The virtue by which a man attributes to God all the good he possesses. In this article humility is treated (1) as it appears in the Bible, (2) as it is considered by theology, and (3) as it is applied to practice.
In the Bible. According to the OT, man, created by God's love but preferring proud disobedience to filial dependence (Gn 2.17), broke the bonds with his Creator (Gn 3.22–24) and the harmony of creation (Romans ch. 1–2) by introducing sin and death into the world (Rom5.12).
When God revealed his plan of salvation, the chosen people learned again its complete dependence on God in all things (Hos 13.9) by witnessing the powerful works of Yahweh (Dt 11.7) who created it as the people of god (Dt 32.6), fed its poverty in the desert (Ex ch. 16), and defended it in its helplessness (Ex ch. 14). It learned also its sinfulness and the mercy of Yahweh (Ps 78) and underwent the purifying chastisement of the exile (Jer 16.12–13, 31; Ez 36.24–28). This humble attitude was expressed and fostered by the cult of praise, thanksgiving, and propitiation. The real people of God, then, was the small "remnant" of the "poor of Yahweh" (Zep3.12–14), whose attitude was one of trustful and humble dependence (Jdt 9.11), filial fear (Prv 15.23; 22.4), faithful obedience (1 Mc 2.20–22), contrition (Is 57.15;66.2), poverty (Ps 9–10; 22), meekness, and modes ty (Nm 12.3).
In the NT, all these traits converge, through the humble handmaid of the Lord (Lk 1.38, 48), upon the real Servant of Yahweh (Isaiah ch. 42, 50; Lk 4.17–21; Is 61.1–2), the King meek and humble of heart (Zec 9.9; Mt 21.5; Zep 3.12; Mt 11.29), born as a child of men, Jesus. Being the Son of God, He came to obey (Jn 4.34), to save (Jn 3.17), to serve (Mt 20.28), and to accept the humiliation of the cross (Phil 2.8). Thus He revealed the humility of love: charity stooped down, renouncing all self-love, so that nothing might hinder His communion with the little ones (Phil 2.2–8). He was the definitive image of humility (Jn 13.1–17).
His kingdom is to be received, not as a right, but as a gift (1 Cor 4.7), in the manner of a child (Mt 18.3–5). Hence the poor and the meek are blessed (Mt 5.3–5). The basic new law of love implies service (Eph 4.2; 1 Pt3.8–9), but it implies also humble forgiveness (Lk 18.14).
Humility (ταπεινοφροσύνη) opens man to grace (1 Cor 15.10) and to divine secrets (Mt 11.25), makes him an instrument of salvation (1 Cor 1.25–31; 2 Cor 12–10), and will exalt the humble forever (Mt 23.12); while pride closes man to grace (1 Pt 5.5) and causes the horror of God (Lk 16.15) and His chastisements (Is 2.6–22; Mt 23.12).
In Theology. Humility is the moral virtue by which the human will accepts readily the fact that all a person's good—nature and grace, being and action—is a gift of God's creative and salvific love, and by which one wants consequently to "unself" the self radically in thought, word, and deed, in order to be true to his (natural and supernatural) being. The opposite of humility is pride, by which man thinks and wants to be independent of God (and of others) and, consequently, self-sufficient (in being), self-reliant (in action), and self-seeking (morally).
As any sin is fundamentally a form of pride and perverse self-love, so any good act of the just man is basically an act of love (charity), which is the fundamental driving force of his self-oblation to God and men. But because he is a creature, a redeemed sinner, and an adopted son, this love must be humble: it is totally received (Phil 2.13) and gratefully returned by a liberty that itself is made possible by the gratuitous help (concursus ) of God. Humility is thus as essential for a man as is his creaturehood and adoptive sonship.
After the theological virtues (charity founded on faith and hope), which constitute the (supernatural) soul of our moral activity by immediately connecting us with God (Col 3.14), humility is the most important moral virtue since it regulates the whole of virtuous life by submitting it to the true order of being. It even affects charity, hope, and faith themselves insofar as these are the theological virtues of a created, adopted son; humility is their creaturely aspect. It is thus the foundation of all virtues
(see St. Augustine, Serm. 69, Patrologia Latina 38.441). It opens us to the gifts of the Father (1 Pt 5.5) by breaking open the closed and separate selfhood. While pride tends to make an absolute of man's littleness, humility opens it to the infinite by accepting its relativeness to God and to others. Hence the evangelical paradox: "Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted" (Mt 23.12). When the one who receives is nothing of himself, his independence from the source of being means self-destruction, and his dependence, self-fulfillment. Humility is the true greatness of a creature; it is liberation from its limited selfhood.
