The Virtue of Humility

Henrietta B. Seiberling, Akron  OG - 300X450

Humility is the central subject of discussion in Step 7 of the 12&12. This leads some to believe that it is the one principle Step 7 represents. This is in line with a common understanding of the relationship between Steps and principles in the AA program. On this view, there are 12 Steps and 12 principles, with each Step having a single principle and each principle belonging to a single Step.

This is illustrated by a popular pocket card that matches Steps and principles as follows:

1.    Honesty
2.    Hope
3.    Action
4.    Courage
5.    Integrity
6.    Willingness
7.    Humility
8.    Brotherly Love
9.    Discipline
10.   Perseverance
11.   Spiritual Awareness
12.   Service

Yet, as we show in PTP, each Step actually represents a variety of spiritual principles. Some are practiced as systematic activities or disciplines (like prayer and meditation), and others as personal traits of character or virtues (like honesty and gratitude). Moreover, some principles are practiced in more than one Step, though in different ways according to the particular Step.

Thus, while humility takes center stage in Step 7, it is not exclusive to that Step. Indeed, of all the principles which represent character virtues, humility is the one principle that underlines each and every one of the 12 Steps.

Step 7 itself makes this quite clear: “The attainment of greater humility is the foundation principle of each of AA’s Twelve Steps” (12&12, p. 70).

Humility is so fundamental an AA principle that it underpins all of the 12 Traditions as well. We’re told in Tradition 12 that, on the one hand, “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions” (p. 184), and that, on the other, “anonymity is real humility at work” (p. 187). Anonymity is at the heart of all the Traditions, but at the heart of anonymity is humility. To practice anonymity as a spiritual discipline, we need to practice humility as a spiritual virtue.  

Why is humility so essential to the Steps of recovery? Because “without some degree of humility, no alcoholic can stay sober at all.” Furthermore, because “Nearly all A.A.’s have found, too, that unless they develop much more of this precious quality than may be required just for sobriety, they still haven’t much chance of becoming truly happy. Without it, they cannot live to much useful purpose, or, in adversity, be able to summon the faith that can meet any emergency" (p. 70).

Why is humility so crucial to the Traditions? Because it is “an all-pervading spiritual quality” that enables us to weave “a protective mantle which covers our whole Society and under which we may grow and work in unity.”  Therefore, “humility, expressed by anonymity, is the greatest safeguard that Alcoholics Anonymous can have” (p. 187).

In the Steps, humility is presented as wisdom’s response to the problem of powerlessness: our limitation, imperfection, defectiveness, insufficiency, and dependency, as human beings in general and as alcoholics in particular. Without humility, we are driven to despair or to overcompensating pride, both destructive. We practice it by surrendering the various defects of pride that prevent us from seeing and accepting the reality of our condition.

Thus, in Step 1, we surrender our pride and admit we lack the power over alcohol and over our lives that we pretended we had. “Until he so humbles himself,” explains the 12&12, “his sobriety—if any—will be precarious. Of real happiness he will find none at all” (pp. 21-22).

In Step 2, we humble ourselves and accept that we can’t fix ourselves, opening the way to a belief in a Power who is greater than ourselves and can restore us to sanity. “True humility and an open mind can lead us to faith,” the 12&12 affirms (p. 33) on the basis of AA experience.

In Step 3, we come to a humble acknowledgment of our total dependence on this Power and make a decision to completely surrender our will and our life.

In Steps 4 through 10, we effectuate this surrender and grow in humility as we take stock of specific defects of character and emotion, admit to them, become entirely ready to let them go, ask for their removal, and make amends.

In Step 11, we approach the highest form of humility as we develop “a full willingness, in all times and places, to find and to do the will of God."  In Step 12, we seek to “walk humbly under the grace of God” with each and every step we take.

In the Traditions, humility is associated with the problem of self-importance: our desire to stand out, take the spotlight, elevate ourselves, dominate, rule, control, and generally exercise power as members of AA, all of which stand in the way of practicing the spiritual principles in the fellowship and threaten to tear it apart.

The process of surrendering this distorted need for self-importance is explained most clearly in Tradition 12, which as we showed links humility with anonymity. “Anonymity the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions,” we quote again, adding this time the rest of the sentence: “ever reminding us to place principles before personalities” (p. 184, our emphasis).

The link between humility and the lack of concern with self-importance is reaffirmed when we read further that, “Moved by the spirit of anonymity, we try to give up our natural desires for personal distinction as A.A. members both among fellow alcoholics and before the general public” (our emphasis). The same link is made in Step 12, where we read that, as a result of our ongoing spiritual awakening, our “distorted drives have been restored to something like their true purpose and direction. We no longer strive to dominate or rule those about us in order to gain self-importance” (p. 124, our emphasis).

We have been freed from the pride that is “the chief block to true progress” (12&12, S4, p. 49). Being at the very core of the Steps and of the Traditions then, humility is also at the heart of our spiritual awakening which is their transcendent goal, for it is through such an awakening that we are transformed.

[Image: Henrietta B. Seiberling, Akron Oxford Group member who introduced Bill W. to Dr. Bob at her home, The Gate Lodge, Mother's Day, May 12, 1935. For a photo of the Lodge, please click on link.]

Bill W."We first reach for a little humility, knowing that we shall perish of alcoholism if we do not. After a time, though we may still rebel somewhat, we commence to practice humility because this is the right thing to do. Then comes the day when, finally freed in large degree from rebellion, we practice humility because we deeply want it as a way of life." – Bill W.

