By David J. Bobb
Thomas Nelson: 2013
“There is no twelve- or thirteen-step program to master humility. There is no formula for becoming humble. This is true for individuals as well as nations,” says David J. Bobb in Humility: An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue.
Bobb examines what humility meant to the earliest thinkers, from Socrates to Christ. He then gives us examples of humility (and pride) in the lives of George Washington, James Madison, Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass. None of these were perfectly humble; they all struggled with pride. About Lincoln Bobb writes: “So great was his ambition…that both [William] Herndon and [John] Hay agreed that Lincoln was almost wholly lacking in humility.”
But here’s the book’s point. Humans aren’t born with humility. It is a virtue to be sought and learned. Lincoln’s “humility grew as he became more powerful, almost as if the farther removed he found himself from his difficult past, the more humble he became.” Like Lincoln, we can, and should, learn humility.
The most inspiring story is Frederick Douglass’s. Born in slavery, “He never knew for sure the day of his birth or the month; for a while he was even unsure about the year….Douglass was often reduced to animal existence. Humiliation was heaped upon humiliation in his early life, much of it by masters who professed a love of God.”
Bobb contrasts Douglass’s humility to the pride of his masters, showing clearly who was morally superior. “As Douglass led a Sunday reading class for his fellow slaves, Thomas Auld and some others, fearing that the teaching would unleash a longing for liberty, ‘rushed in upon [the group] with sticks and stones, and broke [the] virtuous little Sabbath school, at St. Michael’s—all calling themselves Christians!’”
Contrast these “Christians” to Christ, who “extolled the virtues of those considered outcasts, praising qualities usually associated with society’s undesirables. He even washed the feet of those thought untouchable.”
While I enjoyed reading Bobb’s Humility–despite his using the word “antidisestablishmentarianism”– I approached the final part, “An Age of Arrogance,” with some dread. Would Bobb point to a certain political party, or even worse, a specific person, as the emblem of modern pride, turning what could be a good book into more political garbage? No. And that is one of the greatest strengths of this book. Bobb doesn’t limit pride to those with whom he has political disagreements; Bobb’s political views, in fact, are not clear to the reader. Instead, he shows that pride affects all of us, and it’s a danger for individuals and for nations.
“There is no guarantee of national greatness. The arrogance of our age supposes that prosperity is perpetual and success inevitable. America’s history of hard-won humility tells us otherwise. As individuals and as a people, we must rediscover our greatest virtue.”