Modesty is it the sign of a successful education?


Can we advocate modesty in a society dominated by competition? Triumphant neoliberalism favors performance. To be successful, you have to be more efficient than others. And social networks, on which young people are so present, encourage a lot of self-staging. How could education, in such a context, propose to value modesty?

By advocating modesty, aren’t we condemning those we educate to stay eternally in the background, or even to become eternal “loosers”? Would there be anything to be gained in 2021, apart from a few gibes, by being modest? At a time when a philosopher like Michael Sandel questions “the tyranny of merit” which would freeze and legitimize the distribution of places in society, creating a form of hybris among the winners of the system, return to the teachings of some great philosophers.

A sense of “right measure”

Modesty is not absence of ambition, but refusal of excess. It could be defined as restraint in self-appreciation. It concerns the relation of oneself to oneself, before defining a certain way of situating oneself in relation to others. Not to pretend to be, and first of all not to believe that you are better or stronger than what you are. To be modest is to have a sense of “just measure”.

Etymologically, modesty precisely means “measure” and moderation. In the sense that Aristotle gives to this term in his Ethics to Nicomaques , modesty is a virtue, “consisting of a mediety… between two vices, one by excess and the other by default”. “The characteristics of vice are excess and defect, and virtue is mediety.” “Mediety” is “the right measure”.

Modesty, a question of balance? Shutterstock

Aristotle offers concrete figures. “The prudent man”, in other words the wise man, will know how to show “magnanimity”, the middle ground between vanity and humility. Or even “veracity”, the middle ground between boasting and self-deprecation.

Descartes makes the same praise of moderation in the first rule of “his morality by provision” , which invites one to govern oneself “in everything according to the most moderate opinions and those furthest from excess, which were commonly received in practice. by the best considered of those with whom I would have to live ”. “Any excess having a habit of being bad”, the most “useful” is to follow the most moderate opinions, which are “probably the best”.

Modesty, in the sense of restraint and moderation, is thus a virtuous attitude which offers a significant gain for the “governance” of one’s life, in terms of both ethics and practical efficiency.

A requirement for lucidity

Modesty is not weakness. It is not resignation, but lucidity. An effort of lucidity which results in the rejection of pretension and vanity. It is in this sense that the death of Socrates teaches a lesson in strength.

For Alain, in his Elements of Philosophy , Socrates is the model of the wise man’s modesty. According to the testimony of Plato ( Apology of Socrates ), to answer the indictment of his accusers, Socrates begins by evoking a paradox. He was “aware that he was little more than wise” when, according to the oracle of Delphi, no one was wiser than he.

This makes it possible to define “a purely human wisdom” (a knowledge which relates to the human being), possessed by those who have understood that the true sage is the one who does not claim to be. Many men seem wise to many others, and especially to themselves, when they are not. The false sage “thinks he knows something, when he knows nothing, while I, if I don’t know, I don’t think I know either.”

Modesty delivers from the illusion (of ‘pretension’) of excellence (of one’s’ self-excellence ‘), which obscures the minds of’ many people who think they know something and who know nothing or few things ”, as Plato had Socrates say. It conditions the progression in knowledge, of oneself, of men, and of the universe.

Modesty, as the pride of the righteous

Socrates’ pride had struck everyone who attended his trial. Could a certain pride therefore go hand in hand with modesty? Certainly, modesty is a sign of lucidity as to one’s limits. But above all, it is the rejection of the tyranny of appearing. The modest is the one who favors the consistency of being, rather than the facticity of appearing.

Of course, there is still something artificial about the cut between being and appearing! Everyone is in the first place only what their body gives to see. As Paul Valéry says (Fragments of the Narcissus ):

“You alone, oh my body, my dear body,

I love you, the only object that defends me from the dead ”.

But no one is reduced to appearances. And especially not to social appearances. We know since Pascal  : the “size of establishment” deserves only “respect of establishment”. Media visibility concerns and delights only those for whom appearance is everything, and value is not measured by the number of those who follow its shadow (however great it may be).

To escape the tyranny of appearances, is modesty a key? Shutterstock

We must hear here the luminous voice of Pascal, for whom pride finds its true place in “the order of charity”. The “lust of the flesh” is good for “the rich, the kings”, whose object is the body. Spiritual concupiscence, for the curious and learned, whose object is the mind. “Pride” properly so called, finally, belongs to the wise, whose object is justice:

“It is not that one cannot be glorious for goods or for knowledge, but it is not the place of pride. The proper place for pride is wisdom ”(Thoughts).

Yes, the modest man is the one who is capable of experiencing, whatever his space of action and “success” (as father, teacher, companion, friend, craftsman, social actor, writer, astronomer, or even researcher). in physics), the pride of having in everything and always sought justice, and tried to rise to the order of “true charity”. Like the saints, for whom, according to Pascal, God alone is sufficient.

For Pascal, as we know, wisdom is visible only to “the eyes of the heart”. It is this visibility that will seek those who will have understood in what sense modesty is the crown of a successful human education.

Author Bio: Charles Hadji is Honorary Professor (Educational Sciences) at Université Grenoble Alpes (UGA)