How Do We Develop and Maintain Humility?

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Let’s begin with a word of caution. In his early manhood, Benjamin Franklin was very disciplined in his efforts to acquire and maintain the virtues. Looking back on his efforts to gain humility, he comments:

In reality, there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself (Autobiography).

My own experience with efforts in this line confirms Franklin’s assessment. But the unlikelihood of perfect success shouldn’t discourage us from trying, for I think we can make some progress.

Humility’s Plural Nature

Franklin describes sinful pride as a “passion” in the singular, but I think it actually takes many subtly different forms — for example, vanity, smugness, pretentiousness, arrogance, hyper-autonomy (go-it-aloneness, the desire to succeed without anybody’s else’s help), envy, domination, snobbery, self-righteousness, and grandiosity, to name some of the main ones. Franklin can lump all these vices together as “pride” because they all involve an inappropriate obtrusion of your Self in your concerns and consciousness. But since they differ in the exact kind of concern that your self obtrudes in, and the special nasty way it obtrudes, they are different vices.

For example, vanity is an excessive concern to appear in a good light to people whose opinion matters, whereas arrogance is a disposition to grasp illicit entitlements on the grounds of a claim (justified or unjustified) to some kind of superiority. Grandiosity is a self-inflating concern to be the performer of feats and the executor of plans that are in fact well beyond your ability. Smugness is a preoccupied satisfaction with your own accomplishments and triumphs, whereas self-righteousness is a preoccupied satisfaction with your moral superiority (real or merely supposed) to others on whom you morally look down from your exalted judgment seat. Snobbery is a preoccupied satisfaction with your membership in some relatively elite group, which manifests itself especially in making invidious comparisons with those who are outside and “below” your group. Domination is a love and practice of influencing and controlling others, even marking them as your own creation. Envy is an antipathy for others because of their perceived superiority to yourself, and a consequent desire to reduce them. And so we could go on distinguishing the vices of pride.

Speaking of the vices of pride rather than simply of pride helps us gain a more concrete understanding of it, which will help us lay concrete strategies for combating it and promoting a corresponding humility. It is helpful also because it allows for good kinds of pride such as self-respect, self-confidence, patriotism, and family loyalty.

What is humility, then? I suggest that it is a marked absence of the vices of pride. Thus, like the vices of pride, humility will come in a variety of kinds: unvanity, unarrogance, ungrandiosity, unsmugness, unself-righteousness, unsnobbery, undomination, unenvy, and so forth. Because of the differences among these ways to exhibit humility, each will have its somewhat distinct strategies of acquisition. Among these strategies are ones called “Cede Entitlements” (against arrogance), “Practice Admiration” (against envy), “Restrain the Domineering Impulse,” “Let Your Ignorance Show,” “Forgo Self-Display,” “Keep Your Mind on Intrinsic Goods,” and “Think Critically About Our Culture.” In this short essay, we must select only a couple of the many possible approaches for brief elaboration; but I will first comment on a general strategy.

Meditate on the Vocabulary of the Vices of Pride

The vices of pride can be deliciously pleasant. If I’m vain, and am getting lots of attention and positive feedback, I’ll be in hogs’ heaven. If I’ve just triumphed over a long-time rival for the position of top salesperson in the company, I may have an excited warm feeling, cozy and snug in my smugness as I quietly savor my new rank and scan the admiring or envious eyes of my colleagues, careful not to let on how conscious I am of them. The more snobbish I am, the more thoroughly will I enjoy chatting with my buddies at the alumni club of my Ivy League university about the posturing of the upstarts at the state university. If, because I’m a movie star, I’ve demanded to be seated ahead of those who are waiting for a place in a restaurant, and have successfully intimidated the maître d’ into seating me immediately, I’ll take arrogant pleasure in both the convenience and the fact that my high status was what secured it for me.

