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Joseph Joubert (1754–1824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.

Chapter V.

What Is Modesty?

[1]MODESTY is an indefinable sensitive fear, that makes the soul, so long as it is delicate and tender, recoil and hide within itself, like the flower, its fitting symbol, at the approach of anything that might wound it by a rude touch, or a light that comes too soon. Hence the disturbance that arises within us when harm draws near, and which so troubles and confuses our thoughts that the evil gains no hold upon them. Hence also that tact which is the advance-guard of all our perceptions, that instinct warning us off all that is forbidden—that motionless flight, that blind discernment, that silent indication of all that must be avoided, or that should remain unknown. Hence also that timidity, which sets all our senses on their guard, and prevents youth from endangering its innocence, emerging from its ignorance, or breaking in upon its happiness. Hence also that shrinking, whereby inexperience seeks to keep itself intact, and shuns too great delight, fearing some harm.

[2]Modesty lowers the lids between our eyes and the outward world, and puts a still more wonderful and useful veil between our eyes and our understanding. The spectator perceives it by a certain distance in nearness, by the magical heightening which it lends to our every form, to the voice, appearance, movements, filling them with grace. Modesty is to beauty, and to the slightest of our charms, what limpidity is to a fountain, glass to a pastel, or atmosphere to a landscape.

[3]Need we any longer discuss its necessity? What the white of the egg, and the web that contains it, are to the fledgeling, the capsule to the seed, the calyx to the flower, the sky to the world, modesty is to our virtues. Without this protective shelter they could not blossom; their sanctuary would be violated; the seed would be laid bare, the offspring lost.

[4]Modesty in youth bequeaths to our maturer life fruits still more precious: a purity of taste, the delicacy of which nothing has blunted; a clear imagination that nothing has dimmed; an active and firmly knit mind, ever ready to rise into the heights; an enduring elasticity, unwrinkled and unmarred; the love of innocent pleasures—the only pleasures that have become familiar to us; the power of being easily made happy, springing from the habit of finding happiness within ourselves; a something which can only be compared to the velvet of a flower, that has been long folded within its impenetrable sheath, where no breath has touched it; a spell that arises from the soul, and that she exerts upon everything, so that everything becomes endlessly lovable to her, and she endlessly loving; honour eternally unstained—for it may here be confessed, what it may sometimes be well to forget, that no pleasure stains the soul when it comes through senses with which this incorruptibility has been slowly and gradually blended. Lastly, so strong a habit of self-approval, that it would be impossible to do without it, and that we must live irreproachable to be able to live content.