Humility As A Virtue
Karl August Rudolph Steinmetz was born in Breslau, Germany, in 1865. He was born with a severe curvature of the spine. When he grew to manhood, he was barely five feet tall and hunched over. His mother died when he was a year old, and he was reared by his Polish grandmother in his native city.
At the University of Breslau, he exhibited such a marvelous facility of moving from one intellectual field of inquiry to another that students called him “Proteus” after the mythical figure who could instantly assume the shape of another being. Steinmetz had fulfilled all the requirements for his doctoral degree. His dissertation had been accepted. All that remained was the formality of confirming the degree. But he never obtained it. While editor of an illegal socialist newspaper, he had attracted the attention of the authorities, who were zealous in their enforcement of anti-socialist laws promulgated by Prime Minister Otto von Bismarck. Steinmetz was forced to flee the country.
After spending a year in Switzerland, a sympathetic colleague offered to pay his way to the United States. Steinmetz and his colleague arrived in New York on June 1, 1889, in the steerage section of a French liner. Immigration authorities were reluctant to admit Steinmetz into the country. His distorted body, poverty, and lack of friends led officials to believe that he was likely to become a “public charge”. Through the intervention of his traveling companion, who assured the officials that he would look after his friend, Steinmetz was finally allowed to enter the country. At that time, Steinmetz had ten dollars, had no job prospects, and could speak no English.
By 1892, Steinmetz had established a reputation for himself in the world of science. He formulated the law of histeresis, by which one can determine the power that is lost in electrical devices when magnetic action is converted into unusable heat. The application of this knowledge greatly improved the design of electrical machines. He was soon invited to join the newly formed General Electric Company, where he spent the remainder of his career in research on electricity.
Steinmetz is best known for his development of the theory of alternating current and for his experiments with “man-made lightning”. He also calculated a way of harnessing the power of the mighty Niagara. A total of 195 patents were registered in his name. Perhaps his most ironic contribution to society, in the light of his condition as a diminutive hunchback, was an improved electric motor for the Otis Elevator Company, which thereby made skyscrapers a practical reality.
The humble person makes a realistic assessment of who he is and puts that unillusioned judgment into practice.
Despite the spectacular contributions he made to science and their immense potential benefit to society, he remained throughout his life a man of striking humility. One contemporary observer wrote that the briefest contact with Steinmetz “reveals a singular individuality and that of a very high order, a man of fine and ready mind and one crammed full of passion for work . . . an individuality which combines authority in utterance with a remarkably childlike personal humility”.
Behind the red-brick house where Steinmetz lived, in Schenectady, New York, was the scientists laboratory and a glass conservatory where he grew orchids and other exotic plants. But his favorite flower, the one with which he identified, was the humble cactus. “Cacti may be ugly and deformed,” he explained, “but they can live and flourish, producing flowers of great beauty under the worst possible conditions.” For Steinmetz, the great underlying principle of all human progress is that “divine discontent” that makes men strive for better conditions.
Contentment never played much part in the life of Steinmetz. Although General Electric provided him with an expensive leather chair, he seldom used it. Because of his deformity, he preferred to kneel on a chair or stool whenever he worked. The posture spoke eloquently of his spirit. The floor of his laboratory was never waxed because of the danger that he might slip and injure himself.
Steinmetz never married, though he did legally adopt a son and became a foster grandfather to his adopted sons three children. He championed educational opportunities for handicapped children, establishing special classes for those who were subnormal, tubercular, or anemic. He was a tireless advocate for bettering the living conditions of the underprivileged.
He died at age fifty-eight, following a strenuous trip to the Pacific Coast. The medical examiners reported that he died of acute dilation of the heart, following a chronic myocarditis of many years standing. The room in the Steinmetz house where his body lay in state was filled with flowers. For four hours unbroken lines of people filed past his bier. Among those who paid their last respects, in addition to many dignitaries, were groups of children. It was fitting that at the very end, the mighty and the humble whom he had embraced throughout his life returned to embrace him.