Big Book"[T]hey only thought they had humbled themselves. But they had not learned enough humility, fearlessness and honesty, in the sense we find it necessary, until they had told someone else all their life story." – Big Book  

12&12"The attainment of greater humility is the foundation principle of each of AA’s Twelve Steps. For without some degree of humility, no alcoholic can stay sober at all. Nearly all AA’s have found, too, that unless they develop much more of this precious quality than may be required for sobriety, they still haven’t much chance of becoming truly happy. Without it, they cannot live to much useful purpose, or, in adversity, be able to summon the faith that can meet any emergency.” – 12&12

Life Recovery Bible"When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” – Proverbs 11:2
"Who is wise and understanding among you? Let him show it by his good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom." – James 3:13   

C. S. Lewis"As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you." – C. S. Lewis   

Huston Smith
"Humility is not self-abasement. It is the capacity to regard oneself in the company of others as one, but not more than one." – Huston Smith   

Ernest Hemingway
"There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self." – Ernest Hemingway

Epictetus"If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, ‘He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would not have mentioned these alone.’" – Epictetus

Albert Einstein"What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility. This is a genuinely religious feeling that has nothing to do with mysticism." – Albert Einstein

Anonymous
"We can do it the easy way, which is to humble ourselves, or we can do it the hard way, which is to be humiliated." – Anonymous 

Augustine
"Humility is the foundation of all the other virtues." – St. Augustine

Michel de Montaigne
"On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom." – Michel de Montaigne   

Peter Kreeft
"St. Bernard, asked to list the four cardinal virtues, answered: 'Humility, humility, humility, and humility.'" – Peter Kreeft   

Dali Lama
"The whole purpose of religion is to facilitate love and compassion, patience, tolerance, humility, and forgiveness." – Dalai Lama   

Anonymous
"Lord, keep me humble, but don’t tell me you’re doing it, because I’m liable to brag about it." – Anonymous

Lao-Tzu"I have three precious things which I hold fast and prize. The first is gentleness; the second is frugality; the third is humility, which keeps me from putting myself before others." – Lao Tzu  

T. S. Eliot"The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless. / The houses are all gone under the sea. / The dancers are all gone under the hill.” – T. S. Eliot 

Norman Vincent Peale"Drop the idea that you are Atlas carrying the world on your shoulders. The world would go on even without you. Don't take yourself so seriously." – Norman Vincent Peale  

W. Somerset Maugham
"It wasn't until late in life that I discovered how easy it is to say ‘I don't know.’" – W. Somerset Maugham

Flannery O’Connor "[To] know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around. The first product of self-knowledge is humility." – Flannery O’Connor

Father Strickland
"A man may do an immense deal of good, if he does not care who gets the credit for it." – Father Strickland   

Francois Duc de La Rochefoucauld
"Plenty of people wish to become devout, but no one wishes to be humble." – François de La Rochefoucauld   

Benjamin Franklin
"After crosses and losses men grow humbler and wiser." – Benjamin Franklin

Anonymous
"If you are right, take the humble side—you will help the other fellow. If you are wrong, take the humble side—and you will help yourself." – Anonymous

W. Jay Wood"Humility makes us free of—or allows us to tamp down—prideful self-sufficiency that might make us reluctant to seek help from others.” – W. Jay Wood, “Prudence,” Virtues and Their Vices

Daily Reflections"Time and again I approached the 7th Step, only to fall back and regroup. Something was missing and the impact of the Step escaped me. What had I overlooked? A single word: read but ignored, the foundation of all the Steps, indeed the entire Alcoholics Anonymous program—that word is ‘humbly.’” – AA’s Daily Reflections   

Twenty-Four Hours a Day
"Not until you have failed can you learn true humility." – Twenty-Four Hours a Day

ODAT"The word ‘humbly’ was one I never understood. It used to seem servile. Today it means seeing myself in true relation to my fellowman and to God.” – One Day at a Time in Al-Anon

Courage to Change
"Humility will help us see ourselves in true perspective and keep our minds open to the truth." – A-Anon’s Courage to Change   

Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts
"If I need help, I will ask for it. I will put humility into action in my life." – Just for Today: Daily Reflections for Recovering Addicts   

PTP123"At the heart of each and every Step in the program, and of all the Traditions in the Fellowship, lies this virtue of humility. Working through surrender, the touchstone of the disciplines, humility leads the way to a spiritual awakening and a right relationship with God and our fellows." – PTP123  

PTP123"Humility acknowledges the center belongs to God, and selves exist to serve him and one another for the love of him. From that place proceed all the virtues and through them all the good and healthy emotions." – PTP123

Practice These: Humility - James M. Barrie
Practice These: Humility - Andrew J. Holmes

For more PTP123 passages on humility, see, among others, pp. 181–187: "Humility and Humiliation," and "A Humble Admission." For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on 164andmore.com and search humility and its cognates. See also entries in As Bill Sees It. For more on this site, click on PTP123 book excerpt A Humble Admission. On PTP's YouTube channel, see in 12&12 Audios & Videos: Step 7, and in Character, Defect, & Virtue, The Scope of Humility and The Nature of Humility.

Additional Resources

  1. “Understanding Humility,” meditation for 11/06 in NA's Just for Today: Daily Reflections for Recovering Addicts
  2. Displaying Moral Irony: The Virtue of Humility,” chapter in How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad: Living a Life of Christian Virtue, by James S. Spiegel
  3. “Humility,” chapter by Andrew Pinsent in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett, Editors
  4. “Pride and Humility: Tempering the Desire for Excellence,” by Craig A. Boyd, chapter in Virtues & Their Vices, Kevin Timpe & Craig A. Boyd, Editors

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