As pleasant as the vices of pride can be, it is striking that their names are all terms of abuse. Nobody wants to be called arrogant or grandiose or self-righteous or domineering. No one wants to think of herself seriously as smug or snobbish. So even though it can be pleasant to live inside the vices of pride, the vocabulary for them is aversive, and brings us up short if we think it applies to us. It’s a powerful and painful instrument of self-knowledge, and we can speculate that it developed historically as a device of social control.

So here’s a discipline for developing and maintaining humility. Examine our own actions, words, feelings, and thoughts using the vocabulary of the vices of pride. If we regularly probe ourselves with this vocabulary (when have I been arrogant, vain, snobbish, etc.?) we are likely to reduce the pleasures of vanity, arrogance, snobbery, and the like, and so loosen their hold on us. If, anticipating the pleasure of a snobbish remark, I also anticipate that it will be snobbish, I will take some or all the pleasure out of it, and so will gradually diminish the pleasure and the vice. To do this, we need to recognize the vices of pride when we see them, and that means thinking about how they work. Here I would recommend Rebecca DeYoung’s forthcoming book (due November 30 from Eerdmans) Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice. It’s a sustained meditation on the ways of vanity. By helping you think vanity through, the book will sensitize you to it and help you get some distance on it, and thus to grow in humility.

Practice Gratitude (contra hyper-autonomy)

One dimension or kind of humility is a lightness of appetite for self-sufficiency in your actions and accomplishments, a willingness to receive advice and correction, and to acknowledge others’ contributions to your successes. Thus it rules out hyper-autonomy — the excessive desire to go it alone, to be the nearly sole author of your accomplishments. This humility is a kind of selflessness about agency.

Genuine gratitude for help in what you accomplish requires this kind of humility, because heartfelt gratitude is a happy recognition of a benefit or favor as intentionally contributed by a benefactor — an other person. As a glad recognition of the benefactor’s contribution, it requires a willingness not to be the sole contributor to your accomplishments. Robert Emmons has devised and tested several disciplines for becoming more grateful. For example, keeping a gratitude journal, writing down every day three ways that others have contributed to your successes, will heighten your awareness of your dependency on others, and thus reduce any sense you might have of being a “self-made” person. Regular prayers of gratitude are another, as is the habit of writing thank-you notes in which you articulate to your benefactor your sense of his or her contribution to your life. In Emmons’s book Gratitude Works you will find many exercises that will increase your humility because they increase your gratitude.

Keep Your Mind on Intrinsic Goods

A good life consists of activities: supporting our families, rearing our children, participating in our communities, making things, producing works or performances of art, learning things, in some cases even advancing human knowledge, teaching knowledge and know-how to others, healing diseases, helping people with their problems, entertaining people, contributing to good causes. Every meaningful activity aims at goods: healthy, happy families, beautiful objects, knowledge and understanding of the world we live in, people’s health, and so on. The goods I’ve just mentioned are intrinsic or proper to the activities in question.

But another kind of aim, a pseudo good, often captures people’s attention and concern in a way that interferes with the excellent pursuit of the activity, and may even become a substitute for the intrinsic aim of the activity. Iris Murdoch calls this “the fat relentless ego.” It is the pursuit of personal glory, power over others, prestige, prominence in the community, and personal entitlement. These two aims — the intrinsic goods and ego-glory — tend to compete for our attention. The more seriously we’re focused on the intrinsic goods, the more our concern for personal glory will fade, and the more we focus on our own importance and prestige, the more our concern for the intrinsic goods weakens and becomes confused.

To some extent, our focus is a matter of choice. Especially if we’ve been testing ourselves for evidences of the vices of pride in our mind and life, we will start noticing the duplicity in our focus, and thus can repeatedly adjust it away from the ego and back to the intrinsic goods of our activities. If we undertake this discipline, we’ll gain a new appreciation of Ben Franklin’s lament, but I think we’ll also make some progress in the formation of our moral character.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What approaches have you tried for combating the vices of pride and becoming more humble?
  2. Can you think of any pitfalls associated with the disciplines that Roberts has described? How would you avoid the pitfalls?
  3. If somebody actually succeeded in becoming completely unmotivated by the vices of pride, do you think he or she would still have enough motivation to get things done?

