The Fourth Virtue

‘It is the attribute not exhibited, the disposition not there, the characteristic apparent only in its absence, the one distinction demonstrated not in what is, but in what isn’t.’

Author: David Shribman

Dwight D. Eisenhower had it, but George S. Patton didn’t. Henry Aaron but not Babe Ruth. Nat King Cole but not Beyoncé. Judy Woodruff but not Geraldo Rivera. J.D. Salinger but not Norman Mailer. Warren Buffett but not Elon Musk. Jonas Salk but not Dr. Oz. Johnny Unitas but not Joe Namath. Martin Luther King but not Jim Bakker. Iris Murdoch but not Rupert Murdoch. And, it must be said, Calvin Coolidge but not Donald J. Trump.

For centuries, humankind has agreed: “now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three.” But in recent years we have come to see that though the three virtues from Scripture abideth, a fourth — almost certainly as noble and ennobling a human trait, perhaps as powerful a human good as the famous triple-rectitudes of Corinthians — is as invaluable as it is scarce:


Seldom perceived and rarely celebrated, humility stands alone among human qualities. Distinct from other traits, it is the attribute not exhibited, the disposition not there, the turn of mind that turns away, the characteristic apparent only in its absence, the one distinction demonstrated not in what is, but instead in what isn’t: the trumpet boast that isn’t sounded, the generous act that isn’t seen, the self-satisfaction that isn’t expressed, the gesture of selflessness that isn’t performed in public view. It is the perspective that is neither false self-abnegation nor showy self-aggrandizement. It is, as Douglas MacArthur might have said, had he possessed a mere molecule of humility himself, a state of mind, a temper of the will, a predominance of modesty over arrogance — language the self-absorbed general employed in his much-admired MacArthur Credo to describe his own highest ideal: youth.

Humility is a way of peering into the soul, of focusing beyond the self, of looking at the world and finding that one is not particularly remarkable, nor especially important, nor notably vital, nor even singularly interesting. Which is why the Royal British Legion, the American Legion and Rotary International all have mottos that, with slight permutations, proclaim: service not self.

Humility. The all-but-forgotten virtue.

It was evident when George H.W. Bush walked through his presidential library in College Station, Texas, for the first time and said he didn’t much like it. “Too much about me,” he complained. It was evident when Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart brushed off praise by telling the diplomat and music patron Gottfried van Swieten, “Bach is the father. We are the children!” — and was referring to Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, who, in greater contemporary celebrity than Johann Sebastian Bach but in great humility, took pains to remind admirers that his father was a composer, too. It was evident when Paul, in Philippians, said of Christ’s example: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.”

It was evident when Mikhail Gorbachev stood in the rain at the foot of the coffin of the Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov — but not when Vladimir Putin spent a mere half-minute at the casket of Gorbachev. It was evident when the New York Giants sent a gift to Lou Gehrig, the stricken star of their great rivals, the New York Yankees — but not when Pittsburgh Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster danced menacingly on the midfield logos of the Buffalo Bills and Cincinnati Bengals. It was evident when some wise person whose identity is lost to history wrote that “a man wrapped up in himself makes a very small package” — but not when Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko proclaimed “greed is good” in the 1987 film Wall Street.

Humility. The indispensable virtue.

General Eisenhower — who reprimanded General Patton for slapping a soldier during World War II — said humility “must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.” Writing more than 400 years ago, Shakespeare recognized that this human quality was not confined to the battlefield. He had it right in Henry V: “In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man / As modest stillness and humility.”

In the third decade of the 21st century we can say, without hesitation, that in wartime as in peacetime, nothing is so elusive, nor so becoming, as modest stillness and humility.

Humility is a way of peering into the soul, of focusing beyond the self, of looking at the world and finding that one is not particularly remarkable, nor especially important, nor notably vital, nor even singularly interesting.

The word “humility” comes from the Latin humilis, or low, and humus, or ground. So, when Father Robert Casey, the pastor of Gate of Heaven and St. Brigid parishes in South Boston, delivered a homily in August, he defined humility as “keeping our feet on the ground, being grounded and being capable of knowing the truth about ourselves.

