Sunday, 31 October 2010

Modesty and Envy

Baldesar Castiglione's "The Courtier" was standard reading, preferably in Italian, at the Court of Queen Elizabeth 1st. Its wisdom was also disseminated through an English version by Elyot ("The Governor"). It is, in essence, a very sophisticated, amusing and interesting handbook by a member of the Court of Urbino on how to live as a gentleman or lady in society, and particularly in civilized, polite society. It was on the Vatican's forbidden "Index", until 1900.

This book inspired the development of the "true English gentleman", now sadly, a much missed "character of the past". More than ever, it is badly needed in the workplace, church, on the internet, media and families. Of course, as with all books, one must read it with discrimination, but there is much that is very valuable in it.

One of Castiglione's themes is the need for grace in all we do, whether in movement, speech, manners or in our inner life and thoughts. "Artifice" is the enemy of this kind of natural, charming, easy or nonchalant appearance he encourages. Appearing to care too much, or try too hard, even if one has worked hard behind the scenes, is simply ungracious (lacking in grace).

Modesty is crucial, in all things. If people praise you, you are advised to deflect it, or refuse, at first any honours. If you ask others to do things, ask them as if you have been asked yourself to ask them. In other words, take the advice of the New Testament and do not sit higher at the table than you deserve, or try to "lord it" over other people. Of course, pride and egotism are very unattractive qualities but another good reason for modesty is that envy is a real enemy in life, the undoing of many - at the court of Urbino, and even more widely today.

How little modesty is reflected in the media today! In the UK, we have numerous TV talent shows in which contestants sing their own praises, saying how they are "worthy of the prize". This is usually a lie and "artifice" forced on them by the producers. In a real winner, it would be ungracious. But this approach accords with the current unenlightened "psychology" that believes that people should "believe in themselves" in order to achieve.

How unsophisticated Castligione and his friends would regard such a view of things! Of course success, should come from hard work and effort and a belief that one does one's best, at all times, preferably for the glory of God and His Kingdom, not for oneself.

But the idea that one should brag and strut about in front of millions talking about how great one is, was dismissed long ago - as the sign of the uncouth, uncultured and uncultivated.

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