Humility As the Foundation of All Virtues

Written By Thomas à Kempis

“Learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart,” says the Lord (Matthew 11:29).

Our highest teacher and lawgiver, Jesus Christ, urged us to learn the virtue of humility. For whoever cultivates this marvelous virtue will quickly arrive at spiritual perfection. But without humility, no amount of study of Sacred Scripture or theology, nor any efforts at good works are able to achieve anything lasting. In vain are all our labors unless they are accompanied by humility.

The very first lesson of Christ is, therefore, humility of heart; for this is the foundation of all virtues and indispensable to the attainment of eternal salvation. Whoever desires to receive grace now and eternal life in the world to come should, therefore, study Christ’s lesson and example of humility with diligence. But whoever neglects humility will lose any benefits their good thoughts and works would otherwise have gained them.

It behooves each Christian soul to meditate carefully on the teachings of Christ. This includes all religious, all priests, all bishops, all servants, all nobles, all commoners, all the educated, and all the simple. And Christ teaches us humility, not pride. He teaches us useful things, not vanities. He teaches what is true, not what is false; what is heavenly, not what is earthly.

Any person who imitates the example of Christ will quickly become wise and happy. Humility was a particular virtue of Christ; it is therefore feared by the devil and despised by the world. But those who hold it firmly in their hearts are pleasing to God and his angels. Such people will have a secure and blessed passage from this world to the next in accordance with Christ’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Without humility, there is neither salvation nor real virtue. Nor can any action done without humility be pleasing to God. Any work or deed—no matter how noble or persevering—achieves nothing for the soul if it is motivated or accompanied by pride and arrogance.

Profound humility is a stronghold of all the virtues and triumphs over all their enemies. The one to whom humility is granted shall exult in the grace of Christ. For it makes a person like the Lord’s intimate friend, who will willingly and joyfully submit himself to whatever Divine Providence determines. The truly humble person ascribes all good things he does to his Creator and is willing to resign himself in all imaginable situations.

But without humility, any aspirations or pretensions to sanctity remain empty and fruitless. External piety and uprightness mean nothing unless accompanied by internal humility. While humility is a ladder ascending to the highest blessedness, its absence can easily cast the soul down to hell. An example of this is to be found in the parable of the humble and contrite tax-collector and the proud and presumptuous Pharisee. Call to mind and be horrified at the fate of Lucifer, who in his pride was cast out of heaven. Consider the humble poor man, Lazarus, who was taken up by the angels to rejoice in the bosom of Abraham.

Thus it was that the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Mother of Jesus, proclaimed in her wondrous canticle, “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly.” There are, indeed, a vast multitude of examples of this in Sacred Scripture, aside from those mentioned above. For new spiritual perils arise daily for all those who grow proud because of their imagined virtue or strength.

The person who is intent upon gaining the approval of others and being thought of as great becomes more and more distant from God. And such people pass away like the vanishing smoke or fading shadows.

Everyone who is proud becomes impure in the sight of God. Proud people do not truly know themselves, nor do they perceive their own calling, condition, and destiny clearly. The more pride raises up one’s own self-estimation, the more liable one becomes to the judgment of God. The one who climbs high in pride, raises himself up for an inevitable fall. The humble person, however, who keeps his feet firmly planted on the ground, will stand securely.

Hidden pride is a most pernicious vice, the more so since it is not recognized and does not recognize itself. On the outside, it may appear gentle, mild, and even humble. Yet inside, it burns away bitterly. The person who is subject to such pride becomes inordinately elated when he is successful but is disturbed and dejected in the face of adversity or failure.

The one who seeks to condemn others and justify himself ends up condemning himself by displaying his pride and arrogance. It is typical of a proud person to seek to please himself and to trust entirely in his own opinions. Such people are often quick to criticize others and to deride those who seem simple to them.

But the proud position themselves so that they are liable to fall into dangerous delusions, errors, and adversity. For it reflects a distorted and perverse sense of judgment to think always well of oneself but to be hasty to think ill of others.

Pride is difficult to overcome except through enduring much suffering, performing menial duties, and facing difficult and desperate situations. The person who finds it difficult to obey the instructions or directions of another is very far from true humility. But humility is the precious root of all virtues. It readily brings forth the fruit of obedience, which soon ripens into the flower of charity.

The truly humble person is honestly aware of his own weaknesses and failings. He judges himself more strictly than he judges others and regrets his wrongdoings and sins constantly and sincerely.

The humble person does not readily judge his superiors and those positioned above him, lest he incur the judgment of God himself. He does not perturb or vex his peers and equals. Rather, he honors the seniors, tolerates those who exhibit shortcomings, prays for those who are tempted, and helps those who are in need.

When two humble people are associated together, they will always get along well with each other. But when two proud people are associated together, they will compete with each other and dissentions will inevitably arise. The truly humble person may be safely praised, for—regardless of the praise and the recognition of his merits—he remains mindful of his fragility and weaknesses. Moreover, he does not forget that the eyes of God are upon him at all times, observing his thoughts and actions, and even every movement of his heart. It is a very useful practice to train oneself in humility. It is wise to fear the unseen judgment of God and to think often about one’s final end. It is characteristic of a truly humble person not to be greatly affected by human praise. For the one who is intent upon heavenly glory will not consider earthly glory as something of any great consequence.

In contrast, the person who seeks to be praised and glorified during this life will never be firmly established in the truth. Such a person, who is intent upon human praise and approval, cannot genuinely love God above all else, or will—at best—love God with only a divided heart.

Those in positions of authority who remain humble are particularly dear to God and will receive fitting honor from him. The one who is subject to others, and accepts this humbly, will be crowned with a great reward in heaven. The person who is sober and chaste becomes a companion to the angels and is an adornment to the human race. And the one who flees from the tumult of worldly activities will make steady progress in chastity and self-control.

The devout person loves and cultivates times of solitude so that he may contemplate God more freely and intently. The monk who is silent and given to constant prayer shall walk with God and penetrate the mysteries of heaven. The one who does good works and endures injustices patiently will gather wonderful fruit for himself in the future.

But the person who is occupied with considering subtle and sophisticated questions and problems, and so neglects the virtue of humility, digs a pit for himself into which he will surely fall. The one who ambitiously aspires to a lofty and exalted position in this world climbs a perilous scaffold, which may serve as a lethal gallows for the soul.

The prudent person, however, does nothing rashly or on impulse. The faithful person will neglect nothing pertaining to virtue and morals and will not commit any deceit. People who are truly just examine all the causes of a matter and all its circumstances before offering any judgment. But almost all of us are deceived at times by merely apparent goodness and false and specious righteousness.

This article is taken from a chapter in Humility and the Elevation of the Mind to God  by Thomas à Kempis which is available from TAN Books.

Thomas à Kempis (1380-1471) was a German-Dutch author and theologian of the late Medieval period.  He is best remembered for his classic on the devotional life known as The Imitation of Christ, available from TAN Books.