“Being humble and possessing the virtue of humility does not get good publicity these days in a world of power and privilege where       . . . the fittest survive and where those who push themselves forward succeed,” he added. “The way to humility is by ridding our hearts and minds of selfishness and giving our time and resources to others.”

That is basic stuff, in a way unremarkable, a view common to all religions and all political philosophies. Still, Casey was dropping seeds on fertile ground, for he must wonder, as do we, why contemporary life is so bereft of humility, the virtue praised so often from the pulpit and lived so rarely on the ground.

Maybe the answer is that the flamboyant (Katy Perry), the loud (Stephen A. Smith), and the boastful (Deion Sanders) are some of the most compelling figures of the day. Or that new technology rewards the crude (on Twitter and other social-media platforms) rather than the subtle (in hardcover books).

Or maybe humility seems absent because it is a silent virtue, walking in slippers, not boots; speaking in whispers, not shouts; dressing in earth tones, not pastels or primary colors. Humility is sensible shoes, quiet counsel, a well-worn cardigan, the color gray.

It is restraint.

Consider the Jewish prayer, based on Psalm 141: My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception. Before those who slander me, I will hold my tongue; I will practice humility.

This admonition is honored only in the breach. How many today restrain the tongue? Repress the urge to lash out? Resist the impulse to lie or to fib? Deception is the lingua franca of our age. A New York congressional candidate fabricates his entire resume, is elected and, not humbled by exposure, boldly takes his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. A Cleveland Browns quarterback argues “I have never assaulted any woman” and, his claim undermined by nearly two dozen out-of-court settlements, is given a guaranteed, five-year, $230 million contract — and is, to the cheers of the crowd and with the defiant pride that is the opposite of humility, welcomed back into the huddle after an 11-game suspension.

And yet, despite the presence of loudmouths, congenital tweeters, end-zone celebrators, post-QB-sack exhibitionists, baseball-bat flippers and goal-scorer’s arms triumphantly thrust into the air, the arena of sports has a tucked-away cult of humility that, like humility itself, is seldom visible. In sports, humility often is the handmaiden of excellence, and excellence itself is elusive, even at the highest levels.

“People who exhibit genuine humility are so absorbed in what they’re doing that there is no opportunity to be absorbed in themselves,” the thoughtful, much-garlanded former Montreal Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden told me recently. “That generates so much a focus in them that they sometimes don’t even remember that they themselves exist. Roger Federer may entirely understand how good he was as a tennis player — but watch how he played. He was so involved in every match, in every point, in the opponent, in the game and tennis itself, that it came across as respect for a game — and that comes across as a form of humility. The people who have humility realize that what they are doing is more important than what, or who, they are.”

Federer’s sensibility may also be found in that other big-time sport known, like Dryden’s ice hockey, for violent personal performances. Offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif left the Super Bowl-winning Kansas City Chiefs and, medical degree in hand, went to work in a long-term health care facility during the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Consider what he told me:

There has to be humility among athletes. Our job is to remove doubts and execute a game plan. But behind what the fan sees, we are big critics of ourselves and our performance. We are more humble than you think. We have an armor, of course. But you need to have self-doubt to succeed, and a lot of athletes are way more humble than they appear.

Muhammad Ali presents both impediment and insight in the contemplation of humility. He was, after all, famous for having said, as a young boxer, “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am.” As he aged, Ali remained great — but it was a greatness infused with humanity and, increasingly, humility. He displayed courage in the public square as much as in the boxing ring. He touched the lives of millions with quiet, almost-always-unseen acts of compassion and charity. He was a United Nations Messenger of Peace, a recipient — from George W. Bush — of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. When Ali died in 2016, Bush saluted his “beautiful soul,” celebrating him as “an iconic and historic figure.”

“Ali could not have accomplished so much without his great talents, persistence, charisma and courage to challenge,” said his longtime friend, Muhamed Sacirbey, the former foreign minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina, “but he realized his greatness by also being humble.”