At a deeper level still, humility shares in Christ's filial humility. As God, the Son receives Himself totally from the Father, but is equal to Him in all things (Phil2.6). As man, His sonship expresses itself in a total relativeness by which He voluntarily receives all from His Father (Jn 4.34; 5.30; 7.16; Lk 22.42), who is greater than He (Jn 14.28). The humility of Christ's members participates in this filial "receptiveness" and is an expression of their adoptive sonship. It has a trinitarian value. In Christ, one may speak of the humility of God. Some even see it as an attribute of the divinity, inclining God's love toward the littleness of his creatures (R. Guardini).
Besides, Christ, accepting the solidarity with man's sinfulness (2 Cor 5.21), was humiliated unto death in order to save his brethren (Phil 2.7–11). This humiliation of Christ is an exigency of His charity: His love does not suffer its self-surrender to be limited by any prerogative that could hamper communion. Superiority is service (Mt 20.25–28). Man's fraternal charity has the same exigency of humility.
In a classical Aristotelian context, St. Thomas Aquinas classified humility as a virtue moderating the irascible appetite in its tendency to excel, restraining it from presumption and thus balancing the effects of magna nimity, which stimulates reasonably the same appetite against despair (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 161.1). As such humility is one kind of modesty that, in turn, is a potential part of the cardinal virtue of temperance (ibid. 161.4). Essentially in the will, it presupposes as its rule a judgment of faith and reason about man's utter contin gency (ibid. 161.2). For St. Thomas, humility is more important than any moral virtue except (legal) justice; it is also second to the theological and intellectual virtues (ibid. 161.5). Evangelical humility is too rich and positive to be classified in any moral category.
In Practice. Humility has as its foundation the sincere acknowledgment of truth perceived clearly by faith. Humility indeed is truth: all good comes from God as its first cause. Only deficiencies belong to man. Hence a humble man can acknowledge the good in others and himself as it really is, i.e., as coming from God and not from self (Rom 12.3), and only the evil as his own work. Therefore, there is no room for vainglory, but only for gratitude and contrition, nor for presumption, but only for the duty of using the gifts with magnanimity; for the humble are God's fearless trustees (Lk 17.10). The "little way" of St. thÉrÈse de lisieux inspires both boldness and generosity. Humility does not abolish true self-respect, nor oblige anyone to say that God's gifts of nature and grace are greater in others than in himself, except to such extent as that may be true. But humility abhors envy of the gifts of others, or the attributing to self of superiority or talent as if these were not God-given. It genuinely rejoices in acknowledging the superiority of others when in fact they are superior. Moreover, as a remedy to the propensity to self-complacency and pride that are results of original sin, humility inclines a person to consider chiefly in others the good in which he himself is lacking, and in himself the defects others do not have (Phil 2.3). The saints excelled in this practice of humility, entertaining thereby a low estimate of themselves and positively choosing contempt with Christ. An excellent example of this is to be found in the third kind of humility described in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Humiliation is the touchstone of humility. Only true humility can save a man from a false pride in his truly splendid achievements without at the same time discouraging his effort.
Bibliography: x. lÉon-dufour, ed., Vocabulaire de théologie biblique (Paris 1962). e. hugueny, Dictionnaire apologétique de la foi catholique, ed. a. d'alÈs, 4 v. (Paris 1911–22; Table analytique 1931) 2:519–528. g. jacquemet, Catholicisme. Hier, aujourd'hui et demain, ed. g. jacquemet (Paris 1947–) 5:1098–1103. b. hÄring, The Law of Christ, tr. e. g. kaiser (Westminster, Md. 1961–) 1:546–557. father canice, Humility (Westminster, Md.1951). s. carlson, The Virtue of Humility (Dubuque 1952). a. tanquerey, The Spiritual Life, tr. h. branderis (2d ed. Tournai 1930; repr. Westminster, Md. 1945) 1127–53. n. kinsella, Unprofitable Servants (Westminster, Md. 1960). h. van zeller, "Of Humility," American Benedictine Review 8 (1957) 324–349.
