Sunday, September 25, 2011

An Essay on the Theoretical Origin and Social Function of Modesty

by Ryan Haecker


“How beautiful then is modesty and what a gem among virtues it is.” - St. Bernard of Clairvaux


A. The Concept of Modesty:

There are two connotations associated with the word modesty: the first (i) is that humility and undervaluation of oneself which pertains to ones abstract self-consciousness and the second (ii) is that restriction upon the exhibitions of natural features which pertains to the innate eroticism of the sexes. Julia Driver explains: "there is the sexual sense of modesty (ii), usually considered a womanly virtue, which primarily consists in a chaste and unassertive countenance. There is also the more usual sense (i) that is associated with self-deprecation, or an underestimation of one's self-worth."[1] These two connotations of 'modesty' are conceptually related, and must therefore be treated together: the second meaning (ii) which is actually manifested within social relations will be shown to be derived from the first meaning (i) which pertains to the abstract self-consciousness. The first meaning of 'modest' is the virtue of practical wisdom which Aristotle implicitly describes in the Nicomachean Ethics as the habit of choosing the mean between excessive and deficient public expression of one's self-worth. This 'modesty' of honoring oneself according to ones worth may be understood as the virtue of accurately appraising and expressing the worth of ones abstract self-consciousness. Aristotle writes:


"The man who judges himself worthy of great honors and is in fact unworthy is conceited... On the other hand, the man who thinks he deserves lesser honors than he deserves - whether the honors be great, ordinary, or little - is pusillanimous. This will be especially evident in one capable of splendid achievements... However, the magnanimous man holds an extreme in extension but a mean in appropriateness, for he thinks himself deserving in accord with his worth. Others exceed or fall short of this mean."[2]


Thus, according to Aristotle, a man practices the mean of modesty when he neither judges himself too highly (conceited) nor too meekly (pusillanimous), but moderates his practices between between excess and deficiency, always appraising himself according to what he truly deserves. The private judgment of a man whether he be conceited or pusillanimous may be visibly manifested whenever a man acts upon the world under the determination of this judgment: as the intellect is constituted by prior judgments, and actions are determined by the intellect, so the actions which manifest these judgments of our self-worth must be determined by the private judgments of the value of oneself. Thus this self-evaluation of the honors one deserves is expressed in a social setting, and is there elevated from the subjective appraisal of abstract self-consciousness to the public acclamation of ones value within an inter-subjective community. While this public acclamation of ones self-worth may be expressed through an inestimable variety of mediums, from propertied possessions to political positions, it ascends to a hazardous extremity in the exhibition of those natural features of the body which elicit the innate eroticism of the sexes.


The hazardousness of exhibiting these erotic natural features of our bodies is associated with the second sense (ii) of 'modesty' which is the moderation upon excessive public self-displays. This second sense (ii) manifests (i) the private valuation of abstract self-consciousness within an actual, public and social setting. This manifestation is likewise the actualization of the former abstract concept (i) in (ii) the social realm of inter-subjective experience (i => ii). Following the form of syllogistic deduction, (ii) the social manifestation of 'modesty' may be understood to be conceptually deduced from (i) the private evaluation of abstract self-consciousness, just as particular terms are deduced from universal terms.[3] For the syllogism, the concept of (i) abstract modesty is the universal term which is instantiated in the particular term, which is (ii) the actual realm of our social experience. Following this description, (ii) ‘modesty’ within a social setting is inexplicable outside of its deductive relation to (i) the abstract concept of modesty for self-consciousness. Due to the inexplicability of outside of its deductive relation to (i), ‘modesty’ will here refer to both senses of the word, (i) and (ii), as they are understood within the syllogism of related concepts.


