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Power and Modesty

 “The charm of power is modesty,” insists Marmee to Amy, the youngest of the four March daughters in Little Women. After being harshly corrected at school for parading her pickled limes before the other girls with pomp, the teacher, Mr. Davis, publicly punishes Amy and rebukes the class. Amy, embarrassed, cries profusely, and a long conversation ensues upon her arrival home. Marmee is sympathetic to the embarrassment that Amy has suffered; but she also rebukes Amy, telling her, “You have a good many little gifts and virtues, but there is no need of parading them, for conceit spoils the finest genius.” Instead, she continues, possessing goodness, “and using it well should satisfy one.”  

 What are we to make of this scene and proverb? For the Christian and for the classical teacher there is much to glean: that power is not negative in and of itself, and that we are prone to excesses even with the best intentions. Our modern sensibility reacts against authority like a nose against pollen. Our modern minds insist that power is a bad thing. Marmee rebukes us. Power is like a sheet draped over a chair; it takes the shape of the chair. Power draped over modesty takes a temperate shape. Not only is it not inherently bad, but it can be godly, beautiful, and good.  

 This proverb goes to the heart of beauty and authority. It speaks directly into places where we find ourselves invested with power and desiring to do good. The answer is not always, as we might claim, “using it for the good of others.” A tyrant could make such a claim (many have) to enact grave evils against his own people. The purpose, therefore, is not using it for the good of others alone. The aim is to use power modestly. Marmee embodies her own proverb in her rebuke of her daughter; she could have dealt with Amy more harshly at home and Amy would have deserved it. Mrs. March does not reject power, which would be a sensibly modern thing to do. Instead, she distinguishes good power from its counterpart. She acknowledges Amy’s power in “virtues and little gifts,” but she importantly regards power as something to be considered only in temperance and with caution. 

 All of us like Amy and Marmee possess power, minimal as it might seem, and Christ is not trying to rob us of our power. The first people, Adam and Eve, were invested with power “to subdue the earth.” Christianity is, therefore, not about relinquishing power but holy power, power tempered by love. It is given by God directly to us for our homes and schools.  

 Teachers and parents, those who guide and govern children and students must measure their power modestly. Using a whisper when one would have preferred to shout or a gentle hand on the shoulder, when wagging a finger would have been more satisfying, shows both power and love. The modest discipline measured out meagerly and firmly retains all the authority: it is present in the whisper as it is in the shout; it is as present in the firm hand as it is in the finger, but love is evident.  

 This does not mean that there are no occasions for shouting or heavy-handed displays of authority. Those too could be modest in a more extreme moment, and some occasions require it. Emergencies can arise that require serious outbursts to some unusual degree. They are rare exceptions. Even in those moments the tone one takes, the choice of words, the manner of reconciliation over the disputed issue all display the modesty of one’s authority. Virtue and love can still come through.  

 For our power to be charming (and therefore modest), we must know we are inclined to excess. In the West, we can have anything we want almost instantly. Our souls and habits are shaped by the accessibility of excess. Consequently, we are inclined to hold or wield more power than we ought at any moment. We rebuke our excess only by humility. The student, who has made a mistake (running in the halls, forgetting a pencil, or snapping at a classmate), rightly warrants a consequence for their action. This is no attempt to sidestep justice. However, the manner of correction, seeing oneself and the image of God in the one who has failed, is the first step toward modest, ultimately loving power. It might mean a moment of silence and restraint before correction; it might mean consideration of the unknown circumstances behind what was going on, or it could merely be giving grace, when gaol would do. In that restraint, post-Eden power can be made charming again.   

 

 

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