February 07, 2004

All Modesty is False, Otherwise It Isn't Modesty

[Post title courtesy of Alan Bennett, and maybe not exact.]

Geoff Pullum opens a post with the famous alleged Churchill quotation about "A modest man with much to be modest about."

This has nothing to do with the substance of Pullum's post, but it brings up a question--how can modesty be thought to be a virtue? To have an accurately low opinion of your qualities is not usually called "modesty" but "depression." Yet to have an inaccurately low opinion of qualities would hardly seem virtuous--wouldn't it be more virtuous to know thyself?

The only thing I can think of is some sort of salience analysis. To be modest is to know your good qualities but somehow not to see them as salient--as McDowell says that the chaste person is aware of the pleasure that sex would bring but does not see it as a reason to act. Ironic to give a neo-Aristotelian account of modesty, since I don't think Aristotle would've found modesty virtuous.

Posted by Matt Weiner at February 7, 2004 06:30 PM

I don't think that modesty is really about one's opinion of onesself... I think it's about one's outside attitude towards onesself.

I could privately think my self the greatest thing in the world (whether accurately or not), and still be modest, because I don't go around *acting* as if I'm better than those around me.

Posted by: Jonathan Ichikawa at February 8, 2004 05:01 PM