“Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature” (William Shakespeare).
MODESTY IS HARD TO DISCUSS BECAUSE IT’S HARD TO DEFINE. The word comes from the same root as “moderate,” so in its most basic sense, “modest” is the opposite of “extreme.” But we generally use the word to describe the person who is reticent and reserved, rather than forward and uninhibited. If I had to sum up the concept of modesty, I would put it this way: modesty’s basic instinct is to “keep private,” while immodesty’s preference is to “make public.”
Think about sexual modesty, for example. That is not the only kind of modesty, but think about it as an example. In sexual matters, immodesty means we reveal (either by our clothing, our behavior, or our speech) that which should be kept private. It’s not that sexuality is shameful, but its deep goodness depends on its privacy and exclusivity. If I dress immodestly, for example, I reveal to others that which no one but my spouse has any right to see.
But let’s go back to the more general character trait of modesty. There was a time (it seems so long ago) when being reserved was seen as a virtue. The restraint of the reticent person was admired. But that is no longer the case. In our star-crazed culture of advertising and entertainment, those who aren’t “outgoing” are left behind. In a culture like ours, no one is more pitied than the person who is shy. I frequently hear people speak of having “overcome” the problem of being shy, as if they expect to be congratulated for that.
It is interesting, however, that although our culture despises modesty as a basic personal characteristic, it still recognizes that such a characteristic is attractive — and so we try to use feigned modesty as a means of promoting ourselves. Lord Chesterfield saw the usefulness of modesty when he said, “Modesty is the only sure bait when you are fishing for praise.” But it’s hard to imagine anything more disgusting than the employment of modesty as a public relations strategy by an immodest person. So what I want you to consider is that modesty is indeed a virtuous character trait, but to be virtuous it must be real.
“Nothing is more amiable than true modesty, and nothing more contemptible than the false. The one guards virtue, the other betrays it” (Joseph Addison).