“For I am aware what ability is requisite to persuade the proud how great is the virtue of humility, which raises us, not by a quite human arrogance, but by a divine grace, above all earthly dignities that totter on this shifting scene.”
St. Augustine, Preface to City of God
The good society is that which sustains the socio-political conditions conducive to the human good. Although philosophers, ecclesiastical leaders, politicians and lay people throughout the course of human history have been unable to unanimously or conclusively determine the chief human good, most people agree that health, freedom, intellectual development and leisure are key components of a prosperous human existence. Society provides the infrastructure (laws, culture, collective wisdom and material resources) that enable the acquisition of these human goods.
Because society is a vast collection of individuals and not an independently sentient entity, the virtue or excellence of any given society is dependent on the virtue of the people it comprises. This is the idea behind the notion of civic virtue, which consists of attitudes and habits beneficial to the community. Temperance, for example, may be considered a civic virtue. By avoiding vicious excesses, temperate men and women are physically and mentally capable of performing social responsibilities and are less likely to fall into delinquency. Courage, honesty and diligence are additional virtues with social utility.
In the post-modern Western world, we prize ambition and self-aggrandizement disguised as self-confidence. As a result, we forget or even denigrate one of the most important individual and public virtues: humility. This is largely due to a misunderstanding of the nature of humility fostered by the philosophical founders of our modern morality. According Friedrich Nietzsche, humility is an aspect of the “slave morality” that helps weak, untalented and fearful men justify their resentment of the strong and capable. While most people would not completely reject humility, existentialist tendencies have reduced this virtue’s value to that of mere practicality. We are humble as a matter of courtesy, in order to be “politically correct” and avoid contention. Our humility is based on convention rather than inalterable moral truth.
Whereas post-modern humility is no more than a utilitarian principle of etiquette, Christian humility is something more profound and meaningful. The Christian conception of humility goes beyond downplaying one’s abilities or denying praise (although these actions may be outward manifestations). Christian humility consists of gratefully recognizing our dependence on God and submitting our will to His. It is beautifully summarized in the words of Christ: “I can of mine own self do nothing…I seek not mine own will, but the will of the Father which hath sent me” (John 5:30). Jesus, the Lord who governs over the angels, bows before the authority of the Father.
Humility, then, is not a sign of weakness, but a principle of power. Moses is described as “very meek, above all men which were upon the face of the earth” (Numbers 12: 3). It was through this meek individual that revelation flowed to the children of Israel and the nation survived during forty years in the wilderness. But even if humility is a spiritual virtue with heavenly worth, what values does it have in a civil society with diverse religious beliefs?
The ability of a civil society to create sound laws and cultural practices is dependent upon that society’s capacity to successfully discover true governing principles through meditation, research, debate and dialogue. Humility is indispensable for the acquisition of truth. The discovery and internalization of truth requires submission. For the man of faith, this means a surrender of one’s will and moral agency to God. Only by studying, deliberating and conversing with an attitude of subordination to principles superior to one’s own understanding can men and women overcome the irreparable differences of opinion that lead to partisanship, gridlock and violence. We do not demonstrate humility by zealously holding onto personally-constructed dogmas, even when these relate to religious ideas. Edmund Burke disdained government based on abstract principles; he noted that new situations call for specific analysis and dialogue. Otherwise, we run the risk of making a decision based on a given principle while sacrificing a higher, more important principle we have not yet discovered. God allows us to “know the truth of all things,” (Moroni 10:5), but he also teaches us that “[we] do not know the meaning of all things” (1 Nephi 11:17).
The elimination of divisiveness and inaction in the public sphere requires more than a change of policy or protocol. It requires a cultural change in our set of public virtues. The replacement of superficial and conventional post-modern humility with meaningful Christian humility will create a socio-political environment conducive to the discovery of truth and unbound by the debilitating yokes of dogma and partisanship.