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AN UNLIKELY BIOGRAPHY OF AMERICA'S GREATEST VIRTUE
By DAVID J. BOBB
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2013 David J. Bobb
All rights reserved.
BENJAMIN FRANKLIN'S DILEMMA
Hundreds of years of expansion resulted in a vast territory in which its people lived in peace, united by a common tongue. Its military was the mightiest on the planet. No other nation could equal its wealth. It was the global leader in technology. Yet as the prosperity of the republic grew, the moral excellence of its elite faded. Adventures abroad brought the promise of greater glory but also the plague of war without end. Higher taxes on the wealthy failed to satisfy the growing appetite of a large bureaucracy. Transformed by a new set of leaders and transfixed by power, a once-proud republic became an arrogant empire.
For the revolutionary Founders of America, Rome's example was both familiar and unsettling. Having read Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, America's Founding Fathers sought to learn from his conclusions so that their new nation would avoid the imperial fate of Rome. "Immoderate greatness," Gibbon wrote, caused it to fall. Early Americans knew that for their enterprise to become great, humility would be necessary. They also knew that of all the virtues of the human heart, humility is the most hard-won.
No one is naturally humble, but pride comes as easily to us as sleeping or smiling. My wife and I can see that almost every day in the lives of our two sons. In one unforgettable moment several years ago, our older boy reached an infant's peak of pride. Sitting upright without any assistance—flexing his flabby muscles of independence—our little explorer looked like he had summited Everest. An explosion of pride lit his face. Beaming, my wife and I reflected that pride back to our baby. "We're so proud of you!" we exclaimed.
It is a phrase a fortunate child will hear often enough to enlarge his heart but not so frequently as to swell his head. Just as pride comes naturally to human beings, so too does arrogance—or pride that exceeds the reality of one's merit. Arrogant people celebrate their own existence above all else and enlarge their own orbit at others' expense. To be proud of one's accomplishments, family, or country makes sense only if they are worthy of that pride. Healthy pride is tied to truth, and pride devoid of merit is arrogance. Humility's opposite is arrogance, not pride.
Though the virtue of humility is occasionally praised in some faraway tribe, remote religious order, or politician's rural birthplace, the reality of our fame-addled and power-hungry existence today means that arrogance is rewarded and humility is ignored. Ego trips are occasions for everyday media adulation. Cocksure, supercilious, and narcissistic displays of arrogance abound in every arena of life, while acts of humility go unnoticed and unheralded.
Our age of arrogance obscures the idea that humility is the indispensable virtue for the achievement of greatness. The personal significance of this idea is radical: to be truly great, one has to be humble. The political significance of this idea is profound: to be truly and enduringly great, a nation's hallmark must be humility. For Americans, this idea should have immense consequence, for our greatest moments have been marked by humility. Our future should be informed by that past. The lives of George Washington, James Madison, Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass have much to teach us about humility. Surprising as it may seem, "American humility" is not an oxymoron.
"IT'S HARD TO BE HUMBLE"
It's not easy at first glance to see how humility could ever lead to greatness. Humility hardly seems that good, let alone great. Implying something lacking—a loss of strength or a sapping of vitality—humility often strikes modern individuals as something to be avoided. Observed superficially, humility can appear weak and passive—anything but great. Greatness seems strong and energetic—anything but humble. "It's hard to be humble," Muhammad Ali is reported to have said, "when you're as great as I am."
Humility is hard to achieve, even when you're not "the Greatest." It's more difficult to be great and humble at the same time. After all, humility requires exacting and often painful self-knowledge for any person but especially for one who thinks himself great. The humble person must acknowledge that he is not self-made, nor at the center of the universe. Unblinkered self-knowledge reveals our imperfections. Humility requires that we admit when we are wrong and then change course. It is the soul's state of self-knowledge in which we put others ahead of ourselves in thought, word, and deed—despite our tendency to self-aggrandizement.
The true power of humility is missed by many successful people today. Why should I become a wimp? the hard-charging individual wonders. Believing that humble folks must be shy and retiring, never forceful or magnetic, today's achievers cannot imagine themselves ever sitting on the sidelines. Humble people, they think, have poor self-esteem and probably even hate themselves. They're pushovers—meek, timid, and weak. To become humble in politics, business, or even in daily life is to give up on the possibility of impressive achievement.
