Humility is the quality of being humble. In a religious context this can mean a recognition of self in relation to God or deities, acceptance of one's defects, and submission to divine grace as a member of a religion. Outside of a religious context, humility is defined as the self-restraint from excessive vanity, and can possess moral and/or ethical dimensions.
The term "humility" comes from the Latin word humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as "humble", but also as "grounded", or "from the earth", since it derives in turns from humus (earth). See the English humus.
Because the concept of humility addresses intrinsic self-worth, relationships and socialization as well as perspective, it is emphasized in religious practice, moral teaching and ethical study where the notion is often made more precise.
Aidos, in Greek mythology, was the daimona (goddess) of shyness, shame and humility. She was the quality that restrained human beings from wrong.
Religious views of humility
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks states that in Judaism humility is an appreciation of oneself, one's talents, skills, and virtues. It is not meekness or self-deprecating thought, but the effacing of oneself to something higher. Humility is not to think lowly of oneself, but to appreciate the self one has received. In recognition of the mysteries and complexities of life, one becomes humbled to the awesomeness one is and what one can achieve. Rabbi Pini Dunner discusses that humility is to place others first; it is to appreciate others' worth as important. In recognizing our worth as people, Rabbi Dunner shows that looking into the zillions of stars in the sky, and in the length and history of time, you and I are insignificant, like dust. Rabbi Dunner states that Moses wrote in the Torah, "And Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any man on the face of the earth." How is it possible to be humble and write you are the most humble? The conclusion is that Moses knew he was humble. It is not in denial of your talents and gifts but to recognize them and live up to your worth and something greater. It is in the service to others that is the greatest form of humility.
As illustrated in the person of Moses, who leads the nation of Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt and to the “Promised Land”, humility is a sign of Godly strength and purpose, not weakness. Of this great leader, the Bible states, “For Moses was a man exceeding meek above all men that dwelt upon earth" (Numbers 12:3). Moses is venerated by Jewish and Christian adherents alike.
Amongst the benefits of humility described in the Old Testament, that is shared by many faiths, are honor, wisdom, prosperity, the protection of the Lord and peace. In addition, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (Proverbs 3:34)
C.S. Lewis writes, in Mere Christianity, that pride is the "anti-God" state, the position in which the ego and the self are directly opposed to God: "Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through Pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind." In contrast, Lewis states that, in Christian moral teaching, the opposite of pride is humility and, in his famous phrase, "Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less." [this quote is not by C.S. Lewis, it is wrongly quoted by Rick Warren in The Purpose Driven Life.]
St. Augustine stresses the importance of humility in the study of the Bible, with the exemplars of a barbarian Christian slave, the apostle Paul, and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 (De Doctrina Christiana, prooem. 4-7 [hereafter DDC]). Both learner and teacher need to be humble, because they learn and teach what ultimately belongs to God (DDC, prooem. 7-8; 1 Cor. 4:7). Humility is a basic disposition of the interpreter of the Bible. The confidence of the exegete and preacher arises from the conviction that his or her mind depends on God absolutely (DDC, 1.1.1). Augustine argues that the interpreter of the Bible should proceed with humility, because only a humble person can grasp the truth of Scripture (DDC, 2.41.62).
New Testament exhortations to humility are found in many places, for example "Blessed are the meek" (Matthew 5), "He who exalts himself will be humbled and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Matthew 23:12), as well as (Philippians 2:1-17) and throughout the Book of James. Also in Jesus Christ's behavior in general and submission to unjust torture and execution in particular, are held up as examples of righteous humility: "Who, when he was reviled, did not revile: when he suffered, he threatened not: but delivered himself to him that judged him justly."1Peter 2:23,
"True humility" is distinctly different from "false humility" which consists of deprecating one's own sanctity, gifts, talents, and accomplishments for the sake of receiving praise or adulation from others, as personified by the fictional character Uriah Heep created by Charles Dickens. In this context legitimate humility comprises the following behaviors and attitudes:
- Submitting to God and legitimate authority
- Recognizing virtues and talents that others possess, particularly those that surpass one's own, and giving due honor and, when required, obedience
- Recognizing the limits of one's talents, ability, or authority; and, not reaching for what is beyond one's grasp
The vices opposed to humility are:
- Pride (by reason or defect).
- Too great obsequiousness or abjection of oneself; this would be considered an excess of humility, and could easily be derogatory to one'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 practiced in any external way that would occasion vices in others.
Catholic texts view humility as annexed to the cardinal virtue of temperance. It is viewed as a potential part of temperance because temperance includes all those virtues that restrain or express the inordinate movements of our desires or appetites.
Humility is defined as, "A quality by which a person considering his own defects has a humble opinion of himself and willingly submits himself to God and to others for God's sake." St. Bernard defines it as, "A virtue by which a man knowing himself as he truly is, abases himself. Jesus Christ is the ultimate definition of Humility."
