126th Annual Commencement Remarks
John Garvey, President of The Catholic University of America
East Portico, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
May 16, 2015
It is my privilege to say a parting word to the graduates. When you arrived four years ago I spoke about our hope that you would grow in wisdom and virtue during your time here. I want to mention one last, homely little virtue for you to tuck away with your diplomas. It might seem particularly unfit for such a grand occasion. It’s the virtue of modesty.
We use the word to describe a lot of different things – dress, comportment, thought. If we were to try a general definition, we might say modesty moderates our actions and desires in accordance with an honest estimation of ourselves. Whatever we mean by it, it’s usually not something good. We encourage our friends not to be so modest. (We wouldn’t say that about courage or justice.) At best, modesty seems boring. Aquinas says it’s the virtue that moderates “lesser” and “ordinary” matters.1 At worst, modesty seems to be an excuse for failure. Nietzsche calls it a negative consequence of “slave morality,” which casts down the mighty and lifts up the lowly.
Perhaps it’s fitting that modesty so demurely hides its greatness.
Consider Fanny Price. The modest protagonist of Mansfield Park may be the least likeable of Jane Austen’s heroines. She’s not witty like Elizabeth Bennet, or charming like Emma Woodhouse. Fanny refuses to take part in a play her cousins put on, because it puts the characters in compromising situations, “unfit” she thinks, for “any woman of modesty.”2 Her cousin Maria does not share her concerns. Though already engaged, Maria happily flirts with Henry Crawford. Fanny flees his advances. To put it bluntly, Maria is fun. Fanny is boring.
Today we would say that Fanny has hang ups. She’s embarrassed by attention and terrified by the prospect of intimacy. But maybe she’s on to something. Maria flirts with Crawford and oversteps the bounds of discretion because she enjoys his attention and the thrill of pushing boundaries. She thinks she’s in control of herself and the situation. She is wrong. She falls for Crawford and destroys her marriage. Fanny, on the other hand, who correctly estimates the power of romantic attractions and her own vulnerabilities, is able to guard her hopes and, ultimately, secure her happiness.
Here’s another example. The first touchdown dance in NFL history was done in 1973 by Elmo Wright, a wide receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs. (He only got into the end zone six times in his career, so perhaps we should forgive his exuberance.) Since then the touchdown dance has become an elaborate ritual: the Ickey Shuffle, Merton Hanks’s Chicken Dance, Jamal Anderson’s Dirty Bird. Tim Tebow took a knee, Terrell Owens took a nap. My personal favorite was Barry Sanders’s. When he scored a touchdown he would hand the ball to the official. He acted, in the words of Elmer Layden, like he had been there before.
It wasn’t that he had an inferiority complex. He knew he was good. But he also put his accomplishments in their proper perspective. Scoring a touchdown is impressive. But it’s not brokering world peace. Reaching the end zone was Sanders’s job, and he did it. “I tried to make sure I upheld my end,” he said, “I took care of business and then I went home.”
Here’s a third example. General George McClellan used to call Abraham Lincoln a “well-meaning baboon.” We think of Lincoln as Walt Whitman did – “O Captain! My Captain!” But in those days a number of people shared McClellan’s opinion. Edwin Stanton called him a “long-armed ape.” William Seward said he had “no conception of his situation [and] little application to great ideas.”
Lincoln took it all with modesty. “It was better,” he said, “at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.”3 He said he would cheerfully hold McClellan’s horse if it would bring about victory.
Lincoln was no shrinking violet. He confessed to an ambition to be “esteemed of my fellow men.” But he did not let his desire for esteem distort his judgment. He recognized the limits of his office and his own capabilities. And he knew he could realize his great ambition only with the support of others.
Fanny Price, Barry Sanders, Abraham Lincoln. Not three names you often hear in the same sentence. But all three epitomized the virtue of modesty. They were able to estimate themselves honestly – their strength of character, the value of their deeds, the limits of their powers. That self-knowledge helped them secure their happiness and success.
Not the most inspiring commencement message, you’re thinking. I’m supposed to tell you the world is your oyster, the stars are your playground. Instead I’ve said, “Don’t overestimate yourselves, exercise caution.” But consider this. When you practice modesty, you also don’t sell yourself short. Fanny exercised caution because she valued her own happiness and feelings. A touchdown doesn’t require a chicken dance, because its value speaks for itself. Lincoln relied on others because he recognized the value of good counsel and the support of his friends.
The world is your oyster. As you head out into it, practice modesty.
- First, protect your virtue. I mean all of them. Don’t put yourself in situations that could lead you to vice. You were born to be saints. You shouldn’t settle for less.
- Second, don’t neglect your family and friends. You need their counsel, support, and prayers.
- Finally, don’t neglect your relationship with God. Pray every day. The greatest immodesty is to try to live without God. Without Him you can do nothing.4 With Him all things are possible.5
1Summa Theologica II-II, 160.1, corpus; 2 corpus
2Mansfield Park, vol. I, ch. 14.
3Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals, 383