According to the doctrine of St. Thomas the first act of humility consists in subjecting ourselves to God, and the next is to subject – that is to say, to humble – ourselves toward our neighbor for the love of God.
As the Holy Ghost says through St. Peter: “Be ye subject therefore to every human creature for God’s sake” (1 Peter 2:13). And the same Holy Spirit exhorts us through St. Paul to excel each other in humility. “In humility, let each esteem others better than themselves” (Phil. 2:3).
Now, as your neighbor can be either your superior, your equal or your inferior, it is certain that you must practice humility, first of all toward your superior, which is of precept, for as St. Peter says, such is the Will of God: “For so is the will of God” (1 Peter 2:15).
Do you show to your superiors and betters that obedience and reverence which your state exacts? How do you receive their reprimands? Do you feel that humility of heart toward them “with a good will serving” (Eph. 6:7) which St. Paul enjoins?
There is a humility necessary for the imitation of Christ, “Who humbled Himself, becoming obedient unto death” (Phil. 2:8). There may sometimes be an excuse of impotence or inadvertence in not obeying those whom God has set over you, but to refuse to obey is always an act of inexcusable pride. As St. Bernard says: “To be unwilling to obey is the proud effort of the will.”
How do you behave toward your equals? Do you wish to be above them, to be preferred before them, not contented with your own state?
Every time that you feel this desire in your heart, say to yourself that this was the sin of Lucifer, who said in his heart: “I will ascend” (Is. 14:14). And St. Thomas teaches that the virtue of humility consists essentially in moderating this desire to exalt ourselves above others.
Do you esteem yourself above others for any gift of nature, education or grace? That is true pride, and you must subdue this by humility, holding yourself inferior to others, as in fact you may be before God.
How do you behave toward your inferiors? It is toward these that you must exercise humility most of all. “The greater thou art,” says the Inspired Word, “the more humble thyself in all things” (Ecclus. 3:20).
And though they are inferior regarding their condition in life, remember always that before God they are your equals. “Knowing that the Lord both of them and you is in heaven, and there is no respect of persons with Him” (Eph. 6:9).
In this way you will become kind and considerate, as St. Paul advises when he says: “Consenting to the humble” (Rom. 12:16). Do you command them haughtily and imperiously, against the express wish of God, who does not desire you to behave toward your inferiors “as lording it?” (1 Peter 5:3).
And when you are obliged to correct them, do you do it in the proper spirit: “In the spirit of meekness,” as the Apostle teaches us, “considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted?” (Gal. 6:1).
There is also another kind of humility which is false, and against which we are warned by the Holy Ghost when He says: “Be not lowly in thy wisdom, lest being humbled, thou be deceived info folly” (Ecclus. 13:11).
If you possess the talent of teaching, counseling, helping and doing good to the souls of others, and you then retire, saying as if from humility, “I am not good enough;” or if you are in a position when it is your duty to correct, punish or exercise authority, and you abandon it from motives of humility, this is not true humility, but weakness and cowardice.
And as far as externals and concerned, we must observe the rule of the holy father St. Augustine: “Lest whilst humility is unduly observed, the authority of the ruler be undermined among those who ought to be submissive.”
Much as I should praise you for regarding yourself as inferior in merit to all those below you, “in the knowledge of your heart,” as St. Gregory says so well, yet it must not be to the detriment of your office, lessening its superiority.
For being in a superior position does not prevent you from being humble of heart, but this humility must not be an impediment to the exercise of your authority.
The quotation from St. Augustine is referred to by St. Thomas: “In secret look upon others as your superiors, to whom in public you are superior.”
We have to practice two kinds of humility toward all our neighbors – one is of knowledge, the other of affection.
The humility of knowledge consists in recognizing and holding ourselves in our inmost soul to be inferior to all, and that is why Jesus Christ advises us in His Gospel to take the lowest place: “Sit down in the lowest place” (Luke 14:10).
He does not tell us to sit down in a place in the middle, nor in one of the last, but in the last; that is, we ought to have such an opinion of ourselves that we must esteem ourselves inferior to all, as St. Bernard exclaims:
“That thou shouldest take thy seat alone and least of all, not only not putting thyself before others, but not even daring to compare thyself with others.”
The reason is that you do not know but that those whom you deem inferior to yourself, and above whom you exalt yourself, may not be far more dear to God and be placed hereafter at the right hand of the Highest.
The truly humble man believes that everyone is better than himself, and that he is the worst of all. But are you really humble like this in your own opinion?
You easily compare yourself with this one and that one, but to how many do you not prefer yourself with the pride of the Pharisee: “I am not as the rest of men” (Luke 18:11).
When you prefer yourself to others, it often seems as if you speak with a certain humility and modesty, saying, “By the grace of God, I have not the vices of such a one: By the grace of God I have not committed so many grievous sins as such a one.”
But is it really true that you recognize that you owe all this to the grace of God and that you give Him the glory rather than to yourself?
If you esteem yourself more highly than such a one, and if he in his turn esteems himself inferior to you, he is therefore humbler than you, and for that reason better.
If by the grace of God you are chaste, charitable and just, you must endeavor by that same grace to be humble as well. And how can you be humble if you have such an abundance of self-esteem, preferring yourself to others?
When St. Paul teaches us that in holy humility we must believe all others to be better than ourselves, he also teaches us the way to accomplish this, namely, not by considering the good we have in ourselves, but that which others have or may have: “each one not considering the things that are his own, but those that are others men’s” (Phil. 2:4).
Upon this St. Thomas founds this doctrine, that all the evil that is in man and is done by man comes from man, and that all the good that is in man and is done by man comes from God; and for four reasons he says that we may unhesitatingly affirm that everyone is better than we are.