A human characteristic that renders one mild of temper and slow to take offense. In modern English it also has a pejorative sense and applies to a man who is spiritless and tamely submissive.
In the Old Testament meekness was closely allied with the state of humility, lowliness, poverty, and affliction. The ancient Greeks brought it into a moral context in counting it better to suffer than to do wrong. The esteem attached to meekness is typical of New Testament morality. "Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the earth" (Mt 5.4) is the most famous passage embodying this term, but the quality itself is included equivalently in the fruit of the spirit that St. Paul described as charity, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, modesty, and continency (Gal 5.22–23). Clearly the attitude that is recommended to the Christian is one of relative passivity in the face of aggravating invasion, or even one of active kindliness toward the covetous and domineering.
The Pauline reference in Galatians to the fruit of the Spirit, and the later association of the virtue of meekness with St. Benedict's steps of humility locate it more exactly in the organic process of Christian growth and development. In its fullness as a gift of the Spirit, there is a willing acceptance if not an element of positive relish in the reaction of those who possess it to the provoking behavior of others, as is exemplified in the martyrdom of the deacon Stephen. In more ordinary circumstances it shows itself in a lack of violence in dealing with one's enemies.
Scholastic theologians have narrowed this concept in making it a moral virtue, a potential part of temperance, that has as its effect the rational moderation of anger. However, their ideal embodiment of this character trait is still Jesus—"Now I myself Paul appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ" (2 Cor 10.1). Failure in meekness by way of defect is commonly considered under the heading of anger. Excesses of meekness that usually come from extreme indolence, craven fear, or complete absence of even normal aggressiveness have been treated by Aquinas and St. Francis de Sales. Serious failures are conceivable only in such unusual circumstances that bad example would be gravely scandalous, or that failure to admonish with adequate impressiveness would lead those under one's charge to moral confusion.
Obviously the beatitude mentioned by Matthew as part of the Sermon on the Mount lists meekness as a value opposed to those values that normally prevail in society. From the simple evolutionary point of view, it might be thought that the meek would be eliminated by the process of natural selection. However, some degree of acceptance of this Christian ideal in Western society appears necessary to its survival. Nonetheless, it is certainly one of the traits of character that the average man finds confusing. But with the passing of the rugged frontier era and its appropriate code of morality, humility and meekness are again becoming more and more acceptable as qualities of a well-adjusted member of our society.
Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 157. d. buzy, Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique. Doctrine et histoire, ed. m. viller et al. (Paris 1932–) 1:1298–1310. a. i. mennessier, ibid. 3:1674–85. m. gaucheron, Catholicisme 3:1051–52. b. h. merkelbach, Summa theologiae moralis, 3 v. (8th ed. Paris 1949) 2:1033–36. d. m. prÜmmer, Manuale theologiae moralis, ed. e. m. mÜnch, 3 v. (12th ed. Freiburg-Barcelona 1955) 2:709.
[j. d. fearon]