What Is Humility?
The word humility signifies lowliness or submissiveness and it is derived from the Latin humilitas or, as St. Thomas says, from humus, i.e. the earth which is beneath us. As applied to persons and things it means that which is abject, ignoble, or of poor condition, as we ordinarily say, not worth much. Thus we say that a man is of humble birth or that a house is a humble dwelling. As restricted to persons, humility is understood also in the sense of afflictions or miseries, which may be inflicted by external agents, as when a man humiliates another by causing him pain or suffering. It is in this sense that others may bring about humiliations and subject us to them. Humility in a higher and ethical sense is that by which a man has a modest estimate of his own worth, and submits himself to others. According to this meaning no man can humiliate another, but only himself, and this he can do properly only when aided by Divine grace. We are treating here of humility in this sense, that is, of the virtue of humility.
The virtue of humility may be defined: “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.” St. Bernard defines it: “A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself.” These definitions coincide with that given by St. Thomas: “The virtue of humility“, he says, “Consists in keeping oneself within one’s own bounds, not reaching out to things above one, but submitting to one’s superior” (Summa Contra Gent., bk. IV, ch. lv, tr. Rickaby).
To guard against an erroneous idea of humility, it is necessary to explain the manner in which we ought to esteem our own gifts in reference to the gifts of others, if called upon to make a comparison. Humility does not require us to esteem the gifts and graces which God has granted us, in the supernatural order, less than similar gifts and graces which appear in others. No one should esteem less in himself than in others these gifts of God which are to be valued above all things according to the words of St. Paul: “That we may know the things that are given us from God.” (1 Corinthians 2:12). Neither does humility require us in our own estimation to think less of the natural gifts we possess than of similar, or of inferior, gifts in our neighbours; otherwise, as St. Thomas teaches, it would behove everyone to consider himself a greater sinner or a greater fool than his neighbour; for the Apostle without any prejudice to humility was able to say: “We by nature are Jews, and not of the Gentiles sinners” (Galatians 2:15). A man, however, may generally esteem some good in his neighbour which he does not himself possess, or acknowledge some defect or evil in himself which he does not perceive in his neighbour, so that, whenever anyone subjects himself out of humility to an equal or to an inferior he does so because he takes that equal or inferior to be his superior in some respect. Thus we may interpret the humble expressions of the saints as true and sincere. Besides, their great love of God caused them to see the malice of their own faults and sins in a clearer light than that which is ordinarily given to persons who are not saints.
The four cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance, and all other moral virtues are annexed to these either as integral, potential, or subjective parts. Humility is annexed to the virtue of temperance as a potential part, because temperance includes all those virtues that refrain or express the inordinate movements of our desires or appetites. Humility is a repressing or moderating virtue opposed to pride and vainglory or that spirit within us which urges us to great things above our strength and ability, and therefore it is included in temperance just as meekness which represses anger is a part of the same virtue. From what we have here stated it follows that humility is not the first or the greatest of the virtues. The theological virtues have the first place, then the intellectual virtues, as these immediately direct the reason of man to good. Justice is placed in the order of the virtues before humility, and so should obedience be, for it is part of justice. Humility is, however, said to be the foundation of the spiritual edifice, but in a sense inferior to that in which faith is called its foundation. Humility is the first virtue inasmuch as it removes the obstacles to faith — per modum removens prohibens, as St. Thomas says. It removes pride and makes a man subject to and a fit recipient of grace according to the words of St. James: “God resisteth the proud, and giveth his grace to the humble” (James 4:6). Faith is the first and the positive fundamental virtue of all the infused virtues, because it is by it we can take the first step in the supernatural life and in our access to God: “For he that cometh to God, must believe that he is, and is a rewarder to them that seek him” Hebrews 11:6). Humility, inasmuch as it seems to keep the mind and heart submissive to reason and to God, has its own function in connection with faith and all the other virtues, and it may therefore be said to be a universal virtue.
It is therefore a virtue which is necessary for salvation, and as such is enjoined by Our Divine Saviour, especially when He said to His disciples: “Learn of me, because I am meek, and humble of heart: and you shall find rest to your souls” (Matthew 11:29). He also teaches this virtue by the words, “Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven” (Matthew 5:11-12). From the example of Christ and His Saints we may learn the practice of humility, which St. Thomas explains (Contra Gent., bk, III, 135): “The spontaneous embracing of humiliations is a practice of humility not in any and every case but when it is done for a needful purpose: for humility being a virtue, does nothing indiscreetly. It is then not humility but folly to embrace any and every humiliation: but when virtue calls for a thing to be done it belongs to humility not to shrink from doing it, for instance not to refuse some mean service where charity calls upon you to help your neighbours. . . .Sometimes too, even where our own duty does not require us to embrace humiliations, it is an act of virtue to take them up in order to encourage others by our example more easily to bear what is incumbent on them: for a general will sometimes do the office of a common soldier to encourage the rest. Sometimes again we may make a virtuous use of humiliations as a medicine. Thus if anyone’s mind is prone to undue self-exaltation, he may with advantage make a moderate use of humiliations, either self-imposed, or imposed by others, so as to check the elation of his spirit by putting himself on a level with the lowest class of the community in the doing of mean offices.”
The Angelic Doctor likewise explains the humility of Christ in the following words: “Humility cannot befit God, who has no superior, but is above all. . . .Though the virtue of humility cannot attach to Christ in His divine nature; it may attach to Him in His human nature and His divinity renders His humility all the more praiseworthy, for the dignity of the person adds to the merit of humility; and there can be no greater dignity to a man than his being God. Hence the highest praise attaches to the humility of the Man God, who to wean men’s hearts from worldly glory to the love of divine glory, chose to embrace a death of no ordinary sort, but a death of the deepest ignominy” (Summa Contra Gent., tr. Rickaby, bk. IV. ch. lv; cf. bk. III, ch. cxxxvi). St. Benedict in his rule lays down twelve degrees of humility. St. Anselm, as quoted by St. Thomas, gives seven. These degrees are approved and explained by St. Thomas in his “Summa Theologica” (II-II:161:6). The vices opposed to humility are,
- pride: by reason of defect, and
- a too great obsequiousness or abjection of oneself, which would be an excess of humility. This might easily be derogatory to a man’s office or holy character; or it might serve only to pamper pride in others, by unworthy flattery, which would occasion their sins of tyranny, arbitrariness, and arrogance.
The virtue of humility may not be practised in any external way which would occasion such vices or acts in others.
By Arthur Devine
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APA citation. (1910). Humility. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved October 5, 2019 from New Advent: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07543b.htm
MLA citation. “Humility.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 7. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 5 Oct. 2019 <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07543b.htm>.
Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Love. Dedicated to Thomas Mohan Barrett.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. June 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.