Posted: February 7, 2014
"Don't be so humble, you're not that great."
—Golda Meir to one of her cabinet ministers
What is the importance of humility to leadership, especially to political leadership? Have there been political leaders in whom humility was among their chief qualities? What are the distinctions between humility and modesty: are they synonymous, quite different in their nature, or is modesty merely a subset of humility? Can nations, like men and women, attain humility, or is it a private virtue?
David J. Bobb, the president of the Bill of Rights Institute, argues that humility was central to the United States at its founding, and that if the nation is now to regain its early promise, "As individuals and as a people, we must rediscover our greatest virtue." He begins by recalling that the Founding Fathers, readers of Edward Gibbon, were cognizant of the perils of national greatness through the example of the decline of Rome. "Early Americans knew that for their enterprise to become great, humility would be necessary," he writes. "They also knew that of all the virtues of the human heart, humility is most hard-won." Our own age, he feels, is one of "arrogance [that] obscures the idea that humility is the indispensable virtue for the achievement of greatness." His book is a concerted effort to reinstate humility to what he feels is its rightful place among the essential political virtues. "Our challenge today," he notes toward the close of his book, "is how to rediscover humility."
In his early pages, Bobb sets out his definition for humility. He begins by establishing its opposite. The opposite of humility, in his view, is not pride but arrogance. Arrogance, he holds, is pride devoid of merit. Humility, he emphasizes, is not weakness; quite the reverse, it can supply an inner strength through supplying "power over oneself in self-government." Things begin to grow murkier when he claims that "a statesman is a politician with humility." That noise you just heard was Talleyrand, Metternich, and Bismarck leaving the room.
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Bobb offers a useful survey of some of the great thinkers on the subject of humility. The Three A's—Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas—are featured. For Aristotle, as for the Greeks generally, humility did not exist, at least not as a political virtue. The great political virtue for them, as set out in Aristotle's Ethics, was "magnanimity," constituting greatness of soul. Through a clear vision of one's abilities, magnanimity conferred a lofty self-regard based on a properly high measure of one's own worth. Although Bobb mentions no names of Greek statesmen, Pericles surely had magnanimity; and so, in a perverse way, did Alcibiades, with vast quantities of seductive charm and bad habits thrown in at no extra charge. Bobb reports that another statesman without a high humility quotient, Winston Churchill, given a copy of the Nicomachean Ethics, is supposed to have remarked that it was "extraordinary how much of it I had already thought out for myself." When told of Clement Atlee's modesty, Churchill is said to have retorted, "But then he has a lot to be modest about."
Jesus was responsible for bringing humility into philosophical and political discourse. Humility for Jesus was enjoined "in both word and deed." As he instructed, "everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted." One ought naturally to be humble in the presence of God, who is everywhere and in control of everything. Humility begins life as a religious concept, but it is less than clear what its political import might be.
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After Jesus, religious thinkers, when setting out their requisites for princely conduct, needed to find a place for humility. For Augustine, Bobb notes, "the City of God is the city of the humble. Rulers must never forget that their power is necessarily limited before the vastly greater power of God. The good ruler is the compassionate ruler." Power and treasure are negligible next to the ultimate prize of salvation. The wise politician recognizes that he, too, is ultimately a servant—cause enough for cultivating humility, which Augustine reckoned as higher than "cleverness, effectiveness, and strength."
Thomas Aquinas is the compromise figure here, holding magnanimity and humility to be twin virtues. High aspirations need not rule out compassion, nor humility high aspiration. Humility, for Aquinas, was "praiseworthy abasement," and "the role of humility is not to repress our appetite for high and difficult projects, but rather to keep a sense of proportion in our reckoning." Pride and humility, held in proper balance, Bobb writes, apropos of Aquinas, aids a leader in becoming "great in soul," and "wholly given over to the pursuit of virtue, desirous of honor for the right reason, and determined never to forsake his virtue." Nice work if you can get it, but not many politicians have tried.
No surprise that humility in Machiavelli's scheme is useful chiefly as a screen. A prince, he wrote, "should appear all mercy, all faith, all honesty, all humanity, and all religion." The heavy accent here of course falls on appear. Humility is to be feigned, called into play when needed to achieve other aims. The "inversion of the golden rule," Bobb writes, "defines Machiavelli's new politics." Do unto others, so to say, before they do unto you.
