(This is an old post I made several years ago. I’m recycling it to give some preparatory food for thought as I work on my next piece dealing again with pollution, piety, and maybe, just maybe right behavior. I’m closing this to comments – tomorrow’s article will not be—so that I actually have time to work.)
Modesty is such a troublesome concept, at once somewhat nebulous and yet highly charged. I have seen both men and women become rabidly angry at the mere mention of the word, particularly when it was noted as a virtue, and moreover, as something worth cultivating. I would go so far as to say that there’s probably no other virtue so prone to misconception, misapprehension, and deep seated ambivalence. For all that, I do very much believe that not only is modesty a particularly polytheistic virtue, but it is one that both men and women would indeed do well to cultivate.
Let me take a moment to discuss precisely what I mean when I use the word ‘modesty.’ Being lazy today, I went to the dictionary and looked up the word. It comes from the Latin modestia and I’m going to get back to that in a moment.(1) For now, suffice it to say that the given definition (drawn, or so dictionary.com says, from Collins English Dictionary) is as follows:
- the quality of being modest; freedom from vanity, boastfulness, etc.
- regard for decency of behavior, speech, dress, etc.
- simplicity, moderation. (2)
Perhaps there are different types of modesty. It is predominantly a cultural convention and construction after all, and standards of modesty are culturally determined. Regardless, it’s primarily with the second definition, that of regard for decency of behavior and deportment, that I am primarily concerned. I want to be clear about one thing: I do not think that modesty necessarily has anything to do with one’s attire. Appropriateness of dress is a matter of context. One may be half naked and completely modest, or wearing full hijab and completely immodest. It’s a matter, to my mind at least, of personal integrity and integrity of behavior.
I look at modesty as a way of interacting with others in our world, a way of presenting ourselves. Whenever discussions of modesty come up, two aspects seem to garner the most attention: physical dress and sexual behavior. Certainly no less a personage than Honore de Balzac called modesty the ‘conscience of the body’ and British essayist Joseph Addison referred to it as ‘a guard to virtue.” While I don’t disagree with that necessarily, I think we do this virtue a disservice by relegating it solely to the realm of sexual mores. We diminish the quality of modesty when we focus solely on sexual expression. Certainly in the polytheistic world, it meant much more (and this holds true for Greece and Rome but also for Germania. Read your Tacitus, folks).
I suppose there is a physical, sexual component to modesty. I can’t help but think of a documentary about indigenous religion in the Ivory Coast that I had the pleasure of recently viewing.(3) I was struck, forcibly, by the contrast between the women who maintained their ancestral ways and those who tried to mimic western styles. The former practiced their religion, honored the gods and spirits of their land and people…they were magnificent, powerful, and respected to the point of veneration within their communities. It was blatantly, delightfully obvious (nor was I the only one to notice this; the friend with whom I was watching was also struck by precisely the same thing). The latter, largely those living in the rapidly westernizing cities, dressed provocatively, behaved outrageously and were treated like trash. It was clear that they thought of themselves as nothing more than ornamental. They treated themselves like trash. They had abrogated their ancestral connections; they had abrogated their power, and instead attired themselves in the shallowness of exploitation and mimicry of a culture that historically has brought nothing but spiritual desiccation wherever it colonized. It was exhibited by the way these women were behaving (and in turn by the way the men behaved toward them) but I think that was only the most obvious and outward expression of a deeper dynamic. The problem wasn’t their behavior; the problem was that such behavior, in this particular instance, was a manifestation of a lack of self-regard.
Whenever the discussion of modesty comes up, inevitably modesty becomes linked with feeling shame about oneself or one’s body. I can think of nothing more diametrically opposed to what modesty actually is. True modesty has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with valuing both oneself and the quality of one’s interactions with family, friends, the world at large, and most of all within the realm of one’s spiritual obligations, i.e. with the Gods and ancestors, the Holy Powers. Remember when I pointed out that modesty comes from the Latin? Well in Latin it’s primarily associated with discretion, sobriety, correctness of conduct, moderation, and propriety.(4) These were the virtues, in this polytheistic community, that an adult was expected to cultivate (likewise in many other parts of the ancient polytheist world, including Germania). Latin has another word pudicitia which encompasses the shyness – bashfulness the dictionary says – and emphasis on chastity that we so commonly ascribe to ‘modesty.’(5) Moreover, modesty in Rome was not something that women alone worried about. Most of the references that I’ve come across on my reading (in Pliny, Sallust, Cicero, and Suetonius primarily) have referred to the proper modesty of men. (Cicero does not approve of your skinny jeans. LOL). Nor did this modesty usually have anything to do with their sexual behavior. It was, however, not unusual to see it linked to piety. I’d go so far as to say that modesty in the ancient world – i.e. in many polytheistic cultures (and I know I’m focusing on Rome here largely because I’ve been immersed in that source material of late. That is not to say this idea was found only in polytheistic Rome.) went hand in hand with piety. That’s an important point and I’m going to say it again:
Modesty went hand in hand with piety for all genders.
