Dante and Beatrice speak to the teachers of wisdom Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Peter Lombard, and Sigier of Brabant in the Sphere of the Sun Fresco by Philipp Veit. Wikimedia Commons.
It’s humbling to write a book about humility. It’s hard to talk about, too. How can you say, “I’m proud to be humble” or “Fall in line behind my shining example of humility”? As a Yiddish proverb teaches, “Too humble is half proud.”Studying humility is worth the risk of looking in the mirror, especially to fight against the vice of what ancient Greeks called hubris: excessive, presumptuous, self-delusional arrogance that inevitably leads to downfall. Shakespeare’s prototypical tragic flaw — a vice — is often the flip-side of a virtue: Lord and Lady Macbeth’s aspirations become lust for ultimate power. This is true of other virtue-vice combinations. Persistence is good, stubbornness isn’t. When does commitment to an effort — as small as a fight between brothers or as big as a war — become a dug-in determination to stick to it even when it becomes a losing effort? What is the cost of needing to be right when you’re clearly wrong? Dante labeled humility the first virtue when he was writing in the early 1300s. In his Purgatorio, the opening book of his three-part Divine Comedy describing a journey to the afterlife, Dante describes landing on the terrace called Pride. There he meets the soul of an artist named Oderisi da Gubbio, who had been renowned for illuminating manuscripts. Like others stuck in purgatory, Oderisi is still weighed down by the arrogance he carried around during his lifetime. Oderisi strains under a big boulder on his back that bends him double as a reminder of how his earthly pride crushed his spirit. Oderisi tells Dante he’s learned that worldly fame flies away as quickly as a breath. Stuck in purgatory, he sees how his drive for excellence, reputation, and being recognized as the best in his field had made him arrogant and disdainful of another artist, Franco of Bologna. Oderisi now admits he knew all along Franco was the better craftsman. Oderisi’s pride had blinded his humility on earth. Now he’s paying the penitential price in heaven’s waiting room. Dante takes from Oderisi the lesson that – for the purposes of the narrator’s tour through the afterlife, at least – he must descend in humility to the Inferno in order to ascend to Paradise. His pilgrimage starts with a truthful recognition of his place in the world. He sees his need for guidance to improve and move on to the next stage. This doesn’t mean that Dante thinks less of himself, but that he doesn’t think more of himself, either.Dante gives us another example of humility, but this time related to people whose names we might already know. In a scene of heaven in his Paradiso, Dante puts the great medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas at the head of a table surrounded by other big-name thinkers, with Albert the Great, Thomas’ mentor, at his right hand. The teacher sits at the right hand of the student, and not the other, more traditional way around as we’d expect. Albert would surely have approved, since he was never comfortable with high status. He was a knight’s son who joined a poor order of friars called the Dominicans. He resisted being ordained a bishop, finally accepting out of obedience, but resigned as head of the Regensburg diocese after two years because he just didn’t feel he was doing the job well. The mentor Albert outlived the protégé Aquinas by about six years, breaking down in tears when he heard of his pupil’s death. Albert, then in his 70s and in poor health, still traveled to a disputation to go to bat for Aquinas when some of his propositions were posthumously investigated. Years before, it was Albert who had pulled the chubby, reticent, and distant (and likely unlikable) Aquinas off the pile of students to invest in. He predicted that the twenty-year-old student everyone called a dumb ox would bellow teachings that the entire world would notice. So it would have been consistent with Albert’s character and personal humility to accept the place Dante gave him. Sitting at his own student’s right hand in paradise is just where Albert thinks he should find his place card. That’s humility.Christopher M. Bellitto, Ph.D., is Professor of History at Kean University in Union, NJ. His latest book, from which this essay is adapted, is Humility: The Secret History of a Lost Virtue (Georgetown University Press, 2023). He joined Deacon Pedro on Salt + Light TV in January to reflect on the legacy of Pope Benedict XVI.