What is Humility? What are Its Limits?

This post is part of an occasional series on the virtues

At its heart, humility is reverence for the truth about oneself. We are neither to esteem ourselves too highly nor despise ourselves as bereft of God’s gifts. By humility we acknowledge that we depend on God and the gifts of others but also that we are called to accept our gifts and then use them for others. None of us has all the gifts, but together, and from God, we have all the gifts. In acknowledging our own gifts, humility calls us to remember that they are gifts, received from God and supplied or awakened by others. St. Paul says, What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it? (1 Cor 4:7)

Fundamentally, humility bids us to recognize our lowliness and remember our need to be submitted to the gifts and lawful authority of others. The word humility is derived from the Latin humilitas or, as St. Thomas says, from humus, the earth beneath our feet.

Humility as a virtue is the good habit by which a person has a modest estimate of his own worth and submits himself to others, according to reason. St. Thomas says, “… humility is a quality by which a person considering his own defects has a lowly opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God’s sake. … The virtue of humility consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, and submitting to one’s superior” (Summa Contra Gent., bk. IV, Ch. 55).

Humility does not require us to have no esteem for the gifts and graces that God has granted us. No one should fail to esteem the gifts of God, which are to be valued above all things. St. Paul says that one of the works of the Holy Spirit is That we may know the things that are given us from God (1 Corinthians 2:12). Humility also moves us to esteem the goods in others that we do not possess and to acknowledge defects or sins in our own self that we do not perceive in others. In this sense, saints were able to see their own faults and sins in a clearer light than that which is ordinarily given to persons who are not saints.

Humility is a kind of key that removes pride and makes us able and fit to receive grace. St. James writes, God resists the proud, and gives his grace to the humble (James 4:6).

An additional dimension of humility is the spontaneous embracing of humiliations. This is a practice humility accepts (though not in every case) when it is done for a necessary purpose. It is not humility but folly to embrace any and every humiliation. Doing so may harm good order and divert those gifted in one area to act immoderately in areas beneath or beside what they are best and most fit to do. When virtue calls for a thing to be done, even a very lowly one, it belongs to humility not to shrink from doing it. For example, you should not refuse to perform some lowly service when charity calls upon you to help others.

Humility is a virtue and “every virtue observes or consists of the mean” (omnis virtus in medio consistit). Thus, virtue is the middle ground between excess and defect. Humility is no exception.

The defect of humility is pride, in which we esteem our self too highly and forget our lowliness and need.

These are the excesses of humility:

  • Too great an obsequiousness, which may serve to pamper the pride in others through flattery or encourage their sins of tyranny, arrogance, and arbitrariness.
  • Too much abjection of oneself, wherein one disdains the gifts of God. Disdaining one’s gifts is not in service of the truth and dishonors the giver. It may also limit one’s usefulness to others by hiding or limiting what God wants shared and used for others.
  • Displaced humility – Excess humility may also be derogatory to a man’s office or holy character such that he dishonors both himself and his office. This can dishearten others or fuel irreverence and dishonor to offices or states of life (e.g., the consecrated religious life or the priesthood).

St. Thomas, drawing on St. Gregory and others, lists degrees (or acts) of humility:

  1. To be humble in heart but also to show it in one’s very person, one’s eyes fixed on the ground; one should restrain haughty looks.
  2. To speak few and sensible words and not to be loud of voice; one should not be immoderate in speech.
  3. Not to be easily moved and disposed to laughter; one should check laughter and other signs of senseless or demeaning mirth.
  4. To maintain silence until one is asked; one should not be in a hurry to speak.
  5. To do nothing except as exhorted by the common rule of the monastery or community; in one’s work one should seldom depart from the ordinary way.
  6. To believe and acknowledge oneself a greater sinner than all; in this respect one should ponder first one’s own sinfulness.
  7. To presume oneself insignificant and unprofitable for most purposes; one should deem oneself less than fully capable of great things.
  8. To confess one’s sin; one should experience one’s sinfulness with compunction.
  9. To embrace patience by obeying under difficult and contrary circumstances; one should not be deterred from this on account of the difficulties and hardships that come under obedience.
  10. To subject oneself to a superior; one should regulate one’s own will according to the judgment of a lawful superior.
  11. To avoid excessive delight in fulfilling one’s own desires; one should not insist on one’s own will.
  12. To fear God and to be always mindful of everything that He has commanded.

It’s hard not be moved to the recognition that we in many ways fall short of this virtue.

Because it governs and moderates pride (our chief fault), humility is to be regarded as one of the most needed of virtues. May the Lord grant us humility in the abundance and clarity needed!

One Reply to “What is Humility? What are Its Limits?”

  1. Because it is said that humble people have the self-awareness to have a sense of humor about themselves, I was curious if “humour” and “humble” have a similar English etymological origin. Apparently, they do not! “Humor” comes from Latin “humere”=”to be moist”; whereas “humble” comes from Latin “humus”=”ground.”

    Now, do they have a similar etymology in Latin? I do not know.

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