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Humility has had a bad press. It could be ripe for a comeback

The new Pope prompts Paul Vallely to consider an unfashionable virtue in an age of individualism

Nothing has struck the world about the new Pope so much as his extraordinary determination to be ordinary. Humility is the word most frequently used about his common touch. The much-quoted trope is that he long ago rejected the bishop's palace for a modest apartment and swapped his chauffeur-driven car for a bus pass. Elected pontiff, he spurned the papal limousine and returned to the conclave hostel on the coach with the cardinals. He packed his own bag and asked reception if there was a bill to pay.

There was more to this than symbolism, though his brief first appearance on the balcony in St Peter's showed his gift for sign and signifier. Catholics are big on that. The faith is rooted in sacrament, which theology defines as an outward sign of inward grace. Pope Francis pointedly refused to stand on an elevated platform when fellow cardinals approached to offer congratulation and pledges of fealty. It was as if he was saying: the old autocracy has gone, collegiality has returned; this pope is no feudal monarch, but gains his status as a first among equals.

Humility has had a bad name in recent times. Its archetype has been Charles Dickens's unctuous villain in David Copperfield. "I'm a very 'umble man, Master Copperfield... ever so 'umble," says the obsequious Uriah Heep. "I am well aware that I am the 'umblest person going. My mother is likewise a very 'umble person. We live in a numble abode." Humble thus became something of a byword for a false ambitious manipulative greedy cloying insincerity. It was what the poet Southey described, rather more succinctly, as "pride that apes humility."

There can, of course, be virtue in pretence. Socrates commonly resorted to the rhetorical strategy of feigning ignorance, or pretending to be less astute than he actually was, in order to trick his opponents into contradicting themselves. But what did for humility was a combination of Enlightenment rationalism and then the Romantic movement's infatuation with individualism. The great empiricist philosopher David Hume saw humility as a vice: part of "a whole train of monkish virtues" which included fasting, penance, mortification, self-denial, celibacy, silence and solitude. All these were "everywhere rejected by men of sense... because they serve no manner of purpose; neither advance a man's fortune in the world, nor render him a more valuable member of society; neither qualify him for the entertainment of company, nor increase his power of self-enjoyment".

Things went downhill from there, via Nietzsche, to our own time when self-esteem, self-fulfilment and self-assertion are the contemporary desiderata. "If you've got it, flaunt it" renders humility an anachronism. Modern psychologists and business gurus have now began to pronounce that humility is a distinguishing trait of top business leaders – so humble individuals can again be well-adjusted valuable members of society. But this is just a new empiricism. There is something tacky about the utilitarian and instrumentalist notion that humility breeds success.

Religions have always seen humility differently. In Buddhism it is a vehicle to bring the liberation from the sufferings and vexations of consciousness. Hinduism has a similar goal of losing ego through the struggle for self-mastery. The word Islam means submission, which necessitates humility. But in common parlance, humility is often confused with modesty, bashfulness, self-effacement or lack of ambition.

It is none of those, according to the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who has described humility as "the orphaned virtue of our age". Humility is different from meekness or lack of self-confidence. To be humble is not to think disparagingly or unconfidently of ourselves. No, we are supposed to appreciate ourselves and our talents and skills. But we also need the capacity to be open to something greater than ourselves. "True humility is the consciousness of standing in the presence of greatness," the Chief Rabbi concludes, "which is why it is the virtue of prophets, those who feel most vividly the nearness of God."

True humility, then, is not stooping in order to look smaller than you are. That is the false modesty which fishes for compliments. It is the tale of the man who won a medal for humility and proudly wore it everywhere he went. True humility is standing at your real height next to something bigger than you which brings home to you your smallness. For the religious that is God. For others it is what Kant called the "meta-attitude that constitutes the moral agent's proper perspective on himself". As the genius father of modern science, Sir Isaac Newton put it: "If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants."

Shyness may be a temperament but, as the canny Jesuit now occupying the Vatican demonstrates, humility is more an intellectual stance. The meek are self-conscious but the truly humble are other-conscious. When Pope Francis returned to the hostel to pack, he did not just offer to settle up. He went to thank the housekeepers for their hard work behind the conclave scenes.

Acknowledging the contribution of others is key to humility, which is why the new pope bowed his head before the people of Rome and asked them to pray for him before he blessed them. It was an important gesture in a church which has a long history of devaluing the humble, as its treatment of women has shown. Humility is, historically and culturally at any rate, a particular female charism, as is celebrated in the Magnificat, the words with which Mary reacts when she is told she is to be the mother of Christ. She speaks of a God who scatters the proud in the conceit of their heart and exalts the humble, who fills the hungry with good things while the rich are sent empty away. Pope Francis began his first day in office with a visit to the largest church in Rome dedicated to Mary where he prayed before an icon of mother and child.

Catholics are scrutinising all this with the minute attention of the archaeologists who first decoded the Rosetta Stone. Will Francis's papacy mean a return to a collegial relationship between pope and bishops? Will hardline dogma take a back seat to pastoral care? Will women be given a role in Vatican appointments? (For there is no reason in canon law they should not be). Will the decadence of clerical privilege find the cruel arrogance of its power overturned? It ought, for real humility speaks less and listens more. It seeks, in the famous prayer attributed to the new pope's namesake from Assisi, not to be understood but to understand.

The paradox of Pope Francis is that in him humility and power come together. Vested interests in the Vatican will no doubt scheme to undermine him. But might humility now triumph over power? Two thousand years ago, a humble Christ clashed with a powerful establishment of high priests from his own religion and imperial Roman overlords. Then humility appeared to lose, but founded a faith to which a billion people now adhere.

Humility has infinitely deeper roots, said G K Chesterton, than many modern men suppose. On the surface, humility appears to empty itself of all power. But at a more profound level it disarms power and ultimately conquers it. True humility is strength, not weakness. "We come nearest to the great when we are great in humility," said the Hindu poet Rabindranath Tagore. Humility has nothing to prove, but everything to offer. For most of us, as Chesterton said of the Christian ideal, humility has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.