When Sir Edmund Hillary conquered Mount Everest with Tenzin Norgay in 1953, he reportedly took with him a symbol of his achievement. It remains buried somewhere up there at the top of the world. A small crucifix.
I don’t know why. As far as I know, Hillary wasn’t an overtly religious man. Perhaps it was a token of his own humility, trying to honour a “higher power” at the moment of his greatest triumph. Then again, maybe it was just the one token of Western civilization small enough to squeeze into his pack.
Whatever Sir Ed was thinking, I have often thought that his choice of symbol provides an insight into the curious influence of Jesus of Nazareth on our culture.
In antiquity, the cross was an instrument of Rome’s brutalizing power to humiliate. Now it stands as a symbol of true greatness. Whereas the ancients draw a straight line between greatness and honour, the West draws a line between greatness and humility.
It is well known that “humility” (humilitas in Latin; tapeinos in Greek) was not a virtue in Graeco-Roman ethics. In fact, the word meant something like “crushed” or “debased.” It was associated with failure and shame. The eminent Roman historian Edwin Judge recently put it this way:
“Humility in Greek and Roman ethics would be a degrading thing. To put yourself down to a level that you were not born to, or that your standing in life did not require you to be in, was disgraceful and debasing. There was no virtue in it at all.”
In the 147 pithy maxims of the Delphic Canon from the sixth century BC, considered by ancient Greeks to be the sum and substance of the ethical life, there is no mention of the theme of, let alone the word, “humility” (whereas today it would be difficult to list ten virtues without including humility). In its place was philotimia, “the love of honour.” Aristotle had insisted that “honour” and “reputation” are among the pleasantest things one could contemplate and attain for oneself. The logic was compelling. If one had achieved great things, it was only right and proper that full recognition be given: achievement deserves public praise.
Humility before the gods, of course, was appropriate, primarily because they could kill you. Humility was advisable before the emperors for the same reason. But humility before an equal or a lesser was morally suspect. It upset the assumed equation: merit demanded honour, thus honour was the proof of merit. Avoiding honour implied a diminishment of merit. It was shameful.
None of this is to say that people could not be honourable and modest in the ancient world. Sometimes we hear stories of great people who gladly gave up power. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, for example, was a fifth century BC Roman aristocrat who, during a civil emergency, was “called from the plough” to become dictator of Rome in 458 BC. He promptly assembled an army, defeated the rival Aequi tribe and then happily returned to his farm to resume normal life.
Quinctius was an example in Roman tradition of two highly prized ideals: austerity, the shunning of luxury and willingness to live a disciplined life; and modesty, the opposite of hubris. The Romans distinguished between modestia and humilitas. The former was a dignified restraint, the latter a shameful lowering. You can be sure old Quinctius was never described as possessing humilitas. He, like other Greeks and Romans, prized honour above virtually everything else.
It was in this context that ancient Greeks and Romans thought nothing of praising themselves in public or, better still, getting others to praise them. No one appreciated crass boasting or boasting that put others down – hubris or arrogance. Nor was self-love advisable, as the Greek myth of Narcissus reminds us. But taking hold of the honour due to your merit was perfectly acceptable. It was taken for granted that those with merit would seek the honour due to them. This was philotimia.
Perhaps the most famous ancient expression of love-of-honour is the Res Gestae Divi Augusti, or The Achievements of the Divine Augustus, written by the emperor Augustus himself (63 BC – AD 14) and, by his order, inscribed on bronze tablets to be set up in front of his mausoleum. Copies were distributed throughout the empire. It is one of the most important sources from ancient times, providing not only a catalogue of the emperor’s activities (which we can check against other texts and archaeological remains), but also a rare glimpse into a mind-set that valued public honour above virtually everything else.
When you remember that this account (just 2,500 words in the original Latin) was penned by the emperor himself in the first person, you realize how little cringe there was in the period over self-congratulation and how different the ancient and modern worlds are in this respect.
The emperor takes us through his thirty five key areas of accomplishment topic by topic – military victories, public awards, gifts to the city at his own expense, building projects, civic games and so on – making sure we know full well of the “honour that up to the present day has been decreed to no one besides myself” and which had “been given me by the senate and people of Rome on account of my courage, clemency, justice and piety.” It would be hard to imagine a modern public figure getting away with such naked self-aggrandizement.
