Augustine regarded humility (humilitas in Latin) central to the Christian faith.
Through the experience of his spiritual searching during his own first thirty years of life, he came to see clearly that only a person with humility can follow Christ. For Augustine, humility was far more than simply one of many virtues that a Christian should practice. Because of his own experience in conversion to the Christian religion, Augustine went on to teach that humility (the opposite of pride) is the basic Christian virtue.
In his Confessions, Augustine regularly contrasts pride and humility. Pride was the mark of the unconverted Augustine, and humility a goal of the rest of his long life. For example, his search for the Christian faith in Carthage at age eighteen moved into Manicheaneism because he was too proud to accept that Truth could reside in the bad Latin translation and the unpolished non-Classical vocabulary of the Scripture text he took up and read. (Confessions 3, 5, 9) Augustine would have encountered the earlier (pagan) notion of humility during his Classical education. The pagan world, despite its vaunted humanism, regarded the very conditions of earthly existence as a stigma. There was the ancient subliminal subtext in pagan literature, ‘Better never to have been born.’ Humility therefore consisted in the acknowledgment of the wretchedness of the human condition.
In contrast to this attitude, within the Biblical tradition humility is not in the first instance an attitude towards oneself at all, but towards God and towards other people. Briefly, it means the willingness to let God be God; that is, to acknowledge one's dependence upon His creative power; to rejoice in gratitude for His blessings; to adopt the ways of the Lord as one's own; to accept in contrition the judgment of God when one falls short; to trust His power and willingness to forgive and to redeem. When Adam and Eve ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they usurped this prerogative (Genesis 2). From the Biblical point of view, the pagan devaluation of human life is not humble at all, but arrogant. It presumes to contradict God's declaration that His creation is ‘very good’ (Genesis 1). Augustine, for example, argues that while all agree on the need for humility, Christianity enables humans to achieve what the pagans can only preach.
In writing his Confessions, his humility is evident in his not adding into details that would take the focus of his reader away from God, to whom he is writing. This tight control of the text even went so far as to not satisfy curiosity by mentioning the names of his only sister, his childhood friend who died suddenly in early adulthood, and his concubine of seventeen years (who also was the mother of their son, Adeodatus. It is significant that Augustine saw his moment of moral conversion in the garden at Milan as being prompted by a little child (he professed unawareness of the gender of the child, or even of the ditty the child was singing). (Confessions 8, 12, 29) It was not a conversion moment that happened in a dialogue with the Bishop Ambrose, but through the unintended singing of an unseen child who was unaware of the impact being made.
This was a perfect vehicle of conversion for one sorely tempted by pride. In his preaching, Augustine used a popular phrase of the day, Christus medicus ("Christ the medical doctor", "Christ the physician"). He added to the import of this image by saying that Jesus was needed to cure the sickness of pride. The Healer is the humble Christ, who emptied Himself on Calvary to atone for sin of pride by Adam.
Augustine recalled the wisdom about which at the age of eighteen years he had been fascinated by and had sought after reading the Hortensius by his favourite Classical author, Cicero. He now said that what the pagan world had called wisdom was redefined by Jesus as humility, because humility was the first rung on the Christian ladder to perfection. He saw that genuine truth was a realisation of the weakness of humanity and the generous grace freely offered us by God. And only a person with humility could accept this truth. In replying in writing to an intelligent young man named Dioscorus, Augustine felt his patience being tested.
He emphatically declared, "This way is first humility, second humility, third humility and no matter how often you keep asking me I will say the same over and over again." (Augustine, Letter 118) Augustine appreciated that human beings are limited creatures but, even so, we can progress spiritually. The heart can transform itself through love, and the mind can open to the workings of the grace of God. Augustine tells us that as he struggled with and against belief en route to becoming a Christian, his heart went into labour and gave birth to humility.
He understood that even as Christ entered the world "in the form of a Servant," it is only through servanthood that we, too, attain whatever understanding is meant to be grasped by humanity within the plan of God. But the creature can never aspire to the same level as the Creator. Augustine understands that if we presume through pride to make ourselves the centre of our own identities, the result is a weakened view of self that is pretentious and reckless. In consequence, we do more harm than good. We need to return to the humility which recognises that it is the love and providence of God for us – and the plan of God for us – that best sustains us.