Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): the Virtue of Modesty

Maggie: A friend of mine, whose name is also Maggie, asked me about modesty. She wanted to know whether modesty is a real virtue or whether it is just a tool parents use to control their kids. Can we discuss this question?

John:   Sure. I think this is an important topic.

Maggie: Do you think modesty is a virtue?

John: Yes, yes I do. But it is a difficult and challenging virtue to deal with. Like your friend Maggie suggested, modesty is occasionally used as a tool by some people to manipulate the behavior of others.

Maggie: What people are you talking about?

John: Generally speaking, modesty has been used by men to manipulate the behavior of women, and mostly to control the kind of clothing women wear. Think about all the sermons and speeches you have heard discussing how people should dress; they almost always focus on women and girls.

But also, both men and women in older generations use the virtue to control how members of younger generations dress. And, to be completely fair, us parents also use modesty as a tool to control our children.

Maggie: That kind of makes me angry.

John: Well, that’s okay. Some things are worth getting worked up about.

Maggie: Do you think modesty is even worth discussing nowadays. I kind of want to just forget it.

John: No, let’s not forget it. Just because some people abuse the virtue doesn’t mean the virtue is wrong or evil. We just need to make sure we define modesty correctly and work to correct the abuses.

Maggie: Okay. That makes sense. I will take a deep breath.

Krissshhhh Hhhwoooo… There we go. I am ready to move on.

John: You sounded like Darth Vader!

Maggie: Are you making fun of me?

John: A little bit. Just trying to make you laugh.

Maggie: You’re not that funny, you know.

John: It sounded funny in my head. I will work on the presentation.

Maggie: How about we just move on? How do you define modesty?

John: Modesty, I think, is best defined as the exercise of good judgment about what is proper behavior in any given context.

Maggie: I changed my mind: you are funny. Hilarious. I hope you’re going to explain that definition.

John: Of course. Let’s focus on clothing, since that is what most people think about when they discuss modesty. If we are exercising good judgment about what is proper behavior in a specific context, I think most people would conclude that it is okay to wear swimwear at the beach. But it is not okay to wear it to school. It is okay to wear a prom dress to a formal dance, but it is not okay to wear one to a neighborhood barbeque. It is probably okay to wear jeans to church, unless you are accompanying your grandparents who think it is disrespectful. In other words, the proper type of clothing to wear depends on the context in which it is worn.

Maggie: What do you mean by context?

John: Considering context means considering the setting you will be in (beach, school, office, church, movie theater, formal restaurant, etc.), the type of event you will be attending (dance, lecture, movie, ballet, date, funeral, wedding, etc.), and the people who will be attending the event (young, old, business colleagues, priests, parents, etc.). Someone who is modest understands these contexts and dresses appropriately for the situation. Does that make sense?

Maggie: That makes perfect sense. Do you have other examples besides dress?

John: I sure do. Modesty involves speech and the way we speak to people. Slang and some abrasive terms may be appropriate in the context of a social gathering with your friends, but not appropriate when talking with your grandmother. Interrupting your friends when they are talking is probably fine, but interrupting a teacher is not. A modest person understands what words, tone, and volume are proper in any given context.

Modesty also involves our social interactions. A modest person understands the contexts in which it is proper and improper to joke, be serious, flirt, hold hands, and engage in other social behaviors, like when it is proper to punch your date in the arm (I highly recommend you do this on an hourly basis if you are out with a boy, just to keep him in line).

Maggie: Again, you really are not that funny.

So modesty is basically exercising good judgment about what to do and say in any given situation?

John: Yes, that is well put. You are exactly right.

Maggie: I like it. That makes sense to me.

John: And despite the fact that the virtue has been abused in the past, I think it is a valuable virtue to develop.

Maggie: You forgot something. Since it is a virtue, it is a mean between two extremes. You forgot to tell me about the extremes.

John: Good catch. And, I like the fact that you remember this and brought it up.  

The lack of modesty is brazenness. This person does not make any judgments about what is proper in a particular context, and she does whatever she wants to do without regard to context. You often hear this person say “I just have to be me.”

The excess of modesty is prudishness. This person is overly cautious in their approach to context, never taking any risks. The problem with this approach is that this person appears awkward, appears stale at having fun, and misses a lot of enjoyment that life offers.

Maggie: Any other thoughts on modesty?

John: Just one more regarding parental rule making. Parents make rules for their children, and these rules are necessary because the reasoning skills of children are still developing. The rules may appear prudish to teens who are trying to stretch their wings and become adults, but most often this is not the case. So when you feel like pushing against these rules, please remember that parents may actually know what is best for their children. At a minimum, parents usually have their kids’ best interest in mind.

Maggie: So you are saying us teens should give our parents a break and stop complaining so much about the rules?

John: I would appreciate that.

Maggie: Well, I can’t promise anything, but I will try.

2 thoughts on “Maggie and Me (a philosophical dialogue): the Virtue of Modesty

  1. thank you, John!
    i like your banter with Maggie in this edition.
    as always, thinking about the spectrum is a good way to think of life in balance.

    Liked by 1 person

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