Are we being immodest in our attention to modesty?
Perhaps we don’t often consider that virtues can be overdone — if something is good, we say, then let’s go after it with all we’ve got, right? The more the better! How could there be too much attention paid to a virtue?
But Aristotle knew this of virtue, and we shouldn’t forget it: “Virtue is the mean between extremes.”
So what we must remember is that every virtue has two vices associated with it, not just one.
Take courage, for example. Courage is the virtue by which we have the strength to do a good thing in the face of danger. So courage is opposed to cowardice, of being afraid to act when we should, and we lack the virtue of courage if, for example, we fail to tell the truth for fear of the consequences.
But also opposed to courage is foolhardiness — trying to do the good when it is unsafe, unnecessary, and imprudent to do so. So in fact we would lack the virtue of courage if we ran into a burning building to try to save a kitchen chair (even if it’s a really, really nice chair).
It seems to me that this truth about all virtues must be especially recalled in our day when we speak of modesty.
Modesty is the virtue related to outward adornment. Usually people speak of it only in relation to how our clothing might be an incitement to lust, but St. Thomas Aquinas in his discussion of the virtue (Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 169, a.1) reminds us that this is but one aspect of it. He lists the different offenses against modesty as not only seeking too much attention for what we wear, but also being too solicitous about our appearance or not having enough care for our appearance—that is, caring both too much and too little. He even notes we might be “seeking glory from the very lack of attention to outward attire.”
C.S. Lewis illustrates this beautifully in The Screwtape Letters. When the demon Wormwood tells his uncle Screwtape he is unable to get his “patient” to eat and drink in excess and become a glutton, Wormwood responds:
But what do quantities matter, provided we can use a human belly and palate to produce querulousness, impatience, uncharitableness, and self-concern? Glubose [another demon] has this old woman well in hand. … She is always turning from what has been offered her to say with a demure little sigh and a smile ‘Oh, please, please … all I want is a cup of tea, weak but not too weak, and the teeniest weeniest bit of really crisp toast.’ You see? Because what she wants is smaller and less costly than what has been set before he, she never recognizes as gluttony her determination to get what she wants, however troublesome it may be to others. At the very moment of indulging her appetite she believes that she is practising temperance …; in reality … the particular shade of delicacy to which we have enslaved her is offended by the sight of more food than she happens to want. The real value of the quiet, unobtrusive work which Glubose has been doing for years on this old woman can be gauged by the way in which her belly now dominates her whole life. … Meanwhile, the daily disappointment produces daily ill temper: cooks give notice and friendships are cooled. …
Likewise, with modesty, we can reach the point of becoming so focused on not being too flashy or revealing in our clothing that we obsess over every detail: collarbones, ankles, and shoulders become in our minds occasions of sin for everyone; we keep a ruler on top of our dresser to ensure the proper lengths have not been exceeded; in short, we become scrupulous.
What’s more, if we pay this same attention to our children’s wardrobes, we risk making them scrupulous, too. It is one thing to dress our children in a modest fashion; it is another to discuss it with young children and burden them with notions of sexuality that do not yet apply to them and that they cannot understand.
What reason does a 7-year-old have to worry about how much of her calf might be revealed by the length of her pants? Why should a prepubescent child be made conscious of the sexual aspects of our dress, when it is not an issue for them? This robs them of the very innocence we are trying to protect.
In effect, in the effort to keep our children from becoming sexualized, we end up making them hyper-conscious of their bodies and appearance, and we thus defeat our own purpose. Children paying that much attention to their appearance is… immodest.
With this mindset we also make ourselves vulnerable to the other temptation that St. Thomas warns against: of taking great pride in our lack of attention to our appearance; of congratulating ourselves on the shapelessness and blandness of our clothing; of being self-satisfied that our hair is uncombed and our face unwashed. We become terribly concerned about appearing unconcerned about our appearance. We’ve fallen into the opposite extreme again!
What is needed in trying to live out modesty—what is needed in trying to live out any virtue—is the virtue of prudence, of knowing what the right thing to do is in a given situation. That means taking into account the prevailing social standards and not assuming that the True Rule for modest appearance was set in 1953 (or 1853). That means properly gauging when a young adult needs to start being conscious of what his or her appearance might communicate to others. That means giving neither too much nor too little attention to our habit, our raiment, our accoutrement, our threads.
It means, in sum, taking a modest approach to modesty.