In reality, humility is strength, not weakness. It is the crown of the virtues. Humility enables courage and points wisdom in the right direction. It is the backbone of temperance, and it makes love possible. Writing in the fifth century, Saint Augustine insisted that all people are capable of wearing this crown: "[T]his way is first humility, second humility, third humility ... if humility does not precede and accompany and follow every good work we do," Augustine cautions, "and if it is not set before us to look upon, and beside us to lean upon, and behind 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."
Six centuries after Augustine, Saint Bernard of Clairvaux was asked to identify the four cardinal virtues. His purported answer: "Humility, humility, humility, and humility."
"OVERBEARING, AND RATHER INSOLENT"
You don't have to be a saint in order to see the strength of humility. Long before he helped found a new nation, the twenty-seven-year-old Benjamin Franklin embarked on what he called "the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection." Impressed by the power of reason, Franklin decided that since he had knowledge of right and wrong, he could habituate himself always to do the right thing. Franklin's first step in his project was to list the virtues he would perfect. Temperance, silence, order, resolution, and frugality were the first five, followed by industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, and cleanliness. Tranquility and chastity made for a list of twelve, but a friend urged Franklin to add one more.
What Franklin's unnamed friend told him had to hurt a little, for as the Philadelphian wrote in his Autobiography, the man "kindly informed me that I was generally thought proud; that my pride showed itself frequently in conversation." Not content just to win an argument, Franklin sought to punish his interlocutors, his friend told him. Franklin was "overbearing, and rather insolent"—a prime example of unhealthy pride. The solution for Franklin quickly became obvious: he would add humility as the thirteenth virtue he would tackle. Humility's dictate according to Franklin was simple to state, if not easy to do: "Imitate Jesus and Socrates."
Franklin formulated a careful plan of attack for all thirteen virtues. Take the first, temperance, remember its basic idea ("Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation"), and work on it with special vigilance for a week. Acts of intemperance would earn a "little black spot" in Franklin's little book of virtues. An unspotted page on temperance would indicate mastery. Each week would bring another virtue into focus, even as Franklin continued to work on the virtues from preceding weeks. With thirteen virtues, the virtue-a-week program allowed for four full cycles each year. Annual repetition of this "self-examination," he hoped, would make him into a self-governing individual.
Despite the pleasure he took from his project, Franklin admitted that humility proved the most elusive virtue of all: "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." In this, at least, he was partly successful, for as Franklin moderated his tone in argumentation, he started not just winning arguments but also winning people over to his causes. This humility in rhetoric worked wonders, Franklin found. Looking back over the course of his life, Franklin claimed that his efforts at becoming more humble were rewarded. Whether in making proposals for "new institutions, or alterations in the old," Franklin attributed his success to his continued exertions. Calling himself a "bad speaker, never eloquent," even prone to stumbling, Franklin discovered that his fifty years of effort at humility produced a considerable power of persuasion.
Though he made progress in checking his pride, Franklin found that its temptation endured. Healthy pride can become harmful arrogance if a person is unguarded against it. At the same time, this temptation grew for the new nation. "In reality," Franklin wrote in 1784, "there is, perhaps, no one of our natural passions so hard to subdue as pride. Disguise it, struggle with it, beat it down, stifle it, mortify it as much as one pleases, it is still alive, and will every now and then peep out and show itself." This conclusion made sense to Franklin because he had wrestled with pride so much in his own life. "[Y]ou will see [pride], perhaps, often in this history," he wrote in his autobiography, at the age of seventy-eight, "for, even if I could conceive that I had completely overcome it, I should probably be proud of my humility."
Franklin's dilemma is America's dilemma. Pride is a national, as well as a personal, challenge. Though Franklin's autobiography was written before the United States had a great deal about which to be proud, that struggle would intensify as America ascended to new heights of power and wealth. Learning how to become humble—and stay humble—was a perennial challenge. Like the young Franklin, young America possessed an extraordinary ambition for significance. Both aspired to be great. How can a nation be humble and stay humble while at the same time achieving greatness?
Whether ancient or modern, political rule is more often associated with an exertion of arrogance than a demonstration of humility. When we speak of politicians and humility, it is often to refer to the "roots" of one who rises up from poverty. When a politician talks of humility, it is often after a stinging defeat or a stunning victory. Invariably, no matter the outcome, a politician is proud of his campaign. And inevitably, in our current climate, political opponents cast each other as the archetype of arrogance. The old saying that a statesman is a dead politician might be updated: a statesman is a politician with humility.
