The Life of Virtue – Modesty

The Life of Virtue – Modesty

Modesty, like so many of the Christian virtues, has been largely disregarded by Western liberal societies. In the latter half of the twentieth century, modesty in dress was rejected outright by radicals, particularly radical feminists, who saw it simply as a way for men to oppress women and of determining their self-image according to how they dressed. Any criticism of less than modest dress in women was taken to be a cynical attempt by men to make women feel ashamed of their bodies, and thus their identity, something that would in turn make them to be subservient to men.

An emphasis on the importance of modesty in dress was also thought to lead many women to see themselves as moral failures because they did not wish, or did not feel able, to live according to the standards set by society. This guilt was thought to do great psychological harm to these women, leading the most rebellious amongst them down a path of moral decay, through which they would become the means to satisfy the lusts of the very men who publicly criticised immodesty. This was the theory presented by many liberal thinkers in the twentieth century and was partly caused no doubt by the hypocrisy and/or genuine failure of many who publicly condemned immorality whilst privately behaving immodestly.

This way of thinking is too simplistic, however, because it neglects to address many important aspects of the issues involved. For instance, just because some people criticised others publicly for behaviour that they were themselves undertaking in private, this does not make the behaviour any less wrong. Simply because some people failed to live up to a high moral standard, this does not mean the standard does not truly exist or that it has no value for contemporary society. Furthermore, it could be argued that by buying into the notion that the acceptability of women dressing immodestly is empowering for women, these women have in fact disempowered themselves, for they have given many men exactly what they wanted without any benefit to themselves, aside from the perceived benefit that they are freer because they can reject the “constraint” of modesty in dress. It is interesting to note that a perceived lack of modesty in dress in Western society has been a major factor, judging by what they say themselves, in leading many Western women to convert to Islam, where they think that the rules for modest dress are very clear.

It is also crucial to remember that modesty of dress applies to men too, something that many people seem to forget when addressing the issue. Many people are often tempted to focus excessively on the aspect of modesty as an avoidance of revealing clothing. However, modesty is much more than this, because it is concerned with much more than even modesty of dress. In fact Aquinas, when discussing modesty, describes modesty of dress as the fourth and least significant of the four aspects of this virtue. One might argue, for example that taking an excessive amount of time over putting together a particular outfit that was in all other regards perfectly modest, might make the outfit immodest. By giving something non-essential so much of one’s time, one risks prioritising the superficial over the practical and fundamental matters of life. Another obvious example is the amount of money spent on clothes that appear to be modest, money that could be better spent on helping one’s brothers and sisters in Christ. Let us ask Our Lady, the model of modesty for us all, to pray for people in our society that they may rediscover the beauty and integrity that comes from having a modest heart.

Daniel Mary Jeffries OP