Contemplation of the meaning and value of humility has become a preoccupation on the Notre Dame campus. In several corners of the University, the topic is flourishing with fresh relevance and resonance. Clark Power, a professor of psychology and education in the University’s Program of Liberal Studies, has been thinking about the relationship between self-esteem and humility, concluding that the two virtues can sometimes be at war with each other. “Taking pride in yourself,” he told me, “can be at odds with the virtue of humility that I grew up with.”

Across campus, two scholars, a philosopher and a psychologist, have launched an ambitious, two-year research effort — with a John Templeton Foundation grant and support from Notre Dame Research, the College of Arts and Letters and the Center for Philosophy of Religion — to examine humility’s many aspects and ask probing questions about it, including whether the virtue might actually contribute to social and political polarization. Together, Laura Frances Callahan, an assistant professor of philosophy, and Daniel Lapsley, the ACE Collegiate Professor of Psychology and director of the Moral and Adolescent Psychology Lab, hope to transform how we understand humility and maybe even alter our regard for it as an unalloyed social good. 

The Notre Dame researchers and a multidisciplinary group of scholars from around the United States are taking a folk concept we all think we understand and recognize and shaking it up — like taking the periodic table of personality and rearranging and analyzing its parts. The process is more a cubist painting than a realist’s still life.

Callahan, the project’s lead researcher, is pondering a radical question: whether humility may have the effect of repressing some people. On the surface, she believes, the virtue is a great antidote to the furies and self-regard that are the global pandemics of contemporary social intercourse. But not so fast, she counsels. Turn everything upside down — which, after all, is what humility often does — and we may see how a strain or byproduct of humility can have a deleterious effect.

“Ordinarily we think that humility lifts people up,” she explains. “But . . . celebrating it — trying to get everyone to be more humble — can keep some people down.” It would be disastrous, she warns, to recommend that people who are not taken seriously, are too easily dismissed, or who have been conditioned to believe they have little expertise or ability — become even more ready to defer. 

For such people, the result may be to sustain or exacerbate conditions of inequality, injustice and low self-worth.  “If we think of humility as groveling loneliness, it is dangerous. Groveling loneliness won’t help oppressed people rise out of oppression,” Callahan says. 

In short, the distance between humility and humiliation may for some people be less than the five letters that distinguish the two words. 

Callahan’s conception of humility’s truest form — the virtue we should seek — is congruent with the model Ken Dryden set out for me: not so much a liberation from self-worship as a kind of freedom from distraction.

“People’s egos are distracting,” she explains. “We get hung up on whether an argument or an activity reflects on us. Humility is freedom from that kind of distraction. It is a disposition of being able to do stuff — to have a conversation, to play baseball — without getting distracted by our own egos.”

The Notre Dame project will take into special consideration “intellectual humility,” which Callahan defines as “not being overly confident in your beliefs” while “being open-minded to the beliefs of others.” It is the ability to tamp down one’s own intellectual ego, “to be able to think more clearly, because you don’t care that much about whether a particular idea is yours or whether something affirms your prior beliefs.”

At the heart of this exploration is the sobering recognition that others might know more than we do; that their views may be as valid as ours, maybe more so; that others’ perspectives, though different from our own, may be grounded in facts rather than mere perceptions or predispositions.

The goal of intellectual humility is to nurture the ability to revise our opinions and be good listeners, even as we remain confident enough in our own views to take others’ into consideration — capacities with great utility in a university setting, in the party leader’s seat in the Senate, at a dinner party or on cable television. We might think of intellectual humility as a 21st-century update on the 19th-century tenet of the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote, “There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds.”

Humbly, one might suggest that the Notre Dame initiative consider the role of pride in human interchanges, for pride and humility may be thought of as moral palindromes: Pride can lead to humility, just as a lack of humility can lead to pride. “If we’re not cultivating humility, if we’re not fortifying humility, what happens is pride begins to explode,” Brian Frost, the senior pastor of Providence Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, said in a recent sermon. “We become selfish, irritable, impatient.”

One area where humility is misunderstood concerns the environment. Increasing numbers of scientists, theologians and activists believe the desecration of Earth and the phenomenon of climate change exemplify humility’s opposite. In this collective view, these abuses are clear examples of one generation favoring its own interests over those of its descendants.

