Humilitas (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  January 6, 2012

By John Dickson
5 stars (out of 5)

I haven’t said this about many books I’ve reviewed, but I’ll say it for this one: if I could rate a book “6 stars” it would be here. (Of course I could since it’s my own rating system, but I’ll keep things standardized.) I normally don’t read books on ethics. Not that I don’t care about ethics, rather I just don’t usually find them interesting. I picked up this book because the cover caught my attention. Had it just read “Humility” I might have passed it over. But Humilitas intrigued me. Then I began to read the introduction and found myself enjoying it very much. Suddenly I caught myself marking it up, thus I had to buy it.

John Dickson is an Aussie, the senior research fellow of the Department of Ancient History at the Macquarie University in Sydney Australia. He’s also a professional musician, a TV presenter and an Anglican minister. It’s his expertise in Classical Civilizations that he brought to the table which hugely bolsters this book for me (what with my own interest in Classical Civilizations). His writing style is quite enjoyable as well.

Dickson takes a unique approach to the subject of humility. He defines humility as

“the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself. More simply, you could say the humble person is marked by a willingness to hold power in service of others.” (p.24)

Examining the etymology of the word Dickson says there is a negative humility which is in the sense of being brought low (i.e. to put someone down) and then there is the positive sense of bringing yourself low for the sake of others.

In exploring the history of the word he says that in the ancient world humility was not an ethic people valued. It was almost only ever conceived in the negative, as in, being humbled. But a study was conducted at the University of Macquarie, a university which Dickson stresses “has no division of theology or even religious studies” (p.99) thus stressing that the conclusion was not a religious one, that humility in the positive sense of lowering oneself or holding one’s power for the sake of others can be traced to the onset of the Judeo-Christian worldview. In particular, to a Jewish peasant from Nazareth.

Dickson is quick to make a point clear: when talking about the “historical Jesus” he says that he might as well be talking about the “historical Gandhi” (whom he does refer to occasionally in this book) or the “historical Caesar”. When he quotes from the Bible, say Paul or a Gospel, he treats them as he does when he quotes form Aristotle and other classic literature. That is, in a purely historical sense. While Jesus was a humble man in the positive sense, a man who redefined greatness by saying things like “he who wishes to be first must be last” and other such statements and actions, it was not so much what he said and how he lived that changed the way the Western world understood humilitas, but how he died.

Dickson points out that it was the death of Jesus, a Roman cross being the most humiliating death imaginable, that profoundly impacted the way his disciples understood humility. They saw Jesus as a great man, God even. How could such a great person die such a humiliating death unless humility itself were to undergo a shift in definition?

He points to examples such as an early hymn sung by the earliest disciples and later written down by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Christians in Philippi (in Philippians 2). It is the ultimate express of humility, from being “equal with God” to a holding of power, a lowering of oneself unto death, “even death of a cross” which resulted in the highest place of exaltation.

All of this is worked out in chapters five and six. But the rest of the book is just as profound. He argues that humility is logical (I touched on this here) and that it is aesthetically pleasing. Humility presupposes human dignity and self-confidence. Leadership excels best when leaders are humble. Personal growth is generated best when people cultivate humility in their lives. Humble people are persuasive and influential people. Humility lifts people up. It is also better than “tolerance”. Tolerance is often spoken of in a way that tries to suggest that all ideas and beliefs are equally valid, thus tolerance demands that we soften our convictions, often appealing to something philosophers call “epistemic humility” (which he regards as a misapplication of humility). This is the idea that since all ideas are valid, we should not hold any dogmatic convictions because that suggests that we believe other people are wrong. Epistemic humility is the idea that we should only tentatively hold knowledge. Dickson says that humility as he has defined it is a better way.

“If humility is the nobel choice to hold power for the good of others before yourself, its relevance in the moral and religious sphere is revolutionary. Humility applied to conviction does not mean believing things any less; it means treating those who hold contrary beliefs with respect and friendship.” (p.167)

This book is filled with dozens of anecdotes from Bono to Albert Schweitzer, Ghandi to General Stanley McChrystal to Joe Louis to Jesus of Nazareth, with black and white pictures of the individuals next to the anecdote where photos are available. This book can be read by atheists, muslims, buddhists, hindus and just about anyone without being offended. It’s a book on humility, it’s history, it’s meaning and what it is to live it today.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Kerry

    Wow. It sounds great, and I’ve ordered a copy. Thanks for an excellent review!

  • Morgan Guyton

    Humility. I could use some more of it. Sounds like a great book!

  • Daniel

    A fine review – but please stop using the word “peasant” with reference to Jesus. A carpenter is not a farmer, which is what a peasant is (was).

  • Craig L. Adams

    Thanks for posting this review. I’m sure it’s a good book. Some time back I read John Dickson’s book The Best Kept Secret of Christian Mission: Promoting the Gospel with More Than Our Lips and thought it was the most helpful and encouraging book on evangelism I had ever read.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Wow, that’s a high commendation. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks.