A Modest Little Article on Virtues

Bill McClay teaches history and humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. But modesty was on his mind when he wrote about that topic in a recent issue of In Character, devoted to the concept of modesty.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

The underpinnings of western civilization are said to be found in the virtues we most admire. Love, hope, faith, prudence, temperance, courage, humility, kindness, chastity, patience and diligence are among the cardinal theological and heavenly virtues, and they're also represented in the seven contrary virtues that counteract the seven deadly sins. These values are central to Christianity, but date back to the ancient Greeks. And somewhere in the firmament is another virtue, maybe less exalted that may have hit hard times of late: modesty. In Character: A Journal for Everyday Virtues recently devoted an entire issue to modesty and it wasn't a small one. Historian Bill McClay was a contributor and joins us in the studio. Professor McClay, thanks very much for being with us.

Prof. WILFRED BILL MCCLAY (Historian): It's a pleasure to be here, Scott.

SIMON: I feel the need for a definition here.

Prof. MCCLAY: Okay.

SIMON: Because to some people modesty is covering up their toes.

Prof. MCCLAY: Yeah, and one of the things I try to do in the essay is to connect covering your toes, or more covering your midriff, let's say, to use a more sort of topical example, with being modest about your own abilities, your own achievements, your own significance. Thinking of the Bible, there's the famous Garden of Eden setting where once Adam and Eve become aware of the fact that they've really blown it, they cover themselves. They cover their genitals, even though they haven't done anything wrong with their genitals. It's their mouths that they've done the wrong thing with. But there's that sense that modesty is about the shame that we feel for the ways that we fall short of what we were meant to be, what we were created to be.

But there's also this sense of modesty and it's in the Song of Solomon, where the beloved is described as being like a garden enclosed. That's another part of what is being said, is that in some way the precious things in life need that sort of enclosure and protection. You can't be intimate with everybody.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a couple of notes of modern life that I wonder if they haven't helped to make modesty more difficult. One is the revulsion that some people have developed for what is palpably false modesty, the Oh it's just a pleasure to be nominated with everybody else, or I'm just a poor country lawyer, Your Honor, that kind of stuff. False modesty.

Prof. MCCLAY: Yeah, and I...

SIMON: It gives modesty a bad name.

Prof. MCCLAY: Yeah, it does and it's - well, part of the deviousness of our souls is that we have an infinite capacity for putting forward false fronts. Yeah, you know, one of the things I say in the essay, I don't come down on the side of we need to restore modesty, we need to sort of go back to the '50s, to the Victorian Era, to, you know, Noah and his sons. What I say is that in these areas of interpersonal relations and in academia, which is where the essay really ends up going, we really need to cultivate more of a sense of skepticism. There needs to be a constant reflex to question oneself and therefore, you know, the I'm just a poor country lawyer, or I'm, you know, just trying to do the best I can, that sort of thing, it can be genuine, it can be false. It's a question of context, but I think that it's ultimately up to the person himself or herself to be willing to ask this question by putting forward a false front. Sometimes the most modest thing one can do is to be absolutely upfront and blatant and direct and straightforward.

SIMON: You mean, you like me, you really like me. The philosopher Sally Field.

Prof. MCCLAY: Yeah, yeah, right. Or, well, you know, I'm thinking of this as a hazy memory, but Kierkegaard has this discussion of what he calls the night of faith. You know, it's right in the same league with Sally Field, right? Kierkegaard. And he says, I believe that the night of faith will look like an insurance salesman. I hope that I'm quoting him accurately because it makes my point, that in some ways the sort of ostentatious presentation of oneself as a thoughtful and modest person is another phony front and that it's better to just sort of put yourself out there and let people think your philistine if that's what they're going to think.

SIMON: Are we living in a time, and maybe in a Anglo-American, North Atlantic culture that emphasizes self-esteem to the deficit of modesty?

Prof. MCCLAY: Oh, yeah, I think so, absolutely. I think that in some ways they're inversely proportional to one another, although I think a certain healthy self-esteem is absolutely perquisite. I mean, to use one more religious example, you can't love your neighbor as yourself if you think you're a piece of trash. I mean, then things - it just doesn't work. There is a presumption of a certain kind of healthy self-love. But given that, yes, I think that we also - if we don't know ourselves and if we think we do, we are really kidding ourselves. That's when we're really setting ourselves up for the kind of pride that precedeth a fall. You know, the Cassius Clay, who went around saying, I'm the greatest is now the Mohammed Ali that breaks our heart every time we see him. The King Ozymandius, who says, Look upon my works, ye mighty and tremble, is this wrecked figure of the desert of Shelly's great poem. Or Ozzy Osbourne, not just Ozymandius, you know, same thing. You know, this is where we're all going, we're all...

SIMON: Ozzy Osbourne bites rats' heads off.

Prof. MCCLAY: Well, he's also a kind of dithering fool in his -

SIMON: (Unintelligible).

Prof. MCCLAY: Yeah, well, that's what I'm saying, is that the glory days of biting heads off are behind him. And we're all headed this way. Happy thought for the day.

SIMON: I guess this finally - in the end, are you saying that we've just lost a grip on modesty?

Prof. MCCLAY: Well, it could be very - in a modest way, a very helpful thing to recover it, recover a sense of why is not such a bad thing, whether we're talking about what I call the modesty of display, that is that maybe it's not a bad thing that women that don't show off every single curve or every single distinguishing feature of their body they can possibly get away with because they've got, that in fact there may be a certain virtue in restraint, in non-disclosure.

And the same is true on the level of thinking about our achievements, that we really are involved in a kind of denial of who and what we are when we prance around and say I am the greatest because we're all going to end up dust.

SIMON: Professor McClay, thank you, it's been fascinating. Nice talking to you.

Prof. MCCLAY: Thank you, I've enjoyed it.

SIMON: Wilfred Bill McClay teaches history and humanities at the University of Chattanooga and has written the upcoming book Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past. He joined us in our studios. Thanks so much.

Prof. MCCLAY: My pleasure.

SIMON: And we checked into the quote by Soren Kierkegaard about the night of faith and he imagined appearing not as an insurance salesman, but as a tax collector.

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