Humility is the forgotten virtue this election year


In a month in which some politicians have trumpeted their own virtues and others their opponents' vices, one traditional virtue has gone unserenaded. It is humility.

Hands washing footThe reticence is unsurprising. Humility is associated with timidity, self-doubt and a reluctance to put oneself forward. It is monkish virtue. Successful politicians must project themselves, be supremely confident of their abilities, competitive, and lead like strong men.

This popular view merits challenge. It assumes a corrupted form of humility, and it also exempts politicians from ethical reflection about their craft. Effective participation in political life is governed by having the right temperament and by exercising power in pursuing one's goals.

When these views become widely accepted, adulation and contempt for political leaders alternate, both ending in disillusion.

In such a climate it may be helpful to reflect more deeply on humility and on the qualities taken to be essential in politicians. We might also profitably ask what basic approaches to the world nurture these qualities.

As a virtue humility has nothing to do with a retiring temperament. It is about being grounded and having a realistic sense of ourselves, which includes a recognition and acceptance of our personal weakness. It also implies a realistic view of the world in which we live.

It includes a view of other people as persons on whom we are mutually dependent, and not primarily as competitors, let alone as enemies or as things.

In public life humility leads us to focus on what matters for the welfare of the world, and not on our own desires and interests. Where the common good is at stake, humility can inspire us to fight for it and to compete if we see ourselves to be in the best position to forward it. It need not be timid or self-effacing.

But it is accompanied by a reserve, arising from the realistic knowledge that our own policies are not necessarily the best policies, nor our own leadership the best means to secure what matters.

The vice traditionally opposed to humility is pride. But pride does not encompass exactly the qualities seen as necessary for success in political life: a high personal desire to succeed and to lead, a high confidence in our own judgment and ideas, the ability to bend others to our will and confidence that we can change the world.

These qualities are primarily focused on the self: on our desires and needs and on our power to satisfy them. They are about achievement.

They may come out of the realism identified with humility, but more often reflect individual needs and anxiety about fulfilling them. Our desire to justify our existence fill us with urgency to compete and to fix the world. Anxiety, which allows no space for inner reflection, breeds the certainty about our own policies and confidence in our own leadership that alone can satisfy our needs.

Anxiety can lead to success in competition and to a reputation for strong leadership. But, untempered, it also leads finally to rash policy making and to difficult relationships with others. It needs to be complemented by collaboration and cooperation, which imply that our own policies and actions are insufficient. The anxious, too, need humility to prosper.

Humility and anxiety are not elemental qualities. They flow out of more primal attitudes to the world and to our own lives. Humility is the fruit of thankfulness for our life and our world. Being thankful draws us away from ourselves to the world around us, which it sees as a gift. It encourages empathy and respect.

Anxiety reflects an attitude to the world in which thankfulness is lacking. We see ourselves and our world as plastic: they are there to be shaped as we will. Our own worth depends on the success of our efforts to shape them. We must consequently justify ourselves by what we make out of our own lives, whether by amassing wealth, earning a high reputation or by changing our society. We, other people and the world are raw material to be worked on.

In political leaders anxiety has many advantages. Because it is a quality widely shared, anxious politicians will be able to sniff the public mood. But they will also struggle to read the reality of the world and particularly to acknowledge their own weakness.

So although humble politicians are unlikely to do all it takes to gain power, they may be important in providing a steadiness and grasp of reality that their leaders may lack.


Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Foot washing image: Molly Sabourin, Flickr CC

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Bill Shorten, Malcolm Turnbull, Election 2016



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Existing comments

The retired politician, Barry Jones, is the first person to spring to my mind when searching for a humble politician. Barry is clever with a keen awareness of the world around him, possessing a natural humility. I don't think he had to work at it - a rare breed indeed. Humility sits side by side with simplicity. Many politicians find these two qualities very difficult to reach. And they surely wouldn't put much store in them if they want to reach the political heights. A pity because Barry Jones would beat them at any quiz!

Pam | 16 March 2016  

Humility : Padre Pio said if he could choose to live his life over again. He would only be a monk. .As he believed himself unworthy to be a Priest.

AO | 16 March 2016  

A little confused by this. How about; Humility is truth, including the basis and limits of power? Anxiety is irrational fear beyond the evidence for reasonable fear. Objectivity focuses on the policies and promises of candidates rather than the personalities of the candidates. "Anxiety, which allows no space for inner reflection" what are we looking at here? Many anxious people are uber reflective to the point of scruples. I think the article mixes up the sociology of political activity and clinical psychology, maybe. Or could it be ascetical theology and the world of power?

