An Introduction to the Forgotten Virtue of Modesty

Let me provide a provocative introduction to a provocative subject; please God I will do no more than provoke interest, serious thought, and even reasonable discussion.

Let’s imagine a saloon in place like Tombstone, Arizona in the 19th century. All the men are wearing six-shooters on their hips. There is loud talk, boasting, and swagger, but everyone knows instinctively to keep things within limits because no one really wants to end up dead. In walks some newcomer, loudmouthed, and swaggering, guns on his hips. Folks recognize the type and try to be patient with him, but pretty soon he pushes someone too hard, provokes a gunfight and ends up dead on the floor. The man who killed landed himself in jail, he shouldn’t have let himself be provoked, but no one had much sympathy for the dead man. Everyone knows that he brought it on himself.

Men will often act in physically aggressive ways and want to project an image of strength. There is nothing wrong with projecting an image of strength, but it needs to be moderated as most of the men in the bar were doing, despite their raucous behavior; they knew the limits. The man who ended up dead on the floor did not know his limits.

If men act in physically aggressive ways, women will at times act in visually aggressive and provocative ways. There is nothing wrong with a woman showing herself in a beautiful and attractive manner, but she needs to exercise moderation in doing so.

If we consider a modern scene in which a scantily clad young woman (whether she is just naïve or is being intentional about it) goes into a bar and then leaves with a man who later gives her more than she bargained for we are told these days not to blame the victim. Certainly the rapist should go to jail for his crime, he should not have let himself be provoked by the woman’s provocative appearance, nevertheless the woman does not deserve a whole lot of sympathy either. She did not know her limits any more than the dead gunfighter in the old west knew his.

Both the man in the old west saloon and the woman in the modern bar lacked an important, but forgotten, virtue called modesty, the modesty that governs exterior actions, the way we speak, the way we move, and the way we dress.

Modesty, as such is forgotten, or if remembered, little understood and despised. The word might suggest a timid woman, with downcast eyes, very plainly dressed, completely covered.

Modesty is forgotten, but people still speak about ‘respect’, respect for others and respect for self. Modesty, properly understood is all about a very important, practical, concrete part of the larger category of ‘respect’.

According to the famous saying, “No man is an island.” We are inherently social beings; we live in relationship with others; our identity is very much bound up in our relationships. Modesty has everything to do with how I understand myself, who I am, where I stand in relationship to others, and so I how present myself to others in accordance with a right understanding. It is then an indispensable condition for respect.

The word ‘modesty’ has the same root as the word ‘moderation’, they both have to do with ‘measure’, the right measure. The modest person, then, presents himself in right measure according to who he is and how he stands in relation to others. He does not pretend to be more than he is, but neither does he deny his gifts. At the same time, if he does not deny his gifts, he does not over exaggerate the overall importance of his particular gifts. He recognizes also what is truly a gift that he has received, and what is the result of his own hard work in developing those gifts. Exterior modesty, then, is the outward expression of interior humility.

All of this also means that modesty (like humility) is impossible without a right understanding of identity, who I am. Maybe that is the real reason why modesty is a forgotten virtue. The whole contemporary understanding of identity has become radically distorted by the erroneous idea that for any part of a person’s identity to be received, to be a given, to be beyond his control, is an intolerable indignity; rather, a person must completely forge his own identity; unless he, and he alone, decides who he is and who he will be, he is a slave of others, he is oppressed, he is a victim, he needs to be set free, to be liberated.

In truth, identity contains two parts: it is rooted first of all in what a person has received, but then it is given definition and form by what a person does with what he has received, either deforming the original gift, or bringing it to fruition, or allowing it to come to fruition. We are like the gardeners of our own life.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.