September 29, 2021 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Seneca ||

The Blush of Modesty

Chuck Chakrapani

Seneca wrote a series of letters to his young friend Lucilius on various topics. Taken together these letters can be considered as an exposition of Stoicism and how to apply it to our daily lives. This plain English version of the Letters closely follows the original. However, I have deleted some superfluous references, summarized Key Ideas and added subheadings to make it easy for the modern reader to follow.

Key ideas
  1. Some of us blush out of modesty.
  2. The blush of modesty is innate. You can tone it down, but not get rid of it.
The blush of modesty

I had a conversation with your friend who is a man of ability. His very first words showed me right away how much intelligence and talent he has and how much progress he has already made. He has given me a taste of what the rest of him is like. What he said was not rehearsed in advance because he was caught off guard. When he began to collect himself, he blushed intensely because he could not rid himself of that modesty which is a good sign in a young person.

Blushing is innate

I am positive that his habit of blushing will stay with him when he is fully grown up and has strengthened his character, getting rid of all faults. No amount of wisdom can get rid of natural flaws of the body. What is innate and rooted can be toned down, but not overcome. Even the most self-assured speakers often break into a sweat when they are in front of a crowd, as if they are tired and overheated. Some get weak in the knees as they stand up to speak. Their teeth chatter, tongues falter, and lips quiver. 

Training and experience cannot shake this habit. No, nature exerts its power and make its presence known even to the strongest. I am sure that blushing is one of those things. It spreads suddenly over the faces of the most dignified. True, it is more common in youth because the blood is warmer and the face is supple. But it even affects the veteran soldiers and the elderly.

Some are dangerous when they blush

Some are more dangerous when they blush than at any other time as if they put all their shame into their blush. Sulla was at his most violent when blood rushed to his cheeks. Pompey’s face was very sensitive, and he always blushed every time he was with others, especially before the public. I remember how Fabianus blushed when called upon to testify before the Senate. His modesty was strangely becoming.    

This does not happen because of mental weakness but it is due to the novelty of the situation. An unexperienced person is not necessarily confused. Yet he is affected because of the body’s natural tendency. Just as some people are full-blooded, so others are of a mobile, energetic blood that rushes to the face at once.

As I said before, wisdom can never get rid this habit. If it could erase out all our defects, it would rule the universe,  would be mistress of the universe. Whatever is assigned to us at our birth and our bodily temperament will remain with us. It does not matter how hard or how long the mind tries to master itself. We can neither prevent these feelings nor invite them. 

Actors in the theatre imitate emotions. They portray fear, nervousness, and sorrow. They imitate bashfulness by hanging their heads, lowering their voices, and keeping their eyes fixed on the ground. They cannot, however, make themselves blush. One can neither prevent nor summon a blush. Wisdom has no remedy, and it can’t help us. It comes and goes on its own. It follows its own rules. 

Model yourself after someone worthy

But my letter calls for its closing. Hear and take to heart this useful and helpful thought: 

Treasure someone of high character, and always keep them ever before your eyes. Live and act as if they are watching you at all times.

My dear Lucilius, this is the advice of Epicurus. He has rightly given us a guardian and an attendant. If we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong, we usually stop. Let your mind have someone it can respect, someone by whose authority it can make even its inner shrine more sacred. 

Happy is the person who can make others better, not only when present but even when imagined. And happy also is the person who can so revere another that just thinking of them brings calm and composure to the mind.

One who is capable of such reverence will soon be worthy of reverence himself. 

Choose therefore a Cato. Does Cato seem too stern? Choose Laelius, a man of milder temperament. Choose anyone you admire for their actions or words. Or even their face, for the face reveals the mind within.  Picture that person always as your guardian, as your example. Let me say it again: we need a person who can set the standard for our behaviour. You will never straighten what is crooked without a ruler. 


Think about this

Treasure someone of high character, and always keep them ever before your eyes. Live and act as if they are watching you at all times.