12 Responses

  1. George Gantz says:

    The forms of pride which you enumerate are all obvious and very ugly human tendancies.  I would hope most of us would be able to identify and, at the very least feel guilty about, indulging in them for very long.  Of course, there are some (very few) people who seem to wallow in them – enjoying the “hog’s heaven” you mention.  Overall I would hope most of humanity would agree with you that the vices of pride are despicable and shameful – feelings and behaviors to be avoided if at all possible.

    There are, however, cases were the lack of humility is more subtle.  For example, confidence in one’s opinions, or the conviction that one is being rational – these can be prideful states of mind that one feels quite justified in occupying.  Yet they can and do undermine dialogue and communication – and lead to intractable debate in many areas of human activity including, for example, politics and religion.  This is a less obvious lack of humility – but can be as damaging as the more obvious forms of vanity, envy and arrogance.

    I just completed a series of posts on the topic of rationality (see: that reviews the many limitations and pitfalls in our efforts to be rational.  I conclude, on philosophical and psychological grounds, that being rational is a goal that we can never actually achieve, but that humility is critical to our efforts to move towards that goal.

    This form of humility is a challenge – and it is also a challenge that has been recognized for millenia.  Jesus stated the issue this way, in Mathew 7:5:  First remove the beam out of your own eye, and then you can see clearly to remove the speck out of your brother’s eye.

    • Robert Roberts says:


      You are certainly right to say that vicious pride can be subtle and unobvious, the kind of trait we can have without being painfully aware of it, and also without our friends and neighbors’ being aware of it. And you are also on target in saying that such subtle pride can undermine our rationality and disable us in our pursuit of truth. I do think that the vices of pride that I briefly sketch can be subtle in this way, and can have that detrimental effect on our cognitive functioning. Perhaps my descriptions made them seem more obvious than they usually are.

      I would, however, make a distinction that your comment might discourage people from making. A person can be confident in his opinions or convinced that he is being rational without evincing any unhumility. Humility does not imply having low confidence in the truth of your beliefs or your ability to think rationally. Everything depends on how you respond to correction. If you respond with emotional “defensiveness” (where the defense is of your social status as knower) that would be a sign that you’re short of humility. If you respond with critical interest in the possible correctness of the correction, then the fact that you were confident of your opinion would not show that you lacked humility, and your continuing pursuit of correctness would suggest that you are humble. We should not even think that people who end up in interminable religious or political disputes are necessarily viciously prideful. No doubt it’s likely that they are prideful, just because it’s likely that all of us are prideful; but in sticking to their positions there may be other factors at work than vicious pride. For example, they might be motivated by loyalty to their tradition. That might be irrational, but it’s a different motive from pride.

      • George Gantz says:

        Thank you for the reply.  Yes, defensiveness of one’s beliefs or reasoning based on social status would be a good example of vicious pridefulness as you describe.  I would also agree that many who defend their political or religious position vigorously are not “viciously” prideful – they are, in fact, quite sincere.  But the unwillingness to accept that they could be wrong (and my essays at <;   point out the various ways this could be the case) is a form of pride or hubris.  Not vicious, but blind (as well as subtle).  So, how critical should a “critical interest in the possible correctness of the correction” be?  I would suggest – not critical at all, but inquisitive, and willing to offer points and counterpoints in open dialogue.  Easier said than done.

  2. Everett Worthington says:


    Good to read your excellent essay on humility and on becoming more humble. I do agree that my natural tendency is toward self-aggrandizement in the various ways you point out. Thus, practically speaking, I think I might make a modest bit of movement toward more humility if I work hard to defeat pride in each of its ugly manifestations. So, great practical observation.