Early in his book Bobb takes up Ben Franklin, who in his autobiography listed the 12 virtues upon which he wished to improve himself, and then added a 13th, Humility, after which he noted, "Imitate Socrates and Jesus." Franklin regularly graded himself, with check marks, on his practice of these virtues. Humility he found the most elusive, allowing that "I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue; but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it." Bobb takes Franklin's little project of self-improvement straight; I always thought it—this self-congratulatory roadmap to perfectibility—one of Franklin's best cons.
"He was a little model, was Benjamin," D.H. Lawrence wrote in Studies in Classical American Literature. "Dr. Franklin. Snuff-colored little man. Immortal soul and all!" Lawrence's antipathy to Franklin could not have been greater. On the humility question, he gets a chuckle out of Franklin's invoking himself to imitate Jesus and Socrates. Lawrence writes: "‘Imitate Jesus and Socrates,' and mind you don't outshine either of these two. One can just imagine Socrates and Alcibiades roaring in their cups over Philadelphian Benjamin, and Jesus looking at him a little puzzled, and murmuring: ‘Aren't you wise in your own conceit, Ben?'"
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For David Bobb "Franklin's dilemma is America's dilemma." How do we maintain pride and practice humility? "Like the young Franklin," Bobb writes, "young America possessed an extraordinary ambition for significance.... How can a nation be humble and stay humble while at the same time achieving greatness?" An interesting but is it a pressing question? Need humility be an integral part of the ethos of any nation? Pride, like the man said, goes before the fall. But so does a lot else: loss of energy, enemies from within, want of courage, a dearth of patriotism, too great a craving for opulence and soft living, and much more.
Bobb never quite gets around to a tight definition of humility. He gives the word's etymology in the word humus, of the earth, which suggests not merely a lowness but a groundedness. He contrasts it with modesty, when remarking on how Abigail Adams's modesty offset her husband John's pridefulness. Bobb writes, percipiently, that
modesty is in reality...about interior disposition. Like humility, it is tied to truthfulness about one's own soul. It demands honesty about things invisible. Contrary to popular misconceptions, modesty is not the underestimation of one's worth. Rather, it acts as a restraint against the inordinate desire for recognition.
Humility is one of those words on which dictionaries tend to disappoint. Taking the Oxford English Dictionary as the standard, humility is "a modest or low view of one's own importance." Concise but otherwise not much help. I should say that humility is the recognition of one's own insignificance. Humility allows one to understand that the world will carry on quite nicely without one's presence in it, one's substraction from the planet mattering, in the best of cases, only to a small number of family members and friends, and to them not for long. Yet, somehow, this need not negate all hope for achieving a decent life, making a larger or smaller contribution to the fragile construct known as civilization. Kant thought something not dissimilar about humility, which Jeanine Grenberg summarizes as "the moral agent's proper perspective on himself as a dependent and corrupt but capable and dignified rational agent."
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Although Bobb does not mention it, humility has not had all that good a press. Charles Dickens's Uriah Heep ("I'm a very umble person") from David Copperfield is as scoundrelly a character as exists in English literature. Moliere's great hypocrite, the falsely pious Tartuffe, is another fraudulently umble character with a not-so-secret agenda. An old Jewish joke has a rabbi and a cantor on the bima, or altar, of their synagogue, proclaiming their nothingness in the sight of the Lord. When the synagogue's shamus, or sexton, joins them in their self-abnegation, the rabbi turns to the cantor and remarks: "Look who's calling himself nothing!" Humility is rather easily falsified, and therefore to be distrusted, with all people who claim to be in possession of it found guilty until proven innocent.
Bobb maintains that humility played a serious role in the thoughts of the American Founders. He does not, alas, take the time to explain how this role was played, apart from recognizing that they sensed the limitations even of sound government. They wished, he writes, to create a government "in which goodness could not be counted on, but was nevertheless sought." In the second part of his book, he provides five portraits of great Americans—George Washington, Abigail Adams, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass—to demonstrate the strong vein of humility that ran through their lives.
Here Bobb writes that "part two of this book reveals the fact that humility and magnanimity can coexist in the same soul." This, though, is not as evident as he seems to think; and one comes away from his brief portraits less than certain that humility was a key element in the lives of any of these American figures. James Madison's thoughts may have been suffused by humility less for himself than for the citizenry for whom he designed the main lineaments of the United States Constitution, but in his personal life humility was scarcely Madison's long suit. Frederick Douglass's great virtue was moral courage, untouched by meekness or even modesty. As a slave and later as a free man, he had too often experienced humiliation to put a high valuation on humility. Abigail Adams was never less than thoughtful and sensible, and performed a major role in reigning in the darker emotions and superior views of her husband John, who once called George Washington "a muttonhead." She may have admired humility but Bobb is unable to demonstrate that in any serious way she embodied it. Come to think of it, it is far from clear that the often ironic Socrates, despite his perhaps too insistent disclaimers to any wisdom, was himself finally a notably humble man.
