"Dickson argues that humility is generative, a powerful key to learning and growth. Pride is the engine of mediocrity because the proud think they have “arrived” and have nothing left to learn..." Dr Bret L. Simmons, Positive Organizational Behavior
Speaker, writer, singer, historian and Director are a few of the titles you can pin on Dr John Dickson (PhD). He is a Senior Research Fellow of the Department of Ancient History at Australia’s Macquarie University and a Lecturer on the Historical Jesus for Sydney University’s Department of Jewish Studies and serves as a parish priest. He lives in Sydney with his wife and three children.
Dickson has authored a dozen books and presented two major historical documentaries for commercial television, The Christ Files and Life of Jesus. His latest book, Humilitas, examines the virtue of humility; its historical roots and the fact that it is the distinguishing feature of many great historical figures.
I was keen to understand the humility paradox; that we exalt the humble and like to see the proud humbled, sometimes to the point of humiliation.
1. What was your impetus for writing Humilitas?
Ten years ago I was involved in a post-doctoral project at Macquarie University exploring the origins of humility. I wasn’t particularly humble but the study covered my specialty and I was invited to play a part. My friends found it funny. My best friend quipped, “At least you have the objective distance from that subject”. Over the last decade I’ve just noticed that many business and leadership discussions have a place for humility in leadership, so I started to think about how the historical perspective on all this might encourage contemporary conversation about humility.
2. What do you hope to achieve by its publication?
I could say I want what every author wants—to become rich and famous—but that’s a little incongruous for this book! Basically, I want to provoke leaders to think about virtue in leadership. All leadership is, at heart, about relationships. When the leader is trusted or loved, not just feared and obeyed, leadership is obviously more productive. That’s where humility comes in. The person who is humble, rightly defined, will foster relationships better than the person who is arrogant. I think military leaders, soccer coaches, educators, CEOs and mums and dads all know that when you can move people by force of character, rather than structural authority, that is true leadership. I hope my book inspires more reflection on these ideas.
3. A few social commentators have coined a new trend, 'the humble brag'. It has risen through social media and the tendency to want to promote ourselves, without seeming arrogant. It's where someone posts a status or tweet that appears self-abasing, but the back-handed brag tagged on the end makes it sound more like a boast. How would you explain this arrogance versus humility tug-of-war we seem to have with ourselves and each other?
There is a personal struggle and a cultural one. All of us have an internal fight. Part of us wants to be noticed and esteemed and part of us wants to be humble, other-person centred. We live in the tension. But there is a culture point here, too. Western society is the product of two cultures, the Graeco-Roman heritage and the Judeo-Christian heritage. In Greece and Rome ‘honour’ was the top pursuit. Much of life, including ethics, was directed toward winning public honour for yourself and your family. Conversely, shame was the great evil, avoided at all costs. Scholars describe most ancient Mediterranean societies as honour-shame cultures. We’ve inherited that tradition. That’s the part of us that wants to win glory and admiration from the crowds.
But, equally, the Western world is the product of the revolution that took place in the first to fourth centuries, when Christianity came to the fore. The Judeo-Christian ethic was very much centred on serving the poor and needy, something conspicuous by its absence in Graeco-Roman culture, and so those in a low position came to be honoured as equals. This is the beginning of the story of humility in the Western ethical tradition. Anyway, the point is: we find ourselves caught between our heritage from Greece and Roman and our heritage from the Judeo-Christian worldview.
4. Public figures such as Politicians, Activists, Artists, Athletes and Celebrities seem to have to tread a fine-line between arrogance/self-confidence when it comes to their performance and humility when it comes to receiving accolades or criticisms. Do you think we tend to expect public figures to be more virtuous than we expect ourselves to be?
Yes we do, because almost by definition such people are aspirational figures. Part of what we like about them, with the possible exception of politicians, is that they are in a way better than we are. I think there’s a kind of transposing of our own longing for greatness onto the hero figures. And part of that is ethical. Most of us are upset when our hero sportsman is a jerk or some beautiful celebrity has a foul mouth. Arrogance/humility is a perfect example. When our heroes are up themselves, we are usually deeply disappointed. It’s not that we wouldn’t be exactly the same, if we were in their shoes. It’s just that we want them to be a better version of human. We can go too far, of course. Our expectations can be too high and unrealistic, but I think there’s something nice about wanting to see in others our better selves.
5. Can you name some of the "greats" of history you researched for the book and something surprising you discovered about them?
There are the religious greats like Buddha and Jesus. But I also think of Mandela and even someone like Sir Edmund Hillary. I was delighted to learn that Hillary, after conquering Everest in 1953, devoted himself to the people of Nepal, trying to use his fame, power and fundraising capacity to give something back to the Nepalese. He built schools and orphanages and so on, right to his last days. He is the epitome of the humble person. To be humble isn’t to have a low view of yourself. It is to redeploy your resources for the good of others. In fact, my working definition of humility is to hold your power—whatever that is—for the good of others before yourself. Hillary and many others have done that and it is inspiring.
