MODESTY AND EFFRONTERY CONTRASTED
"Never force your talents" a well-known writer has said. One always
feels like crying this to those who, thinking to reach the goal of
poise, fall into excess and develop effrontery and exaggeratedness.
Poise can not exist without coolness. We have seen that this quality is
rarely met with in enthusiasts.
It is never found in those who have effrontery.
Poise does not consist in
the species of ostentatious carelessness which
essays to travel through life as a child might wander among hives of
bees without taking any precautions against being stung.
Neither is it that false courage that drives one headlong into a
conflict without any thought as to the blows likely to fall upon the
foolhardy person who has ventured into it.
The principle upon which we must start is this: life is a battle in
which strategy always has the advantage over blind courage.
Unfortunate is he who, by his boasting or his lack of generalship,
decides upon an attack for which he is not really prepared. However
brave he may be he will infallibly find himself vanquished in a struggle
in which everything has combined in advance to defeat him.
Boasting is not courage. Still less is it poise.
Poise is a power derived from the mastery of self. It inhibits all
outward manifestations that are likely to result in giving information
to strangers with regard to our real feelings.
Braggarts can not avoid this stumbling-block. They know nothing of the
delights of contemplation, from which arise ripe resolutions that will
be steadfastly followed.
With the noise of their boastings, with the shouting of their own
braggart ineptitudes, they hypnotize themselves so thoroughly that they
are quite unable to hear the counsel that sane wisdom whispers in their
They are like the man in the eastern fable who was quite unable to
follow a beaten path and was constantly wandering across the fields of
These detours were in general much longer than the direct road would
have been, and he received a constant stream of abuse, to say nothing of
blows, from the people whose crops he was ruining.
But he seemed quite insensible to assaults and insisted upon following,
across lots, a road which led nowhere.
It would be difficult to paint a more faithful portrait. Like the
peasant in the story, the man of effrontery is always wandering far from
the common road, the tranquil peace of which he despises.
He delights in crossing land that he knows to be forbidden to him, seeks
to force open gates that are closed at his approach, and, if he can not
overcome the opposition of the porter, watches for the moment when an
open window will permit him entrance into a house where he will be
coldly, if not angrily, received.
What is the result of this?
Nothing favorable to his plans, one may be sure. People point him out.
They fly from him, and were he the bearer of the most advantageous
proposition, refuse to put any faith in his assertions as soon as they
get to know him in the least.
Effrontery may sometimes impose upon the innocent. But it is only a
momentary deception, quickly dissipated the moment that time is given to
estimate the emptiness of its claims.
There is another variety of effrontery that is comparable to the form of
courage exhibited by the timorous who sing in a loud voice in order to
lessen their terror and imagine that by so doing they give the illusion
People of this sort talk very loudly, often contradicting themselves,
and pass judgment upon everything, dismissing the most difficult
questions with only a passing thought, but remain silent and are put
completely out of countenance as soon as one insists upon their
listening to reason, or when--in familiar language--they "meet their
The man of effrontery is a passionate devotee of bluff, and not only of
that variety of which Jonathan Dick has said:
"It is a security discounted in advance."
A little further on he adds:
"Bluffers of the right sort are only so when the occasion demands it, in
order to give the impression that the wished-for result has already been
"As soon as their credit is assured and appearances have become
realities that allow them to establish themselves in positions of
security they at once cease the effort to deceive."
Our author concludes:
"Bluff, to be successful, must never be founded upon puerility or brag."
Now these two qualities are always to be met with in the doings of the
man of effrontery, who only achieves by accident the goal he aims at,
and then only in the most insecure way.
Drawbacks differing as to their causes, but equally unlucky as to their
results, are born of the opposite fault--modesty.
It is high time to destroy the leniency shown toward this defect that
old-fashioned educators once decorated with the title of virtue.
Time has forged ahead, taking with it in its rapid course all forms of
progress, which, in its turn, has made giant strides.
Ideas have changed materially. Modern life has to face emergencies
formerly undreamed of, and those who still believe in the virtue of
modesty are their own enemies, as well as those of the people whom they
advise to cultivate it.
The case of this man is similar to that of many others, whose meaning
has been undergoing a gradual change due to the erroneous interpretation
that has deliberately been placed upon it.
Modesty is very frequently nothing more than an evidence of
It has rise in sentiments that the man who would be up to date must
avoid at all hazards--distrust of self and hatred of exertion.
One rarely finds it in the man who is active and who knows his own
worth. To revenge itself, it flourishes among the lazy, who try to save
their pride and to conceal their secret irritation at the successes of
others by assuming an humble attitude and exclaiming:
"Oh! I didn't care to do it!"
Or still more frequently:
"No, I haven't entered the lists. I am absolutely without ambition!"
Under similar circumstances people who are unknown cry out, and with
"Oh! I have a horror of publicity!"
