Humility: from sacred virtue to secular vice?

Abstract

Some of the virtues have a very stable place in our understanding of goodness – beneficence and courage are unlikely ever to lose their high standing. But other virtues have something like a life cycle: they move from a marginal status to to a central one, and sometimes they move back again to the margins, or even beyond the domain of virtue altogether. Chastity is one example of this; humility is another. There was a period in which humility wasn’t a virtue at all (see Aristotle on the great-souled man); with the rise of Christianity (blessed are the meek) it became, not a cardinal, but still a central, virtue, though possibly more honoured in the breach than in the observance; now in the post-Christian world it seems, if a virtue at all, a somewhat creepy one. Why is this – what is it about humility that made it so important during the Christian period, and now makes us so ambivalent about it? And is there any way of rescuing it for a secular context, so that we can once again wholeheartedly endorse and admire it as one of the virtues?

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David McNaughton
Florida State University

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