B. Response to Conundrums with the Virtue of Modesty:

Modesty is generally conceived of as a particularly womanly virtue. Under this conception, women are held to be, far more than men, imminently and ubiquitously concerned with the flamboyant exhibition of their bodies for others. Yet this syllogism, from (i) the universal concept of self-evaluation to (ii) the social expression of this evaluation, pertains not merely to women but to all reflective self-consciousness beings, i.e. for all mankind. Thus regardless of the distinctive social exhibitionism of the sexes, modesty must be acknowledged to be a universal concern of applied ethics; which Aristotle terms practical wisdom. Aristotle defines a virtue as the habit of action according to right reason. But the concept of modesty presents three prominent rational conundrums (a,b, & c), and these conundrums threaten to eject modesty from the canon of virtues.


(a) First, modesty is socially exhibited with signs and markers which may be comprehensible to observers familiar with these variegated customs, yet customs can in no way be deduced a priori. There can be no a priori deduction of these because what is a priori must be known prior to experience, yet both customs and signs are apprehensible only through experience, or a posteriori: customs are the result of practical action and signs which are received through our senses. And as the mean of modesty cannot be formally deduced or strictly determined, it may perhaps be alleged that modesty is no genuine virtue but merely a shadowy phantasm of naïve moralizers.


This criticism supposes that virtues must be established by pure reason, which is that reason which is both purely formal and a priori. The belief that virtues and prescriptions must be so established is termed ethical formalism, and for which Kant gave brief expression to in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. As Kant later realized,[4] because ethical formalism constructs a priori concepts which our beyond all possible experience, such constructions can provide no sound basis for ethical prescriptions a posteriori, or within the world of our sensory experience. Thus if ethical inquiry be fruitful, it must inquir into prescriptions for action within the world, for which many practices are found to be generally beneficent and ennobling without allowing for the possibility either a formal deduction or a strict determination. Now custom is the result of strong habits and practices within a society. The strength of these habits and practices cannot be deduced but must be observed and judged. Observation and judgment of these habits and practices requires a patient and dedicated observer within this society: hence he who wishes to ascertain these practices and the mean of modesty most become intimately familiar with the society in which modesty is expressed. Thus modesty is neither, as with truthfulness, a virtue which can be understood according to the subjects’ intentions, nor is it, as with reciprocity, a virtue which may obtain merely among individuals. Rather, modesty is a virtue, the meaning of whose signs and markers, are apprehensible only within a social context and for a dedicated observer of society.


(b) Secondly, it will be denied that the virtue modesty will fall within Aristotle’s definition of virtue as an action according to right reason as modesty requires, not merely that one’s self-expression be accurate to one’s relative social-worth, but a self-conscious undervaluing of one’s self-worth. Modesty does not require an evaluation of oneself which is equivalent to one’s true worth relative to others, but a self-conscious undervaluing of this worth as it is expressed in society. For Aristotle, this would require modesty to be a virtue which aims below and not equal to the mean of self- depreciation and self-aggrandizement. If virtue is acting according to the mean of right reason, then it would seem that because modesty aims below the mean it cannot be a virtue.


For modesty to be retained in the canon of virtues it must find some additional reason, apart from the Aristotelian mean, to motivate a self-conscious under-evaluation. Julia Driver attempts to give such a reason in her essay Modesty and Ignorance:[5] “I have argued that the best account of modesty is anunderestimation account. On this view, modesty involves—or at least can involve—an agent underestimating self-worth in some respect, to some limited degree. The degree of underestimation must be limited in order to differentiate modesty from a vice such as self-deprecation.” Thus modesty is not a mean between self-aggrandizement and self- depreciation, but a further mean between this first mean and self-depreciation. The additional reason why the self-depreciation of modesty is valued is not disclosed through considerations of subjective intentionality, such as with lying, or through interpersonal relationships, such as with reciprocity. Modesty is rather a higher-order virtue which only becomes meaningful within and in reference to the general customs of society. Because modesty is a mean within and in reference to the customs of a society it cannot be independently derived but must be judged in accordance with the customs of a society.


(c) Thirdly, the cultivation of modesty may be said to itself become an expression of immodesty, in which case modesty may be made to be the vehicle of exhibitionism. Because immodesty has been described as an excess of public self-acclamation, and this acclamation may be expressed through many mediums and exhibit any good attribute, even the virtue or modesty which is ostensibly opposed to immodesty may become the medium through which immodesty is expressed. To phrase this another way; because modesty is considered a virtue, virtues are actions directed by practical reason towards that which is good, and immodesty is the exhibition of what is good pertaining to self-consciousness, the good of modesty may presumably be exhibited in an immodest manner.


