I heard someone say recently that humility can be defined as “absence of pride”.
Sounds cool, right? Yeah, I thought so too… at first. There is certainly an appeal to this, as pride is the great flaw in human nature together with what many call concupiscence, or the inclination we have towards sin and weakness. But then I started thinking about it a little bit more. How can a thing (i.e. humility) be at the same time the absence of a thing. In one sense, it seems to violate the law of non-contradiction. The only other alternative is to reduce the virtue of humility, in all its beauty and splendor, into a mere absence.
I find this definition to be extremely limited in its scope and one that does not capture the fullness of the beauty of humility. In Humility: Wellspring of Virtue, Dietrich von Hildebrand calls humility the “mother of all virtues.”(2) After diving into it a bit, I think he’s right. The fight for humility leads to growth in all the others.
It is becoming more and more clear to me that humility is less like a lack of something and more like a fullness of something. Instead of the absence of some particular evil, it seems to contain a depth to it. There is a fullness and a beauty to them. One way we can demonstrate this is by showing that humility is not only a virtue but an attitude.
A significant part of Dietrich von Hildebrand’s moral philosophy rests on these “attitudes”, or stances we take toward the world around us.(4) The first attitude that we should strive for is reverence. Reverence is, for many, the first step in becoming a more virtuous man or woman. (5) These attitudes towards the world help us to grow spiritually and transform us from the inside out.
Humility is one of these attitudes. It is something we adopt within ourselves which allows us to view reality as it truly is, it is opening oneself up to the world of beauty and truth. The reason for this is that a crucial part of humility involves understanding ourselves as we truly are. Hildebrand writes that “Humility is truth, and the soul of pride is falsehood”(6).
Whereas many of our attitudes towards life help us to grow in virtue, which in turn help us to develop better attitudes and so forth, one of the things that is unique to humility is that it is both an attitude and a virtue. A beautiful thing about humility is that it is something we can work at, just like any other virtue. Though it is undoubtedly true that some are born with a greater disposition towards humility and others less so, it is a gift which can be sought after and achieved by all, as long as we’re willing to put in the work for it.
How do we do this? We must put ourselves at a disposition to receive it. Self-reflection and taking time to contemplate the beauty and goodness of the created world and allowing it to lead us to God are some critical paths to achieving this. We must be struck by wonder at the mystery of it all; to do so we have to put ourselves at a disposition to be open to it. This spirit of wonder, feeling small in the presence of something so magnificently bigger than us, is the beginning of true humility.
True humility is life-changing and life-giving, not only to ourselves but to others. It involves seeing things as they really are, and by increasing humility in our hearts we actually become more full of joy. This is a mystery that cannot be adequately explained, but must be experienced.
As a final note, to be humble does not mean to constantly beat ourselves down. There’s an old saying, “humility is not thinking less of oneself, but thinking of oneself less.”
In this post, I tried to show a few aspects of humility which show it to be more than a lack of pride. Its depth and splendor go far beyond the mere absence of an evil. But all of this brings up a new question which needs to be answered. What is pride? Is it a positive (meaning real and existing not good) evil? Or is it simply the “absence of humility”? That, dear reader, I leave for you to wrestle with until another time.