“Humility is the first step in self-reflection,” writes Christopher M. Bellitto in his new book, Humility: The Secret History of a Lost Virtue. “It makes us have second thoughts. It opens us to our ignorance, to our flaws, to our weaknesses.”
In his two-millennia survey of the history of humility, Bellitto argues (taking his cue from the poet Dante) that it’s the “first virtue,” the one that makes all the others possible—and that today humility is being displaced by arrogance and vanity in both the public and private spheres. This, he writes, undermines the validity of science, our ability to negotiate and compromise, our resilience, our relationships and families, and our well-being.
We talked with him about the history of humility—and what it will take to give humility a future.
Jeremy Adam Smith: How did the ancients talk about humility? What did it mean to them?
Christopher M. Bellitto: Its Latin root is humus, meaning “of the earth” or “grounded.” We’ve got two strands of thinking about humility in the ancient world: one positive (humility as an ennobling virtue) and one negative (humiliation). Greeks and Romans mostly saw it negatively: slaves, POWS, conquered people who weren’t civilized (us) and therefore barbarian (them). But ancient Hebrews saw the fear of God not as belittling but ennobling: people made in a divine image who knew they weren’t God, but that didn’t make them insignificant.
Aristotle locates vice and virtue not as polar opposites. He puts a virtue in between two vices—in this case, what we call humility (but he called pride in a good sense) sits between thinking too little of yourself (humiliation) and too much (hubris). As we know, in Greco-Roman culture, thinking too much of yourself makes the gods bring you down.
JAS: As the centuries passed, did the concept of humility evolve? How?
CMB: It’s a battle between those positive and negative notions, but the Middle Ages is the golden age of humility. It’s an era when people got the balance just right—they lived with faith and reason in a way that was natural to them even if it’s foreign to some later thinkers, especially in the modern world. There was even a phrase—learned ignorance—that essentially put guard rails on what could be understood. You thought about things as far as you could go, and that was OK.
Humility was really central. There’s a German nun in the 1100s, Hildegard of Bingen, who wrote a play about the virtues. She located a character named Humility as Queen of the Virtues, the captain of the team. The other virtues simply don’t know what to do without her. Earlier, there was a North African bishop named Augustine. When he was asked to name the three principal virtues, he replied, “Humility, humility, and humility.”
Today, Googling humble and humility brings up mostly negative descriptions: low self-esteem and submissiveness, docility and timidity, self-abasement, a drooping sense of self-worth, putting yourself down, underestimating your abilities or value, and a lack of self-assurance that pushes against sticking up for yourself. What we have here is the building block of a humble person as less-than that obscured, then and now, the positive potential of humility as a virtue.
But I like that original idea of humility as being grounded: You know who you are—strengths and weaknesses.
JAS: What role has religion played in promoting humility?
CMB: You can certainly be humble outside a religious context, and you can draw from religious thought even if you don’t subscribe to that religion. You get the point of Aesop’s Fables without believing in talking animals, after all. But, in general, you find in religious systems a greater comfort level with humility. In Islam, it’s tied to proper deference and obedience—that doesn’t diminish your value, but helps you find your place in a broader context. You find this sense of proportion and balance within the Confucian notion of the mean, as well.
JAS: In your book, you suggest that humility is in decline. What’s the evidence for that?
CMB: Alas, look at politics and sports. We suffer from me-ism. We spike the ball. We crow. We demean. We forget that there’s no I in team.
JAS: What are the consequences of declining humility?
CMB: We can think that we’re the center of the world or even history. There was a 19th-century Swiss historian of culture named Jacob Burckhardt. Thinking philosophically, he gave a lecture “On the Fortune and Misfortune in History” at the Museum of Basle in 1871. There, he considered self-obsession—the idea that everything culminates in us: today and in this place. Burckhardt scoffed at this notion: “Just as if the world and its history had existed merely for our sakes! For everyone regards all times as fulfilled in his own, and cannot see his own as one of many passing waves.”
C. S. Lewis was a literature professor well-known especially for his Chronicles of Narnia, starting with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. He was quite open about the lessons he had to learn about not putting himself in the center of place and time. He recounts that a college friend of his from Oxford, Owen Barfield, “made short work of what I have called my ‘chronological snobbery,’ the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate common to our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that account discredited.”
He says that Barfield, who became a philosopher, taught him that you can’t accept that premise, which was Burckhardt’s insight. Was an idea just a fad or trend that lived its life and passed away, to be replaced by the next shiny thing? Was it discredited by a better idea? Do we discount the Roman Empire’s achievements because it didn’t last more than 500 years and they’re gone but we’re here? Lewis concluded, “From seeing this, one passes to the realization that our own age is also ‘a period,’ and certainly has, like all periods, its own characteristic illusions. They are likeliest to lurk in those widespread assumptions which are so ingrained in the age that no one dares to attack or feels it necessary to defend them.”
JAS: What can we do to bring this virtue back, individually and collectively?
CMB: I think humility can be learned, like a good habit through exercise and repetition. Aristotle believed we are what we repeatedly do and that character can be cultivated. We need to appreciate that humility gives us perspective and proportion. I have to listen to others to learn what their lives are like so we can both benefit. Now, that might make me vulnerable, but it can also help me identify and then improve my faults—which will make me grateful, too.
A University of Paris professor around 1400 said that discretion is the daughter of humility. Discretion, perspective, and proportion fight against tribalism, which is in essence group hubris placing my ethnic group, race, nationality, religion, profession, or some other identity marker above other people’s ethnic group, race, nationality, religion, profession, or other identity marker. Being humble forces us to ask, “Where do I fit—in my family or at work? How does my stance stand up to others’? Why is my country outstanding, or is it? Why does it need to be for my or my country’s ego? Why do I need to brag? How can my field work with other professions? Why do I think my values are the only ones that count?”
These are good questions to ask in any manner, but especially when we realize as a result of humility that we might not have the answers. Asking questions and feeling others’ pain can lead us to look beyond ourselves to improve the common good.