Given the finite condition of man and his checkered history, one might think that humility, a human virtue of such evident appropriateness, would be easy to appropriate. It should be the first lesson we learn from self-reflection! Nonetheless, despite how well-tailored humility is to suit men, its correlative vice pride is what they are more likely to display. Rather than bow to reality and accept themselves as they are, men are far more likely to cherish illusions and pretend to be what they are not. As one pundit remarked, “Many would be scantily clad if clothed in humility.”
The humble person makes a realistic assessment of who he is and puts that unillusioned judgment into practice. He does not judge himself to be smaller or larger than he really is. In so doing he avoids despair as well as pride. Consequently, the humble person enjoys the freedom to be who he is. He is not troubled by accidentals, such as reputation, self-interest, or failure. He takes joy in the importance or excellence of what is done rather than in the incidental fact that he happened to be the one who did it. As for illusions, which often consume huge amounts of time and energy, he has none to defend. He is not troubled by feeling obliged to defend an imaginary self to people who do not know who he really is. Nor does he expect others to be who they are not. He has no concern for trading in unrealities. He is not a candidate for being victimized by self-pity. He is not likely to be saddened by not being who he cannot be. Because of the priceless freedom to be who a person truly is, Thomas Merton can say that “the beginning of humility is the beginning of blessedness and the consummation of humility is the perfection of all joy. For Confucius, “Humility is the solid foundation of all the virtues.”
The great mathematician-physicist Albert Einstein confessed that he was troubled by the adulation he received. He felt it was grossly disproportionate to his own more humble and realistic estimate of himself. “There are plenty of the well-endowed, thank God”, wrote the author of the theory of relativity. “It strikes me as unfair, and even in bad taste, to select a few of them for boundless admiration, attributing superhuman powers of mind and character to them. This has been my fate, and the contrast between the popular estimate of my powers and achievements and the reality is simply grotesque.”
A philosopher, who understood the fundamental importance of humility in the broad scheme of things, was once asked what the great God was doing. He replied: “His whole employment is to lift up the humble and cast down the proud.” Since humility is fruitful and pride self-destructive, such an employment would be perfectly consistent with Gods love for his creatures.
Jascha Heifetz and Mischa Elman, both preeminent violinists, were dining together in a restaurant when a waiter presented them with an envelope addressed to “the Worlds Greatest Violinist”. Since the two were good friends and held each others artistry in the highest esteem, neither wanted to assume the letter was addressed to himself. When Heifetz begged Elman to open the envelope, the latter bowed and deferred to the former. When Elman insisted the letter must be for his companion, Heifetz, likewise demurred to his partner. Finally, Elmans persistence was persuasive, and Heifetz reluctantly opened the letter and read the salutation: “Dear Fritz” (their illustrious colleague Fritz Kreisler).
It is easy to imagine the two violinists being humbled by the incident. By contrast, Socrates interpreted the oracles statement, “No man is wiser than Socrates”, with rare humility. The “gadfly” of Athens correctly took it to mean that no man is wise. “Humility”, as Cardinal Newman once explained, “is one of the most difficult of virtues both to attain and to ascertain. It lies close upon the heart itself, and its tests are exceedingly delicate and subtle.”
Among philosophers, Socrates is perhaps best associated with the virtue of humility. Because he knew he did not possess wisdom, he was constantly in pursuit of it. Hence, his life-long search for a master-teacher. Yet his humility proved to be a great asset inasmuch as it freed him from the distorting influence of pride. He saw the human condition with exceptional clarity, so much so that he earned the distinction of being the “Father of Moral Philosophy”.
“Humility”, states Henry David Thoreau, “like darkness reveals the heavenly lights.” All genuine appreciation of things requires seeing them against a boundary of nonexistence. From the perspective of nonbeing, all light seems lightning, every sensation becomes sensational, and each phenomenon appears to be phenomenal. The attitude of humility, because it expects nothing, is ready to appreciate everything. The person who empties himself is best prepared to fill himself with the wonders of the universe. As G.K. Chesterton has pointed out, “It is one of the million wild jests of truth that we know nothing until we know nothing.”
