The Virtue of ModestyDONALD DEMARCO
One of the most basic and vexing problems in moral education is how to make virtue more attractive than vice. In this regard, modesty plays a key role.
Modesty is the virtue that presents goodness in its proper color: one of elegance rather than affluence, economy rather than extravagance, naturalness rather than ostentation. “What a power has white simplicity,” as Keats has aptly remarked. Modesty is the virtue that allows one to focus on what is good without being distracted by irrelevant superficialities.
Not for public consumption
The modest person is content with living well and performing good deeds without fanfare. For him, life is essential, rewards are superfluous. He believes that nature opens to a wider world, whereas ornamentation stifles. He is always averse to gilding the lily. He is confident without being demure, unpretentious without being self-defeating. He lets his actions and words speak for themselves.
Modesty is, as it were, the body’s conscience. The modest person is not interested in displaying his talents and attainments for people to admire. He even shuns making himself the subject of conversation. He is more eager to know what he needs to know than to parade what he already knows. He has a healthy sense of himself as he is and is less concerned about how others view him.
Image is everything?
Modesty seems out of step with the modern world. As a rule, people are most eager to impress others by recourse to no end of gimmicks. Those who work in the advertising or cosmetic industries regard modesty as a self-imposed handicap. If “nice guys finish last,” people of modesty do not even enter the race. Hollywood, or “Tinsel Town,” as it is appropriately called, is the glamour capital of the world, its chief export being the very antithesis of modesty. It champions style over substance, image over essence.
Despite the arrogance and the artificiality of the modern world, modesty retains an unmatched power. It remains a diamond in the midst of zircons. “In the modesty of fearful duty,” wrote Shakespeare, “I read as much as from the rattling tongue of saucy and audacious eloquence” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream). When modesty speaks, its unvarnished eloquence presents that which is true, dependable, and genuine. Modesty is concerned with honesty, not deceit. Therefore, it has little patience with flattery and adulation. Nor is it inclined to exaggerate or boast.
The modest person is aware of his limitations and retains the capacity to blush. A person blushes when he is suddenly the object of praise or attention. It catches him off guard at a moment when he is interested in something other than himself. The essence of modesty is self-forgetfulness.
Emily Dickinson exemplifies the paradox that modesty, which is unconcerned about stature and reputation, can actually enlarge them. When she was 32, she sent four of her poems to The Atlantic Monthly. The magazine’s rejection of them led her to believe that the public was not interested in her poetry. This belief remained with her throughout the rest of her life, and she never submitted any other works for publication. Although she wrote some 1,775 poems over the course of her life, only seven of them were published — all anonymously, and most of them surreptitiously by friends who wanted to see them in print.
“Fame is a fickle thing,” she wrote. “Men eat of it and die.” As she stated in a letter to a literary critic whom she admired, “My barefoot rank is better.” Her own modest world was broad enough to fill her heart: “A modest lot . . . is plenty! Is enough!” It was her destiny: “I meant to have modest needs, such as content and heaven.” She did not require much to be transported from one realm to another. A book was sufficient — "How frugal is the chariot that bears the human soul.”
A theologian by the name of Nathaniel Emmons, an American contemporary of Dickinson, may have written the perfect summation of her triumphant modesty when he said: “Make no display of your talents or attainments; for everyone will clearly see, admire, and acknowledge them, so long as you cover them with the beautiful veil of modesty.”
One such admirer was the head of a Catholic religious order who confessed: “I bless God for Emily — some of her writings have had a more profound influence on my life than anything else that anyone has ever written.” The general consensus recognizes her as one of America’s greatest poets, and the greatest of all her women poets. Moreover, she touched people who ordinarily do not care much for poetry. As one critic put it, she is supremely the poet of those who “never read poetry.”
Depth of character
One of the most basic and vexing problems in moral education is how to make virtue more attractive than vice. In this regard, modesty plays a key role. Modesty is inherently attractive because it invites one to examine the quiet depth of what is there. Display is not as attractive as it is conspicuous. But what is merely conspicuous is often shallow. It is only natural for people to lift up the modest and be turned away by the proud.
The modesty of the following lines from Dickinson provides a good illustration of the singularly attractive power of modesty:
This is my letter
to the world,
message is committed
DeMarco, Donald. “The Virtue of Modesty.” Lay Witness (December 1999).
Reprinted with permission of Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.
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