Benjamin Franklin, who made a methodical, lifelong effort to curb his excessive if justifiable pride, confessed near the end of his days that he was successful only in quelling the appearance of it, not the reality, and “even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility.”
“Franklin’s dilemma,” writes David J. Bobb in Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue, “is America’s dilemma.” How to be great and humble? Bobb, the director of the Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Studies in D.C., believes not only that “‘American humility’ is not an oxymoron,” but that it is actually our country’s greatest virtue. He argues in his book, however, that as a nation today we have lost touch with both our humility and our greatness. We are afflicted with an arrogance that hinders a revival of that greatness, and we must search our past for lessons in humility to guide us forward.
The book begins by sketching the history of humility and greatness in political thought from Aristotle to the Founding Fathers, who had vastly different ideas of the quality. For the leading thinkers of ancient Greece and Rome, who celebrated the great-souled or magnanimous man, pride was “the crown of virtues” and a humble existence was by definition an ignoble one. Why crown the lowly?
Centuries later, St. Augustine of Hippo sought to close this gulf between the great and the humble by positing that pride pushes man away from God, and that, in Bobb’s words, “humility alone offers the possibility of real exaltation.” Jesus, crucified on what Augustine called “the wood of humility,” had elevated the humble and the meek, and St. Bernard of Clairvaux would later list the four cardinal virtues as “humility, humility, humility, humility.” The Christian version of the magnanimous man was a self-effacing servant.
Then St. Thomas Aquinas fused classical and Christian, Aristotle and Augustine by arguing that magnanimity and the “praiseworthy abasement” of humility are complementary, not contradictory, virtues. Later, Machiavelli’s and Hobbes’ influential political treatises rejected the debate altogether in favor of amoral expediency and sovereign absolutism, respectively. The Founders subsequently rejected them and returned to valuing humility as an essential characteristic of true greatness.
The book then looks to America’s early history to illuminate her present, examining five subjects – George Washington, James Madison, Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass – who Bobb believes demonstrated that “humility and magnanimity can coexist in the same soul.” Their examples also show that “the hidden strength of humility” does not come naturally but is often a hard-won virtue.
Washington’s impatience for greatness, for example, led him to early failures, and he continued to wrestle with his ambition and pride, particularly since the American Cincinnatus was heralded almost as a demigod during his lifetime. But when offered the position of king, he humbly and wisely rejected a temptation that would have rendered the American experiment stillborn. Ultimately, his “boldness and magnanimity,” as minister Henry Holcombe said in a sermon after Washington’s death, were “equaled by nothing but his modesty and humility.”
The diminutive, soft-spoken James Madison possessed none of Washington’s physical charisma. But this “luminous and discriminating mind,” as Thomas Jefferson described him, embodied a quiet strength (Bobb calls it meekness, which he oddly defines as “the strong denial of the power of oppression”) in his fight for freedom of conscience against the “arrogant pretension” of the state. Bobb calls Madison’s petition to the Virginia Assembly, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” a passionate appeal to the government to adopt greater intellectual, religious, and political humility.
The book moves on to Abigail Adams, a “spirited behind-the-scenes stateswoman” who was humble in her service to family and fellow countrymen: “For myself I have little ambition or pride; for my husband I freely own I have much.” That service included reining in what Madison described as her husband’s “extravagant self-importance,” which John Adams himself conceded was a fault. He confessed in his diary that if only he could “conquer my natural pride and self-conceit… [and] acquire that meekness and humility which are the sure mark and characters of a great and generous soul… How happy should I then be in the favor and good will of all honest men and the sure prospect of a happy immortality!” Early on in their relationship, he rightly saw modest Abigail as the antidote to his arrogance.
Humility turns finally to Lincoln’s friend, orator and autobiographer Frederick Douglass. Praising the former slave’s “humility in the midst of humiliation” as Douglass first endured slavery, then resisted it, then tirelessly worked toward its abolition as a free man, Bobb writes that “the arrogance of those who wished to break Frederick was no match for his combination of healthy pride in himself and humility before his mission.” As with Lincoln, Douglass’ view of greatness of soul included an empowering and humbling religious devotion.
The book opens promisingly, with its overview of the evolving idea of humility and greatness. And the historical profiles are instructive and possibly even inspirational. But where Humility disappoints is in the absence of any discussion about the present. In the opening pages Bobb refers only briefly to “our fame-addled and power-hungry existence today” in which “arrogance is rewarded and humility is ignored”; and two sentences later, somewhat redundantly, “narcissistic displays of arrogance abound in every arena of life, while acts of humility go unnoticed and unheralded.” That is the full extent of the book’s focus on “our age of arrogance,” apart from the cautionary suggestion that America’s empire is beginning to mirror Rome’s just before its fall. Considering that Bobb’s thesis is that the challenge of our time “is how to rediscover humility,” I would have expected the concluding chapter to elaborate upon that, on why it is so, and on ways to address it. I don’t dispute the validity of Bobb’s points about the toxicity of arrogance today and our need for political and cultural leaders who manifest Aquinas’ balance of magnanimity and humility; the topic simply deserves a fuller exploration.
Augustine wrote of “the power and excellence of humility, an excellence which makes it soar above all the summits of this world, which sway in their temporal instability, overtopping them all with an eminence not arrogated by human pride, but granted by divine grace.” Economic turmoil, foreign policy debacles, military downsizing, and dwindling international respect have humbled—or perhaps more properly, humiliated—America plenty in recent years, so Humility’s plea to recover our “greatest virtue” seems less urgent than reclaiming a healthy pride in our exceptionalism. The right balance of both may be just the spark to enable us to soar again to preeminence.
(This article originally appeared here in the February 2014 issue of The New Criterion)