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Maggie Ciskanik, M.S.October 28, 20193 min read

Intellectual Humility in a World of Extremes

From sports to politics, we are living in a world of extremes.

Consider the news stories relating the “extreme views” of the recent mass shooters (described as eco-terrorists) or the claim that the Brexit vote is a straight path to fostering the growth of extreme politicians.

Root causes

Perhaps their number is not as numerous as the stars, but explanations abound. According to one article, there are at least 14 reasons for a seemingly unprecedented political polarization. Some of these reasons can also explain polarization on cultural issues: the decline of religious influences, the rise of digital media, and loss of journalistic integrity.

In a nutshell, we have lost a shared worldview, with an inevitable breakdown in communication.

 “I’m not listening!” -Willy Wonka

Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka / Source WP:NFCC#4, Fair use

A recent study sponsored by the Templeton Foundation is looking at a slightly different cause: a lack of intellectual humility.

Psychologist, Dr. Scott Lillienfield of Emory University, defines intellectual humility as “the ability to admit that one might be wrong or at least lack full knowledge.”

Intellectual humility has been studied for the last ten years, but the concept remains nebulous. It has primarily examined “why some people are more aware of their cognitive weaknesses than others,” and how it relates to whether or not they are willing to change their views.

In this study, using input from peers and self assessment/reporting regarding biases and intellectual limits, Lillienfield hopes to uncover what might be unique to the virtue of intellectual humility, and whether or not it is a skill that can be taught. 

A second project will explore the group dynamics of participants with extreme conservative and extreme liberal views. Obviously if behaviours that contribute to successful negotiations can be identified, these also may be taught, benefitting all of us.

Humility as a virtue

Virtue is most often defined as the means between two extremes. Using the definitions of St. Thomas Aquinas, Fr. Hardon, S. J. summarizes it this way:

“St. Thomas defines virtue as ‘a good habit bearing on activity’ or a good faculty– habit (habitus operativus bonus).” -Fr. Hardon, S.J.


“A well-known feature of Aristotle's ethics which deeply influenced Aquinas is the theory that each of the moral virtues is a mean between excess and defect; thus courage is a mean between cowardice and rashness, and liberality is a mean between stinginess and prodigality.” -Fr. Hardon, S.J.

Humility, in philosophical and theological circles, is a well known virtue. The Greeks often discussed it in relation to modesty.

In this article, Kent Dunnington make the claim that humility is the essential virtue in the life of a Christian. Jesus Himself said, "Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:4). Dunnington points out St. Augustine’s thought:  

“If you were to ask me, however often you might repeat the question, what are the instructions of the Christian religion, I would be disposed to answer always and only, ‘Humility.’” -St. Augustine

Dunnington also quotes the great St. Thomas Aquinas and then continues:

“‘Humility removes pride, whereby a man refuses to submit himself to the truth of faith.’ Thomas thinks that although humility is not the most important virtue―that honour belongs to charity (love―it is the beginning of Christian virtue, because without humility we cannot be in a position of openness to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. And since supernatural virtues are bestowed by the Holy Spirit, without humility we cannot live lives of Christian holiness.”

Humility and moral conversion

Fr. Spitzer has written and spoken often about the virtues in the process of moral conversion. The perennial difficulty is that what we want to do and become is often hijacked by our “lower self.” Essentially, the higher self is guided by love and reason while the lower self is motivated by desire for pleasure or power.

As a virtue, humility is the opposing virtue to the vice of pride. It is aided by compassion, respect for others, and a contributive and transcendental identity. Cultivating this virtue is greatly aided by looking for the good news in others.

So how can we live in a world of extremes—not just live but thrive—and make a positive difference in the world and in the lives of others?

Learn to be humble. Be transformed as you work and pray to acquire other virtues.

Then you can be a light, radiating Christ, the true Light, to the world.

Read Also:

The 3 Levels of Conversion: Moral Conversion

Is It Possible to Change Your Reality?

Escaping Your Personal Hell


Maggie Ciskanik, M.S.

Armed with a B.A. in Philosophy and a minor in science, Ciskanik landed in a graduate nursing program. With the support of her enthusiastic husband, an interesting career unfolded while the family grew: a seven year stint mostly as a neurology nurse, 15 years as a homeschooling mom of six, and a six year sojourn as curriculum developer and HS science teacher (which included teaching students with cognitive differences). These experiences added fuel to her lifelong interest in all things related to God’s creation and the flourishing of the human spirit—which has found a new home on the Magis blog.