The Personalist Project

Long time readers know that my thinking on modesty has changed over the years. (See here and here for instance.) In short, I have come to associate most "modesty talk" in Christian circles with a counter-productive tendency toward externalism, judgmentalism and control. It's not that I've stopped caring about modesty; it's that I've stopped thinking we can get to it by focusing on clothing. 

Today, pressing on with my electronic de-cluttering resolution, I found an unfinished post on the subject from 2009. The post isn't worth saving, but it included some great quotes from Mounier's Personalism.

We know that the personal life is related by its nature to something secret. Some people are wholly extraverted, thoroughly exhibited; they have no secret, no contents, no background. They are like open books, and quickly read. Having no experience of any depth, they have no ‘respect for privacy’, their own or anyone else’s. They have an unrefined taste for talking and for making others talk, for gossip and curious enquiry. Now, discretion and reserve are the homage that the person renders to the sense of an infinite life within.

Mounier goes on to link the point to modesty:

Physical modesty signifies, not that the body is impure, but that I am immeasurably more than a body that can be seen or touched…The opposite of modesty is vulgarity, allowing myself to be merely what I am in immediate appearance, in the glare of the public eye.

Stricter rules for body coverage can't supply the real defect in our culture or in our selves, just as pretty wrapping paper can't make a true gift out of an empty box.

What's wanted is "experience of depth," value and interior plenitude.

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Comments (8)

Jules van Schaijik

#1, Jan 23, 2016 10:06pm

Sherry Turkle, in Alone Together, observes with alarm that young people are getting used to the idea of having no privacy. They know that every purchase they make, everything they say or do online, every place they visit, every photo they take, is recorded somewhere and in principle knowable by the public. When asked if they are bothered by this, many just shrug their shoulders and say something like "If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear". The desire for privacy, in other words, is treated as suspect.

They haven't learned that, as Mounier puts it, "personal life is related by its nature to something secret." Turkle comments:

In democracy, perhaps we all need to begin with the assumption that everyone has something to hide, a zone of private action and reflection, one that must be protected no matter what our techno-enthusiasms.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Jan 23, 2016 10:18pm

Turkle relates a nice and telling story about her grandmother, an emmigree from Eastern Europe, where the government routinely read people's mail.

Every morning, my grandmother took me downstairs to the mailboxes. Looking at the gleaning brass doors, on which, she noted, "people were not afraid to have their names listed, for all to see," my grandmother would tell me, as if it had never come up before, "In America, no one can look at your mail. It's a federal offense. That's the beauty of this country." From the earliest age, my civics lessons at the mailbox linked privacy and civil liberties. I think of how different things are today for children who learn to live with the idea that their e-mail and messages are share-able and unprotected.

Isn't it striking how differently snail-mail and e-mail are treated?

Rhett Segall

#3, Jan 24, 2016 12:21pm

Katie and Jules:

A couple of reactions:

In the 60's there were a couple of related movements which I think helped undercut the great importance of interior modesty (i.e. expressing our selves, especially very personal feelings, only in the context of a very reverential emotional environment). Those movements were sensitivity training and encounter groups. (Perhaps also the psychology of Carl Rogers). The common denominator of these movements , it seems to me, was "get in touch with your feelings and express them". Perhaps thrown into this might be a phobia for Freudian  repression. Now I recognize the value of getting  in touch with one's feelings and the clear expression of them. But I do think that a proper reserve and discretion is a necessary balance so that this expression does not lead to untimely exposure leading to emotional damage.

Katie van Schaijik

#4, Jan 25, 2016 9:00am

I agree with you, Rhett: a proper reserve and discretion is necessary. 

The problem is: how to we get from habitual (and society-wide) indiscretion to personal discretion?

I think there is only one way, viz. "inside out." You can't get there from the outside, i.e, from imposing rules and standards. Those backfire.

Rhett Segall

#5, Jan 25, 2016 11:41am

I would give more weight to the exterior expression of reverence than I think you do, particularly with children. Genuflecting or bowing carefully in Church, good table manners, respectful lspeeh, saying thank you and I’m sorry are not unimportant habits to insist upon with our children. I wonder what your reaction is to the following from Dietrich Von Hildebrand:

Rhett Segall

#6, Jan 25, 2016 11:42am

The same applies to the modern attitude toward exterior forms in general. Greeting other persons by shaking their hands or by lifting our hat is a deep expression of the call to direct ourselves in an outspoken act toward the other person as such before we turn to any other topic in talking to him….Let us not overlook the undermining influence implicit in such a neglect of exterior forms-a  neglect that affects even in our very carriage, our tenue, and the rhythm of vitality in our bodily behavior.  It is not in vain that the liturgy insists on a proper bodily attitude in praying, that St. Benedict lays such weight on the bearing of the monk, which should breathe reverence and a habitare secum, and form an antithesis to any kind of slovenliness.  Exterior behavior is not only an expression of the inner, but it also has an influence on our inner attitude, and facilitates at least the engendering of the inner attitude of reverence. (The New Tower of Babel; pp. 173-174.)

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Jan 25, 2016 11:51am

I agree with DvH here. But the issue is, again, how to get there from here. He was writing from within a culture where such external norms were norms. They aren't anymore. That makes a huge difference, pedagogically speaking.

About children, you have a valid point. Parents and teachers of children surely do well to deliberately teach manners, provided they do it in a good way, rather than a too legalistic or authoritarian way.

The issue is more complicated when we're speaking of adolescents and up, where selfhood and authenticity become increasingly thematic.

Jules van Schaijik

#8, Jan 25, 2016 4:50pm

Katie van Schaijik wrote:

Parents and teachers of children surely do well to deliberately teach manners, provided they do it in a good way, rather than a too legalistic or authoritarian way.

I would add that the manners we teach our children should be in keeping with the times. What was inappropriate when we grew up, may be perfectly fine nowadays.

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