I know no two Words that have been more abused by the different and wrong Interpretations which are put upon them, than those two, Modesty and Assurance. To say such an one is a modest Man, sometimes indeed passes for a good Character; but at present is very often used to signify a sheepish awkard Fellow, who has neither Good-breeding, Politeness, nor any Knowledge of the World.
Again, A Man of Assurance, tho at first it only denoted a Person of a free and open Carriage, is now very usually applied to a profligate Wretch, who can break through all the Rules of Decency and Morality without a Blush.
I shall endeavour therefore in this Essay to restore these Words to their true Meaning, to prevent the Idea of Modesty from being confounded with that of Sheepishness, and to hinder Impudence from passing for Assurance.
If I was put to define Modesty, I would call it The Reflection of an Ingenuous Mind, either when a Man has committed an Action for which he censures himself, or fancies that he is exposed to the Censure of others.
For this Reason a Man truly Modest is as much so when he is alone as in Company, and as subject to a Blush in his Closet, as when the Eyes of Multitudes are upon him.
I do not remember to have met with any Instance of Modesty with which I am so well pleased, as that celebrated one of the young Prince, whose Father being a tributary King to the Romans, had several Complaints laid against him before the Senate, as a Tyrant and Oppressor of his Subjects. The Prince went to Rome to defend his Father; but coming into the Senate, and hearing a Multitude of Crimes proved upon him, was so oppressed when it came to his turn to speak, that he was unable to utter a Word. The Story tells us, that the Fathers were more moved at this Instance of Modesty and Ingenuity, than they could have been by the most Pathetick Oration; and, in short, pardoned the guilty Father for this early Promise of Virtue in the Son.
I take Assurance to be the Faculty of possessing a Man’s self, or of saying and doing indifferent things without any Uneasiness or Emotion in the Mind. That which generally gives a Man Assurance is a moderate Knowledge of the World, but above all a Mind fixed and determined in it self to do nothing against the Rules of Honour and Decency. An open and assured Behaviour is the natural Consequence of such a Resolution. A Man thus armed, if his Words or Actions are at any time misinterpreted, retires within himself, and from the Consciousness of his own Integrity, assumes Force enough to despise the little Censures of Ignorance or Malice.
Every one ought to cherish and encourage in himself the Modesty and Assurance I have here mentioned.
A Man without Assurance is liable to be made uneasy by the Folly or Ill-nature of every one he converses with. A Man without Modesty is lost to all Sense of Honour and Virtue.
It is more than probable, that the Prince above-mentioned possessed both these Qualifications in a very eminent degree. Without Assurance he would never have undertaken to speak before the most august Assembly in the World; without Modesty he would have pleaded the Cause he had taken upon him, tho it had appeared ever so Scandalous.