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Modesty is a Virtue, Not Fashion


Modesty (and immodesty) are sometimes discussed with the premise that it is a matter of fashion and dress codes. What one wears is a matter of modesty, but it is far more than just dress codes and the matter of being an occasion of sin for other people's eyes.

The cardinal virtue Temperance is the habit of governing our natural appetites for pleasures of the senses (ie, animal pleasures of all kinds). There are distinguished virtues under this, and Modesty is one of them, as it regulates outward appearances. Abstinence (controlling food and drink), Sobriety, Chastity, Continence (note: celibacy is refraining from marriage, continence is refraining from acts), and a few others likewise are virtues that govern various aspects of our lower appetites.

Modesty is about external appearances, clothing, acts, and words. It is governing a far less volatile passion. Lust and gluttony and immodesty are quite similar, but we can see that the draw of them is quite different.

It is noteworthy that modesty is a concern in almost all works throughout all time and place, where styles and social norms varied a lot. Notable private revelations also lament the lack of modesty in fashion. Modesty is always a concern. The degree to which one should be concerned varies, but if one reduces it merely to fashion, one is likely to exercise quite a lot of immodesty without fully realizing it. Remember, vices and virtues are habits, not individual acts. Unlike certain virtues, like sobriety, which can be exercised quite easily, modesty is something that affects almost every act we do especially when around others in some way. It is how we present ourselves: one can be quite immodest on a text based forum even.

The reason I bring this up is that so often any discussion about modesty ends up being about women's fashion, with one side pointing out the obvious deficiencies in women's fashion, and the other accusing the others of blaming others for their own vices. Sometimes, clear lines are drawn about what styles are modest or immodest, and debates about ankles and arms abound.

There are definitely fashions which are immodest by design: they are designed to draw attention and artificially enhance any attractiveness, beyond one's natural appearance. This is actually what I referred to in my introduction about some styles being worse than being naked. These sorts of styles are typically marketed to females, so that is probably why most discussions are about female appearances: there are simply far more options for them. To go into a typical department store these days, a man would have to work at being grossly immodest and mostly do it by choosing clothing sparingly (ie, wear fewer articles of clothing) and avoiding anything considered more formal, whereas, many female garments are specifically marketed to be immodest all the way from casual to formal wear.

But modesty is a virtue of concern for men and women equally, despite the fashion aspect being of most concern for females. Those who do not exercise modesty, tend to exercise immodesty without realizing it. Reducing modesty to fashion and nitpicking about the passions of other people tends to diminish the virtue quite a bit.

If the bar for modesty is: does dressing like this likely to excite the passions of the average person of the other gender who sees me?, then one might be quite immodest in ways one doesn't realize. It is like asking how much can I drink before I am unable to stand up at all? being the bar for sobriety. Yes, it is a very good bar to meet, but it is hardly virtuous.

A few additional thoughts, possibly for clarification:

Modesty as a virtue and not a fashion means a few things: a martyr in Rome thrown naked to the wild animals in the arena might be (and probably is) a paradigm of modesty, where as a teenager told by parents to change their clothing before they go out is not modest at all in the new outfit no matter what it is. Modesty is a virtue that comes from within.

Immodesty and gluttony are similar in many ways: most immodest and gluttonous acts are not grave matters, just one of those difficulties in being perfect and managing our lower appetites. We have to have a physical presence and we have to eat, so perfection in these virtues is very difficult, unlike sobriety and continence, where one can completely abstain and be done with it.

Like venial sins in general though, we must avoid deliberately committing immodest and gluttonous acts and work to at least make an effort to encourage virtue.

And what is a temptation to others can vary: some people have very weird paraphilia, even to mundane things that one might have never considered (in fact, almost certainly so). One can be an occasion of grave and have no clue that such a sin existed. So the bar of "other people's eyes" should not be relied on for this virtue. It is a good bar to have if one struggles to meet it for the general population, but generally, one needs to look within for modesty.

And since immodesty is so pervasive in human culture and history across all time, if one finds oneself being fashionable to the world, one is likely immodest. Be a little better than average at least.


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