However this criticism fails to notice that when the virtue of modesty is exhibited immodestly, it has at that same moment become immodesty. This criticism presumes that the expression of modesty may both become immodesty and continue to be modesty; or, that it may both be and not be that which it is. To say that a thing both possesses a property and does not possess a property in the same manner and in the same way is the description which Aristotle gives of a substantial contradiction. Because a substantial contradiction can neither be nor be conceived, it is both impossible and inconceivable.


C. The Public expression of Modesty and Immodesty:

Though it may first ascend to prominence in the soundless depths of (i) self-consciousness, self-evaluation is afterwards visibly manifested in (ii) public self-expressions. The manifestation of the value of the self, from ideal self-consciousness to real externality, follows the form of a syllogistic deduction from (S) universal, to (M) mediation, to (P) particular: the ideal self-consciousness is the (S) universal term of self-evaluation, the practical expressions through speech, movement and bodily adornment are altogether the (M) mediating term, and the real externality is the (P) particular term (S-M-P; Some S is M, All M is P, .: Some S is P). This is the syllogism of self-expression whereby private evaluations for the self are externalized for others and become apprehensible to and efficacious upon public spectators. The evaluative concepts, which had hitherto been closeted within the bastion of self-consciousness, are then wildly jettisoned from these ramparts as projectiles upon other minds. The darts and arrows of self-consciousness differ in violence and volatility: among the most hazardous is undoubtedly the exhibition of the body for others through speech, dress and manners.


Two social phenomena commonly result from the hazardous exhibition of the body: (m) the competitiveness of public displays, and (n) the innate eroticism of the sexes. The first (m) arises from the perennial contest for dominance within the inter-subjective public domain of social self-consciousness. G.W.F. Hegel describes the origin of this contest in his celebrated parable of Lordship and Bondsman: “Self-consciousness has before it another self-consciousness; it has come outside itself. This has a double significance. First it has lost its own self, since it finds itself as an other being; secondly, it has thereby sublated that other, for it does not regard the other as essentially real, but sees its own self in the other. It must cancel this, its other.”[6] Hegel illustrates how the contest for dominance in public settings arises from the desire among many self-conscious beings to mutually cancel the free externalization of concepts by their neighbors. In public exhibitions of the body, this contest for the dominance is transfigured into an unspoken contest for the public exhibition of the body for the adoration of public spectators.


The innate eroticism of the sexes (n) is a consequence of the primordial division of the sexes, and the consequent innate striving towards their subsequent conjugation and sexual reproduction. While asexual reproduction is the function of a single organism, sexual reproduction requires the conjugation of the opposed male and female sexes, or two organisms; a requirement which allows for selectivity among many mating partners. Male and female organisms to seek that mate whose traits are most advantageous because the selection of sexual mates determines the hereditary traits of their progeny. Seeking the most advantageous mate requires an assessment of the mates fitness for reproduction; a fitness which is physiologically express through features of sexual dimorphism, or the innate sexed differentiation of organisms. Sexual dimorphism takes different forms in different animal species. While all animals have sexed reproductive organs, or primary sexual features, some animal species possess more or less prominent secondary features of sexual dimorphism. Human males are principally dimorphized by their broad shoulders, greater muscle to body fat ratio, oily skin, height, sharp features, androgen hair and beards. Human females are principally dimorphized by their broad pelvis, protruding breasts, curvilinear features and predominance of vellus hair (which his most salient in beardlessness). The prominence of these traits in the physiological composition of an organism can, apart from the reproductive organs, present a reliable picture of that organism’s relative sexual dimorphism, and hence also of their relative fitness for sexual reproduction. The dimorphized features of the sexes (n), which display an organism's fitness for reproduction, may be modestly or immodesty exhibited within a public social setting of competitive displays (ii). This exhibition follows the general syllogism of modesty (S-M-P) in which an (i) evaluation for self-consciousness is (ii) externalized in a real social setting.


