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WEEK 15: Being humble

See this entry/exit virtue in your life 


Home > #3- Practice > Week 15 – Being humble

Habituation check

Before you engage with the content for this week, take a moment for a habituation check.

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A humble start

In the coming weeks you will focus on specific virtues, defining what they look like, understanding what the opposite vices look like and seeing examples that can inspire imitation.  This will help you grow in character by developing your mind to grow in virtue literacy.

We begin the journey into virtue literacy with humility, because it is a particular virtue.  We can consider it as a sort of entry/exit virtue to the rest of the virtues, because it represents both the entrance and the exit door to developing virtuous character.

The theologian/monk Cassian wrote a lot about virtue in the 5th century and his writings on virtue were considered ‘essential’ Christian texts. He developed what has become know as the Tree of Virtue that you can see in the image below.

As you can see, he imagined humility as the root to all virtue. The reason being that you need humility before you can achieve any other virtue.  Only if you are humble will you recognise your need to grow. And if if you are not humble, no methodology or practice plan will be able to help you.

So, ask yourself: ‘Am I humble’?


Is the virtue of humility in your character?

To be able to assess your own humility, you need to understand what humility is.  There are, in fact, some common misconceptions, such as that humility is always ultimate self-abasement and underestimation of your own worth.

The virtue of humility can be described as a correct assessment of oneself that depends on gratitude for the lives we’ve been given (SH1).  It is seeing yourself as you really are: neither too big, nor too small but just the right size in each given situation.   And this comes together with gratitude for what we have been given and for which we cannot take the praise.  This may be what we have been given by our family heritages, by mentors or significant others, by friends and colleagues or by God as he gives us abilities, talents and opportunities by his grace.

Humility can take many forms.

  • It can be a disposition of comfortableness with yourself, that means that you do not always feel the need to talk about your achievements and abilities and that you do not always think of yourself.  As CS Lewis suggests, ‘True humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less’ [KK2].
  • It can be an admission of ignorance and deficiencies, that means that you do not mind recognising that you do not know everything (this, by the way is the starting point of all intellectual virtues) and that you are not perfect.
  • It can be submission to just authorities, that means that you are not the one who is always giving the orders and that you are willing to be led  (this, by the way is as the basis for the civil virtues and for the cardinal virtue of justice).
  • It can be the respect of your traditions, that means that you are working against the malignant vices that of exasperated individualism, authentication and self-assertion that you are free to embrace your identities in a wider community.
  • It can be the attribution of credit and rights to those around us, that means that you are open to the beautiful virtue of gratitude (see Week 21).
  • It can also be an existential awareness of your own finitude and the fragility of your own life.

And the list could go on. Appropriate humility is meant to restrain your arrogance, kindly doubt your efforts, curtail your infinite appetites and make you small in order to enlarge your world.

But humility and modesty are also the source of self-confidence and pugnacious living. Humility, in fact, in not just about ‘lowering’ an inflated self esteem. It is, as we’ve seen a correct assessment of oneself, which can also be a positive assessment  leading to seeing yourself rightfully ‘big’ in given circumstances.  A truly humble person knows what they are good at and does not continually exercise in self abasement.  A humble person is free to receive praise for hard effort, and is able to rejoice in their own achievements.


The opposing vices

As you build your knowledge of the virtues, it is very helpful to look at the opposing vices. Some of these will be vices of defect (not enough humility) and some will be vices of excess (too much humility).

The most evident vice of humility-by-defect is pride with its many awful cousins such as arrogance and shamelessness. Pride is the first of the capital vices. Augustine suggest that it is ‘love gone that has bad’  by failing its right purpose which is to love God and your neighbour.  Pride is when you love yourself with all your heart and use your neighbour to nourish your self-love.

The mythological story of Narcissus is emblematic, as the beautiful young boy becomes so infatuated by his own reflected image that he falls into the lake and dies. In the Divine Comedy, Dante imagines the proud being punished by carrying enormous rocks that do not allow them to stand straight, and ultimately places them in the swamp of Stige where they are isolated forever in their own grandeur.

Incidentally, humility is also the virtue that is needed to preserve virtuous character, for once you have worked hard to achieve other virtues, you are in danger of becoming proud and ruining them all. Cassian again reminds us that pride is the vice that most easily ensnares those who make progress.

But the humility can also have vices-by-excess. Yes, paradoxically, you can be too humble! Humility, as we’ve seen, allows you to walk in full disclosure of your faults, but it also empowers you to wear your abilities and achievements in a spirit of modesty. Humility is not self-abasement, where you continually undermine your true achievements.  It is not self-effacement, where you wipe yourself out as if all the good that you are and do does not exist. It is not self-replacement, where always attribute to someone else the achievements that legitimately come from your own efforts.

Humility also avoids both the ugly vices of shyness and false modesty that are often hidden under the mantle of humility.


A story of humility

The story is told of Nelson Mandela, who always made his own bed, no matter where we traveled. He stayed once in Shanghai, in a very fancy hotel, and Chinese hospitality required there is always someone who cleans your room and provides you with your food. If you do it for yourself, it could even be regarded as an insult.

So in Shanghai he was advised, ‘Please don’t make your own bed, because there’s this custom here.’ And he said, ‘Call the cleaning personel and bring them to me.’ So the hotel manager brought the ladies who would be cleaning the room, and he graciously expressed his appreciation to them and explained why he has to make his own bed, so that they not feel insulted.

Mandela didn’t ever want to hurt people’s feelings. He never really cared about what great big people think of him, but he did care about what small people thought of him [KP].

Do you feel an internal tug to want to be more like the example of Mandela and less like Narcissus?


Humility check

How did you score in the Virtue Test in the virtue of humility (you may need to hunt down your results). Do you identify with the descriptions given above of humility in your character? If so, well done, you are a humble person (and recognising humility does not make you lose it 🙂). But did some of the opposing vices also describe you?

Use the five descriptors of character growth (see Week 1), to mentally check your humility:

  1. Do you notice situations that require humility?
  2. Do you make intentional decisions to act in ways that are humble?
  3. Do you feel good when you are humble?
  4. Do you desire to be more humble (e.g. like Mandela)?
  5. Do others perceive you as humble?

If through this brief post, you have understood what humility is and want more of it, then be encouraged. Virtue literacy is working, and is producing a positive effect on you.


Additional resources


You are working on phase #3 – Practice.  Here is the next activity > Week 16 – Being temperate

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