Casey Lange

Afterthought on “Modesty”


This article responds to Hypocrite Reader Issue 36, Modesty.

1. Introduction: Modesty Defined

Why is it good to be modest? Modesty, in the simplest terms, is the understatement of one’s virtues (in the broader sense of any positive or admirable qualities). It’s generally regarded as a good thing. But if to be modest is to understate one’s virtues, it seems like the modest person must be either stupid or lying. That is, on the one hand, they may underestimate themselves: they really think that they aren’t as impressive as everyone can see they are. On the other hand, if they know how good they are and understate that to others, they’re lying. It’s hard to see how either of these is a good thing.

In trying to resolve this contradiction, we should first and foremost observe that when we recognize modesty and admire someone for being modest, we are not simply noting a contrast between what they think and what they say about themselves. Modesty depends not just on the difference between those, but more importantly on other people understanding that difference, what they understand in that difference, what they are brought to understand by that difference. Modesty is a social virtue in that its goodness consists in the effects it has on the people around the modest person. To understand what makes modesty what it is and why it is a virtue is the aim of this essay.

2. Ignorance of One’s Virtues Is Itself a Vice

Note that it is hard to see how self-ignorance could be called an advantage, let alone a virtue. In some cases it would be naïveté—which can be in a sense “attractive,” but not necessarily in a way that’s good for the naïf. It opens one up to exploitation by those who would make use of one’s advantages, since one is not using them oneself.

In other cases undervaluing oneself could be a useful kind of insecurity, keeping one working hard and not resting on one’s laurels (“What laurels?”). But on closer inspection this is only a check against another vice, namely laziness or complacence. And this is one fortunate (and by no means guaranteed) consequence of insecurity, among other significant harmful consequences, such as not trying due to (subjectively reasonable) fear of failure. Not to mention simply feeling bad about oneself, with all the emotional and ethical ailments (depression, bitterness, resentment of the competent, etc.) that this can entail.

In either case—it’s rare that some good you have does more good for you if you don’t know you have it, unless you’d almost certainly misuse it. But who would disagree that it is better to know your talents and use them properly than to let them lie idle?

3. Lying about One’s Virtues is the Vice of False Modesty

On the other hand, if a modest person knows they are good or talented in some way, but pretends to others that they aren’t, then modesty is deception. No one denies that it can sometimes be useful not to show one’s cards, but it’s not what we mean by modesty.

In fact, lying about one’s virtues is a vice we have a name for: false modesty. When it’s the “Aw, shucks, t’weren’t nothin’” variety, it’s silly and might induce in us a sympathetic embarrassment. When worse, it can be covert bragging, a bragging that’s double: first, the falsely modest person hopes to elicit further, more insistent praise, as if they just haven’t been convinced yet how great they are (and maybe, at some level, they haven’t, if insecurity is at work). Second, they hope to be admired as modest. They want to have their cake and eat it too, to be admired for whatever virtue they have demonstrated, and moreover to be admired for not wanting to be admired.

4. Modesty’s Opposite, Vanity, Is a General Inward-Turning

This impasse—that modesty seems to consist in either deception or ignorance—might be illuminated by consideration of its opposite, vanity. “Vanity” is generally understood as an excessive esteem for one’s virtues, and paradigmatically for one’s looks. But is the person fixated on their own inadequacy, rebutting every compliment with a self-deprecation, any less preoccupied with their appearance than the braggart? On reflection it is apparent that vanity does not basically consist in a judgment or evaluation, negative or positive. Rather, it is the belief that you or something about you is worth looking at, thinking about—whatever judgment one subsequently makes of it. “He has an excessive self-regard”: he regards himself too much, he looks at himself too much. It doesn’t matter whether he thinks he’s beautiful or whether he thinks he’s ugly; it’s just that something about him keeps catching his own eye.

