November 17, 2011

Greatness and modesty

History has produced amazing examples of human achievement in science and art. You might think that if any people would deserve to speak of themselves immodestly. But it is striking how modest some of the very greatest geniuses of all time appear to have been. It is almost as if the following rule applies: the greater the genius, the more modest. I think Confucius said it right when he said: “A superior man is modest in his speech, but exceeds in his actions.” Here are a few examples:
  • Isaac Newton: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
  • Isaac Newton: “I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” 
  • Charles Darwin: "There seems to be a sort of fatality in my mind leading me to put at first my statement or proposition in a wrong or awkward form."
  • Charles Darwin: "With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points." 
  • ‎Richard Feynman: "I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there" 
  • Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: ‎"People make a great mistake who think that my art has come easily to me"
  • Albert Einstein: "You ask me if I keep a notebook to record my great ideas. I’ve only ever had one…"
  • Albert Einstein (about his own theory): "Let no one suppose that the mighty work of Newton can really be superseded by this or any other theory. His great and lucid ideas will retain their unique significance for all time as the foundation of our whole modern conceptual structure in the sphere of natural philosophy."
  • Johann Sebastian Bach: “There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself”
  • Johann Sebastian Bach: “I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed . . . equally well.”
  • Niels Bohr: "Everything I say must be understood not as an affirmation but as a question."
Questions: do you know any more examples of modest quotes by geniuses? Do you know a genius who said some very immodest things?

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