D. The Social Virtue of Modesty:

The evaluation of oneself, which finds its nascent beginning under the cloak of self-consciousness, is afterwards revealed, in the manner of a syllogism, through the medium of artifice and action in the world. Neither artifice nor action are the fruits of nature. Rather, these are freely manifested from the intrinsic and ineliminable power of self-conscious reason, or the power of the human spirit. This is why St. Thomas writes in the Summa Theologiae: “Although outward attire does not come from nature, it belongs to natural reason to moderate it; so that we are naturally inclined to be the recipients of the virtue that moderates outward raiment.” Although modesty may be manifested through an uncounted variety of mediums, in clothing it finds the most enduring and visible expression. The selection and adoption of clothing is the work of man’s reason and artifice through which he gives to himself a second form to envelop and re-represent his natural form.


As clothing re-represents the body to the spectator, it is formally composed as a second-skin to mimic and highlights the sexual dimorphism of male and female bodies. As the most express and enduring visual indicator of the self, clothing is the principle artificial means through which men and women modestly indicate and excessively highlight their respective sexual features. Clothing may indicate and highlight sexual features through clothing which (p) overlaps and mimics the form of sexual features, or (q) selectively reveal sexual features which are customarily covered. For example, ties and dresses (p) mimic the sexual features of men and women, while (q) exposed arms and bosoms may selectively reveal these features. Some clothing, such as tight-fitting corsets for women, may both (p) mimic and (q) selectively reveal sexual features. Because sight is the most immediate means by which the fitness of a potential mate may be assessed, the exhibition of sexual features through the medium of clothing (p & q) is among the most express means of inducing the concupiscent desire of the opposite sex.


Clothing is a form manifested man’s self-conscious reason upon the world; thus this determination proceeds from the very same locus of self-consciousness. Sharing the same origin in self-consciousness, the particular expression of clothing may be conceived as subsumed under the more general syllogism of modesty (S-M-P). An outward determination of clothing ought to be selected according to the mean between under-evaluation and over-evaluation, or modesty and immodesty. Modest exhibitions may be said to be those which result from (b) an under-evaluation of self-worth and may indicate features of sexual dimorphism without excessively highlighting them. Immodest exhibitions arise from an excessive evaluation of self-worth which may be expressed through the highlighting features of sexual dimorphism.


For self-consciousness the virtue of modesty may merely be the virtue of moderation between the extremes self-debasement and self-aggrandizement, yet within a social setting this virtue serves the further and more prominent end of pacifying the endemic contest of wills amongst self-conscious beings in their immediate apprehension of one another. This contest of wills, which Hegel has illustrated in the parable of Lordship and Bondage, finds its most express and salient vehicle in the plums, cuts and billows of fashionability. And this competitiveness of public exhibition is moreover intensified as a consequence of the innate eroticism of the sexes, through which the visual exhibition of the body assumes a psychic intensity and moral gravity altogether disproportionate to their cause. Clothing may indicated, emphasize, and highlight those features of sexual dimorphism which induce the sexes towards their conjugal union. Thus does the immodest exhibition and re-representation of the body through clothing invite the extremest hazards which follow upon the intercourse of the sexes; such as coquetry, bastardry and adultery. Thus Augustine writes: "Whoever uses outward things in such a way as to exceed the bounds observed by the good people among whom he dwells, either signifies something by so doing, or is guilty of sin, inasmuch as he uses these things for sensual pleasure or ostentation." (St. Augustine, De Doctre. Christ. Iii,12)


[1] The Virtue of Ignorance, Julia Driver


[2] Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics 1123b8-15, 739-741


[3] A syllogism is an Aristotelian deductive formula which contains a major premise and a minor premise, the deduction of which, results in a concluding premise


[4] Kant abandoned the method of ethical formalism in his later ethical works, the Critique of Practical Reason and the Metaphysics of Morals.


[5] Julia Driver, Modesty and Ignorance


[6] Hegel, G.W.F. the Phenomenology of Spirit, Miller translation par.178