The Religion & Culture Web Forum
A 'Monkish Virtue' outside the Monastery: On the Social and Civic Value of Humility"
(University of Notre Dame)
This month, Mary M. Keys, assistant professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame and a Marty Center Senior Research Fellow, explores the role of humility in public life. Drawing on a variety of thinkers led by St. Thomas Aquinas, Keys looks at the broad applicability of a virtue which many have regarded as exclusively religious.
Among the virtues proposed by St. Benedict for his monks to cultivate, both personally and collectively, a prominent place is held by humility. Yet as David Hume would have it, humility is a “monkish virtue,” useless to both persons and polities outside the monastery. Therefore, it should be classified among the vices rather than the virtues. In general, at the genesis of modern thought one finds some striking critiques of humility, from Machiavelli's implicit assault to the explicit attacks of Spinoza and Hume. Interestingly enough, in disputing the social value of humility some contemporary scholars of ancient political philosophy have concurred, judging humility at best as a religious add-on to the classical (or natural, or pagan) ethic. These theorists are most concerned that humility jeopardizes a correct estimation and valuation of magnanimity—high-mindedness or greatness of soul, a crucial character trait for outstanding citizens and statesmen to possess. Universalized as a human virtue and theorized as necessary to all men and women, humility emerges not merely as useless but in certain critical respects as harmful for political society.
Yet in recent decades other scholars and practitioners of politics, from Václav Havel to Michael Sandel, from Mahatma Gandhi to George W. Bush, have invoked humility as a positive social value against the perceived hubris of modern scientific rationalism and Western or American arrogance in foreign affairs. Is there a coherent theoretical account of humility as a virtue that can support this new appreciation of its social and civic value?
Early in June, invited responses to Professor Keys's essay will be offered by Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung of Calvin College and Michael Foley and Jennifer Herdt, both of the University of Notre Dame. Responses may be found in the archived discussion board for this Forum (pdf).
The commentary will run through the month of June, after which it will continue to be accessible through the Web Forum archive.
The Martin Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum is an online forum for thought-provoking discussion on the relationship of scholarship in religion to culture and public life. Each month the Marty Center, the research arm of the University of Chicago Divinity School, invites a scholar of religion to comment on his or her own research in a way that "opens out" to themes, problems, and events in world cultures and contemporary life.
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