Humility, Not Hubris

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A few weeks back, at a lecture at Azusa Pacific University’s High Sierra Basecamp, I had the opportunity to hear renowned Plato scholar Paul Woodruff speaking about reverence, leadership and the hubris—what used to be defined as “overweening pride,” and is perhaps better described as the arrogance—that leads us to think that we are always right. As with all good lectures, it provided much food for thought long after the talk was over.

Woodruff maintains that our capacity for reverence, for awe, takes practice. It takes work. And above all, he argues, it takes humility. He even goes so far as to argue that success is a danger to reverence, because it can lead us to hubris. And yet, as leaders, we want to be successful. How, then, can we avoid hubris?

Obviously, as a Classicist, I look back at the numerous examples from the ancient world that ought to serve as cautionary tales. From mythology, we are reminded of Oedipus, the king of Thebes, whose inability to listen to the warnings of his advisors led to his own literal blindness—the irony here is clear. Agamemnon’s hubris led him to ignore the dangers on his doorstep, and to his own death. History, too, brings us examples such as Croesus, the king of Lydia, who as Herodotus tells us, ignored the advice of the sage Solon to vaunt his wealth and success, and the warnings of the oracle at Delphi, with near fatal results. The hubris of the Athenians, blinded by a “might is right” realpolitik, led to the disastrous debacle of the Sicilian expedition and ultimately their humiliating defeat at the hands of their arch-rival Sparta. Darius, Philip II, Caesar…one could go on at length.

As Woodruff notes, the antidote for hubris is reverence. Reverence leads to greater compassion, and compassion leads to humility, which makes us better leaders. True humility leads us to seek the lowest place at the table. True humility does not ask for the seat at Christ’s right or left hand. True humility, as opposed to the oft-bandied but seldom practiced “servant-leadership,” sees oneself as an instrument. The pen that writes the poem is not remarked on, nor the brush that paints the portrait. They do their job; if they do it well, they are retained and re-used. If not, they are discarded—there are always other, finer instruments.

It is not a coincidence, then, that the prayer attributed to St. Francis begins, “Lord, make us instruments of thy peace.” If we truly view ourselves as instruments of kingdom work, we leave no room for arrogance. Instead, we leave room for awe to develop. We leave room for reverence. And true reverence, as Woodruff notes, binds people together. The best way to experience reverence is to share it.

  • Walter Saul

    Dear Pam ,
    Thanks for your good thoughts. Your command of history of all the ages takes my breath away as you confront us with the sin of arrogance, which we so quickly see in others, but not ourselves! I love this new backdrop for St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer.
    In Christ, Walter Saul

    • Pamela Johnston

      Thanks for your insights, Walter. St. Francis is certainly a model for us all!

  • Rich Kriegbaum

    Pam,
    Your masterful (and succinct) development of the Woodruff presentation really helps me with my current thinking and writing. I find it interesting that he seems to assume that this logic rests on our experience of success and thus only applies to our leading, not our following. It is as though success depends only on leading. Perhaps the it is hiding in your note that true humility, as opposed to the oft-bandied but seldom practiced “servant-leadership,” sees oneself as an instrument. We are instruments of God’s kingdom work whether leading or following, and we are servants in both roles. Authentic awe should readily uncover our temptation for credit-taking rather than thanksgiving. I thank God for you and your excellent gift of written wisdom. Rich