CCCG Faculty Fellow Publishes Book on Humility in Augustine's Political Thought

Author: Center for Citizenship & Constitutional Government

Professor Mary Keys published her most recent book, Pride, Politics, and Humility in Augustine's 'City of God' (Cambridge University Press) in June 2022. 

A faculty fellow of the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government, Professor Keys holds a BA from Boston College and an MA and PhD from the University of Toronto. She is the author of Aquinas, Aristotle, and the Promise of the Common Good (Cambridge University Press), and her work includes articles and chapters in the American Journal of Political ScienceHistory of Political ThoughtPerspectives on Political Science, and The Cambridge Companion to Augustine's City of God.

Professor Keys has held various fellowships, including a NEH Fellowship supporting her ongoing research project on humility, modernity, and the science of politics, and she has been a visiting scholar at Harvard University and the University of Chicago. Her research and teaching interests span a broad spectrum of political theory, with a special focus in Christianity, ethics, and political thought.

To celebrate the publication of Pride, Politics, and Humility in Augustine's 'City of God,' we discussed the theme of humility with Professor Keys: 

How did you first become interested in Augustine, and what prompted you to delve into his understanding of humility? 

I developed an interest in Augustine’s thought in graduate school at the University of Toronto. After my first year of coursework in ancient and modern political theory, which was quite exciting for me, I realized I also wanted to explore late classical and medieval thought. I sensed a need to read some of the great Christian writers, especially Augustine and Aquinas, in addition to Plato, Aristotle, Locke, and others. I asked my advisor for some recommendations and started knocking on faculty doors, requesting a directed-readings course on Augustine’s City of God. Edward Synan of Philosophy and Medieval Studies kindly agreed to supervise this course, which lasted a full academic year. I later opted to write my dissertation on Aquinas’s thought, but Augustine was always present to me. I hoped to return to focus on his work later in my teaching and scholarship. Two of the first graduate seminars I taught at Notre Dame focused on Augustine’s political thought, one alongside Thomas Hobbes’s political theory.

My first book was on the relationship between virtue and the common good in Aquinas’s political thought. The chapter I learned the most from researching and writing was on the virtue of magnanimity, which Aquinas argues has a twin virtue: humility. Without humility, no truly virtuous greatness of soul is possible. Without at least the seeds of magnanimity, humility risks declining into pusillanimity—smallness of soul. This argument seemed persuasive to me. I wondered then why many modern political thinkers, such as Spinoza, Hume, and Nietzsche, were highly critical of humility. I began a research project on humility in the history of political thought.

This project quickly brought me back to Augustine’s thought, specifically The City of God. Augustine is as important in the early modern period as in the medieval era, and many modern authors engage his work, or at least themes that are important in it. I was fascinated to find contemporary histories of humility and its nemesis, vicious pride, in early modern political theory, beginning from Augustine’s treatments of these themes. These discussions of Augustine’s understandings of humility and pride were usually quite brief and seemed to oversimplify Augustine’s positions. There was no book-length study of Augustine’s defense of humility’s power and excellence in The City of God—a major theme of this classic work—so I set out to research and write such a book.

What do Augustine's insights on humility offer to the contemporary world? 

Before answering, let me say a bit about how Augustine understands virtuous humility (humilitas in Latin). Though he never offers a succinct definition, based on his use of the word throughout The City of God, we can understand his meaning: humility is an excellence or virtue (virtus in Latin) by which human beings realize their dependence on God, their creator and redeemer, and their fundamental equality with their fellow human beings. Humility leads to and supports other virtues, including justice, charity, mercy, piety, and peace. Vicious pride, by contrast, rejects dependence on God and seeks superiority and domination over others, inviting arrogance, breaches of justice, civil strife, self-serving lies, and war.

Augustine emphasizes the beauty and the benefit of humility, and these can just as easily pass unnoticed in today’s world as in his. So he begins from arguments against vicious pride that are accessible to all his peers regardless of religious affiliation and tries to make reasoned arguments that citizens and philosophers who are not Christian, as well as those who are, can understand and assess. This broad appeal allows Augustine’s insights on humility to enrich efforts at respectful dialogue while aiming for truth. His description of humility helps foster patient seeking after and fostering good where it is not easy to recognize—in political and ecological questions, for instance. Augustine’s humility pushes back against the arrogance of elitism, while recognizing much that is praiseworthy in great philosophy and civic leadership. His emphasis on virtuous humility’s call to seek truth, speak truthfully, and live in the truth—acting in accordance with the truth as we have come to understand it—seems as relevant today as when he wrote The City of God in the fifth century.

How is humility compatible with the pursuit of excellence? 

Augustine raises this very question at the beginning of The City of God, and then spends the full work answering it! In the preface, Augustine observes how difficult it will be to convince readers of the greatness of humility. At the same time, he describes the task of writing this book as a great one for which he relies on God’s help. In other words, humility is compatible with excellence and great deeds, as it preserves them from the emptiness of puffed-up pride and the corrupt desire to belittle or dominate other people. In another work, Augustine describes humility as the home, or “dwelling place,” of charity—the love of God and neighbor. Lofty achievements in philosophy, politics, science, and the arts become all they are meant to be through real love and a desire to serve, to share, and to build. Just as Augustine undertakes an ambitious task in writing The City of God, so too he encourages his readers to aim high—so long as they keep their feet firmly on the ground and tread a good path by embracing the virtue of humility.

Pride, Politics, and Humility in Augustine's 'City of God' is available for purchase from Cambridge University Press. 

Originally published by Center for Citizenship & Constitutional Government at on March 09, 2023.