6. What did you learn about the nature of humility in the researching/writing of your book?
The primary thing to realize about humility is that it has little to do with what we call ‘modesty’. When we refer to a modest person, we usually think of someone who doesn’t think highly of themself, or never says ‘boo’. But that’s not humility. Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking more about others. In fact, I reckon the truly humble person usually has a healthy ego. They know what skills and talents they have. They’re not afraid to name them. But they use these things for the organisation or for the good of others, not just for their own advancement. In other words, humility is a social virtue, not a personality trait. It is about taking what I have and seeing how I can use it all for the benefit of those who need it most.
The other thing that I found surprising is the very clear influence the figure of Jesus of Nazareth had on the rise of humility in our culture. I was surprised to learn how widely accepted it is that, whereas Graeco-Roman culture did not value humility, the story of the man who gave his life for the sake of others reshaped what ancient people thought was true power. The first followers of Christ reasoned that, if the greatest man they’d ever known willingly gave himself to an awful Roman cross, then true greatness must consist of lowering yourself for others.
Suddenly, the word humilitas in Latin and tapeinos in Greek, words which usually had the very negative connotations of being crushed and put low, came to be used in a positive sense. We can date this quite precisely. At first it was the Christians who used this subversive terminology, but then it caught on. Today, of course, it doesn’t matter what you believe, if you were raised in a Western country, you will generally agree that it is a good thing to hold your power for the good of others before yourself. We like humility. That is the result of the influence of the Jesus-story on our culture, even though most of us don’t connect with religion anymore. Just as we got some of our ways of thinking from the Greeks, and don’t know it, we got an awful lot of our ethical reasoning from this narrative of ultimate greatness sacrificing itself in love for others.
7. In terms of worldview, what do you believe?
I guess I’ve already hinted at something of my worldview. Put simply, for me, no text reads human nature, explains the orderliness of the world and articulates human longings better than the Bible. This book ‘knows me’. I can’t think of another way to put it. It is spook. The more I study this tome, in all its sophistication, complexity, messiness and grandeur, the more it feels like a voice from outside humanity, calling us beyond ourselves. I often think that reading the Bible is like walking into a beautiful café for the first time and just as you take your seat the staff bring you your favourite double-shot latte with one sugar. How did you know that!?, is how I feel. To me this completely explains why this book is the biggest selling book of all time. In fact, apart from a blip in 2007 when Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pipped the Bible at the post for twelve months, this book is the no.1 bestseller every year since records have been kept. Still today it sells 30 million copies a year. Someone gets a Bible every second. There’s a reason for that.
8. How did you arrive at your worldview?
I was raised without any faith and I had never been inside a church before I was about 16 years old. For me, it is was a lovely, middle-aged Scripture teacher at my state high school who had answers to all my smart alec questions and showed incredible compassion toward me and others in the group. She embodied the stuff I came to read about in the Gospels, the narratives about Jesus. He was a master of the lost art of holding strong religious and ethical viewpoints but treating with spectacular grace those with whom he profoundly disagreed. That’s how he got the tag, given to him by the religious authorities, “The friend of sinners.” That wasn’t meant to be a compliment but it sounds like one to me now.
Anyway, this woman embodied that. I knew she had strong views about some of the stuff my mates and I got up to, but she showed us consistent kindness. Her words and actions were a powerful influence. Over a period of a year or so I found myself a complete fan of the figure in the Gospels. I baulked at calling myself a ‘Christian’ for a while, and sometimes I’m still coy about that label because of all the associations it has for some, but that’s what I had become.
9. Can you give us a glimpse into your next planned book?
I’m working on two books. One is called How the Church is Better and Worse than You Ever Imagined. It’s a history of the awful and beautiful things Christianity has brought into Western culture. The former gets a lot of bad press, and I don’t want to shy away from that or try and whitewash it. But very few people, outside the nerdy club of ancient and medieval historians, know the story of how Christianity dispelled the all-pervasive superstitions of the ancient world, established what we today call ‘charity’, set up schools, inspired all of the first scientists and continues to be associated, in all of the sociological studies, with higher levels of civil involvement, volunteering and philanthropy. That story needs to be told, if only as a foil to much of the silliness that passes for enlightened conversation today.
The second book is called Persuasion from Aristotle to Apple, and it explores how persuasion works. Aristotle wrote a very important book on the subject that was the standard work for 2000 years. Many of his insights remain crucial for contemporary persuasion, marketing and public discourse.
Book: To Kill a Mocking Bird
Film: Brave Heart, Love Actually and the Piano. These are my three selves.
Music: U2, U2 and U2. Oh, and Yo Yo Ma’s Cello Suites
Motto: Veritas Vincit. It’s the clan motto of my Scottish forbears, and means “Truth prevails”. I believe the truth will always ‘out’ and do its good in the world. I’m an idealist.
Charity: WorldVision and Tear Fund
As director of the Centre for Public Christianity (publicchristianity.org) Dickson regularly writes for mainstream newspapers and appears in the media promoting thoughtful Christianity.
I'm thankful for the time he gave to the interview. If there's one thing I've learnt, it's that humility is the slipperiest of virtues; for as soon as you feel you possess it, you no longer do.
Think. Write. Share.