The subtitle for this book, An Unlikely Biography of America’s Greatest Virtue, sums up what author David Bobb is attempting to do with this short volume, and to a certain degree he is successful in his aim. Humility is broken into three parts. Part one, Early Life deals with the origin of the philosophical idea of humility. Part two, Trials and Temptations, is the heart of the book and traces humility’s effects on the lives of five historically significant people from early American history. Part three, An Age of Arrogance, briefly states the author’s opinions surrounding our current culture.
As the book begins the reader is taken on a tour of classical philosophy, including Aristotle, Socrates, and Augustine as he explored the western idea of humility and how it has changed over time. While brief, the overview is accurate, well-written and easy to follow. I personally would have a like a little more emphasis placed on Augustine’s blending of Aristotle and the Early Church Fathers, but a more detailed discussion of this nature was probably beyond the book’s scope. This is excellent as an introduction to the topic and if you are interested in delving deeper in the classical virtues I would recommend furthering your investigation with William Bennet’s The Book of Virtues.
Part two then encompasses five chapters , one each for George Washington, James Madison, Abigail Adams, Abraham Lincoln, and Frederick Douglass. This is where the book struggles a bit. The author clearly knows his subject matter, but looking at the lives of these great men and women through the narrow lens of a single personality trait dilutes the power of the examples given. Additionally, such a narrow focus leads to a tendency towards “Founder Deification”. Without a more rounded presentation of each person the reader is left with a sometimes overly positive view of the person profiled. That is not to say that I view any of these people negatively, but rather that their seeming perfection makes emulation seem unattainable, when in reality they were people with flaws and foibles like the rest of us. In the end I found myself wishing for a book on a single individual with a thesis of proving the centrality of humility in that person’s life.
That said, the book does give an excellent primer on each individual and highlights well why they would be included in this book. That each person had a significant degree of the title virtue of humility is well proved and the anecdotes highlighting this fact were both informative and entertaining. Again, I just wish there was a bit more.
The final section of Humility is more editorial in nature, presenting Robb’s pessimism about our current age. While I do not disagree with much of what he says in this brief section it is also the least interesting as it has been said by many in recent years. In the era of social media, the 24/7 new cycle and celebrity-obsessed TV, being humble requires a truly heroic effort for many.
Overall, I recommend this book as an excellent introduction to some amazing men and women who were extremely influential in our country’s early history. For all the critiques I had about the book’s scope, there is still much to be gleaned from its pages, especially if the subject of classical virtues is new to the reader.