Saints and sinners of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your pride. That would appear to be the message sent by the odd assortment of heroes and villains who have all claimed to have been humbled in recent times. This week Chris Huhne described his trial and imprisonment as "a humbling and sobering experience". He follows in the footsteps of the similarly repentant Rupert Murdoch, who described his day of interrogation by MPs as "the most humble day of my life".
Yet at the same time, others have been proclaiming their humility in their moments of greatest triumph. Sir Alex Ferguson told supporters in his last Manchester United programme note that "the support you have provided over the years has been truly humbling". David Moyes described himself as "humbled" by the reception he received at this last home game as Everton manager. In her last Christmas message the Queen told the nation: "It was humbling that so many chose to mark the anniversary of a duty which passed to me 60 years ago."
How can it be that triumph and disaster both have the capacity to humble those who experience them? Can it really be true that someone caught out for sordid, petty deception can feel the same way as someone else riding on the crest of triumph?
The two varieties of humility are in many ways very different. There is a kind of standard script which the disgraced are expected to play out in which remorse and humility are the necessary precursors to rehabilitation and resurrection. In this narrative, humility is used as a kind of ethical judo: faced with humiliation you use the momentum to your advantage and transform it into the virtue of humility. They are after all closely related, sharing the same Latin root, hummus, earth, which humility brings you right down to.
But why then do victors also claim to be humbled by being exalted? The most humbling day of Alex Ferguson's career was surely when his side was beaten 6-1 at home by rivals Manchester City in 2011, not when he was given an enthusiastic send-off after 26 years at the helm. For a man notoriously ungracious in defeat, that seems rather late in the day to discover humility.
It is possible to see a crowd of adoring faces and realise that one is not worthy. But I suspect the more usual reason why people claim to be humbled when they are lauded is that we live in a society in which we are all officially equal. The worst thing anyone can do is appear to set themselves up as superior to others. So what can you say if you are surrounded by adoring fans or loyal subjects? You must show that despite their protestations, you do not think you are any better than they are. You proclaim that you are humbled, bringing yourself down to earth just as others raise you above it.
This is the deal: we are happy to single out people as superior just as long as they don't accept the description themselves. We want heroes and idols but we also want egalitarianism and that requires proclamations of humility from our Gods. What both types of humility have in common is that they are both ways of presenting ourselves as grounded, without ideas above our station. Of course, we cannot know in an given case whether this is sincere or merely a rhetorical ploy. Still, it is right and proper that we should challenge the illusion that we are better than we really are, at times of triumph and disaster.
Nonetheless, like modesty, humility is something that, if professed, is self-refuting. True humility is expressed in deeds, not words. The humble are those who truly walk the same ground as everyone else, not necessarily with grovelling, hunched backs but certainly not lording it over others either. What we need is more such genuine humility in public life, and hear less of it in extremis. The truly humble feel the ground beneath their feet every day and do not only become aware of it when held aloft or pushed down to their knees.