Michael D. Breen | 17 March 2016  

..."and lead like strong men"? Have you noticed that there are also women politicians in Australia now?? I see them leading like strong women!

Elizabeth Hume | 17 March 2016  

Humility must be grounded in Truth. It is not a virtue promoted by politicians. However, as written in Matthew 11:29, Jesus enjoined; "Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart." Whatever about the first Christians, once the Church gained political power in the Roman Empire, humility has not been a conspicuous feature of the Church as such. The Church is just one, of the many ways God is calling all his children to share with him in a higher more spiritual life. The Church is basically a religion of Europe and the countries Europe colonised. At its height, the Church once claimed to be the One True Church, and that outside the Church there was no 'Salvation'. Fortunately we now have a Pope who is prepared to say, "... IF they are seeking God... Who am I to say?". (In some cases, that IF might be a very big if). Unfortunately we have seen leaders of various religions show greater allegiance to their religion - (their limited human interpretation of God's call) than to their allegiance to God. This is where collective religious humility is greatly needed.

Robert Liddy | 17 March 2016  

Elizabeth, here I was reflecting on the qualities of humility inspired by this morning's article, and you jarred me into an awareness of mindsets about gender and language. It then caused me to think of the female politicians who are in the current ministry in Australia , especially a former one trying to regain her seat in country Victoria, and the one heading steadfastly and loudly towards the Democratic Party selection in the USA......!!.. And I went quickly back to Andrews sensitive dissection of the quality of humility to try instead to equate it to the trappings of my own life and activities. I am in the middle of cooking a halal recipe.I know my halal casserole is not my best culinary result. Maybe I need to just take it humbly to celebrate a dear family's first year in Australia as Pakistani refugees. Thanks Andrew for your article. A great Lenten offering for me.

Celia | 17 March 2016  

Like Michael, i don`t think "anxiety" is the right term you seem to be looking for. Ambition, a need for acknowledgement, some narcissism, fit the bill, and certainly if these are frustrated it leads to anxiety, but that not the prime mover. Primary anxiety and neurosis is too debilitating for a politician. As well are humility, what about compassion and love. Some empathy for the truly needy and the stranger would go down well in modern Australia. Instead we have intense middle-class and powerful interest-group self-interest and entitlement to be pandered to, which is a major legacy of the Howard "battler" era which subsequent regimens have not yet been unable or unwilling to tackle.

Eugene | 17 March 2016  

Look at the Senate Question time at 1am.... The WOMEN / LADIES are as bad as the MEN / GENTLEMEN in their Drama Prancing and mouths yelling to be seen as "EQUAL" ... The lot of them are so entrenched in yelling over, which is NEVER RATIONAL DEBATE. Body Language is 80% of communication. I often turn the mute on and just question the "Performance". Back to Speaker looking at their own mob for comfort nods of acceptance.

Dr.Francis Douglas | 17 March 2016  

I read somewhere that one of the dividends we may expect from the sacrament of Reconciliation is humility - a word and a concept often misunderstood. Perhaps a good way to clarify its content would be use the Socratic approach and ask the question: what makes a humble person. I infer from Mr Liddy's comment that Pope Francis is a humble man and from what I have learned about him I would tend to agree. But the humility exhibited by the Pope would be counterproductive in the power struggle that is secular politics. To return to Reconciliation if we are to make a confession of our faults, defects of character, sins we must have a clear recognition of who and what we really are - the self-knowledge aspect of humility - followed closely by a sincere attempt to become better - the self-improvement aspect of humility. Now it might very well be that Christian politicians recognise their failings and are sorry for them but acknowledge them publicly would torpedo their political ambition (no matter how noble). As to their efforts towards becoming a better person, better keep that to oneself lest one is cut down to size. Most humiliating.

Uncle Pat | 18 March 2016  

Humility is a quality that one rarely associates with politicians or indeed elections. "Speak your truth slowly...listen with care and respect...remember what peace there may be in silence...wait to be called up to the higher table...remember there will always be greater and lesser...blessed are the meek." Agression, stridency, pride, jump the up the stairs...knock down the door...get up their nose...and stay there as long as possible: these are the anti-humility values of elections and rough-house politics. When I heard Gary Gray speaking about sadness and the failure of his party to support senate reform proposals; at times when I have heard Bob Brown or John Faulkner and other politicians who have a deep-down commitment to values and speak their truth quietly but with great conviction..this is what I understand by humility and it always seeks to persuade rather than assault. Notes of humility would almost be discordant in an election campaign but certainly worth a try!

Peter | 20 March 2016  

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