    But here’s my thought for your response. As you know, I think of humility a bit differently than defeating pride. To me, merely defeating pride is not humility. A person could be profoundly depressed and have self-esteem lower than a worm’s belly but not be humble despite the unwillingness and inability to act pridefully. In fact, one in coma has no pride, but not any humility either. Finally, exerting iron will never to act pridefully (in its many manifestations) would certainly keep me from being labeled with those nasty terms like arrogant. But would that mean that someone would actively label me as humble? So, it seems to me anyway that humility is the presence of something (as well as the absence of the things you astutely note).


    • Robert Roberts says:

      Thanks, Ev, for your comment. You are absolutely right that descending into a coma is not a very good discipline for becoming humble. I make that point myself by saying that you can eliminate a lot of the vices of pride by having your pre-frontal cortex removed, but that won’t make you humble. The problem with that procedure is that it takes away too much of your moral character.

      I have to admit that I’m a philosopher, and we philosophers, when we think about moral character, like to divide it into a number of different virtues — justice, courage, generosity, compassion, sense of duty, to mention a few — and then we observe that the diverse virtues make diverse contributions to the moral life. Each has its own specialty, so to speak. Generosity motivates us to share with others out of a desire for their wellbeing, courage makes us fit to act appropriately in threatening situations, the sense of duty takes up the slack when our benevolence is not enough to move us to action, and so forth. It’s not the job of courage to prompt us to do our duty, and it’s not the job of generosity to make us fit to stand up to a threatening authority and tell him the painful truth. But the virtues do back each other up, so they need each other, if we are going to live a virtuous life.

      So it might be that you can’t have humility if you don’t have some of the other virtues, or at least something that functions a bit like them. This fact can give the impression that humility must be doing more than clearing away the vices of pride. Any time you act humbly, you’re also doing something else. You might be acting lovingly, or truthfully, or performing an act of justice, or you might just be trying to play that Beethoven Sonata to perfection. One of the disciplines I commended was to keep your mind on the intrinsic goods. To the extent that our minds are focused on helping our neighbor, or finding the truth, or rectifying an injustice, or perfecting our piano performance, we will not be focused on promoting our own glory or putting down our rivals or collecting our entitlements. Humility frees us to be motivated more purely by the other virtues, but also the other virtues supply interests that help us to see past our own egos. That, I think, is why it may seem, when we look at humble actions, as though humility is doing more than clear away the vices of pride — that it “is the presence of something,” as you say. There’s something “present,” all right, but it’s motivation coming from one of the other virtues, or from some other interest. That’s why a coma or a lobotomy won’t make you humble.

  3. Robert Emmons says:


    Thank you for your provocative and edifying essay. I wonder if developing humility is like developing gratitude in that we cannot go out and get it directly.

    I used to think that growing in gratitude required going out and getting what I did not have. That it required this required some sort of extraordinary effort. That I needed an app for my smartphone, that I needed a special journal or I had to light candles on a gratefulness website, carve out a segment of time, or go on a retreat. Whichever the specific activity, that I needed to take time and effort, that these all involved working hard, working out, making a list of what I needed to do, eliminating from my life all those things that were getting in the way.

    But then I realized that instead of getting something that I did not have, growing in gratitude begins with a greater awareness of what I already do have and living in that reality. It required turning my mind to the many ways in which I am supported and sustained by others and by God, their doing things for me that I could never do for myself. I think we tend to make spiritual growth all about ourselves, the focus is on how we are doing. But humility, like gratitude, by its very nature, is an external focus.

    So how do we grow and simultaneously not focus on how we are doing?

  4. JamesP says:

    I believe humility as with all virtues comes from contemplation, ackowledgement and awareness of our createdness, that we were made for a purpose out of dust and to the dust we will return.  However, this belief that we are made for a purpose does lead to a question I sometimes struggle with – can true humility can exist alongside magnanimity?  That is, can one be truely humble while still holding on to the belief and motivation that one is meant for a greater purpose?  Is this is possible if one understands that striving to fullfill that purpose is an obligation to which he or she will be held to account and we can never fulfil that intended purpose unless were are guided by the full set of virtues betowed upon us?  Or does magnanimity always slip into basic pride and eventual degradation of character?      