"THE EXCELLENCE OF HUMILITY"
The five humble heroes featured in this book—Washington, Madison, Adams, Lincoln, and Douglass—are proof that greatness and humility need not be opposed to each other. All five individuals were great in soul and humble at the same time. The thirteenth-century theologian Saint Thomas Aquinas argued that humility and the high virtue of magnanimity, or greatness of soul, are twins. Magnanimity guides the gaze of great individuals to the heights. Humility issues a warning against flying too high. As Thomas stated about humility, it "represses rather than adopts a pushful and self-confident temper."
Pushful. That word captures much about human striving. "Pushful" people seek greater power and recognition at the expense of others. They are puffed up with their own worth. The men and women of American history profiled here were not immune to "pushfulness" or puffery. They were not born humble any more than they were born great. Humility came no easier to them than it did to Franklin. The trials and temptations they faced were unrelenting.
Had George Washington let pride get the best of him, the world might remember him as the man who betrayed the Revolution by crowning himself king. James Madison was tagged as weak and timid, but the humility he learned as a brilliant legislator helped him mold the new nation. Without the humility that made her so resilient, Abigail Adams might have despaired at the plight of women as a whole. Instead, Adams made the best of her abilities and her situation and helped rear a young republic.
If Abraham Lincoln had not humbled himself, he might have become a dictator. In preserving the Union and ending slavery, Lincoln lived up to the humility of the American Founders and gave the generations that followed—black and white—a worthy sense of pride in their nation. If Frederick Douglass had abandoned the humility he acquired in the midst of humiliations, he might have become embittered and unforgiving. If pride had gotten the better of him, he might have lost all goodwill for his fellow citizens. Instead, keeping pride in check, he upheld hope—for himself, his family, those previously ensnared by slavery, and all Americans. Humility helped him reach many who otherwise might not have listened to the message of equality and liberty for all.
Before we explore these examples of extraordinary humility, however, we need to examine the nature of the virtue itself. The next two chapters will provide a condensed history of humility, starting with Socrates and Aristotle in ancient Greece, then moving to the words and example of Christ, then to Augustine and the fall of Rome in the fifth century after Christ, and still later to Aquinas, Machiavelli, and Thomas Hobbes.
After the fall of Rome, Augustine wrote the City of God "to convince the proud 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." Humility offers the promise of excellence, but it does not guarantee power when power is the proud domination of human beings. The power promised by humility is power over oneself in self-government. It is much harder to achieve. Humility's strength is hidden, obscured by our blindness and the age of arrogance in which we live.
JESUS AND SOCRATES
Benjamin Franklin set out to "imitate Jesus and Socrates" in his quest to be more humble. In describing his dilemma—and America's—Franklin did not tell his readers exactly what his imitatio entailed. Did the lives of Jesus and Socrates teach him the same lesson regarding humility? Or did they represent different aspects of this vital virtue? Could a person be humble and have a great soul at the same time? Franklin says much in his Autobiography about his process of self-improvement, but he does not delineate the precise role the examples of Socrates and Jesus played in his plan.
The history of humility is a crooked line, for the classical and Christian ideas of the virtue are at odds with each other. For many leading Greek and Roman thinkers, humility was not even a virtue in the way Christianity later conceived it. According to Aristotle—whose teacher, Plato, was a student of Socrates—the great-souled or magnanimous man answers to no one but himself. He seeks virtue and is awarded the highest honor for his greatness. But according to Augustine, writing some 750 years after Aristotle, the idea of a great-souled man acting independently of God was the height of arrogance. A humble prince, Augustine insisted, must bow before God and other citizens who are not as worthy as he is of honor. Like Aristotle's magnanimous man, the humble prince seeks virtue, but his virtue, unlike that of the magnanimous man, is marked by compassion, mercy, and prayer—not pride in his own accomplishments or honors accorded by others. Augustine's ideal prince is a servant.
Niccolò Machiavelli, writing a millennium after Augustine, concluded that both Aristotle and Augustine were wrong. The ancient pagans held a pie-in-the-sky view of politics where virtue was the goal and honor was the reward. This view, Machiavelli held, neglected the fact that most human beings are not morally upright; they are moved by power, not virtue. Ancient Christians were no more realistic: their kingdom was not even of this world! How could Christianity expect to make princes capable of keeping power or citizens capable of wanting powerful princes? Machiavelli's leader is willing to embrace a certain kind of pride and yet pretend to be humble if it serves his interest. Arrogance would be folly, not because it is morally wrong, but because it is ineffective. For Machiavelli, executing good rule meant the death of heartfelt humility.
Excerpted from HUMILITY by DAVID J. BOBB. Copyright © 2013 David J. Bobb. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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