HUMILITY (Heb. עֲנָוָה), a humble estimate of one's qualities; decency of thought, speech, and conduct. The presence of many biblical synonyms testifies to its importance as a religious principle. Rabbinic literature ascribes the quality to God Himself, with the implication that man should imitate Him in this respect (Meg. 31a).
Humility is commended as an outstanding personal virtue, and is a mandatory qualification for those in positions of leadership. Biblical figures who tempered an awareness of their prestige with a sense of personal modesty achieved renown, while those who were arrogant suffered defeat (Gen. 18:27; Ezek. 28:2; Ned. 38a; dez 1). Humility was the crowning virtue of the greatest of Jewish leaders, Moses: "… and the man Moses was very humble" (Num. 12:3; cf. Deut. R. 2:2; Shab. 89a; arn1 23, 75).
The prophets condemn excessive pride, while they affirm the value of humility (Isa. 10:13, 57:15; Jer. 9:22; Ezek. 28:2; Ps. 51:18–19). Micah includes humility among the three fundamental principles of the Jewish religion: "… to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God" (Micah 6:8). In relation to God, man's humility stems from his existential helplessness in the shadow of divine omnipotence (Ps. 22:7; Avot 4:4). In human relationships humility calls for a giving nature and is incompatible with self-love.
Humility is not merely the absence of pride, but a positive force which expresses itself in constructive action. Thus, even extremism in its pursuit is not a vice (Maim., Yad, De'ot 2:3). This positive aspect is manifest in the tradition of anonymity of authorship in Jewish letters as well as anonymity in charitable acts.
Unlike philosophies which emphasize man's insignificance and preach self-effacing submissiveness, Judaism conceives of humility in the general context of the dignity of man. It requires the transfer of emphasis away from the self rather than destructive self-abnegation. Egotistical preoccupation with one's own humility, however, breeds a pietistic pride denounced by the rabbis. Similarly, false modesty and abdication of responsibility under the guise of humility have no place in Jewish life (Git. 56a; M.Ḥ. Luzzatto, Mesillat Yesharim, ed. by M. Kaplan (1936), 104–5). The midrashic portrayal of man as a being created in the image of God, on the one hand, and as an insignificant mortal, on the other, clarifies this Jewish concept of modesty (Sanh. 38a). Humility represents the peak of moral perfection, and in the "ladder of virtues" is superior even to saintliness (Luzzatto, op. cit., 106, see also chs. 22–23; Prov. 11:2, 15:33, 16:5). Humility is not an isolated trait, but rather a life-style, which encompasses and structures every aspect of human thought and behavior.
Baḥya ibn Paquda, Ḥovot ha-Levavot, ch. 6; Kitvei Rabbenu Moses ben Naḥman, 1 (1963), 372–7; C.G. Montefiore and H. Loewe (eds.), A Rabbinic Anthology (1938), index.
[Zvi H. Szubin]
341. Humility (See also Modesty.)
- Bernadette Soubirous, St. humble girl to whom Virgin Mary appeared. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 65–66]
- Bonaventura, St. washes dishes even though a cardinal. [Christian Hagiog.: Hall, 50]
- broom traditional representation of humility. [Plant Symbolism: Flora Symbolica, 167]
- Bruno, St. pictured with head bent as sign of humbleness. [Christian Hagiog.: Hall, 53]
- cattail used by da Vinci as symbol of humility. [Plant Symbol-ism: Embolden, 25]
- Elizabeth of Hungary, St . meek princess renounced world, cared for sick. [Christian Hagiog.: Attwater, 112]
- Job abases self in awe of the Lord. [O.T.: Job 40:3–5; 42:1–6]
- John the Baptist feels unworthy before Christ. [N.T.: Mark 1:7; Luke 3:16]
- small bindweed traditional representation of humility. [Plant Symbolism: Flora Symbolica 172]
Humorousness (See WITTINESS .)