Modesty is the appendage of sobriety, and is to chastity, to
temperance, and to humility, as the fringes are to a garment. It is a grace of
God, that moderates the over-activeness and curiosity of the mind, and orders
the passions of the body and external actions, and is directly opposed to
curiosity, to boldness, to indecency. The practice of modesty consists in the
Acts and Duties of Modesty, as it is opposed to Curiosity.
1. Inquire not into the secrets of God, but be content to learn
thy duty according to the quality of thy person or employment; that i plainly,
if thou beest not concerned in the conduct of others; but if thou beest a
teacher, learn it so as may best enable thee to discharge thy office. God’s
commandments were proclaimed to all the world; but God’s counsels are to
himself and to his secret ones, when they are admitted within the veil.
2. Inquire not into the things which are too hard for thee, but
learn modestly to know thy infirmities and abilities; and raise not thy mind up
to inquire into mysteries of state, or the secrets of government, or
difficulties theological, if thy employment really be, or thy understanding be
judged to be, of a lower rank.
3. Let us not inquire into the affairs of others that concern us
not, but be busied within ourselves and our own spheres; ever remembering that
to pry into the actions or interests of other men not under our charge, may
minister to pride, to tyranny, to uncharitableness, to trouble, but can never
consist with modesty, unless where duty or the mere intentions of charity and
relation do warrant it.
4. Never listen at the doors or windows:
for, besides that it contains in it danger and a snare, it is also an invading
thy neighbour’s privacy, and a laying that open which he therefore enclosed,
that it might not be open. Never ask what he carried covered s o curiously; for
it is enough that it is covered curiously. Hither also is reducible that we
never open letters without public authority, or reasonably presumed leave, or
great necessity, or charity.
Every man hath in his own life sins enough, in his own mind
trouble enough, in his own fortune evils enough, and in performance of his
offices failings more than enough, to entertain his own inquiry; so that
curiosity after the affairs of others cannot be without envy, and an evil mind.
What is it to me, if my neighbour’s grandfather were a Syrian, or his
grandmother illegitimate; or that another is indebted five thousand pounds, or
whether his wife be expensive? But commonly curious persons, or (as the
apostle’s phrase is) ‘busybodies,’ are not solicitous or inquisitive into the
beauty and order of a well-governed family, or after the virtues of an
excellent person; but if there be anything for which men keep locks and bars,
and porters, things that blush to see the light, and either are shameful in
manners, or private in nature, these things are their care and their business.
But if great things will satisfy our inquiry, the course of the sun and moon,
the spots in their faces, the firmament of heaven, and the supposed orbs, the ebbing
and flowing of the sea, are work enough for us; or if this be not, let him tell
me whether the number of the stars be even or odd, and when they began to be
so, since some ages have discovered new stars which the former knew not, but
might have seen if they had been where now they are fixed. If these be too
troublesome search lower, and tell me why this turf this year brings forth a
daisy, and the next year a plantain; why the apple bears his seed in his heart,
and wheat bears it in his head: let him tell why a graft, taking nourishment
from a crab-stock, shall have a fruit more noble than its nurse and parent: let
him say why the best of oil is at the top, the best of wine in the middle, and
the best of honey at the bottom, otherwise than it is in some liquors that are
thinner, and in some that are thicker. But these things are to such as please
busybodies; they must feed upon tragedies, and stories of misfortunes and
crimes: and yet tell them ancient stories of the ravishment of chaste maidens,
or the debauchment of nations, or the extreme poverty of learned persons, or
the persecutions of the old saints, or the changes of government, and sad
accidents happening in royal families amongst the Arsacidae, the Caesars, the
Ptolemies, these were enough to scratch the itch of knowing sad stories; but
unless you stem them something sad and new, something that is done within the
bounds of their own knowledge or relation, it seems tedious and unsatisfying;
which shows plainly, it is an evil spirit; envy and idleness married together,
and begot curiosity. Therefore Plutarch rarely well compares curious and
inquisitive ears to the execrable gates of cities, out of which only