Perhaps for this reason, authors like the younger Pliny recommend it as the most shining of virtues. (6) It has nothing to do with shame and everything to do with the acknowledgement that there is something greater (to a polytheist many somethings greater) than we out there and to whom just maybe, we owe a modicum of decorum; and behaving with that appropriate decorum enhances not just our interactions with the Holy but with each other as well. It augments who we are as human beings. An apologist for modesty would say that we enhance our lives by cultivating modesty because valuing and cultivating modesty is a way of cultivating ourselves as well. It’s a way of saying “I value the gifts the Gods and ancestors have given me too greatly to squander them for public consumption” (or by behaving like a fool). I would say that not only is modesty a guard to virtue (though what I as a polytheist mean by that term has nothing to do with sexual repression and everything to do with the development of character) but it is an essential, perhaps the most essential, component toward developing dignity and personal integrity.
Someone who cultivates modesty as a virtue would, I believe, be unlikely to behave with complete and utter disrespect in a ritual. Even if he or she did not know the proper protocol, modesty is a good teacher of behavior. The modest person is not going to rant and rave about how he or she would never, ever bow their heads before the Gods. They know better. The cultivation of modesty has taught them [not to act like they were raised in a barn]. Moreover, there are times when it is appropriate to feel shame for one’s actions. This too is a lesson modesty teaches. When we behave in a way that diminishes who we are both as human beings and as children of the Gods, as inheritors of our ancestral blessings, we ought to feel shame. It is the right and proper state of being. When we behave badly, we ought to feel ashamed of ourselves. That’s called conscience, something that I believe modesty hones. Being polytheist does not relieve us of every moral obligation after all. It actually enhances them.
In the connection between modesty and piety, one often encounters the idea of taboo: those things one is not permitted to do without violating both modesty and the bounds of proper piety. This is the reason that ancient Roman polytheists -men as well as women – would cover their heads when performing rituals. It’s the reason while certain types of priests from Egypt, to Greece, to Rome, and quite probably in the North lands as well, lived prescribed lives, lives full of ritual and personal taboos that cultivated modesty, enhanced their personal connections with the Holy Powers, and enabled them to avoid miasma.(7)
This is the reason that a growing number of polytheists today are choosing to veil themselves, to cover their heads, some only during rituals (as I was taught to do) and some all the time. It is a way of reminding themselves to behave properly, of nurturing their spiritual connections, of keeping themselves clean of the filth of the monotheistic world, and for a thousand other reasons. It cannot be denied that doing so sets the person apart, and perhaps that is part of it too: it implies a different standard of living, a different standard of behavior and as in all things that so many of us do, carries with it a certain didactic function. I’m not going to belabor the point of head-covering here. I mention it here largely because there are extant polytheistic sources that note men covering in Roman temples so this is the example that came to mind of an outward expression of both piety and modesty.
So what is modesty? It’s examining potential behavior and saying to oneself : I won’t do that. I do not believe it will do honor to me, my Gods, or my ancestors. That will not enhance me as a human being. Or maybe it’s being in a situation where you are the only one behaving respectfully and you do so because of your modesty and piety combined, regardless of what others around you might think. Ultimately, I think modesty is the choice to consciously avoid doing that which diminishes us; be it by commission or omission. Take that as you will. I believe it is an essential spiritual virtue.
- (modestia, ae, feminine)
- See here.
- See here.
- Langenscheidt Pocket Latin Dictionary, see entry on ‘modestia.’
- Ibid, see the entry on ‘pudicitia.’
- He goes on in several of his letters about the virtues of modesty, praising people he admires for their modesty. Letter 1:12, iirc, is a good example.
- See yesterday’s article for more information on miasma.