The Catholic University of America

Joseph J. McInerney Defense

Final Examination of Joseph J. McInerney

For the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Thursday, May 18, 2012 10:00 a.m., Caldwell Room 125


Joseph E. Capizzi, Ph.D.


“Through Humility the Path to Godliness Ascends on High”: St. Augustine’s Challenge to Modern Thought on Humility and Greatness

“Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 14:11).  Few thinkers in the Christian tradition place greater emphasis on this Gospel principle than Augustine of Hippo.  For Augustine, perfection in charity must be preceded by the weakness of humility (Trin. 4.1.2).  Augustine asserts that humility is the key to one’s salvation and is the foundation of a person’s greatness.  Humility plays no such role, however, in the thought of classical or modern philosophers.  With the exception of Cicero, who finds a minor role for humility in relation to greatness, the moral theories of Aristotle, Plotinus, Hume, and Nietzsche espouse little relation between humility and moral excellence or propose a view of that relationship in which humility is opposed to greatness.  The purpose of this study is to detail the moral principles upon which each thinker bases his approach to the ideas of humility and greatness thus demonstrating the manner in which each author comes to a particular conclusion regarding the relationship between the two principles.  The focus of the study will be upon Augustine’s conception of humility and greatness, as his understanding is unique from the others in the positive value it attributes to humility in its relation to human excellence.

The study begins with an introduction that provides a brief overview of the history and the positions of the thinkers to be examined in regard to the relationship of humility and human greatness.  The second section of the study describes classical conceptions of the relationship, investigating the views of Aristotle, the Stoic school of thought, Cicero, and Plotinus.  The following three sections are devoted to the principles in which Augustine grounds his view of humility and greatness and a description of the relationship itself.  Section three examines the scriptural and philosophical presuppositions that form Augustine’s view of humility and greatness.  The fourth section investigates the relation of humility to Augustine’s understanding of morality.  Section five details Augustine’s explicit presentation of the relationship between humility and greatness.  Following the description of Augustine’s thought on the issue, the sixth section examines the presentation of humility and greatness in the thought of David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche.  The seventh and final section provides a concluding analysis on the basis of Alasdair MacIntyre’s methodology for comparing the positions of rival theories of moral enquiry. 

The study concludes that Augustine’s position regarding the importance of humility to human greatness provides significant resources to the understanding of greatness lacking in authors who neglect or repudiate that importance.