Illustration by Wesley Ryan Clapp

Vanity and Modesty Are Not Intentional Appearings

It’s useful as well to observe that neither vanity, nor modesty, needs to involve an intentional appearing. “He’s very modest”: this is something we whisper to each other about a third person. Part of what confused us about “false” modesty—what made all non-ignorant modesty look like knowing falsehoods—is that “He is modest” sounds like “He is being modest” sounds like “He is (intentionally) being modest.” We forgot—incredibly—that one can be something (even some personal quality, even some moral quality) without trying to be it; that qualities can be ascribed in the third person even to people; that we do not know how we look, do not necessarily know we have outward appearance.1,2 The lesson here is that the belief or communicative intent corresponding to any individual utterance about oneself (whether I secretly believe that I’m clever while telling you I’m dim, and whether I’m trying to deceive you or to truthfully represent myself) is immaterial to whether it manifests vanity or modesty, because either arises from a deeper attitude toward (or away from) the self.

5. Vanity of Vanities!: The Vanity of Vanity

If we conceive vanity as overvaluing one’s virtues and modesty as undervaluing one’s virtues, then either is a kind of self-ignorance, and moreover we miss the social aspect of these traits. If we conceive vanity as overstating one’s virtues to others, and modesty as understating them to others, then either is a kind of deception, and moreover we miss their self-relational aspect. If we conceive vanity as thinking oneself worthy of admiration (as very good, and therefore deserving of approving looks) by others, and modesty as thinking oneself unworthy of admiration by others—this understanding grasps both the self-relational and the social aspects of these traits, but still misses something essential.

——In an older but surviving sense, “vanity” applied not to people but to things; more precisely to (potential) objects of human pursuit, to describe them as futile, fleeting, really nothing. Certain things were typically classed as vain because they seemed to be very desirable and advantageous, but were in fact useless, really nothing—traditionally things like wealth, political power, and indeed, physical beauty. A “vain” person was a person consumed (squandered, emptied, made into nothing) by the pursuit of these things that were really nothings, who therefore let the things of real substance pass by and slip away from him.

Of course, this particular understanding of vanity only holds up as long as does the designation of all purely worldly, temporal goods as vain. Which only holds up as long as does the designation of some other (and therefore nonworldly, nontemporal) thing as really good—salvation or something like it. Which does not hold up anymore.

Nevertheless this understanding gets at something of just what is wrong with the vain person. The vain person is trapped in an unreal world, trapped in his own appearance. Staring ever at his own self, he never sees the things and people of the world: he sees at most the lights and shadows things cast on his face as they move around him. He might or might not know these lights and shadows are cast by real objects, but he doesn’t or can’t care, can’t take any but the briefest of glances away from his face in the mirror. In his interactions he acts as a black hole, redirecting all conversation back toward him. The modest person, in contrast, in her actions deflects attention away from herself and out into the real things of the world.

6. Conclusion: Look Out

Suppose after this afterthought comes out you come up to me at a party and say, “I loved your article, you’re an amazing writer!” Now, if I say, “Thanks, yeah, I really did something good and important there,” I am being obviously vain. If I respond instead, “No, it was pretty bad in the end,” that’s false modesty, because I don’t really think that; maybe I’m fishing for more compliments, maybe I’m embarrassed by the attention, maybe I just want it known that my expectations for myself were even higher, and that I could have written something better. In the higher sense this response is vanity, because it keeps the attention squarely on me and whether I’m good or bad. (What if I really do think it’s a shitty article? Maybe that is truthful humility, in content; but self-flagellating and soliciting scorn is also a very in-turned posture, holding oneself up as an object worthy of contempt, looking for people to confirm one’s image of oneself as a failure.) Hopefully, I might say something like, “I’m glad you liked it, but I’ve been wondering whether ‘trying to be modest’ is a possible or useful thing to do, and how one would go about that concretely[—or some other question.]—what do you think?” In that case, hopefully, we could then have a real conversation, forget for a while to worry about how we look to each other, because we are too busy ranging the world of real things and ideas, exploring, digging into them, puzzling with them, playing with them.

Modesty says, “Oh yes, me: okay. But weren’t we doing something just now, before we got sidetracked with such a boring thing? Oh, yes, we were: I remember now. It was much better. Let’s get back to work.”

1 There is a way in which some mode of vanity—I am thinking of the self-conscious preening sort—can be a first step toward modesty, in the sense that it (this vanity) constitutes some awareness that one has an appearance, which can develop into reflection on the ethical implications of one’s appearing.

2 This should also indicate to us that to be modest, if we want to, is no simple matter of intending to be so, either.

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