This is simply a roundabout way of informing us that were it not for
their retiring modesty, the hundred mouths of rumor would be shouting
Modesty is very rarely what it appears to be. As soon as it exhibits the
form of a wise reserve it must be called by another name: prudence and
The attitude of trying to keep one's actions from becoming known is not
a laudable one, and can only be adopted as the result of a philosophy of
What treasures of knowledge would have remained unknown to us if all the
scientists and all the men of genius had made a practise of modesty!
If our forefathers had been modest, when it was the fashion to be proud
of this quality, our museums would be empty and only a few of the
initiated would know that men of exceptional merit, which they had
sedulously concealed, had written manuscripts which had never been
published. The humility of the writers in such cases could be made to
pay too severe a penalty.
No! Men who have merits are not modest! This false virtue is the
appanage of none but weak and irresolute hearts.
We should congratulate ourselves, while admitting these facts, that our
forefathers were not so constituted, and that their faith in themselves,
by giving them confidence in their own work, made it possible for them
to hand these on to their descendants.
Of what use to us would it be to know that a poem of finer quality and
more splendid fire than any we have ever read had once been written, if
the modesty of its author had led him to keep it always in his pocket
and it had finally vanished into the limbo of ignored and forgotten
It is then actually wrong to sing the praises of modesty, which is no
more than distrust of oneself, egoism, and laziness.
The man who boasts of his modesty will feel no shame at producing
nothing. He hides his ineptitude behind this convenient veil whose
thickness allows him to hint of the existence of things which are
nothing but figments of his imagination.
We might add that the man who proclaims his modesty enters the struggle
with a decided handicap against him. The moment he begins to have doubts
about his own powers he will be sure to find himself the prey of an
unfortunate indecision, and that at the very moment when he is called
upon to perform some decisive action.
"One day," says an old writer, "three men, in the course of a climb up a
mountain, found themselves confronted by a crevasse that they must
"One of these was a timid man, another a boaster, and the third was
possest of a reasoned poise.
"The boaster made a jump without stopping to think and without taking
the trouble to measure the gap. He plunged into it.
"The modest man then advanced, looked down into the gulf, then decided
to make use of the irregularities in the surface of the chasm to reduce
the width of the jump.
"He made several attempts to carry this out, but could hardly touch the
edge before an instinctive movement of fear forced him back.
"He worked so hard and so long at this that he was quite tired out when
he at last chose the moment for the decisive attempt. He jumped, indeed,
but in such a half-hearted way that he merely touched the opposite face
of the crevasse and fell to the bottom of the precipice alongside of the
"The third climber, who possest the advantage of poise, had meanwhile
been losing no time. He had mentally gaged the width of the crevasse,
had made a number of trial jumps to test his ability to clear it, and
when, with a firm resolution to succeed, he reached the edge from which
he must leap, his soul, fortified by the knowledge of his powers was
fired with a single idea, the consciousness of his own agility and
"By this means he, alone of the three, was able to cross the gulf in
which his two companions had perished."
Effrontery and boastfulness have often another source. The shyness of
those who suffer from timidity, by isolating them and denying them the
means of expansion, prevents them from obtaining a real control over
their feelings, which undergo a process of deterioration so slow that
they do not notice it.
There are very few things to which we can not easily become accustomed,
to the extent of a complete failure to notice their peculiarities, if
their strangeness is only unfolded to us gradually.
A thousand things which shock us at the first blush take on the guise of
every-day matters when once we have acquired the habit of familiarity
The timid man, who will not openly acknowledge his feelings, is
practically unable to take cognizance of their gradual transformation.
We may add that he is always prone to dream, and peoples his world
involuntarily with imaginary utopias, which he begins by considering as
desirable, then as possible, and finally as actually existing.
This is the starting-point of boastfulness. It partakes at once of
falsity and of sincerity. The timid man loves to feel himself important,
and he merely pities the people whom he considers incapable of
understanding him. He is, nevertheless, sincere in his bravado, as his
dreams entirely deceive him as to his real self.
In his solitary meditations he deliberately shakes off his own
personality, as a butterfly abandons the shelter of its chrysalis, and,
following the example of that gorgeous insect, he flies away on the
wings of his dreams in the guise of the being that he imagines himself
to have become.
This creature resembles him not at all. It is brave, courageous,
eloquent. It accomplishes the most brilliant feats of daring.
In this way, just so soon as the timid man becomes intermittently a
braggart, he commences to boast of exploits quite impossible of
performance. We must remember, however, that it is not he who speaks,
but merely the idealized ego which he invents because he is chagrined at
Moral isolation is the parent of other curious phenomena. It imparts the
gift of seeing things exactly as we would wish them to be, by clothing
them little by little with a character entirely foreign to that which
they really possess.
In "Timidity: How to Overcome It," we are told the following little
personal anecdote of the Japanese philosopher Yoritomo:
"It was my misfortune as a child," says this ancient sage, "to be the
victim of a serious illness which kept me confined to a bed and unable
"I was not allowed to read and my only distraction was the study of the
objects in my immediate neighborhood.
