Humility–America’s Greatest Virtue?

Five biographical sketches illustrating humility.

There is a big difference between having humility and being humbled.  We are more likely to see or experience the latter than to acquire the former.  Part of the problem of humility is that when one realizes even hints of it in themselves, it disappears.  Being “proud of our humility” is a contradiction, but it is not non-existent in human experiences.  “Pride in humble roots”  is a recurring American political theme.  Humility sells especially when accompanied by photo-opts.  When it sells or it promotes itself, once again it disappears.

The book Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue by David J. Bobb explores the nature of the virtue and some American examples of it.  Humility is a national need.  Authors as diverse in views as Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Augustine in his City of God both faulted Rome with excessive pride.  “Immoderate Greatness” was Gibbon’s phrase.  Historians, political philosophers, and preachers have often made or attempted to make connections between the Roman Empire and the United States.  Almost any political or social fault in our country can be discovered in the writings of Livy or Augustine in relation to Rome.  Greatness almost naturally leads to immoderation.  If humility is America’s greatest virtue, it has increased value because of its scarcity.

Augustine said in a letter that humility is the crown of the virtues.  He wrote, “This way is first humility, second humility, third humility…If humility does not precede and accompany and follow every good work we do, and if it is not set before us to look upon, and beside us to fence us in, pride will wrest from our hand any good deed we do while we are in the very act of taking pleasure in it.”

The first portion of this book is an examination of the virture from ancient and classical sources.  Along with Augustine, Bobb cites Benjamin Franklin’s observation that he would “Imitate Jesus and Socrates.”  That sounds simple enough and noble enough, but it doesn’t cohere.  What Jesus taught about humility–both in life and messages–and what the Greek world thought about humility were different things.  Socrates has been as often or more often noted for arrogance as for humility.  Even in his subtle “Socratic method” of questioning, he was a fox.  He was not simply seeking truth, but was craftily destroying arguments.

Aristotle saw the greatest virtue as being pride or magnanimity.  He defined it as having the right estimate of one’s worth when one’s worth is great.  “It’s hard to be humble,” Mohammed Ali reputedly said, “when you are as great as I am.”

Other voices that join in these early chapters of Bobb’s book are Acquinas, Machiavelli, Acquinas, and Thomas Hobbes.  As expected, Jesus’ words and example are also cited.  Humility, therefore, along with its opposites, such as pride and hubris, has been debated, referenced, explored, and honored (although often in the breach) by both virtuous pagans and Christians.

The larger part of this book explores humility as found in the lives of five prominent Americans:  George Washington, James Madison, Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass.  David Bobb explores the lives of these people and locates certain times and conditions where their greatness, their strengths, were moderated and directed by humility.

These are five interesting case studies.  These are five important Americans.  One wonders why Bobb did not include at least one more recent American.  It is hard not to get the impression that virtue existed in the world of the past and pre-modern technology and ideas. It is hard to apply the word “Humility” to modern political leaders.  One might think of someone like Mother Theresa or Billy Graham as exhibiting humility at certain points.  C. S. Lewis was both great and humble.  But one can hardly apply the word to the likes of the current President, the Clintons, almost all Hollywood personalities and popular entertainers.  I would have liked to have seen a chapter on Ronald Reagan who, I think, did exhibit true humility quite often when he was President.

Perhaps the virtue of humility and the strength of the book is found in its calling attention to a much needed virtue.  In other words, it is not that we have it, but that we need it.

Concerning the five biographical sketches, I will make a few brief comments:

1.  George Washington:  In regard to the uneasy combination of greatness and humility, one finds occasions of it in George Washington.  It does not characterize his entire life and demeanor, but is there in some sterling moments, such as when he surrendered his sword (and power) to the President of the Continental Congress. (Remember:  George Washington was not our first President; rather, he was the first one under the Constitution of 1787.)   The chapter on Washington was enjoyable. If one cannot write a morally inspiring or interesting account of George Washington, one cannot write.

2.  James Madison:  Madison’s worst political calamity was his time in the Presidency.  He was a gifted and brilliant political leader and thinker at the lower eschelons of power.  He excelled behind the scenes, in his study and studies, and in use of gifts that are now described by the phrase “policy wonk.”  His lack of physical impression was exceeded by his intellectual abilities.  His framing of ideas and legislation was successful due to a humilty and realization of his skills.

3.  Abigail Adams:  Bobb’s point is that Abigail was a remarkable woman with humility married to a very unhumble man.  What I especially enjoyed was Abigail’s desire to learn and willingness to admit her limitations.  She also hated the social world and demands of politics.

4.  Abraham Lincoln:  Perhaps it is the long entrenched Southernness of my mind, but the typical gushiness over Lincoln is hard to read.  Bobb discusses Lincoln’s hatred of slavery, but perhaps he does not say enough about Lincoln’s own very 19th century views of African-Americans and his own willingness to endure slavery if that meant preserving the union.  Bobb also discusses Lincoln’s troubles in finding a fighting general.  That is an amazing story and has been told by many historians including Bruce Catton, Kenneth Williams, and others.  That General George McClellan was anything but humble is a fact.  This chapter could have been much better had it been a dual study of Lincoln and General Robert E. Lee.

5.  Frederick Douglass:  The main point I got out of this section was the encouragement to read Douglass’ autobiography, Narrative  of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  Unfortunately, in this section Bobb made an extensive comparison between Southern (actually American) slavery and Russian Communism.  The gulags and the Old South were equated.  Having recently read David Calhoun’s Southern Zion which chronicled the many efforts (and shortcomings) of Southern preachers to minister to slaves, the comparison Bobb makes is lamentable.  It seriously flawed an interesting account of Douglass’ life.

I add, because I am supposed to, that I received a copy of Humility as a free review book from Thomas Nelson Publishers.  I am not under obligation to favorably review the book, but I can say that it has a message worth considering.

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