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I know no two words, that have been more abused by the different and wrong interpretations which are put upon them than these two, Modesty and Assurance. To say, such a one is a modest man, sometimes indeed passes for a good character; but at present is very often used to signify a sheepish awkward fellow, who has neither good-breeding, politeness, nor any knowledge of the world.
Again, a man of assurance, though at first it only denoted a person of a free and open carriage, is now. very usually applied to a profligate wretch, who can break through all the rules of decency and morality without a blush.
I shall endeavour, therefore, in this essay, to restore these words to the true meaning, to prevent the idea of modesty from being confounded with that of sheepishness, and to hinder impudence from passing for assurance.
If I was put to define modesty, I would call it, 'The reflection of an ingenuous mind, either when a man has committed an action for which he censures himself, or fancies that he is exposed to the censure of others.
For this reason a man truly modest is as much when he is alone as in company, and as subject to a blush in his closet, as when the eyes of multitudes are upon
I do not remember to have met with any instance of modesty with which I am so well pleased, as that celebrated one of the young prince, whose father, being a tributary king to the Romans, liad several complaints laid against him before the senate, as a tyrant and oppressor of his subjects. The prince went to Rome to defend his father, but coming into the senate, and hearing a multitude of crimes proved upon him, was so oppressed when it came to his turn to speak, that he was unable to utter a word. The story tells us, that the fathers were more moved at this instance of modesty and ingenuousness, than they could have been by the most pathetic oration; and, in short; pardoned the guilty father for this early promise of virtue in the son.
I take assurance to be, The faculty of possessing a man's self, or of saying and doing indifferent things without any uneasiness or emotion in the mind. That which generally gives a man assurance is a moderate knowledge of the world, but above all, a mind fixed and determined in itself to do nothing against the rules of honour and decency. An open and assured behaviour is the natural consequence of such a resolution. A man thus armed, if his words or actions are at any time misinterpreted, retires within himself, and from a consciousness of bis own integrity assumes force enough, to despise the little censures of ignorance or malice.
Every one ought to cherish and encourage in himself the modesty and assurance I have here mentioned.
A man without assurance is liable to be made uneasy by the folly or ill nature of every one he converses with. A man without modesty is lost to all sense of honour and virtue.
It is more than probable, that the prince above-mentioned possessed both these qualifications in a very eminent degree. Without assurance he would never have undertaken to speak before the most august assembly in the world; without modesty he would bave pleaded the cause he had taken upon him, though it had appeared ever so scandalous.
From what has been said, it is plain, that modesty and assurance are both amiable, and may very well meet in the same person. When they are thus mixed and blended together, they compose what we endeavour to express when we say a modest assurance; by which we understand the just mean between bashfulness and impudence.
I shall conclude with observing, that as the same man may he both modest and assured, so it is also possible for the same person to be both impudent and bashful.
We have frequent instances of this odd kind of mixture in people of depraved minds and mean education; who, though they are not able to meet a man's eyes, or pronounce a sentence without confusion, can voluntarily commit the greatest villanies, or most indecent actions.
Such a person seems to have made a resolution to do ill even in spite of himself, and in defiance of all those checks and restraints his temper and complexion seem to have laid
in his way.
Upon the whole, I would endeavour to establish this maxim, That the practice of virtue is the most proper method to give a man a becoming assurance in his words and actions. Guilt always seeks to shelter itself in one of the extremes, and is sometimes attended with both.
I have always preferred Cheerfulness to Mirth. The latter I consider as an act, the former as a habit of the mind. Mirth is short and transient, cheerfulness fixed and permanent. Those are often raised into the greatest transports of mirth, who are subject to the greatest depressions of melancholy; on the contrary, cheerfulness, though it does not give the mind such an exquisite gladness, prevents us from falling into any depths of sorrow. Mirth is like a flash of lightning, that breaks through a gloom of clouds, and glitters for a moment; cheerfulness keeps up a kind of daylight in the mind, and fills it with a steady and perpetual serenity.
Men of austere principles look upon mirth as too wanton and dissolute for a state of probation, and as filled with a certain triumph and insolence of heart, that are inconsistent with a life which is every moment obnoxious to the greatest dangers. Writers of this complexion have observed, that the sacred Person, who was the great pattern of perfection, was never seen to laugh.
Cheerfulness of mind is not liable to any of these exceptions: it is of a serious and composed nature ; it does not throw the mind into a condition inproper for the present state of humanity; and is very conspicuous in the characters of those who are looked upon as the greatest philosophers among the Heathens, as well as among those who have been deservedly esteemed as saints and holy men among Christians.
If we consider cheerfulness in three lights, with regard to ourselves, to those we converse with, and to the great Author of our being, it will not a little recommend itself on each of these accounts. The man who is possessed of this excellent frame of mind is not only easy in his thoughts, but a perfect master of all the powers and faculties of his soul: his imagination is always clear, and his judgment undisturbed: his teniper is even and unruffled, whether in action or in solitude. He comes with a relish to all those goods which nature has provided for him, tastes all the pleasures of the creation which are poured upon him, and does not feel the full weight of those accidental evils which may befall him.
If we consider him in relation to the persons whom he converses with, it naturally produces love and good-will toward him. A cheerful mind is not only disposed to be affable and obliging, but raises the same good humour in those who come within it's influence. A man finds himself pleased, he does not know why, with the cheerfulness of his companion: it is like a sudden sunshine, that awakens a sacred delight in the mind, without her attending to it. The heart rejoices of its own accord, and naturally flows out into friendship and benevolence toward the person who has so kindly an effect upon it.
When I consider this cheerful state of mind in it's third relation, I cannot but look upon it as a constant habitual gratitude to the Author of nature, An inward cheerfulness is an implicit praise and thanksgiving to Providence under all it's dispensations. It is a kind of acquiescence in the state
wherein we are placed, and a secret approbation of the Divine will in his conduct towards man.
A man, who uses his best endeavours to live according to the dictates of virtue and right reason, has two perpetual sources of cheerfulness in the consideration of his own na ture, and of that being on whom he has a dependance. If he looks into himself, he cannot but rejoice in that existence which is so lately bestowed upon liim, and which, after millions of ages, will be still new, and still in it's beginning. How many self-congratulations naturally rise in the mind, when it reflects on this it's entrance into eternity, when it takes a view of those improvable faculties, which in a few years, and even at it's first setting out, have made so considerable a progress, and which will be still receiving an increase of perfection, and consequently an increase of happiness! The consciousness of such a being spreads a perpetual diffusion of joy through the soul of a virtuous man, and makes him look upon himself every moment as more happy than he knows how to conceive.
The second source of cheerfulness to a good mind is it's consideration of that Being, on whom we have our dependance, and in whom, though we behold him as yet but in the first faint discoveries of his perfections, we see every thing that we can imagine as great, glorious, or amiable. We find ourselves every where upheld by his goodness, and surrounded with an immensity of love and mercy. In short, we depend upon a Being, whose power qualifies him to make us happy by an infinity of means, whose goodness and truth engage him to make those happy who desire it of him, and whose unchangeableness will secure us in this happiness to all eternity.
Such considerations, which every one should perpetually cherish in his thoughts, will banish from us all that secret heaviness of heart, which unthinking men are subject to when they lie under no real affliction; all that anguish which we may feel from any evil that actually oppresses us; to which I may likewise add those little cracklings of mirth and folly, that are apter to betray virtue than support it: and establish in us such an even and cheerful temper, as makes us pleasing to ourselves, to those with whom we converse, and to him whom we were made to please.