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NAPCIS Newsletter Winter 2005

The Classroom: Virtue’s Workshop (part 2)
Modesty - The First Step

“The life of man requires to be regulated by the virtues with regard to everything.”
--St. Thomas Aquinas, (Summ. Theo. II-II, 160, 1)

We saw that classroom procedures, routines and rules are the fundamental building blocks for forming virtue in our students. Since good habits are the essence of virtue, students need to begin forming them at school early so that they can attain ease in doing good things well from the get go. Classroom life is a great opportunity for students to achieve moral success in the simple things required of them each day. Students who perfect the routines that govern the physical activities in the classroom develop a mastery over their bodies and passions. Otherwise their bodies and passions would tend to dominate their actions and emotions.

Now we shall begin to consider the particular virtues that govern the Christian life. These virtues must be perfected for our students to be both good people and well-educated men. We should recall that there are three Theological Virtues and four natural cardinal virtues that perfect man in this life. These seven great monuments make it possible for man to act well easily. They allow him to enjoy the life of grace, and finally enable him to merit eternal rewards that will get him into heaven.

Imagine a ladder reaching from the earth, past the stars to the heavenly abode. Now imagine the climber who begins at the bottom rung as an infant and succeeds in climbing through old age unto the empyrean heights. Along the way there are many rungs. Ever so often, seven times, in fact, there are platforms upon which to rest. Each platform is either a cardinal or a theological virtue. The rungs below each platform are the subordinate virtues belonging to the major platform virtue above. In ascending order, these platforms are Temperance, Fortitude, Justice, Prudence, Faith, Hope and Charity.

The first four virtues here, the cardinal virtues, belong to the perfection of man as man, and are thus the foundation upon which the supernatural Theological Virtues grow (which in turn perfect man as God’s friend). Since grace builds on nature, we should first consider the natural life of man. This life, and the virtues associated with it, do not contradict the supernatural vocation, but prepare for it and complement it. An analogy to this is the child who first learns to be quiet, sit still and fold his hands at times of prayer in order to dispose himself to petition God and hear Him in his heart.

In examining the cardinal virtues, we will look at their concrete applications to the various particulars of life. In these particulars we will discover a multitude of simpler virtues that are applications and related instances of the cardinal ones. These little virtues are easy to understand. By climbing from one to the next on the ladder of perfection, we will better grasp the great monuments that are the cardinal and Theological virtues.

The first virtues that concern the education of the young are related to one another with respect to Temperance. They are not, strictly speaking, the subject matter of Temperance. After all, do we not usually think of Temperance in regard to the moderation of eating and other pleasures associated with the sense of touch? Humility, studiousness and modesty in word and dress do not treat of tempering those difficult to overcome bodily inclinations toward sense pleasure. Instead, they temper the less difficult emotions to master. That is why they are traditionally grouped together in reference to Temperance.

The virtue modesty is first of all a general heading that we do not want to exclusively identify with the way women clothe themselves. Modesty in dress is but one instance of modesty. Instead, the class of virtues we call modesty concerns a group of habits. Each one addresses a particular human activity that needs its own good habit to perfect it. As we shall see, modesty concerns both habits of mind and of body.

This virtue, modesty, takes it name from the root word, “mode”. As a virtue, “mode” regards the manner of doing things in a way that avoids the extremes of excess and deficiency. Often we hear that “the virtuous way is the mean”, or “all things in moderation.” These easy to remember sayings capture the essence of all moral virtues, and particularly modesty, which is their model.

Arguably the most famous mode of this virtue is that which concerns the mind’s assessment of its own person as well as his hope and aspiration to greatness. This virtue is humility. Its opposite is the vice pride.

Humility – Modest Hope: Self-Effacement, Deference to Neighbors, Esteem for God

Many wise men have demonstrated that humility is the most important of the natural moral virtues, second only to justice. Great lights like St. Thomas Aquinas are very prudent in making that conclusion, for humility is the gateway to all of the other virtues. Humility is based on the realization that “I am not the center of the universe.” It accepts the greater reality that exists “beyond my own being,” while it acknowledges that “I am a part, not the whole, of this reality.” Finally, it sees that in the structure of the world around me, “I am not placed at the top.” These are the sorts of truths upon which the virtue of humility rests. From such a vantage, humility concerns the tempering of man’s spirit in its natural inclination to attain great things.

True humility begins with an honest assessment of oneself both according to nature and grace. Catholics traditionally acknowledge that sin is the only thing that man produces all by himself. All other things in nature and grace are good because they are of God. The humble man will boast in his blessings from God. He will also confess his poverty of self. Let us, of course, not be confused by Luther’s error, that man is sin. Luther held the erroneous notion contrary to Catholic dogma, that Adam’s sin destroyed man’s nature. Simply, God gave Adam no such power.

While discussing humility, St. Thomas Aquinas makes this point when commenting on Philippians ii, 3, “In humility, let each esteem others better than themselves.” The Common Doctor says, “We may consider two things in man, namely that which is God’s and that which is man’s. Whatever pertains to defect is man’s: but whatever pertains to man’s welfare and perfection is God’s.” He goes on to show that humility “properly regards the reverence whereby man is subject to God.” Furthermore, the humble man, in so far as he is the author of his own defect and sin, will place himself lower than all other men, in so far as they possess Godliness within themselves.” (II-II, 161, 3) At the same time, humility does not entertain falsehoods. Though the humble man takes all the blame, and gives God all the credit, even for his own merits; he does not lie about the degree of his ills or blessings.

Speaking very technically, humility is defined as the regulation of the movement of the emotion hope, which is, as St. Thomas teaches, “the movement of a spirit aiming at great things.” (II-II, 161, 4) The humble man hopes in greatness, but within the bounds of reason and grace, never too little nor too much. A humble man may attain great things, if he is given the talent and grace. He is even free to recognize the great achievement, but he must attribute it to God, not himself. He is not free to the self-esteem by which he identifies himself with his greatness.

Showing us the way to perfect humility, St. Benedict identified 12 degrees of this virtue in his famous Rule. The educator ought to own that Rule and meditate on it often. I merely reproduce his principles of humility here; they are easy to understand and simple to

  1. Fear God, and always be mindful of everything God has commanded.
  2. Do not delight in fulfilling one’s own desires.
  3. Subject oneself to a superior.
  4. Embrace patience by obeying under difficult and contrary circumstances.
  5. Confess one’s sins.
  6. Think oneself worthless and unprofitable for all purposes.
  7. Believe and acknowledge oneself viler than all.
  8. Do nothing but to what one is exhorted by the common rule of the monastery.
  9. Maintain silence until one is asked.
  10. Do not be easily moved and disposed to laughter.
  11. Speak few and sensible words, and not in a loud voice.
  12. Be humble not only in heart, but also to show it in one’s very person, one’s eyes fixed on the ground.

Three questions come to mind in reviewing these ancient precepts: (1) Which of these have become obsolete for man in the world in this twenty-first century? (2) Which of these have become obsolete for Catholics in the Church of the third millennium? (3) Which of these are unnecessary for my state in life, personal sanctity, piety, good works, salvation and glory given to God? The answer to all of these questions is “None.”

Another even more authoritative compilation of teachings on humility is the Beatitudes preached by Our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount. The Fathers of the Church in their explanation of these precepts for the New Law almost unanimously point to the overriding spirit of humility present in these monuments to perfection and salvation of the New Covenant.

Pride: Self-Esteem and Standing in the Place of God

Contrarily, pride is the indulgence of hope beyond the measure of reason as sketched above. St. Gregory the Great, defined the four forms that pride can take in the acts of an arrogant sinner. They are: (1) when one thinks that his good is from himself; (2) when he believes his good to be from above, but possessed on account of his own merits; (3) when he boasts of having what he has not; or (4) when he despises others and wishes to appear to be the only possessor of what he has. In every instance, though, pride is most deadly because man claims as his own what is not his, he attempts to put himself on God’s throne.

Furthermore, pride is the root of every sin not committed due to mere ignorance or weakness. Thus, anytime we knowingly and willingly transgress a commandment under our own full power, we always sin against that precept of the law and we sin against humility. For instance, if I were to steal a youngster’s sandwich at the cafeteria, I would be depriving him of his good and break the seventh commandment. I would sin against the child. But by the very act of breaking a precept of the law laid down by God Himself, I am also offending God. In this case, I sin by pride in that I prefer my own judgment to that of God’s. I put myself in his place and disregard his authority.

Adam committed the first sin against humility when he listened to his wife who had spoken with the serpent, and ate from the forbidden tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam’s objective was clear; he attempted to become a god. Adam hoped to attain something greater than he could by right and by nature, and he despised the sole precept laid upon him in paradise. Adam esteemed himself greater than he should have. As a result, pride was the original sin. It is also the root of the life of iniquity for all men who commit actual sins.

Prior to Adam’s original human violation of the virtue of humility was the sin of pride practiced by the devil and his cohorts in the beginning. Instead of delving into an analysis of demonology, which is never a prudent endeavor for theologians, let alone mere mortals such as you and I, let us instead consider their chief adversary, St. Michael the Archangel. As far as we know through the public Revelation entrusted to the Church, St. Michael is now the greatest of the heavenly host. This is most revealing for in the hierarchy of the nine choirs of angels, the archangels are only second from the bottom. Satan was the chief of the seraphim –the highest order. But Michael, whose very name means, “Who is like God?” answers the riddle of his moniker, “No one, neither Lucifer nor I,” by driving that unworthy wight from the pinnacle of glory unto the utter depths of hell. Yes, Satan is proud, but St. Michael is humble. For his ongoing heroic act of the original virtue, humility, Michael’s reward is the title and the authority which accompanies it, “Prince of the Heavenly Host.” The humble has been exalted; he is victorious.

Our Lord, when He came to save the world, chose to undo in His first Advent the very breaches of humility practiced by Satan and Adam which violated the perfect order God gave to heaven and earth. He did this by taking upon Himself the form of the lowest rational creature, a poor, simple and helpless babe. Did He not also hide Himself in utter obscurity for 30 years with His mother and father in Nazareth? Did He not, too, preach the way of salvation through the lowly course of the beatitudes that begins with the Spirit of Poverty, and then progresses on to the other relatives of humility? Did He not finally humble Himself supremely as prophesized by Isaias as the Lamb led to slaughter who opened not His mouth?

We need not ponder long to understand the imperative for forming a healthy humility in the life of our students. If we hope to have any success with our charges, then we must begin with a solid foundation in the humility of the saints who teach us in their contemporary situations the same Gospel that our Lord gave to us 2000 years ago. We must also draw attention to the incidents that try our humility on a daily basis and show how they are occasions for virtue, character building and merit. Above all, we must instill a hearty esteem for God, His Church and the saints in our students, while teaching them to test every spirit. What accords with their welfare and the glory of God is good. What is not, is chaff. A Catholic does not listen to the moderns who preach self- esteem. Instead he hearkens to the voice of the Lord who speaks with authority and truth. It is in the Spirit of the All-good and the Almighty that he learns to pray, “Jesus, I trust in you!” Through these prayers, and similar practices, the Catholic youngster can attain a modest self-assessment that places hope where it belongs, namely, in God.

Studiousness: The Modest Pursuit for Knowledge

Now that we have treated of humility, which is the moderation of the desires both for a good self-evaluation as well as the hope to attain great things, we turn next to the moderation of the ambition to pursue knowledge and the intellectual life. When modesty virtuously regulates this natural human desire for knowledge, we have the special virtue, studiousness.

The word “study” refers to the keen application of the mind to something. As a virtue, studiousness primarily concerns the moderation of the desire for knowledge which is effected by the work of study. A secondary sense of this virtue considers the work involved in keenly applying the mind to difficult subject matter. That special sense of studiousness is really taken up as an application of the virtue perseverance when considering the onerous demands upon the scholar.

For our consideration, studiousness will regard that earlier sense, the moderation of the desire to know. Now knowledge, in itself, is the intellectual virtue of habitually knowing something. In so far as something is true, it is good to know, for the purpose of the intellect is to have the mind in agreement with reality. Since the moral life is distinct from the intellectual life, the moral life does not apply the concept of the mean to the possession of these intellectual virtues called knowledge. After all, truth is not capable of being regulated by categories like too little or too much. As for instance, either one knows that 1+1=2, or one does not know that. One cannot know such a truth according to the modes too little or too much, though one must avoid the temptation to take pride in or misuse for evil purposes the knowledge attained.

On the other hand, the desire or purpose for attaining true knowledge is something that is regulated by the moral virtues, and subject to the moderation of mean, lest the natural desire for knowledge be excessive. After discerning that one’s desire for study is free from prideful or malicious intent, the virtue of studiousness considers four things in regard to the moderation of the desire for knowledge. Where the pursuit of study is inordinately undertaken, there is present not virtue, but the vice of curiosity.

First, one must recollect himself prior to commencing study to discern that his pursuit corresponds with the obligations incumbent upon him. Any distraction from the studies proper to one’s duty of state would constitute a curious inquiry into less profitable matters. To help us understand this point, we might recall that study refers to the attempt to find out the truth of anything, not just the subjects found in an academic curriculum. Reading the newspaper, minding the affairs of others, heeding gossip, following the latest episode in a popular television show, keeping up with the fashions that are all the rage, knowing the latest bands, or clicking to the next curious novelty on the Internet are the very things that often compete for studious attention by Catholics in America today. Assuming the moral content of these things is licit (and almost universally they are not, as detraction, slander, avarice, anger, gluttony, immodesty and impurity are the very objects of inquiry here), there must be good reasons for paying attention to them. These reasons include helping direct man to his last end and giving glory of God. Also, such secondary matters of importance may only be pursued after all necessary studies for our duty of state are complete.

What are the matters for study required of our duty of state? They are the various obligations entrusted to us according to the responsibilities of our age and office. Every man has the duty to study the things of God as revealed by Him, expounded by reason and entrusted to the Church. All are responsible for learning and retaining the catechism. All are responsible for daily spiritual reading. St. Alphonsus de Ligouri, the moral doctor of the Church, counseled that you will not save your soul if you do not faithfully attended to 15 minutes of spiritual reading each day. All must study the moral law and the virtues. All must learn the civic code of their society by which they are required to live. All must learn the customs and rules of their home. All must learn the curriculum entrusted to them by their parents, school and Church. All must learn the domestic arts, or a trade, profession or science by which to make a living. All must recollect the mind and spirit by tending to noble arts that elevate the intellect and succor the spirit. All must tend to any other matter necessary for the sustenance of their temporal and eternal wellbeing.

Secondly, studiousness avoids consultation from unlawful sources of knowledge. Curious is the sinful man who consults demons, oracles, witches, fortune-tellers, horoscopes, tarot cards, and all other superstitious media from the occult. Though no longer a lawfully binding list, the Index of Forbidden Books is the resource for the perfidious. Secular and Masonic sources for history and political theory are to be avoided, as well. They are the deceptive tales and doctrines of the enemies of goodness, truth and salvation that entice the young away from their Christian destiny.

Thirdly, the good student may pursue a comprehensive study of the truth about creatures if and only if it is done with reference to the goal of all knowledge, which is God. Animal husbandry and veterinary medicine are disciplines principally ordered to the good of man, and by extension the glory of God. Good breeds and healthy stock are necessary things for the welfare of man. On the other hand, a curious probing into the biological origin of species, and specious theories of the rights of animals alongside men, are the concerns of the godless multitude who have squandered their intellectual inheritance in our generation. SPCA and PETA are not the abbreviations following the names of the spiritual children of St. Francis.

Lastly, the studious do not study above the capacity of their own intelligence. Error and confusion are the only results when this principle is violated. For instance, men lack the ability to learn new things about the inner nature of God, the Blessed Trinity, apart from what has already been revealed by Him and infallibly clarified by Holy Mother Church. Any speculation leading to novel insights concerning things that are beyond the natural light of reason that have not been specially and publicly revealed are predetermined from the outset to be wrong. Another instance is the unjust promotion of every living body automatically on to higher education.

Perhaps primary and secondary schools ought to consider the caliber of their programs and determine if every student who applies will automatically be eligible for admission. If a school’s standards of academic rigor are very high, it is possible their program is not for everyone. If their standards are lower, are they really able to accommodate every accelerated student? Entertaining these questions with sober resolve is not an exercise in the negative properties of elitism. A school must know whom they serve and what they intend for their students to achieve. An inner-city mission outreach, a suburban safe-haven, a rural work-farm for obstinate youth, and a liberal arts academy are all valid models for schools to follow. Whatever yours are, know your charism, and select students accordingly.

Curiosity, then, is the vice that opposes studiousness. It does so principally by violating one of these four modes of good study and its proper intention. Briefly, we could mention that curiosity also considers the “temptation of the eye”, which is the pursuit of knowledge gained from sights for lustful purposes. Men, who are more easily prone to lustful abandon must learn to guard their eyes. Women, who are more prone to attract, must learn to veil their beauty in ways that will be discussed in the next section.

Modesty in Outward Movement and Dress

We come to the last virtues that comprise the various external forms of modesty. These are modest human movements, speech and dress.

Modest bodily movements have the character of virtue when they possess honesty and beauty. Honesty refers to a thing being worthy of honor. Honor is due to the quality of excellence present in the thing we revere. Beauty is similar.

