Published Humanitas, Volume XVIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2005
Once regarded as the essential Christian virtue, humility has become to many “a weakness or character flaw.” A few contemporary thinkers have noted its absence. For example, Claes Ryn has observed that “the humility characteristic of the older kind of American is becoming rare in leading political circles.” Jonathan Sacks, a leading rabbi in England, has called humility the “orphaned virtue of our age.” This article will provide evidence to support these observations. It will focus on the transformation within Christianity by comparing the moral ideals of early modern English religious texts published in the seventeenth century with those of contemporary American religious and secular literature. In passing, this study will also examine and critique the view of pride and humility held by Thomas Hobbes. Although an obscure philosopher in his day, Hobbes has become one of the most influential of those whose ideas will be discussed here. An examination of Hobbes helps, at least in small part, to explain the loss of humility in contemporary society.

Humility was a quintessentially Christian discovery. Its opposite, pride, had achieved recognition much earlier. The Old Testament and Greek philosophical and literary traditions recognized that pride, or hubris, was a sin or a weakness to be avoided. Yet neither tradition quite reached the conclusion that, if pride or hubris is evil, humility must be good. Only Christianity took this step. While humility is mentioned several times in the Old Testament (for example, Moses is praised for his exceptional humility [Numbers 12:3]), there is no special emphasis on this virtue. In this respect the New Testament introduces a significant change: Christ, the son of God and the central person of the New Testament, explicitly teaches humility and provides a role model for humble behavior with his own life and death. By the seventeenth century…


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