"The pattern of a screen made a particular impression upon me with its
clusters of flowers and its bouquets of roses.
"I passed hours in the contemplation of it.
"At first I merely followed the outlines with my eye, finding in them no
more than an artistic reproduction of nature. But, little by little, the
clusters of flowers were transformed into gardens, the rose-trees took
on the imposing aspect of forests. In these gardens my dreams created a
princess, and in the forest a company of warriors.
"Then the romance began.
"Every new line I observed became the pretext for creating a new
character. The princess was very soon taken captive by a giant--whom I
saw perfectly--and the warriors undertook the task of rescue.
"Every day a panorama moved before me of changing personalities, who
reenacted the events of the story. Finally the obsession took such a
strong hold of me that I began to talk about it in a manner that aroused
the fears of my parents.
"The screen was banished from my room and when, a few days later, it was
brought back for me to see, I was able to discover nothing more in it
than the designs with which it was adorned."
This example, taken directly from life, shows us better than the most
extended arguments the dangers of moral isolation.
By this we do not mean the isolation that is essential to concentration,
the practise of which always leads to the most fruitful results.
We are speaking solely of the aloofness born of timidity or of
exaggerated pride, which, in depriving us of contrary views, develops in
us the propensity to see things from only one angle, which is always
that which happens to flatter our vanity or please our tastes.
All those persons who suffer from this disease of the will, which
deprives them of the ability of discussing things, may be compared to
runners who have neglected to ascertain the limits of their race.
Like the latter, they keep running round the same track without any
means of discovering when they are nearing the goal.
Instead of stopping, when they have reached it, they keep running
forward and the monotony of their efforts, coupled with the fever-heat
engendered by their exertions, very soon causes them to view the objects
that they keep passing and passing under a deformed and distorted
The man of reason, on the other hand, runs with the single purpose in
his mind of reaching the winning-post. He studiously avoids taking his
eyes off the goal, which he has carefully located in advance, and takes
pains to note the moment when he is nearing it, so as to run no risks of
making his spurt too soon.
It is a matter of frequent observation that timidity often voluntarily
assumes the role of effrontery, from very despair of successfully
accomplishing the task it is ambitious to perform.
Illustrious examples of this contention are not lacking. Rousseau, who
was a coward of the greatest hardihood, says in his _Confessions_:
"My foolish and unreasoning fear, that I was quite unable to overcome,
of perpetrating some breach of good manners led me to assume the
attitude of caring nothing for the niceties of life."
A little further on, he adds:
"I was made a cynic by shyness. I posed as a despiser of the politeness
I did not know how to practise."
This is a much more frequent cause than one might think of the
exhibition of an effrontery which is apparently deliberate and
The timid man, feeling himself awkward and clownish when performing the
usual acts of courtesy, assumes the attitude of caring nothing for them
and of avoiding them deliberately, while all the while he is tortured by
the inability to perform them without seeming ridiculous.
But the onlooker is not deceived. The outward appearance of cynicism
often conceals an inward sensitiveness of soul that is quite obvious,
and the actor makes so poor a hand at identifying himself with the
character he would assume that it is clearly evident he is only playing
The conflict of diametrically opposing forces shows itself plainly in
his attitude which vacillates between the stiffest formality and the
The awkwardness that is the bugbear of the timid shows itself even
beneath their work of cynicism, and the very effort accuses them, no
less than their flighty and unreasoning conversation and their gestures,
now exaggerated and now represt, all of which make up a whole that
entirely fails to give an impression of harmony.
And what possible harmony can there be between a soul and a body that
are completely out of accord with each other?
Should it be asked what the difference is between presumption or
effrontery and the poise that we have in mind, this simple illustration
should be illuminating.
Effrontery, bravado, and exaggeration are qualities that are shown by
those who exceed their own capacity without giving the question a
Poise is the virtue which gives us the strength of mind to analyze the
possibilities that are dominant within us, to cultivate them, and to
strengthen them in every possible way before undertaking an enterprise
which is likely to call them into play.
Real poise has no bluster about it. It has a good deal in it of
self-possession, the discretion belonging to which is one of its marked
Repression of our outward movements enables us to achieve that control
over our emotions which makes a perfect cloak for our intentions, and
leaves our opponents in perplexity as to how to attack the fortress that
they wish to conquer.
It is, therefore, between modesty and effrontery, both equally
prejudicial to success, that poise must naturally be placed.
But, it will be objected, all the world does not possess this gift of
poise. Are those who do not share it to be forever denied all chance of
Not so! It is open to all the world to acquire this gift, and if the
chapters following this are read with care it will be seen that it is
something that can be cultivated, so that it can be gradually perfected
and carried about with one as the germ of every sort of success, the
happy issue of which depends upon a thorough realization of one's own
merits and the honorable ambition to accomplish a task that has been
prudently planned and bravely carried to an end.