“Humility is a virtue that is particularly useful in our relationship with nature,” Lisa Gerber of the University of New Mexico wrote two decades ago in an essay titled “Stand Humbly Before Nature” in the journal Ethics and the Environment. “It helps us move away from arrogance to an appreciation of nature. A humble person can see value in nature and acts accordingly with the proper revenue and respect.” Indeed, in the fight against climate change, we humans might show a little more humility in our relationship with the planet.


Any investigation into the meaning and role of humility inevitably considers the two topics most often discouraged as inappropriate dinner-table conversation: religion and politics.

In Christianity, the principal exemplar of humility is Jesus Christ. Take the dinner at the Pharisee’s house in Luke, one of many instances. Jesus notes how the guests have assembled themselves at the table and offers a parable:

When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, “Give this person your seat.” Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, “Friend, move up to a better place.” Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests.

Ours is a time when so many do not have a seat at the table, and in the next passage, Jesus tells his host not to invite his friends, siblings or “your rich neighbors” to his table but instead to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” to dine. And there, in a single admonition, is the magical — the theological — transformation of an act of humility into an expression of charity and goodness. Water into wine, of a sort.

The Reverend Jim Antal, who until 2018 was the conference minister and president of the 350 United Church of Christ parishes in Massachusetts, points out that Jesus personified humility in part by being more than willing to interact with anyone — the Samaritan, women, tax collectors and countless others. “Doing that in the context of the time he lived in required a certain humility,” Antal says, “and he showed the value that might come from those relationships, and from humility itself.”

Humility is, unsurprisingly, a centerpiece of Jewish tradition. On Yom Kippur, the most sacred and sober moment in the Jewish calendar, Jews recognize their sins and ask God for forgiveness. In one principal passage of the High Holidays prayers, congregants ask to be inscribed for one more year in the Book of Life, where God writes “who shall live and who shall die,” the opening of a long meditation on the vicissitudes of life:

Who shall see ripe age and who shall not; who shall perish by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by plague; who by strangling and who by stoning; who shall be secure and who shall be driven; who shall be tranquil and who shall be troubled; who shall be poor and who shall be rich; who shall be humbled and who exalted.

The passage raises another important language question — the difference between being humble and being humbled. Perhaps the answer lies in the conclusion of that parable I quoted before: “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”

In few areas of human endeavor is the tension between being humble and being exalted so great as in politics. Few civic leaders resist exaltation, so when Jimmy Carter asked the U.S. Marine Band to cease playing “Hail to the Chief” as he entered a room, his decision raised the question of whether this president steeped in Scripture and faith was seeking exaltation through false humility.

Carter’s selflessness as an ex-president likely has exonerated him from that indictment. But the phenomenon of political figures affecting humility is common. In a new biography of Daniel Webster, the University of California law professor Joel Richard Paul described how the great 19th-century orator fixed his eyes “at a point on the floor” so as to give himself “an appearance of humility.”

Indeed, among that parade of presidents who did not resist exaltation — Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Donald Trump — walk a few whose example of humility shines brightly though the years and through history.

There was Harry S Truman, who, lacking a college degree but possessed of remarkable street wisdom, made a virtue of humility. There was Abraham Lincoln, who liked to cite Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” — “the short and simple annals of the poor” — as a shorthand for his life, and who said that God must love common people because he made so many of them. There was the elder Bush, who, according to speechwriter Mary Kate Cary, would unfailingly circle the word “I” in speech drafts and say, “Take that out — make it ‘we,’” because as he was always telling her, “It’s not about me but about the United States.”

And so we come back to Dwight Eisenhower. When Leadership Ministries, an Atlanta-based group, laid out its lessons for male leadership three years ago, it said of the 34th president: “Eisenhower boosted morale not with inspirational speeches but with simple, honest, straightforward conversations. Instead of handing out trophies, he gave his soldiers encouraging pats on the back. It was a humble, direct way of reaching out, and it made him a favorite of the troops.”

Faith, hope, charity — and humility: words to live by.

David Shribman, executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, teaches American politics at McGill University and is a scholar in residence at Carnegie Mellon University.