
James G. Hanink is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and a Contributing Editor of the NOR.

Humility, Alasdair Maclntyre writes, “could appear in no Greek list of the virtues,” and Hume, we recall, scorns it as a “monkish” virtue. Nor does humility fare any better today, although perhaps one says this with some reservation. We are not, af­ter all, too clear about what humility is. But even our confusion shows humility’s precarious state. For if we held humility in much regard, we would be more able to speak clearly about it. In addition to our telling inarticulateness, humility’s sociologi­cal impress is surely insignificant. The social struc­ture of modernity, insofar as we can chart it at all, can be charted without reference to humility — but not without reference to status or power. Finally, the concept of humility is simply ignored by most major philosophers.

How is the Christian philosopher to respond to humility’s sorry fortunes? One response is to try to think through why it is that almost all moral philosophers recognize the centrality of, say, jus­tice but overlook humility. A second, and related, response is to look carefully at how Christians speak about humility. Do we misrepresent it? If so, how badly? But a third response, I think, is the most important. It is to delineate the foundational role of humility in Christian ethics. We can, with profit, explore how secular moral philosophy comes to have the emphases it does and how we, no doubt, have contributed to that skewedness. But our first task is to set our own house in philo­sophical order. What is humility’s place in the structure of Christian moral philosophy?

The answer that I outline here is a Thomistic one. It poses two preliminary questions for consid­eration: (1) why humility is a virtue, and (2) where humility “fits” in man’s nature. Getting clear, or relatively so, about these questions will, in turn, show just why and how humility is central for the believer but only marginal for the nonbeliever.

Why should we suppose that humility is a vir­tue? On the face of it, humility seems opposed to, among other things, ambition. Of course, being op­posed to ambition does not in itself discount hu­mility’s being a virtue. For if we think of the vir­tues as a subset of deeply habituated dispositions, we have to determine which of such dispositions count as virtues and which count as vices. And how should we make this determination? It might, conceivably, be made on as many grounds as there are competing moral theories. Here, though, I will con­sider just two such bases for the determination of virtues.

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