Self-congratulation was not just a special interest of emperors. Ordinary citizens of limited significance felt at liberty to parade their best accomplishments before others. Take the famous autobiography of Josephus, a military commander, turncoat and chronicler of the Jewish people, who fortuitously predicted the ascension of Vespasian (from general to emperor) and then lived out his years in Rome under imperial patronage. The opening words of the book (an auto-biography) will strike modern readers as bizarre, but they would not have raised an eyebrow in first-century Roman circles:
“My family is not an ignoble one, tracing its descent far back to priestly ancestors. Different races base their claim to nobility on various grounds; with us a connection with the priesthood is the hallmark of an illustrious line. Not only, however, were my ancestors priests, but they belong to the first of the twenty-four courses – a peculiar distinction – and to the most eminent of its constituent clans. Brought up with Matthias, my own brother by both parents, I made great progress in my education, gaining a reputation for an excellent memory and understanding. While still a mere boy, about fourteen years old, I won universal applause for my love of literature; insomuch that the chief priests and the leading men of the city used constantly to come to me for precise information on some particular in our ordinances.”
Josephus goes on, but you get the idea. These days, we would be horrified if someone, however great, opened their autobiography with such obvious self-flattery. But this was perfectly normal in antiquity. As long as these things were true – which they probably were in the case of Josephus – the merit warranted the praise, even if it was self-praise.
In these paragraphs, as in the Res Gestae, we catch a glimpse of one of the profound cultural differences between ancient Mediterranean society and the modern Western world. And the difference came about not through a slow evolution of ethical reflection, but through a kind of humility revolution.
The Judeo-Christian Revolution
How did our culture move from being one that prized public honour and despised lowering yourself before an equal (let alone a lesser) to one that despises self-aggrandizement and prizes lowering yourself for others. Whence humility?
The answer begins in ancient Israel. In the later biblical period, as Israel struggled under the threat of foreign and local domination, the prophets began to speak of the Almighty’s special concern for the crushed and humiliated. The word used of such people is the “humble” or (more correctly) the “humbled.” Here, the typically negative meaning of the term – to be put low – is used positively in the way we might talk about “the oppressed.” Negative words are employed sympathetically. This may well have been the first step in the journey toward “humility,” as we understand it. (The famous description of Moses as “the most humble man on earth” almost certainly refers to God-ward humility, or “piety,” not the social ethic of humility).
Perhaps reflecting on the Maker’s soft spot for the downtrodden, one text from the second century BC urges humility toward both the great and the lowly. The Jerusalem sage Yeshua Ben Sira told his students: “Humble your head before the great. Incline your ear to the poor and return their greeting in humility.” The first line is to be expected: everyone knew you should be lowly before the great. The final expression is striking and could be the first attempt in history to use the word “humility” to describe how ordinary people should treat equals (or, in this case, a social inferior).
There is some indication that ancient people found this a weird concept. When Ben Sira’s original Hebrew text was translated into Greek around 132 BC, the translator (Ben Sira’s grandson) changed the word “humility” in this passage to “gentleness,” a much more acceptable term for Greeks. He was happy to say, “Humble your head before the great” – everyone thought that was smart – but not “return the poor’s greeting in humility.” Whatever Ben Sira originally meant by a “humble greeting,” his grandson thought it best to soften the meaning.
We are still some distance, then, from the “humility revolution” that occurred less than two hundred years later. And it would be another Jewish teacher who sounded the call. The hints we find in pre-Christian Mediterranean literature about the need for a little humility come to full flowering in the writings that would shape Western civilization – the New Testament.
Perhaps surprisingly, explicit teaching about humility does not feature strongly in the record of Jesus’s sayings. Of course, we get humble-sounding statements like, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” “Love your enemies” and the famous, “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” On another occasion, Jesus seems to have delighted in turning upside-down ancient notions of greatness and servitude:
“Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Here, Jesus as good as says that true greatness consists in self-sacrifice – his impending martyrdom being the prime example.
Interestingly, what probably established humility as a virtue in Western culture was not Jesus’s persona exactly, or even his teaching, but rather his execution – or, more correctly, his followers’ attempt to come to grips with his execution. Unfortunately, two thousand years of religious art, architecture and Christian kitsch have domesticated the image of a cross, stripping it of its historical shock and awe.
Crucifixion was the ancient world’s summum supplicium (“ultimate punishment”). It was reserved for political rebels and slaves. Of the three official methods of capital punishment – crucifixion, decapitation and burning alive – crucifixion was regarded as the most shameful and most brutal. Victims were usually scourged with a leather strap embedded with metal and pottery, stripped naked, led out to a public place and nailed (or tied) to a large wooden beam, where they could expect to endure hours, sometimes days, of excruciating pain and eventual asphyxiation.