    • Robert Roberts says:

      I take it that you mean by “magnanimity” the strong kind of self-respect that a person has if he or she experiences himself or herself as a creature made in the image of God. You seem to worry that this high view of oneself is in tension with humility. But I don’t think it is. In fact, it seems that having strong self respect ENABLES one to forget oneself in the way that is characteristic of humility, say, not to worry much about what other people think of you, not to need to brag and claim lots of entitlements. Humility is freedom from anxiety about prestige, and a consequent freedom to pursue good things for their own sake, and not for the glory that they may bring to oneself. And a firm, quiet sense of oneself is part of that.

    • Robert Roberts says:

      I take it that you mean by “magnanimity” the strong kind of self-respect that a person has if he or she experiences himself or herself as a creature made in the image of God. You seem to worry that this high view of oneself is in tension with humility. But I don’t think it is. In fact, it seems that having strong self respect ENABLES one to forget oneself in the way that is characteristic of humility, say, not to worry much about what other people think of you, not to need to brag and claim lots of entitlements. Humility is freedom from anxiety about prestige, and a consequent freedom to pursue good things for their own sake, and not for the glory that they may bring to oneself. And a firm, quiet sense of oneself is part of that.

  5. Robert Roberts says:

    Bob, thanks for your comment and question. Actually, I think that gratitude and humility are different in this respect: you can practice gratitude directly, as you have shown by the exercises in gratitude that you commend in your excellent books on the topic. This is because we have practices of thanksgiving, practices that are exercises in gratitude. We don’t, in a similar way, have practices of humility, I think. So we have to come at humility indirectly, and I suggested that one way to do this is to practice gratitude, which presupposes humility. That is, if you can improve in your gratitude, then my thought is that you will thereby improve in your humility.
    I don’t think that we can avoid focusing on how we’re doing, if we are undertaking exercises such as I have recommended to become more humble. But I don’t think that’s necessarily detrimental to our humility. The vices of pride are particular WAYS of focusing on our selves, and the exercises are designed to decrease our inclination to focus on ourselves in those ways.

  6. Bleumoon says:

    This a wonderful article! The one thing that occurs to me is that in addition to being grateful for good things, we also need to be grateful for the not-so-good things too.

    It is those not-so-good things that some of our greatest successes and lessons are achieved. Even though it’s difficult, we come out of them better people.

    “By being treated poorly by others, we learn how not to treat people in our lives.” Perhaps I haven’t worded this particularly elegantl, but I think the gist of my idea is conveyed.

  7. Robert Roberts says:


    You are quite right about being grateful for things that don’t seem at first blush to be good. I’d like to use your insight as an occasion to say a couple of things about gratitude, even though the main topic of this discussion is how to acquire and maintain humility.

    One important point about gratitude is that it is a kind of generosity. To be a grateful PERSON — somebody who has a strong tendency to see good in what other people have done for you — is to be disposed to give the giver credit even where it might be a little doubtful whether she was really intending to do you good. Maybe it seems as though she might have had a self-serving motive in helping you, but if you’re a grateful person you will tend to suppose that there was also some good will behind her action. Your rule is, When in doubt, give the giver credit. That’s generous gratitude.

    The other point is theological. It’s natural to give thanks to God for the things that have a strong look on blessing on them, but not everything that comes our way is like that. Sometimes life is tough. But as I think you are pointing out, there may be blessings hidden in the troubles. On the whole, we’re not very good judges of what is good for us, and part of loving God is assuming that his purposes are good beyond anything that we can fully understand. So if we’re spiritually mature, grateful people, we’ll be disposed to thank God even when life is rough.

    Thanks, Bleumoon, for your insightful comment.