Humility was a virtue extolled by Saint Francis of Assisi, and this form of Franciscan piety led to the artistic development of the Madonna of humility first used by them for contemplation. The Virgin of humility sits on the ground, or upon a low cushion, unlike the Enthroned Madonna representations. This style of painting spread quickly through Italy and by 1375 examples began to appear in Spain, France and Germany and it became the most popular among the styles of the early Trecento artistic period.
St. Thomas Aquinas, a 13th-century philosopher and theologian in the Scholastic tradition, defines humility similarly as "the virtue of humility" that "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. Joseph Rickaby).
In the Qur'an, various Arabic words conveying the meaning of "humility" are used. The very term "Islam" can be interpreted as "surrender (to God), humility”, from the triconsonantal root S-L-M; other words used are tawadu and khoshou:
Before thee We sent (messengers) to many nations, and We afflicted the nations with suffering and adversity, that they might learn humility. When the suffering reached them from us, why then did they not learn humility? On the contrary their hearts became hardened, and Satan made their (sinful) acts seem alluring to them.— Quran, [6:42–43]
Successful indeed are the believers, those who humble themselves in their prayers.— Quran, [23:1–2]
Buddhism is a religion of self-examination. The natural aim of the Buddhist life is the state of enlightenment, gradually cultivated through meditation and other spiritual practices. Humility, in this context, is a characteristic that is both an essential part of the spiritual practice, and a result of it.:180, 183 As a quality to be developed, it is deeply connected with the practice of Four Abodes (Brahmavihara): love-kindness, compassion, empathetic joy and equanimity. As a result of the practice, this cultivated humility is expanded by the wisdom acquired by the experience of ultimate emptiness (Shunyata) and non-self (Anatta).:181 Humility, compassion, and wisdom are intrinsic parts of the state of enlightenment. On the other hand, not being humble is an obstacle on the path of enlightenment which needs to be overcome.:180 In the Tipitaka (the Buddhist scriptures), criticizing others and praising oneself is considered a vice; but criticizing oneself and praising others is considered a virtue.:178 Attachment to the self, apart from being a vice in itself, also leads to other evil states, that create suffering.:182
In the Tipitaka, in the widely known "Mangala Sutta", humility (Pali: nivato, literally: 'without air') is mentioned as one of the thirty-eight blessings in life. In the Pali tradition, examples of humility that are often raised are the monk Sariputta Thera, a leading disciple of the Buddha, and Hatthaka, a leading lay disciple. In later Pali texts and Commentaries, Sariputta Thera is depicted as a forgiving person, who is quick to apologize and accepting of criticism. In the suttas (discourses of the Buddha) Hatthaka is praised by the Buddha when he was unwilling to let other people know his good qualities.
In Buddhist practice, humility is practiced in a variety of ways. For example, Japanese Soto Zen monks bow and chant in honor of their robes before they don them. This serves to remind them of the connection of the monk's robes with enlightenment. Buddhist monks in all traditions are dependent on the generosity of laypeople, through who they receive their necessities. This in itself is a practice of humility.:178
In Sanskrit literature of Hinduism, the virtue of humility is explained with many terms, some of which use the root word, neti (sometimes spelled nati, nti, Sanskrit: नति). Related words include veniti (विनति), samniti (संनति, humility towards), and the concept amanitvam, listed as the first virtue in the Bhagwad Gita. Amanitvam is a fusion word for pridelessness and the virtue of humility. Other related concepts are namrata (नम्रता), which means modest and humble behavior.
Different scholars have varying interpretations for the concept of amanitvam, humility, as virtue in the Bhagwad Gita. For example, Prabhupada explains humility to mean one should not be anxious to have the satisfaction of being honored by others. The material conception of life makes us very eager to receive honor from others, but from the point of view of a man in perfect knowledge—who knows that he is not this body—anything, honor or dishonor, pertaining to this body is useless. Jopson explains amanitvam, humility, as lack of arrogance and pride, and one of twenty six virtues in a human being that if perfected, leads one to a divine state of living and the ultimate truth. Eknath Easwaran writes that the Gita's subject is "the war within, the struggle for self-mastery that every human being must wage if he or she is to emerge from life victorious", and "The language of battle is often found in the scriptures, for it conveys the strenuous, long, drawn-out campaign we must wage to free ourselves from the tyranny of the ego, the cause of all our suffering and sorrow". To get in touch with your true self, whether you call that God, Brahman, etc., one has to let go of the ego. The Sanskrit word Ahamkara literally translates into The-sound-of-I, or quite simply the sense of the self or ego.
