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by John Vooys

Humilitas is John Dickson’s treatment of the virtue of humility – what the word actually means, how we came to see it as a virtue, why it makes sense for people to develop it, and its usefulness in life in general and leadership in particular.

Humility has the same etymology as the word humiliation – both carry the sense of being “low to the ground”. However, Dickson is clear to distinguish the one from the other, defining humility as “a willingness to hold power in service of others”. This positive definition was not always current, though, as he makes clear: ancient Greek and Roman cultures were honor/shame-based, and humility was seen as shameful and foolish. This was the mindset of most of the ancient world until the life and death of Jesus Christ. Since crucifixion was both a brutal and shameful means of execution, the early Christians had to fit this into their concept of Jesus as the Messiah; they grew to believe that Jesus, as God, had paradoxically expressed his greatness by lowering himself. Even non-religious historians affirm this event as the key reason humility came to be admired.

​Humility = a willingness to hold power in service of others

Dickson goes on to describe why one should desire and cultivate humility. He considers humility to be, first of all, common sense, second, attractive, and third, an aid to growth. Dickson also makes the case for how humility enhances a leader’s persuasiveness. Of note is his appeal to Aristotle’s view of persuasion; it was based on logos (the argument itself), pathos (the emotional appeal of the argument), and ethos (the character of the one making the argument). Aristotle thought character the most important element of the three, and it is clear how humility is an ingredient in one’s character.

Last of all, Dickson describes the necessity of humility in our current world. Humility, unlike tolerance, does not demand we weaken our convictions or beliefs in order to respect the different beliefs of others; rather, it demands we be realistic in our opinions of ourselves in order to respect those others who hold different beliefs. He ends the book with a few brief thoughts on cultivating humility.

Humilitas is a relatively quick and easy read. The strength of the book lies in its historical detail, and in Dickson’s appeal to matters of common sense. He seeks to persuade through example rather than convince through rigorous argument. Because of this, though, the book does not go very deep into any particular aspect of humility or leadership, and it says very little about how one can practically cultivate this in oneself; those seeking a justification for humility will find this book worthwhile, but those seeking explicitly practical steps will need to look elsewhere. Humilitas is not revolutionary, but it is interesting.


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