On a more theological level, Saint Augustine maintains that humility is the first, second, and third most important factor in religion. It is, in his judgment, the foundation of all other virtues. Consequently, there can be no virtue in the soul in which humility is lacking, only the appearance of virtue.
Even the devil may clothe himself in the appearance of virtue. When Saint Macarius once returned to his cell, he met the devil, who tried to cut him in half with a sickle. The devil failed in repeated attempts, because when he drew near the saint, he lost his energy. Then, full of anger, he said: “I suffer great violence from you, Macarius, because though I greatly desire to harm you, I cannot. I do all that you do and more. You fast once in a while, I never eat. You sleep little, I never close my eyes. You are chaste, and so am I. In one thing only do you surpass me.” “And what is this thing?” asked Macarius. He answered: “It is your great humility.” And with that, the devil disappeared.
Canadian artist Michael OBrien dedicated a year of his work to illustrating the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary. When he came to the “Assumption of Mary into Heaven”, he found himself devoid of any inner suggestion as to how he might depict this particular mystery. In fact, he was so barren of artistic ideas that he even thought of omitting it from the series. It was at that time that he happened to read a passage in Thomas Aquinas that stated that God sends an angel to assist people in completing a work that glorifies God. Encouraged by this passage, OBrien prayed for an assisting angel. Then it all came to him. He suddenly knew, without any accompanying emotion, exactly what colors, shapes, figures, and design he must use in executing the painting. As he himself readily admits, “What was to have been my most difficult painting was the easiest one I ever painted in my life.” The painting is actually the most captivating of the series and adorns the cover of the published edition of these illustrated mysteries.
Humility is the mother of many virtues, because from it knowledge, realism, honesty, strength, and dedication are born. “Humility, that low, sweet root,” writes the poet Thomas Moore, “From which all heavenly virtues shoot.”
By Donald DeMarco
- Joseph Baker, Scientific American, May 6, 1911.
- Sigmund Lavine, Steinmetz, Maker of Lightning, p. 101. See also John Winthrop Hammond, Charles Proteus Steinmetz (New York: Century, 1924), pp. 261-62: “[Steinmetz] brought together a collection of cacti that was said to rank second only to the collection in the Kew Gardens in England. The specimens included scores and even hundreds of the ungainly euphorbia, the old-man cactus, the fishhook and hedgehog species, the aloe, the agave, and the columnar cactus.
- American Magazine, May 1918.
- Sender Garlin, Charles P. Steinmetz: Scientist and Socialist (New York: AIMS, 1977), p. 25.
- Thomas Merton, Seeds of Contemplation (New York: Dell Publishing, 1949), p. 103.
- Edmund Fuller, ed., Thesaurus of Anecdotes (New York: Crown Publishers, 1942), p. 241.
- John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University (Garden City, N.Y.: 1959), p. 214.
- Henry David Thoreau, “Walden:, in The American Tradition in Literature”, vol. I (New York: W.W. Norton, 1957), p. 963.
- G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1957), p. 32.
- Spiritual Diary: Selected Sayings and Examples of Saints (Boston: St Paul Books and Media, 1990), p. 37.
- Personal communication with the artist, January 5, 1995.
- Michael OBrien, The Mysteries of the Rosary (Ottawa: The White House Press, 1992).
- Thomas Moore, Loves of the Angels: Third Angelss Story.
DeMarco, Donald. “Humility”. In The Heart of Virtue, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996).
This page is borrowed from https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/culture/catholic-contributions/humility.html.
Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo Ontario. Donald DeMarco continues to work as a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life. DeMarco is the author of twenty books, including How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad, Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart, The Heart of Virtue, The Many Faces of Virtue, and Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the Advisory Board of The Catholic Education Resource Center.