Gandhi interprets the concept of humility in Hinduism much more broadly, where humility is an essential virtue that must exist in a person for other virtues to emerge. To Gandhi, Truth can be cultivated, as well as Love, but Humility cannot be cultivated, Humility has to be one of the starting points. He claims, "Humility cannot be an observance by itself. For it does not lend itself to being practiced. It is however an indispensable test of ahimsa (non-violence)." Humility must not be confused with mere manners; a man may prostrate himself before another, but if his heart is full of bitterness for the other, it is not humility. Sincere humility is how one feels inside, a state of mind. A humble person is not himself conscious of his humility, claims Gandhi.
Vivekananda, one of the scholars of Hinduism in the 19th century, argues that concept of humility does not mean "crawling on all four and calling oneself a sinner." In Vivekananda's Hinduism, each human being is the Universal, recognizing and feeling oneness with everyone and everything else in the universe, without inferiority or superiority or any other bias, is the mark of humility. To Radhakrishnan, humility in Hinduism is the non-judgmental state of mind when we are best able to learn, contemplate and understand everyone and everything else.
Humility is a central aspect of Sikhism preached as Nimrata. Guru Nanak, the first Sikh guru established the system of the Langar, or communal kitchen, in order to demonstrate the need to share and have equality between all people. According to Sikhism all people, equally, have to bow before God so there ought to be no hierarchies among or between people. According to Nanak the supreme purpose of human life is to reconnect with Akal (The Timeless One), however, egotism is the biggest barrier in doing this. Using the guru's teaching remembrance of nām (the divine Word) leads to the end of egotism. The immediate fruit of humility is intuitive peace and pleasure. With humility they continue to meditate on the Lord, the treasure of excellence. The God-conscious being is steeped in humility. One whose heart is mercifully blessed with abiding humility. Sikhism treats humility as a begging bowl before the god.
Sikhs extend this belief in equality, and thus humility, towards all faith: "all religious traditions are equally valid and capable of enlightening their followers". In addition to sharing with others Guru Nanak inspired people to earn an honest living without exploitation and also the need for remembrance of the divine name (God). Guru Nanak described living an "active, creative, and practical life" of "truthfulness, fidelity, self-control and purity" as being higher than a purely contemplative life.
The spiritual teacher Meher Baba held that humility is one of the foundations of devotional life: "Upon the altar of humility we must offer our prayers to God." Baba also described the power of humility to overcome hostility: "True humility is strength, not weakness. It disarms antagonism and ultimately conquers it." Finally, Baba emphasized the importance of being humble when serving others: "One of the most difficult things to learn is to render service without bossing, without making a fuss about it and without any consciousness of high and low. In the world of spirituality, humility counts at least as much as utility."
Humility, in Taoism, is defined as a refusal to assert authority or a refusal to be first in anything and that the act of daring, in itself, is a refusal of wisdom and a rush to enjoin circumstances before you are ready. Along with compassion and frugality, humility is one the three treasures (virtues) in the possession of those who follow the Tao.
The third treasure, daring not be at the world's front, is the Taoist way to avoid premature death. To be at the world's front is to expose oneself, to render oneself vulnerable to the world's destructive forces, while to remain behind and to be humble is to allow oneself time to fully ripen and bear fruit. This is a treasure whose secret spring is the fear of losing one's life before one's time. This fear of death, out of a love for life, is indeed the key to Taoist wisdom. (1989:209)
Furthermore, also according to the Tao Te Ching (77.4) a wise person acts without claiming the results as his; he achieves his merit and does not rest (arrogantly) in it: – he does not wish to display his superiority.
Philosophical views of humility
Kant's view of humility has been defined as "that meta-attitude that constitutes the moral agent's proper perspective on himself as a dependent and corrupt but capable and dignified rational agent". Kant's notion of humility relies on the centrality of truth and rational thought leading to proper perspective and can therefore be seen as emergent.
While many religions and philosophers view humility as a virtue, some have been critical of it, seeing it as opposed to individualism.
Nietzsche views humility as a strategy used by the weak to avoid being destroyed by the strong. In Twilight of the Idols he writes: "When stepped on, a worm doubles up. That is clever. In that way he lessens the probability of being stepped on again. In the language of morality: humility." He believed that his idealized Übermensch would be more apt to roam around unfettered by pretensions of humility, proud of his stature and power, but not reveling idly in it, and certainly not displaying hubris. But, if so, this would mean the pretension aspect of this kind of humility is more akin to obsequiousness and to other kinds of pretentious humility.
Humility and leadership
Recent research suggests that humility is a quality of certain types of leaders. For example, Jim Collins and his colleagues found that a certain type of leader, whom they term "level 5", possesses humility and fierce resolve. Humility is being studied as a trait that can enhance leadership effectiveness. The research suggests that humility is multi-dimensional and includes self-understanding and awareness, openness, and perspective taking.
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- Judaism's take on humility (Chabad.org)
- World scripture: Quotes from religious texts about humility, unification.net
- Catholic Encyclopedia, newadvent.org