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George Washington, the first of Bobb's portraits, is lauded, among other things, for denigrating the idea that he could easily have become monarch over the newly independent United States. When one of his officers suggested this, Washington, in rebuking him, wrote that "if you have any regard for your Country, concern for yourself or posterity, or respect for me, to banish these thoughts from your mind, and never communicate, as from yourself, or any one else, a sentiment of the like nature."
But is this humility or merely good sense?
Often in his portraits, Bobb asserts that one or another of his subjects "subordinated his self-interest to higher ends," with the inference that doing so constitutes humility. His subjects—Lincoln especially, but also Washington and Douglass—often beseech God to rise above the conflicts they face. "Washington," Bobb writes, "needed the Almighty to overcome the temptations he faced." Is this humility? Or is it instead religious emotion?
George Washington was less known for his humility than for his distaste for illusions. He married a widow with vast land holdings, and advised his stepdaughter, upon her marriage, not to have too high expectations from marriage. He was, Thomas Jefferson thought, "naturally distrustful of men, and inclined to gloomy apprehensions." His religious training, his biographer Douglas Southall Freeman wrote, "was of a sort to turn his mind to conduct rather than credo." Washington'samour-propre ran high, and he worried constantly about his reputation. He never ventured to visit France because he had no French and feared the humiliation of requiring a translator while there.
None of this of course interfered with Washington being exactly the right man at the right time to lead the Revolutionary army and to stabilize the nascent republic over which he presided as its first chief executive. He had a profound sense of duty that derived from strong character. His genius was for discerning right action, and in command never veering from it. But the element of humility would seem to have had little to do with the greatness of George Washington.
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Abraham Lincoln called himself "a humble servant in the hands of our Heavenly Father." Bobb feels that Lincoln's "commitment to hearing all sides...owed its existence to an admirable intellectual humility." Lincoln may have called himself "humble Abe Lincoln," and his humble beginnings were heavily stressed during his run for president, but character witnesses on the scene have argued otherwise. John Hay, who served as Lincoln's private secretary and observed him at close hand, remarked that it was
absurd to call him a modest man. No great man is ever modest. It was his intellectual arrogance and unconscious assumption of superiority that men like [Treasury Secretary Salmon] Chase and [Massachusetts Senator Charles] Sumner could never forgive.
Bobb allows that Lincoln was not without ambition, but tends, I think, not to give the role of ambition in Lincoln its full due. As early as 1838, when he was not yet 30, in a speech before the Springfield Lyceum, Lincoln said:
Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.... It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will, at some time, spring up among us?
And is it any less reasonable to think that the young Lincoln may well have had himself in mind as that towering genius?
Lincoln became more religious after he had assumed the presidency and fought the great struggle to preserve the Union. On the eve of his inauguration, in his farewell address in Springfield, he told his audience that he well knew the immensity of the task before him. Invoking the name of George Washington, he said: "I feel that I cannot succeed without the same Divine aid which sustained him, and on the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support, and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that Divine assistance without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain."
In his later life that there was a strong religious dimension to Abraham Lincoln cannot be doubted. Bobb writes: "In Lincoln's humility, perhaps more powerfully than in that of any other figure, we see the spiritual dimension of this great virtue." But is to invoke God proof of humility, or instead proof of belief in God, and in some instances—though not, to be sure, in Lincoln's—proof of the arrogant belief that God is on one's side?
Lincoln's law partner and biographer William Herndon repeatedly iterates Lincoln's intense ambition. Bobb would not see this in any way disqualifying, for in his view humility and ambition need not be in conflict. And in fact among politicians they seldom are, or at least not for long—ambition shuts out humility every time.
In opposition to its intentions, Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America's Greatest Virtue leads one to believe that conjoining humility and politics entails a confusion of realms. Great nations are never humble, nor are politicians likely to be. If America is to regain and sustain the grandeur that David Bobb sees slipping away from it, the country needs to look elsewhere than the loss of humility as the reason.