The Spectator, Volume 2. eBook

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Seneca thought Modesty so great a Check to Vice, that he prescribes to us the Practice of it in Secret, and advises us to raise it in ourselves upon imaginary Occasions, when such as are real do not offer themselves; for this is the Meaning of his Precept, that when we are by ourselves, and in our greatest Solitudes, we should fancy that Cato stands before us, and sees every thing we do.  In short, if you banish Modesty out of the World, she carries away with her half the Virtue that is in it.

After these Reflections on Modesty, as it is a Virtue; I must observe, that there is a vicious Modesty, which justly deserves to be ridiculed, and which those Persons very often discover, who value themselves most upon a well-bred Confidence.  This happens when a Man is ashamed to act up to his Reason, and would not upon any Consideration be surprized in the Practice of those Duties, for the Performance of which he was sent into the World.  Many an impudent Libertine would blush to be caught in a serious Discourse, and would scarce be able to show his Head, after having disclosed a religious Thought.  Decency of Behaviour, all outward Show of Virtue, and Abhorrence of Vice, are carefully avoided by this Set of Shame-faced People, as what would disparage their Gayety of Temper, and infallibly bring them to Dishonour.  This is such a Poorness of Spirit, such a despicable Cowardice, such a degenerate abject State of Mind, as one would think Human Nature incapable of, did we not meet with frequent Instances of it in ordinary Conversation.

There is another Kind of vicious Modesty which makes a Man ashamed of his Person, his Birth, his Profession, his Poverty, or the like Misfortunes, which it was not in his Choice to prevent, and is not in his Power to rectify.  If a Man appears ridiculous by any of the afore-mentioned Circumstances, he becomes much more so by being out of Countenance for them.  They should rather give him Occasion to exert a noble Spirit, and to palliate those Imperfections which are not in his Power, by those Perfections which are; or to use a very witty Allusion of an eminent Author, he should imitate Caesar, who, because his Head was bald, cover’d that Defect with Laurels.


[Footnote 1:  This letter is by John Hughes.]

[Footnote 2:  Mrs. Barbier]

[Footnote 3:  Iliad, i. 225.]

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No. 232.  Monday, November 26, 1711.  Hughes [1].

  Nihil largiundo gloriam adeptus est.


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