July 23, 2019

Rediscovering Humility

St. Vincent de Paul (1581-1660)

In a recent essay I traced the problem of divisiveness in modern America to our culture’s overemphasis on SELF—notably self-esteem and self-actualization—and suggested that the solution lies in renewed appreciation of the virtue of humility. Unfortunately, such a renewal will very difficult to accomplish for two important reasons.

First, humility and self-esteem are almost exact opposites. Humility is having “a modest opinion of one’s own importance or rank” and being meek or self-effacing. Self-esteem is having “a favorable or unduly high opinion of oneself” and being self-revering, even self-exalting

Both the advocates of humility and those of self-esteem affirm self-respect and inherent human dignity, but they do so for very different reasons. Those who favor humility, notably traditional Catholics and other Christians, believe that all people deserve respect because they are created in the image and likeness of God, but they also believe that human nature is flawed and as a result people are susceptible to error in their thoughts and actions.

In sharp contrast, those who favor self-esteem believe that all people deserve respect because they are inherently wise and good. Thus they reject the idea that of a flawed nature and susceptibility to error. One of the first shapers of self-esteem theory, Carl Rogers, went even further, advising people to trust their feelings implicitly and create their own truth and reality.

The logical extension of such ideas is that knowledge, virtue, and wisdom need not be sought or striven for because they already exist—in abundance—within each person. From that perspective, it is difficult to see the need for logic or theology, schools or churches, or any authority other than our imperial selves. Neither is it reasonable to pay attention to other people’s criticism of our thoughts or actions. In fact, there is very good reason not to—it deflates our ego when we should be as full of self as possible. What singer Mac Davis sang tongue in cheek—that it’s hard to be humble when one is completely perfect—self-esteem theory takes seriously.

The second reason it will be difficult to for our culture to regain its appreciation of humility is that self-esteem theory promises a better result with no effort—all we need do is feel good about ourselves exactly as we are. Modern culture has uncritically accepted this idea and has portrayed humility as outdated, unhelpful, and worse, something that will stunt our growth as human beings and do us emotional harm. Given the culture’s relentless praise of self-esteem theory and denigration of humility, it is hardly surprising that many Catholics and other Christians have embraced self-esteem theory.

What is surprising is that relatively few Catholics and other Christians have made as strong a case for humility as they could have. They typically have said little more than, “the Bible praises humility and we believe the Bible.” The Bible does indeed praise humility in more than a dozen places. For example, Psalm 25 declares, “[The Lord] teaches the humble His way,” and Peter statesGod is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

Jesus Himself speaks forcefully about humility when He says, “The greatest among you shall be your servant. For whoever exalts himself shall be humbled; and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” He also offers an example in the Parable of the Guests, “When you are invited, go and recline at the last place, so that when the one who has invited you comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher’; then you will have honor in the sight of all who are at the table with you.” Then He repeats what he said previously, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Perhaps many are reluctant or unable to explain such passages because the passages themselves are declarative but not explanatory. Jesus does not describe in what way the humble will be “exalted”or how it will occur. Inquisitive people would, of course, ask whether the exalting will occur in this life or in the next and whether it will be solely spiritual or also emotional and intellectual. But Catholics and other Christians have been conditioned to feel uncomfortable asking such questions. Thus they have tended not to wonder, let alone probe more deeply.

The Creator gave us minds for a purpose—to use them to enlarge our understanding and to become wise. And Jesus promised us those efforts will be fruitful: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.” (Matt 7: 78) Failure to grasp the relevance of this promise to the virtue of humility has not only left us vulnerable to the fallacies of the self-esteem movement; it has also denied us understanding that, far from stunting our intellectual and spiritual growth, humility greatly enhances them.

By keeping us aware of our inherent imperfection, humility makes us more willing to acknowledge our faults and strive to overcome them.

By freeing us from preoccupation with our own needs and desires, humility enables us to be more aware of other people’s needs and desires and opens us to feelings of empathy, compassion, kindness, and generosity.

By freeing us from the notion that we know everything, humility opens us to viewpoints other than our own and thus enlarges our perspective.

By encouraging criticism of our own ideas and opinions as well as of other people’s, humility helps us to form judgments more thoughtfully and gain deeper insights.

By opening us to the reality that we can be mistaken, humility helps us become less defensive and more willing both to acknowledge past mistakes and avoid future ones.

By making us mindful of our responsibilities as well as our rights, humility encourages us to treat others better and thus improves the quality of our relationships.

By increasing our awareness that we are as apt to offend others as to be offended by them, humility encourages us both to seek forgiveness and to forgive.

Taken together, the above effects signify spiritual as well as emotional and intellectual growth.

In short, in the contest between humility and self-esteem, humility should win because it is wiser and more beneficial. But Christians have not made the most effective case for it. The intellectual and spiritual future of our culture may well depend on their succeeding in that effort.

Copyright © 2018 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved

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Written by
Vincent Ryan Ruggiero

VINCENT RYAN RUGGIERO, M.A., is Professor of Humanities Emeritus, State University of New York, Delhi College. Prior to his twenty-nine year career in education, he was a social caseworker and an industrial engineer. The author of twenty-one books, his trade books include Warning: Nonsense Is Destroying America and The Practice of Loving Kindness. His textbooks include The Art of Thinking and Beyond Feelings, both in 10th editions and available in Chinese as well as English, Thinking Critically About Ethical Issues, and A Guide to Sociological Thinking. His latest book, Corrupted Culture: Rediscovering America's Enduring Principles, Values, and Common Sense, is available at Amazon and in bookstores. Professor Ruggiero is internationally recognized as one of the pioneers of the Critical Thinking movement in education. Earlier in his career, he published essays in a variety of magazines and journals, including America, Catholic Mind, The Sign, The Lamp, and Catholic World.

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Written by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero