The Beauty of Modesty for Men and Women

By Donald DeMarco

    The modest person does not draw undue attention to himself. He is self-assured, but not self-absorbed. He is temperate in dress, language, and comportment and has a strong sense of the value of his privacy. He knows that being a person is fundamentally incompatible with being an object for public consumption. Modesty is, as it were, his body's conscience.

    He 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. His enthusiasms center around what is real. Therefore he has little patiencewith flattery and adulation. Nor is he inclined to exaggerate or boast. The modest person is aware of his limitations and retains the capacity to blush.

    Modesty is a virtue that is difficult to describe since, by nature, it tends to withdraw from view. It operates somewhat like a catalyst that does not do anything itself but assists other things in working more efficiently. In this regard it is like a perfume that loses its fragrance once it is exposed. Diogenes called modesty "the color of virtue" because it heightens other virtues the way shading makes colors in a painting appear more vivid and realistic.

    Modesty makes a beautiful person appear to be even more beautiful.

    Mark Twain averred that "Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to." 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.

    Abraham Lincoln's "Gettysburg Address" and the events immediately connected with it comprise a noteworthy illustration of the virtue of modesty. Although he was not the main speaker for the occasion, Lincoln produced five slightly different versions of his speech, all of which he wrote out by hand. What was uppermost in his mind was the solemnity of the occasion, which was the dedication of the Gettysburg battlefield as a cemetary for those who had lost their lives in the great Civil War battle that was fought there. It was most fitting, therefore, for him to say that "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here."

    Lincoln's self-effacement, entirely appropriate for the occasion, helped to make his words far more memorable than he could have imagined at the time. The text of his speech at Gettysburg is carved on a stone plaque at the Lincoln Memorial in the nation's capital. What is sewn in self-forgetfulness is more likely to endure than what is produced with applause in mind.

    Edward Everett was the principal speaker on that same day, November 19, 1863. Moved by the gracefulness of the resident's words and the nobility of his tone, he wrote to Lincoln and humbly confessed that "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes." (1)

    Lincoln answered Everett's letter the same day he received it, November 20, 1863. He stated that under the circum-stances Everett could not have been excused to make a short address, nor he himself a long one. "I am pleased to know that, in your judgment," Lincoln went on to write, "the little I did say was not entirely a failure." (2)

    Modesty is a most attractive virtue, though it disappears as soon as it is used specifically for that purpose. Modesty forbids self-advertisement or private calculation. Dame Edith Sitwell once said that she often wished she had time to cultivate modesty, but was too busy thinking about herself. (3) Although her remark was said in jest, it does illustate a truism, namely, that self-centeredness can prevent modesty from taking root.

    Whereas modesty enhances other virtues, immodesty calls so much attention to itself that hardly anything else can be noticed. Immodesty, therefore, can conceal personality. The popular maxim, "If you've got it, flaunt it", fails to take into account the more important dimension of a person's inner life. Modesty allows the beauty of one's personality to shine forth without the disturbing element of pride.

    Immodesty is more conspicuous than modesty, but essentially because of its superficiality. It does not require much depth of perception to notice a display of flamboyance. Hollywood, the world's capital of glamor, glitter, and glitz, enables people to make an entire career out of being immodest. All this is only too well known. In a materialistic world, the subtleties of modesty are easily overlooked.

    If immodesty parades superficiality, modesty safeguards a mystery. The poet Richard Crashaw suggests metaphorically that modest self-effacement allows us to recognize the presence of God. In referring to the miracle at Cana in which Christ changed water into wine, he states: "The unconscious waters saw their God and blushed." (4)

    More on Modesty....Click here to read about modesty and Flannery O'Connor who is known as one of America's finest writers.

1) The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), p. 25.
2) Ibid., p. 24.
3) Edith Sitwell, Observer, April 30, 1950.
4) Cited in Fulton J. Sheen, Life of Christ (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1958), p. 77.

    Used with permission from Ignatius Press, publishers of The Heart of Virtue by Donald DeMarco.