Essay Modesty

We may now pass from the intellectual conditions of conversation to what I may call, for simplicity’s sake, the moral conditions. It is, of course, certain that these so-called moral qualities are frequently congenital or constitutional, and that, therefore, the owner of them deserves no credit for possessing them. But as they are qualities enjoined upon us by moralists, and are in any case analogous to moral virtues, we may in this book, which does not affect precise philosophy, class them as moral. For example, the instinct of sociality, which is really the same as the gregarious instinct in birds and animals, is not the same as the love 38of our neighbour enjoined by the Gospel, but is closely connected with it, for to be social without being civil is not possible, and civility is at least the imitation of friendship, if it be not friendship or benevolence in outward acts of social intercourse. This, too, appears to be the reason why a particular class of social instincts is so agreeable to men, and so honoured in society—their close relationship to moral virtues.

Let me take up the first and most obvious—Modesty.[3] It is quite certain that modesty and its opposite are congenital to various people. Those who have to do with the education of children can see it within the limits of a family, not to say a school. Some boys and girls are naturally retiring, and think little of their 39powers; others are the reverse. But here too, as we all know, early education may make great changes. A child not originally remarkable in either way may be unduly brought forward and applauded, or again unduly repressed and cowed, so that the constant habit of early years may actually modify the original character in either of two opposite directions. But this is only possible when the original nature is not strongly declared; if it be so, I hold education to be almost helpless.

3.  I include here under the word all its various gradations from mere bashfulness to that moral self-restraint which makes us fear to assert ourselves, as implying an over-estimate of our powers.

When the child is growing to maturity it is likely to be strongly affected by watching the defects of others, or hearing the frequent censure of them. Thus I see that the children of people with too much manner are apt to have no manner at all (as the phrase is), and the children of incessant talkers are so bored with this social vice that they never think of practising talk during the absence of their 40parents. Let us apply these remarks to modesty.

§ 14. There is no quality in man, still more in woman, which is more attractive and which commands more respect. Every intelligent and sympathetic person makes allowance for it, and strives to lessen the necessary pains which it inflicts upon the possessor of it in society. It is akin to simplicity and honesty, and opposed to that artificiality which is the outward and visible sign of some kind of dishonesty. It lends a charm to youth and inexperience, so that people who are wearied with the labours of talking to worn and world-stained equals feel, as it were, the breath of gorse and heather after the odours of city air when they come in contact with genuine modesty. It is a quality sometimes allied with that heaven-born genius which attains great results without apparent effort, and, therefore, is not infected with the pride of having gained 41conscious and hard-fought successes. It is, lastly, the outcome of great and solid labour, which teaches the specialist how much he fails to know, and the general student how small a fragment of human knowledge he has compassed. Here it is no natural quality, but an acquired virtue; yet it excites the same kind of feeling in society.

There is, therefore, no quality more highly valuable in society and more certain, within limits, to conduce to agreeable conversation. Perhaps the clearest reservation, and one which will cover almost all the various cases, is this: modesty without simplicity, though it may still be a moral virtue, is always a social vice; and therefore highly detrimental to good conversation; for as soon as modesty becomes conscious, it assumes one of two forms—the parade of apology or the cloak of reserve.

I need hardly insist that the man or 42woman who displays modesty by constantly apologising for native ignorance or stupidity injures conversation, and can only amuse a company by becoming ridiculous. What we want to learn from each member is his free opinion on the subject in hand, not his own estimate of the value of that opinion. How evidently this is a social vice will appear from the fact that an assumption of this kind of modesty is one of the commonest and most diverting forms of humour—I mean the irony which has been the helper of conversation ever since the days of Socrates, as we find him in Plato’s Dialogues.

We cannot analyse the second form of conscious modesty, Reserve, till we have said a few words on the virtue akin to modesty which reserve particularly violates, 43I mean of the quality of Simplicity. It is a great mistake to say that simplicity as such is always a virtue. There is for example the enfant terrible who upsets everybody and causes shocking shame and confusion by the indiscreet directness of his inquiries. The very same kind of mistake is made by grown people who are ignorant of the ways of society, such as country girls, or girls of an inferior rank, who are married into a cultivated society, and who are allowed such liberties, either for their beauty’s sake, or for novelty’s sake, that they announce whatever comes into their head, and disturb conversation by their irrelevancy and shallowness, if not by suggesting subjects undesirable in general society. There is also the blunt man, whose simplicity takes the form of rudeness, who thinks it more important that he should speak out the plain truth, than that he should spare the feelings of others. This 44is again a vice parading under the form of a virtue—perhaps here of truthfulness rather than simplicity, but the two are so akin that at this point we need not draw distinctions. The conversational side of truthfulness is after all little more than directness and simplicity of utterance.

So far then I have put the defects of simplicity first, because they are more likely to be overlooked than its advantages. When, therefore, these important limitations are made, and they affect a great number of cases, we must admit that there is the greatest charm in simplicity, in the temper which without assumption of ignorance, or parade of inexperience, opens a candid eye of inquiry upon the company, receives with readiness new information, and is ready to tell without conceits or ornaments the actual impressions in the speaker’s mind.

It may be found not only along with genius, which is often of this character, but 45along with great experience and acuteness; we hear for example, that it is the leading characteristic of Prince Bismarck’s conversation. I remember it likewise with delight in the conversation of the late Isaac Butt, an Irish genius of the highest order, and a talker second to none, whose life was stormy, and whose character not by any means such as would naturally imply this quality of simplicity. On the other hand, it is quite extravagant to postulate it as a necessary sign of genius, and to say that those who are wanting in it are certainly wanting either in ability or honesty. There are great minds naturally wanting in simplicity, just as there are great minds wanting in modesty or in truthfulness—such as J. J. Rousseau and the great Napoleon in the latter two, and one great English writer of our day in the former, whom I need not name. Human nature will not be tied down in any such fetters.

46But when all has been said that can be said on either side, it will remain certain that the man who appears simple, and who therefore affects his company with the impression that they are in direct contact with his mind, has a distinct advantage over those who either from conceits of style, or over-delicacy of sentiment, or education in an artificial atmosphere, appear with their minds, as it were, dressed or tattooed, and not in the purity of nature.

I need hardly add that it is necessary to sever simplicity from modesty as social qualities, since the one may even contradict the other, though they are so often in harmony. The blunt man above mentioned, who speaks out his mind with over-simplicity, may be very devoid of modesty, and conversely there are certain phases of modesty, such as prudery, which make the speaker avoid simplicity, and cover his meaning by various subterfuges. It is 47when the two qualities work together, and appear habitual to the speaker, that they produce their admirable effect. If he is narrating, for example, a tragic history, or story of adventure in which he has taken part, while his modesty will prevent him from magnifying his own share in the matter, and so trying to the utmost the faith of his hearers, his simplicity will prevent him from unduly concealing his action, and will ensure that he tells the whole truth, so far as he knows it. If again he be asked his opinion on a question which he has studied, and upon which he ought to be an authority, his modesty may prevent him from giving the company the benefit of his knowledge, unless his simplicity makes him attend directly to the matter in hand, and not to the position of referee in which he suddenly comes to be placed.

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