St. Thomas teaches that the style of outward movements pertains to the beauty of honesty. (II-II 168. 1 ff.) There is the fittingness of movements regarding the person who moves. These we call “taste”, that is, that which is becoming to the person himself. These things reveal the interior dispositions and the ordering of the passions of the soul. St. Ambrose wrote, “from these things (the outward movements), the man that lies hidden in our hearts is esteemed to be either frivolous, or boastful, or impure, or on the other hand sedate, steady, pure and free from blemish.” Truthfulness is the related virtue that sees to it our outward movements of words and deeds are signs of our inward disposition.

There is also the fittingness of movements as regards externals such as other persons, the business at hand, or place. Here the rule of “methodicalness”, directs outward movements. Friendliness and affability are the related virtues that perfect outward movements that are directed toward others. A sense of decorum directs our bearing in different physical places.

Play and recreation are another aspect of movements and speech that require the regulation of the virtue modesty. Just as the body fatigues and needs rest and refreshment, so, too, the soul fatigues under strenuous mental labor and needs rest and refreshment. This rest comes about through pleasure.

In this fun, three things need special moderation. The first is that there are no indecent or injurious words or deed. Nothing should be discourteous, insolent, scandalous or obscene. The second caution guards against the excessive relinquishing of the mind over to the fun. The balance of the mind is carefully attained through the hard work of study and practice of the virtues. Game play should not upset that balance. Thirdly, observance of persons, time and place is important. Not every possible good game is appropriate at any time, place or presence of persons. The extremes of excessive play and lack of mirth are to be avoided in the modest person.

Grace and Honesty in Outward Apparel

The outward things that we use, such as clothing and adornments, are not themselves either virtuous or vicious. How they are used and esteemed are. Within a sane culture, the ethics of the virtue of modesty in dress follows the norms laid down by the customs of the society in which one finds oneself. There, violations of the norm offend public modesty. However, Americans today live in a revolutionary culture that favors a perpetual challenge to the prevailing norms of style, modesty, decency and goodness. To the extent that Catholics in their families, schools and churches tolerate our era’s successive decadence in morals and modesty, they are part of the revolution. The role of custom and public habit is no longer a safe guidepost either for fit or coverage of garments. Let us turn to some other particulars that govern modest adornment and apparel.

To begin with, we must neither be too attached nor pleased with the raiment of the body. This needs to be observed in three ways. First, we must not seek glory from too excessive an attention to dress. This form of the virtue of modesty in dress is really a relative of humility. Second, we must not seek excessive pleasure in the comforts afforded by clothing. Contentment is the related virtue here that makes us satisfied with what is suitable, and enables us to determine what is becoming in this manner of life. Lastly we must not be too picky in selecting the clothes that we must wear. Simplicity is the rule, for it makes us content with what we have.

There are also ways by which we fail to govern our dress with modesty by way of deficiency. One is the neglect of giving proper regard to the use of outward apparel. This vice occasions an offensive shabbiness in appearance. Another is a shrugging off of all convention and decorum by dressing with abject contempt for cleanliness, orderliness or decency. The last two are seen everywhere today in America where misplaced trousers fall below the hips, defectively short blouses are hemmed above the navel, and pre-faded, pre-worn garments are sold at exorbitant prices at the boutiques.
One last area in the consideration of modest dress is its relation to the virtue of purity. Modest dress elevates the physical personae of the man or woman who wears such clothing, so that his or her body reflects the virtues striven after and attained by the soul. Furthermore, it educes the virtues of moderate thoughts and tempered desires in those who behold them. On the other hand, when such dress is uncharitably or negligently missing, the scandals of temptation and seduction often result.


We have considered these various species of Modesty first, namely humility, studiousness and external actions and coverings, because as we explained earlier, they are related one to the other under Temperance as those desires which are easier to moderate than the subject matter of the cardinal virtue, which is the desire of the flesh. It must be noted that these virtues: humility, studiousness and the various outward forms of modesty, have to be mastered early and remain with the young so that they may have the virtuous foundation for attaining temperance in the things more difficult to handle. It stands to reason that when the easier and more elementary things are missed, the latter, mature and more onerous duties will suffer a tragic fate.

Returning to the analogy of the virtue ladder, we began with those virtues that make for an easier initial ascent. Next time we shall examine one more set of virtues related to temperance that are important for the education of the young, namely clemency and meekness, and then move on to the specific forms of temperance and their necessary constituent parts. That will bring us firmly and safely to the first landing on the virtue ladder.

For Further Reading

Catechism of the Catholic Church § 2521-2527
Summa Theologica of St. Thomas, the Second Part of the Second Part, Questions 160-169
The Four Cardinal Virtues of Joseph Pieper (Notre Dame, 1966), pp 145-146, 189-192, 198-202

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