Modesty is Honesty

The Statue of Modesty at San Domenico Maggiore in Naples

You, dear reader, are the only person in existence who knows you are a subject, an I, an unique consciousness, and an individual perspective in the Cosmos. I do not know you are a subject, for to know that would be to experience your subjectivity, that is, to be you.

Indeed, forgive me, how rarely I can even muster up the faith necessary to believe you are a subject! When I see you in the crowd, the car, the mall, the hall — I see you as an object amongst many, not as a unique person. When I see you on the Internet, you are not a subject with individual cares, inward concerns, joys and desperations — you are an object, a picture and a name. I — and this comes from a personal callousness I would shudder to apply to you — am even unmoved by the gorgeous, soundtracked videos that pan over emaciated humans beings and beg food for the starving, for if it takes faith to move mountains, it takes faith to make an image into a human subject, and I am a man of little, pitiful faith.

Because I can never be you, I can never know that you are having the same deep, personal experience of life I’m having.

Now into this immense difficulty, between the seemingly infinite gap between the self and the other, modesty is born. The Church — and we might as well listen to her, as no one else seems to know what the hell they’re talking about — holds that modesty is “born with the awakening consciousness of being a subject.” (CCC 2524) Your modesty, insofar as it is born out of a consciousness of being the only knowable in a world of others, convinces me — who cannot, through knowledge alone, be convinced of your subjectivity — that you are an I, a person, and a human subject. Modesty “preserves the mystery of persons” (CCC 2522), as “an intuition of the spiritual dignity proper to man.” (CCC 2524) It “protects the intimate center of the person,” namely, his subjectivity. How?

By telling the truth. The loneliest man on the loneliest mountain has a duty to practice modesty, because modesty is truthfulness. As Aquinas says, “in so far as outward movements are signs of our inward disposition, their moderation belongs to the virtue of truthfulness whereby a man, by word and deed, shows himself to be such as he is inwardly.” (Aquinas, Question 168, Article 1) By modesty, our outward movement, expression and presentation are made signs of our inward disposition. We express our inner subjectivity, and thus invite our fellow man to make a leap of faith and consider us as subjects.

But modesty is not merely concerned with getting others to recognize our subjectivity. “It guides how one looks at others and behaves towards them in conformity with the dignity of persons and their solidarity.” (CCC 2521) By outwardly being our true selves, we recognize the true self expressed in the body, word and deed of the other, who becomes, under the modest gaze, our brother and fellow subject. I takes a subject to know a subject.

Modesty makes peace between the body and the soul. As the Eucharist is a spiritual reality under the appearance of bread, making truly present the God which it signifies, so modesty reveals the body to be a sacrament, a sign, movement, appearance and presentation which makes present that which it signifies — the particular human person; the subject.

Were I to join a Gay Pride Parade, donning a pair of assless chaps to offend the bourgeoisie, my primary offense against modesty would not be my leading others astray, or simply “showing too much.” My sin would be a lack of authenticity, my willingness to present myself as a caricature, my willingness to be objectified into a Hollywood-driven, stereotypical notion of “homosexual” that replaces my true subjectivity, the very same immodesty that leads to this…

…which is precisely the same immodesty present in “the voyeuristic explorations of the human body in certain advertisements,” (CCC 2522) which display the body as an object for observing.

True revelation of our subjectivity via the presentation and action of the body, this definition coalesces the many meanings we give to “modesty” into a coherent whole. We tell the man who is bragging to “be modest,” even if he isn’t showing an inch of flesh,  because modesty is essentially an honesty in the presentation of self, and thus the man who can only present himself as a bumbling conglomerate of degrees and good decisions may be acting more the whore than the pornstar. Modesty is synonymous with unpretentiousness because pretentiousness is just that — a pretense, and modesty, which is truthfulness, does not suffer its opposite.

Our will to be an object is immense. How much easier it is to be stereotype of religion or ideology, how much simpler to be the sum of our achievements or attractive features, and how much nicer the world would be if we could all be content with our careers, styles, sexualities, and living-room decors being “who-we-are.” By placing our very selves in our objective qualities, we live as objects, and this is immodesty, a disintegration between who-we-are — subjects — and how we present ourselves in word and deed — as objects. It is an essential dishonesty. Few, maybe one in ten thousand, and I far from them, live as subjects. Few live modestly, portraying themselves outwardly as the inward selves that they are.

This is the radical message of the Catholic Church, that modesty allows us to be outwardly the selves that we are, and in being ourselves, to bridge the terrifying gap between man and fellow man, self and other.

And Modesty Sets Fire.

  • Abby

    I like where this article is going, although it was a little “deep” for me to understand, I think I grasped most(ish) of what you’re saying. I’d like to hear some concrete examples of how we can practice this in our lives. Besides not wearing huge Sarah Palin shirts. Thanks.

  • MJ

    “…wallowing in that all-to-easy illusion which demands we never come to believe that people are not objects, things, stereotypes, or any of the rest.”

    This sentence contains a few more negatives than I can parse :S.

    • Katie

      rephrase: We always believe that people are objects.