This is the death that the followers of Jesus saw their master face. The greatest man they had ever known was brought down to the lowest place the Roman world could envisage: death by crucifixion.
Jesus’s death has, of course, been the subject of enormous theological reflection, the most important being the affirmation that he died as an atoning sacrifice for the salvation of the world. But this is not my concern here. More important for this discussion is the way the first followers of Jesus began to rethink the entire honour-shame paradigm in which they had been raised.
Ancient Mediterranean cultures pursued honour and avoided shame at all costs. Honour was proof of merit, shame the proof of worthlessness. But what does this say about the crucified Jesus? That was the question confronting the early Christians. Logically, they had just two options. Either Jesus was not as great as they had first thought, his crucifixion being evidence of his insignificance, or the notion of “greatness” itself had to be redefined to fit with the fact of his seemingly shameful end.
Opponents of early Christianity happily accepted the first option. The crucifixion was incontrovertible evidence that Jesus was a pretender to greatness: hence St. Paul’s famous statement that the cross was “foolishness to the Greeks.” Christians took the other option. For them the crucifixion was not evidence of Jesus’s humiliation (humilitas) but proof that greatness can express itself in humility (humilitas), the noble choice to lower yourself for the sake of others.
We can date this innovation in ethical reasoning precisely to the middle of the first century in a letter written by the apostle Paul to the Christians in the Roman colony of Philippi in northern Greece. Paul urges his readers to live in humility, choosing to think of others as better than themselves. He then drives the point home by quoting a hymn, presumably one known and sung in Philippi, that speaks of Jesus’s humilitas on the cross:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death –
even death on a cross!”
These few words are the subject of quite literally hundreds of scholarly books and articles. Of most interest to biblical historians is the clear reference to Jesus as “in very nature God.” Somehow the first followers of Jesus went from thinking of him as a teacher and prophet to singing hymns to him as God incarnate. And this happened in just three decades – within living memory of Jesus. But just as astonishing as the early description of Jesus as “God” is the fact that these first Christians could in the same breath say (or sing) “God” and “cross.” The idea that any great individual, let alone one “in very nature God,” could be associated with a shameful Roman crucifixion is simply bizarre.
Contemporary Christians may find the thought easy enough, but that’s only because of two thousand years reflection on this narrative. Western history is now utterly “cruciform” – shaped by the event of Jesus’s crucifixion. What we read in the above text is evidence of nothing less than a humility revolution. Honour and shame are turned on their heads. The highly honoured Jesus lowered himself to a shameful cross and, yet, in so doing became an object not of scorn but of worship and emulation:
“In humility consider others better than yourselves … Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ.”
Honour has been redefined, greatness recast. If the greatest man we have ever known chose to forgo his status for the good of others, reasoned the early Christians, greatness must consist in humble service. The shameful place is now a place of honour, the low point is the high point. Now it makes sense to take a crucifix to the top of Mount Everest!
Within decades of Paul’s letter to the Philippians Christians were regularly emphasizing “humility” as a central characteristic of the ethical life. The New Testament provides evidence of this, but to offer an example from just a few decades after the biblical period, a letter from a Roman church official named Clement (AD 96) to the Christians in Corinth says: “You are all humble-minded, not boastful, yielding rather than domineering, happily giving rather than receiving.” By now humility is firmly established as a virtue, something that was quite unthinkable within Graeco-Roman ethics in the centuries before.
I am not suggesting that Christians have a monopoly on humility. Everyone knows that believers and unbelievers alike are capable of spectacular arrogance and wonderful humility. Sadly, although the Judeo-Christian framework is responsible for the Western world’s fondness for this virtue, the church itself has been guilty of hubris and bigotry at many points in its history. Mea culpa.
My point is not that Christians alone can be humble; rather, as a plain historical statement, humility came to be valued in Western culture as a consequence of Christianity’s dismantling of the all-pervasive honour-shame paradigm of the ancient world.
Today, it doesn’t matter what your religious views are – Christian, atheist, Jedi Knight – if you were raised in the West, you are likely to think that honour-seeking is morally questionable and lowering yourself for the good of others is ethically beautiful. That is the influence of a story whose impact can be felt regardless of whether its details are believed – a story about greatness that willingly went to a cross. Our culture remains cruciform long after it stopped being Christian.
John Dickson is Founding Scholar of the Centre for Public Christianity. Among his many books is Humilitas: Lost Key to Life, Love and Leadership. He is one of the presenters of the new documentary, For the Love of God: How the Church is Better and Worse than you Ever Imagined.