Mark Twain on Modesty

Late in his life, the great American author Mark Twain wrote a collection of satirical essays examining the disconnect between conventionally held religious beliefs and the actuality of human morality.  He used an imaginative take on bible stories to reveal the contradictions and hypocrisy that occur in a world made by God and under the care of flawed humankind.  While taking humanity to task, he also holds God responsible for creating human nature the way it is.

Because of their controversial nature, these essays were not published until 1962 when they were presented in a book titled Letters From The Earth. The tone of the essays is edgy, as you will see below.  This perhaps occurred because they were written during a difficult time in Twain’s life, after the death of his wife and one of his daughters.

The excerpt below explores the value of modesty through the lens of the Adam and Eve story.  Twain rightly hits the mark that modesty is an artificiality of the mind.  He also points out something Naturists know well, that it does not take long for people to let go of body shame to the point where they don’t even think of their nakedness.

“They heard God walking among the bushes, which was an afternoon custom of his, and they were smitten with fright. Why? Because they were naked. They had not known it before. They had not minded it before; neither had God.

In that memorable moment immodesty was born; and some people have valued it ever since, though it would certainly puzzle them to explain why.

Adam and Eve entered the world naked and unashamed — naked and pure-minded; and no descendant of theirs has ever entered it otherwise. All have entered it naked, unashamed, and clean in mind. They have entered it modest. They had to acquire immodesty and the soiled mind; there was no other way to get it.

The convention miscalled modesty has no standard, and cannot have one, because it is opposed to nature and reason, and is therefore an artificiality and subject to anybody’s whim, anybody’s diseased caprice. And so… in lands inhabited by the innocent savage, the refined European lady soon gets used to full-grown native stark-nakedness and ceases to be offended by it.  A highly cultivated French count and countess — unrelated to each other — who were marooned in their nightclothes, by shipwreck, upon an uninhabited island in the eighteenth century, were soon naked. Also ashamed — for a week. After that their nakedness did not trouble them, and they soon ceased to think about it.”1

1 Mark Twain, Letters From The Earth, compiled by Bernard DeVoto, (New York: Harper & Row 1962), Letter III