malefactors and hangmen and tragedies pass - nothing that is chaste or holy. If
a physician should go from house to house unsent for, and inquire what woman
hath a cancer in her bowels, or what man hath a fisula in his colic-gut, though
he could pretend to cure it, he would be almost as unwelcome as the disease
itself; and therefore it is inhuman to inquire after crimes and disasters
without pretence of amending them, but only to discover them. We are not angry
with searchers and publicans, when they look only on public merchandise; but
when they break open trunks, and pierce vessels, and unrip packs, and open
Curiosity is the direct incontinency of the spirit: and adultery
itself in its principle is many times nothing but a curious inquisition after,
and envying of, another man’s enclosed pleasures; and there have been many who
refused fairer objects that they might ravish an enclosed woman from her
retirement and single possessor. But these inquisitions are seldom without
danger, never with our baseness; they are neither just, nor honest, nor
delightful, and very often useless to the curious inquirer. For men stand upon
their guards against them, as they secure their meat against harpies and cats,
laying all their counsels and secrets out of their way; or as men clap their
garments close about them, when the searching and saucy winds would discover
their nakedness; as knowing that what men willingly hear they do willingly
speak of. Knock, therefore, at the door before you enter upon your neighbour’s
privacy; and remember, that there is no difference between entering into his
house, and looking into it.
Acts of Modesty as it is opposed to Boldness.
1. Let us always bear about us such impressions of reverence and
fear of God as to tremble at his voice, to express our apprehensions of his
greatness in all great accidents, in popular judgments, loud thunders,
tempests, earthquakes; not only for fear of being smitten ourselves, or that we
are concerned in the accident, but also that we may humble ourselves before his
Almightiness, and express that infinite distance between his infiniteness and
our weaknesses, at such times especially when he gives such visible arguments
of it. He that is merry and airy at shore when he sees a sad and a loud tempest
on the sea, or dances briskly when God thunders from heaven, regards not when God
speaks to all the world, but is possessed with a firm immodesty.
2. Be reverent, modest, and reserved, in the presence of thy
betters, giving to all, according to their equality, their titles of honour,
keeping distance, speaking little, answering pertinently, not interposing
without leave or reason, not answering to a question propounded to another; and
even present to thy superiors the fairest side of thy discourse, of thy temper,
of thy ceremony, as being ashamed to serve excellent persons with unhandsome
3. Never lie before a king or a great person, nor stand in a lie
when thou art accused, nor offer to justify what is indeed a fault; but
modestly be ashamed of it, ask pardon, and make amends.
4. Never boast of thy sin, but at least lay a veil upon thy
nakedness and shame, and python hand before thine eyes, that thou mayest have
this beginning of repentance, to believe thy sin to be thy shame. For he that
blushes not at his crime, but adds shamelessness to his shame, hath no
instrument left to restore him to the hopes of virtue.
5. Be not confident and affirmative in an uncertain matter, but
report things modestly and temperately, according to the degree of that
persuasion, which is, or ought to be, begotten in thee by the efficacy of the
authority, or the reason inducing thee.
6. Pretend not to more knowledge than thou hast, but be content
to seem ignorant where thou art so, lest thou beest either brought to shame, or
retirest into shamelessness.
Acts of Modesty as it is opposed to Indecency.
1. In your prayers, in churches and places of religion, use
reverent postures, great attention, grave ceremony, the lowest gestures of
humility, remembering that we speak to God, in our reverence to whom we cannot
possibly exceed; but that the expression of this reverence be according to law
or custom, and the example of the most prudent and pious persons; that is, let
it be the best in its kind to the best of essences.
2. In all public meetings, private addresses, in discourse, in
journeys, use those forms of salutation, reverence, and decency, which the
custom prescribes, and is usual amongst the most sober persons, giving honour
to whom honour belongeth, taking place of none of thy betters, and in all cases
of question concerning civil precedency giving it to any one that will take it,
if it be only thy own right that is in question.
