Academic journal article Humanitas

Have We Lost Humility?

Academic journal article Humanitas

Have We Lost Humility?

Article excerpt

Once regarded as the essential Christian virtue, humility has become to many "a weakness or character flaw." (2) 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." (3) 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, explicilty teaches humility and provides a role model for humble behavior with his own life and death. By the seventeenth century, at least, Christian theologians regarded humility as a chief attribute of their religion. For example, Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667)--a bishop, Chaplain in Ordinary to King Charles II, and one of the most popular religious authors in seventeenth-century England--called it "the great ornament and jewel of Christian Religion, that whereby it is distinguished from all the wisdom of the world." (4)

Humility in Seventeenth-Century English Literature

To document the development of English Christian thought, this study relies on bibliometric analysis--identification of the most popular books and their most important ideas. This assumes that best-selling texts reflect the preferences of the book-buying segment of the population, and contain ideas likely to be popular. Of course, public opinion revealed by best-selling books is limited to the literate part of the population. Yet these are the decision-making elite. Further, literacy was widespread in England by 1650, when about 350,000 to 450,000 of the 1.1 million households contained fluent readers. (5) The Short Title Catalogue (STC) provides information on books published in England from the beginning of printing to 1700. It includes all editions of books surviving in our time, whether sold in England or elsewhere.

As this was Shakespeare's England, one might ask whether religious texts reveal much about the morals of the time. However, between 1610 and 1640 production of theological texts outnumbered editions of poems, plays, and sonnets by a ratio of five to one. (6) While the morals found in plays are broadcast to a wide theater-going audience, the real "mass media" at the time were sermons. These emanated every Sunday from England's 9,000 pulpits. Ideas in religious bestsellers reached the non-literate, church-going population through preachers. Intense educational efforts also make it probable that the core ideas of Christian morality were familiar to the entire population.

The moral thinking of early modern English Protestantism comes into objective focus through an examination of the extent to which it appears in books from the period. …

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