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Friday, May 31, 2013

Humility—A Disappearing Virtue?

An awful lot of people in this world are really puffed up about themselves. One of the character traits I wish were much more widely practiced these days is good old-fashioned humility.

If you’re not sure what humility is, these lyrics from an old Mac Davis tune will at least remind you of what it’s not:

Oh Lord it's hard to be humble when you're perfect in every way.

I can't wait to look in the mirror ‘cause I get better looking every day.

I guess you could say I'm a loner, a cowboy outlaw tough and proud.

I could have lots of friends if I want to, but then I wouldn't stand out from the crowd.

Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble!

I don’t believe those words for a second. It’s not hard to be humble at all—if you stop comparing yourself to others. It’s not hard to be humble if your focus is building your own character. It’s not hard to be humble if you first come to grips with how little you really know.

Please note that by humility, I don’t mean self-deprecation. Humility doesn’t mean thinking less of yourself. It means putting yourself in proper perspective. It means you don’t presume to know more than you do. This was the central lesson of the classic essay “I, Pencil” by FEE’s esteemed founder Leonard E. Read. If no one person in the world knows how to make a pencil from start to finish, it’s preposterously presumptuous for anyone to think that he can plan an economy or the lives of millions of people.

Pastor Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City makes this keen observation: “Until the 20th century, most cultures held that having too high an opinion of oneself was the root of most of the world’s troubles. Misbehavior from drug addiction to wars resulted from pride that needed to be deterred or disciplined. The idea that you were bigger or better, or more self-righteous, or somehow immune from the rules that govern others—the absence of humility, in other words, gave you license to do unto others what you would never allow them to do unto you.”

These days it’s a different story. Being humble rubs against what millions have been taught under the banner of “self-esteem.” Even as so many of our schools in big inner cities fail to teach children elemental facts and skills, they somehow manage to teach them to feel good in their ignorance. They manufacture excuses for them, form support groups for them, and resist making moral judgments lest they hurt their feelings.

As I wrote in the introduction to the most recent edition of “I, Pencil”: “In our midst are people who think that if only they had government power on their side, they could pick tomorrow’s winners and losers in the marketplace, set prices or rents where they ought to be, decide which forms of energy should power our homes and cars, and choose which industries should survive and which should die. They make grandiose promises they can’t possibly keep without bankrupting all of us. They should stop for a few moments and learn a little humility.”

Humility is pretty important stuff. It may well be the one virtue of strong character that is a precondition of all the others because it opens your eyes to how much you still have to grow, learn, and improve.

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is