3. Observe the proportion of affections in all meetings, and to
all persons: be not merry at a funeral, nor sad upon a festival’ but rejoice
with them that rejoice, and weep with them that weep.
4. Abstain from wanton and dissolute laughter, petulant and
uncomely jests, loud talking, jeering, and all such actions, which in civil
account are called indecencies and incivilities.
5. Towards your parents use all modesty of duty and humble
carriage; towards them and all your kindred, be severe in the modesties of
chastity, ever fearing, lest the freedoms of natural kindness should enlarge
into any neighbourhood of unhandsomeness. For all incestuous mixtures, and all
circumstances and degrees towards it, are the highest violations of modesty in
the world; for therefore incest is grown to be so high a crime, especially in
the last periods of the world, because it breaks that reverence which the
consent of all nations and the severity of human laws hath enjoined towards our
parents and nearest kindred, in imitation of that law which God gave to the
Jews in prosecution of modesty in this instance.
6. Be a curious observer of all those things which are of good
report, and are parts of public honesty.
For public fame, and the sentence of prudent and public persons is the measure
of good and evil in things indifferent, and charity requires us to comply with
those fancies and affections which are agreeable to nature, or the analogy of
virtue, or public laws, or old customs. It is against modesty for a woman to
marry a second husband as long as she bears a burden by the first; or to admit
a second love while her funeral tears are not wiped from her cheeks. It is
against public honesty to do some lawful actions of privacy in public theatres,
and therefore in such cases retirement is a duty of modesty.
7. Be grave, decent, and modest, in thy clothing and ornament;
never let it be above thy condition not always equal to it; never light or
amorous discovering a nakedness through a thin veil which thou pretendest to
hide; never to lay a snare for a soul; but remember what becomes a Christian,
professing holiness, chastity, and the discipline of the holy Jesus: and the
first effect of this let your servants feel by your gentleness and aptness to
be pleased with their usual diligence, and ordinary conduct.
For the man or woman that is dressed with anger and impatience wears pride
under their robes, and immodesty above.
8. Hither also is to be reduced singular and affected walking,
proud, nice, and ridiculous gestures of body, painting and lascivious
dressings; all of which together God reproves by the prophet: ‘The Lord saith,
Because the daughters of Sion are haughty, and walk with stretched-forth necks
and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, and make a tinkling with their
feet; therefore the Lord will smite her with a scab of the crown of the head,
and will take away the bravery of their tinkling ornaments.’
And this duty of modesty, in this instance, is expressly enjoined to all
Christian women by St. Paul: ‘That women adorn themselves in modest apparel,
with shamefacedness and sobriety, not with broidered hair, or gold, or pearl,
or costly array, but (which becometh women professing godliness) with good
9. As those meats are to be avoided which tempt our stomachs
beyond our hunger, so, also, should prudent persons decline all such
spectacles, relations, theatres, loud noises and outcries, which concern us
not, and are besides our natural or moral interest. Our senses should not, like
petulant and wanton girls, wander into markets and theatres without just
employment; but when they are sent abroad by reason, return quickly with their
errand, and remain modestly at home under their guide, till they be sent again.
10. Let all persons be curious in observing modesty towards
themselves, in the handsome treating their own body, and such as are in their
power, whether living or dead. Against this rule they offend who expose to
others their own, or pry into others’ nakedness beyond the limits of necessity,
or where a leave is not made holy by a permission from God. It is also said,
that God was pleased to work a miracle about the body of Epiphanius to reprove
the immodest curiosity of an unconcerned person who pried too near, when
charitable people were composing it to the grave. In all these cases and
particulars, although they seem little, yet our duty and concernment is not
little. Concerning which I use the words of the son of Sirach, “He that
despiseth little things shall perish by little and little.”