Humility and the Academy

By Todd Daly

Why so little humility in the academy? In a chapter entitled “Pathology of the Young Theologian’s Conceit,” Helmut Thielicke wrote that

Truth seduces us very easily into a kind of joy of possession: I have comprehended this and that, learned it, understood it. Knowledge is power. I am therefore more than the other person who does not know this or that. Anyone who deals with the truth . . . succumbs all too easily to the psychology of the possessor.[1]

Thielicke was right. Knowledge is power, and power is not power until it is exerted over another. The apostle Paul put it more succinctly: “Knowledge puffs up.” (1 Cor. 8:1) This is equally true for students of all academic disciplines, whether one is studying the text of Scripture, or the texts of nature, poetry, politics, or history. Professors and student alike are faced with the battle of pride.

Pride, so say most Church Fathers, was the first sin in the garden, construed as ‘thinking one knows better.’ It is interesting to observe that pride is intimately linked with the tree of knowledge, knowledge of good and evil. Ellen T. Charry has noted that “it is passing strange that even as God speaks life into being, he links knowledge to humiliation and death.”[2] Note how this tree is described as “desirable for giving wisdom,” (Gen. 3:6). From the very beginning there have been two paths to the knowledge of God and creation; Adam and Eve took the path to instant knowledge apart from learning and growing and attaining wisdom in a relationship with God. Humanity has been plagued with this temptation ever since.

Though we are often exhorted to ‘be humble,’ we are rarely told in specifics how this is to take place. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) considered humility as a virtue—“regards chiefly the subjection of man to God, for Whose sake he humbles himself by subjecting himself to others.”[3] In speaking of the virtue of humility, Aquinas defends St. Benedict’s own ‘twelve step program,’ a list which likely contains elements which grate against our modern sentiments. Nevertheless, I think these are worth consideration—regardless of the abuse(s) to which some may be put. I simply list these without defense or further comment, inviting only personal reflection.

  1. Be humble not only in heart, but with one’s eyes fixed to the ground
  2. To speak sensible words in a soft voice
  3. Not easily given to laughter
  4. To maintain silence until one is asked something
  5. To do nothing but what one is exhorted by common rule in the monastery
  6. To believe and acknowledge oneself as more vile than all
  7. To think oneself worthless and unprofitable for all purposes
  8. To confess one’s sin
  9. To embrace patience by obeying under difficult circumstances
  10. To subject oneself to a superior
  11. Not to delight in fulfilling one’s desires
  12. To fear God and to be always mindful of His commands

Discussion Questions:

Why is it so hard to be humble?

Who is the humblest person you know? What do you find compelling/attractive about this person?

What does humility look like?

What’s the relationship between knowledge and humility?

How do you discern humility from humiliation?

How would you define virtue?

Richard Foster has asserted that humility is one of those virtues we can never gain by seeking it. Is this true? If so, how are we to go about pursuing it?


[1] Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, trans. Charles L. Taylor (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1962), 16-17.

[2] Theology Today 59, no. 1 (April 2002): 1.

[3] Summa Theologica IIaIIae, 161.1.5