Humility: who needs it?

Actually, perhaps the question should be “Who wants it?” On the one hand, throughout human history, humility has been thought by many to be a weakness. The word conjures images of people bowing and scraping, the opposite of ancient or modern ideas of strength and nobility. On this matter, I think, and in their own way, both Aristotle and Nietzsche would have agreed.

On the other hand, many also consider humility to be a Christian virtue. That does not, of course, automatically make it popular among the faithful. Christian leaders often strive to gather more power to themselves, supposedly in the service of God. Christian couples may seek out therapy to help improve their relationship. But nobody walks into a therapist’s office saying, “We’re here because we want to learn humility,” even if that’s exactly what the relationship needs.

In order to understand humility as a Christian virtue, we need to understand both parts of the phrase: Christian and virtue. Let me illustrate the latter using…a tomato.

You know how it goes. You bring some beautiful tomatoes home from the store, envisioning some nice even slices for a burger, or wedges for a salad. But your knife won’t cooperate. You saw back and forth, but it only dents the tomato instead of cutting it.

That, Aristotle might have said, is not a virtuous knife.

For Aristotle, virtue was tied up with the idea of purpose. The purpose of a knife is to cut; a knife that doesn’t cut is intrinsically lacking in virtue. And if it could, the knife that sought to be virtuous would work at keeping itself sharp, and would experience a sense of well-being in slicing cleanly through that tomato.

It would be a “happy” knife. (Okay, this is getting weird now.)

What about human beings? Virtue isn’t about “being a good person” in some generic sense. It’s about the pursuit of goals and ends that are proper to human existence, that represent the intrinsic purpose of a human life. Virtue requires having some vision of what life is supposed to be about, and intentionally doing things that help us get there. Over time, such practices become habits. Habits eventually become a disposition; we become “bent” in that direction. Dispositions, in turn, become embedded in our character as we grow in virtue.

But it all begins with some notion of human purpose. This is why some philosophers don’t think of humility as a virtue; if they define purpose as a noble exercise of power, then humility is a weakness. We’ll need to take some time debunking that idea. But for the moment, and before we return to Philippians, we need to deal with the other part of the phrase “Christian virtue.” If the above account of virtue makes sense, then a “Christian” virtue is one particular to followers of Christ.

If humility is a Christian virtue, does that mean that only Christians are humble? Of course not. We have to get our ideas in the right order. From a biblical perspective, one way to think about the goal of life as a Christian is that we are to become more and more like Jesus. Christian virtue, in other words, is the pursuit of Christlikeness.

And as Paul wants the Philippians to understand, that means understanding the humility of Jesus, and looking for ways to embody that in the here and now.