  • mithril1971

    Marc- I have to admit, I had stopped reading your blog a while ago with your effort to explore a few topics prematurely (women, romantic love). But this is very good, and it is very like the work I have been trying to do, by expressing to people what the Church teaches about the dignity of the person,and this honesty of which you write. This is in contrast to the objectifying “culture of modesty” – a twisted definition of the virtue – that unfortunately is contributing in its own way to such things as eating disorders and the rape culture, by shaming women and looking the other way when men disregard them. I applaud your humility in trusting the teaching of the Church, and your desire to help share a more objective truth with your readership.
    Well done, too, is the reminder that modesty is not about clothing. Instead, it is about a way of being a person.

  • Nicholas Escalona

    If you haven’t read JPII’s Love and Responsibility, it has a lot to say about these topics.

  • Marta L.

    I could get behind this kind of modesty full-heartedly, and indeed I’ve always tried to practice it. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to be what most people mean when they talk about modesty, at least in my experience. More often, modesty is used to reduce a person (usually women) from full subjectivity to a caricature of their true selves, against their will. At the very best, this kind of modesty makes true subjectivity contingent. It says that I will see you as a person worthy of respect, but only if you dress a certain way – otherwise I will only see you as a potential sex partner. It also, ironically, denigrates men in the same way because it portrays them as incapable of controlling their lust if women do not dress a certain way. Sarah Over the Moon linked to a heartbreaking account of how a focus on modesty does just that. As an aside, I’ve encountered this in RCC churches and not just evangelical ones, though (to the RCC’s credit) less often.

    As I said, I’m not sure this is what you’re trying to get at. In fact, I’m fairly sure you’re rejecting this account of modesty, and I’m all for replacing it with something better. We Methodists have a similar understanding of modesty, and stress the importance of presenting ourselves as a full self rather than making decisions based on how our clothing affects others hormonally. But I think when you say modesty is this, you risk whitewashing and enabling the much more common understanding of modesty, which is toxic to any kind of respect of the whole person.

  • Drake

    Do you think this argument could be used to Justify sex change operations? If not, how so? Honest question.

    • Mark

      A justification requires no argument. But if someone attempted to use this post to justify a sex change operation, I would respond like this. Being honest with the world about who we are is not the same thing as acting upon every feeling we have, no matter how strongly we experience that feeling. Case in point: Sometimes I feel like reaching through the computer screen and strangling commenters on blogs for trying to be clever and contentious, but (1) those feelings do not make me a murderer; and (2) it isn’t really possible, no matter how many computer screens I may break with my hands.

    • Dale

      Drake, I think the argument which Marc is making is that modesty is relational. It doesn’t exist in itself, out of itself. It is a recognition and response to our position, as human beings, in a world created by God.

      I think this view of modesty is at odds with the existentialist notion of authenticity. We do not make ourselves. Casting off social expectations as an act of autonomy, of becoming our true self, is pretty much the opposite of what modesty is (if I understand Marc’s reasoning.)

  • Kimmy Zeiler

    Thank you, Marc!!

  • Ball of String

    Hi Marc,

    Thanks again for your posts. I briefly read up on the CCC post regarding modesty, and I am very interested in your upcoming discussion regarding the practice of modesty in one’s life (at least from what you’ve mentioned in comments). The CCC mentioned “unhealthy curiosity,” which was a term I found rather interesting because I understand it in a sexual-related context, but is it only limited to that? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about this.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mark-Walker/100001382443182 Mark Walker

    If you need faith, rather than easily concluding everything that seems to be a member of your species should be dealt with as a member of your species, and is in fact a subjective consciousness, you may as well pack it in now.

    Sure, all of this/us might only exist in your thinking spot. Or, maybe all of this is a dream in the thinking spot of some non-human entity, not even a god.

    One has to start somewhere though…

    If you are going to address serious philosophical questions about what/who really exists, you’d better start with something more fundamental. How do you know you exist? How do you know there is a place where you exist?

    Now, demonstrate these conclusions to us.

    And don’t be so loose with the unstated assumptions in the future…

  • Christina

    I think this misses the point of what “subject” means in some ways– modesty is about not claiming glory for ourselves that we don’t deserve; we have all the honor we need in being God’s Image Bearers. As Lewis put it, that is enough to humble the proudest king & lift up the head of the meanest wretch. Modesty is about keeping ourselves in our rightful, honest place– as a subject of our King, as one of His agents here on earth– NOT as autonomous beings. Bragging is immodest not bc it’s dishonest so much as because it is attempting to assign to ourselves glory that isn’t rightfully ours. Similarly, wearing low cut shirts draws attention to my glorious-as-God’s-image body in a way that it was never meant to get attention: nakedness outside of child-bearing (fruitfulness) and marital intimacy.

  • Seth Murray

    Good article. It is true that we need to treat others (and ourselves) as subjects as opposed to objects. I couldn’t tell if you were joking or trying to make a point at the beginning, for the reality is that we can know (with certainty) that others are subjects as a consequence of our self understanding, identification of “subject” as a necessary dynamic of humanity and then simply attributing it to others. This is a very simple step in both classical philosophy as well as contemporary movements like phenomenology. It is simultaneously true, though, that the temptation to objectify others — to use them as means to an end as opposed to ends in themselves — is for many an irresistible temptation. Otherwise, pretty solid.


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