Modesty is a polite accomplishment, and generally an attendant upon merit: It is engaging to the highest degree, and wins the heart of all our acquaintance. On the contrary, none are more disgustful in company than the impudent and presuming.
The man who is, on all occasions, commending and speaking well of himself, we naturally dislike. On the other hand, he who studies to conceal his own defects, who does justice to the merit of others, who talks but little of himself, and that with modesty, makes a favourable impression on the persons he is conversing with, captivates their minds, and gains their esteem.
Modesty, however, widely differs from an awkward bashfulness, which is as much to be condemned as the other is to be applauded. To appear simple is as ill-bred as to be impudent. A young man ought to be able to come into a room and address the company, without the least embarrassment. To be out of countenance when spoken to, and not to have an answer ready, is ridiculous to the last degree.
An awkward country fellow, when he comes into company better than himself, is exceedingly disconcerted. He knows not what to do with his hands, or his hat, but either puts one of them in his pocket, and dangles the other by his side; or perhaps twirls his hat on his fingers, or fumbles with the button. If spoken to, he is in a much worse situation, he answers with the utmost difficulty, and nearly stammers; whereas a gentleman, who is acquainted with life, enters a room with gracefulness and a modest assurance, addresses even persons he does not know, in an easy and natural manner, and without the least embarrassment.
This is the characteristic of good-breeding, a very necessary knowledge in our intercourse with men; for one of inferior parts, with the behaviour of a gentleman, is frequently better received than a man of sense, with the address and manners of a clown.
Ignorance and vice are the only things we need be ashamed of; steer clear of these, and you may go into any company you will: Not that I would have a young man throw off all dread of appearing abroad; as a fear of offending, or being disesteemed, will make him observe a proper decorum. Some persons from experiencing the inconveniencies of false modesty, have run into the other extreme, and acquired the character of impudent: This is as great a fault as the other. A well-bred man keeps himself within the two, and steers the middle way. He is easy and firm in every company, is modest but not bashful, steady but not impudent. He copies the manners of the better people, and conforms to their customs with ease and attention.
Till we can present ourselves in all companies with coolness and unconcern, we can never present ourselves well; nor will a man ever be supposed to have kept good company, or ever be acceptable in such company, if he cannot appear there easy and unembarrassed. A modest assurance, in every part of life, is the most advantageous qualification we can possibly acquire.
Instead of becoming insolent, a man of sense, under a consciousness of merit, is more modest. He behaves himself indeed with firmness, but without the least presumption. The man who is ignorant of his own merit, is no less a fool than he who is constantly displaying it. A man of understanding avails himself of his abilities, but never boasts of them; whereas the timid and bashful can never push himself in life, be his merit as great as it will; he will be always kept behind by the forward and bustling. A man of abilities, and acquainted with life, will stand as firm in defence of his own rights, and pursue his plans as steadily and unmoved, as the most impudent man alive; but then he does it with a seeming modesty. Thus manner is every thing; what is impudence in one, is proper assurance only in another; for firmness is commendable, but an overbearing conduct is disgustful.
Forwardness being the very reverse of modesty, follow rather than lead the company; that is, join in discourse upon subjects, rather than start one of your own: If you have parts, you will have opportunities enough of shewing them on every topic of conversation, and if you have none, it is better to expose yourself upon a subject of other people’s than of your own.
But, be particularly careful not to speak of yourself, if you can help it. An impudent fellow lugs in
himself abruptly upon all occasions, and is ever the hero of his own story. Others will colour their arrogance with, ‘It may seem strange, indeed, that I should talk in this manner of myself; it is what I by no means like, and should never do, if I had not been cruelly and unjustly accused; but when my character is attacked, it is a justice I owe to myself, to defend it.’ This veil is too thin not to be seen through on the first inspection.
Others again, with more art, will modestly boast of all the principal virtues, by calling those virtues weaknesses, and saying, they are so unfortunate as to fall into weaknesses. ‘I cannot see persons suffer,’ says one of this cast, ‘without relieving them; though my circumstances are very unable to afford it.’ ‘I cannot avoid speaking truth, though it is often very imprudent,’ and so on.
This angling for praise is so prevailing a principle, that it frequently stoops to the lowest objects. Men will often boast of doing that, which, if true, would be rather a disgrace to them than otherwise. One man affirms that he rode twenty miles within the hour; ’tis probably a lie; but suppose he did, what then? He had a good horse under him, and is a good jockey. Another swears he has often at a sitting, drank five or six bottles to his own share. Out of respect to him, I will believe him a liar, for I would not wish to think him a beast.
These and many more are the follies of idle people, which, while they think they procure them esteem, in reality make them despised.
To avoid this contempt, therefore, never speak of yourself at all, unless necessity obliges you; and even then, take care to do it in such a manner, that it may not be construed in to fishing for applause. Whatever perfections you may have, be assured, people will find them out; but whether they do or not, nobody will take them upon your own word. The less you say of yourself, the more the world will give you credit for; and the more you say, the less they will believe you.