Monday, August 9, 2010

Manners, Duties, and Society

"Manners are of more importance than laws. . . Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in." [1]

These words from Edmund Burke no doubt sound stodgy and exaggerated to us today. Important as they may be, how can manners not only be so very important, but more important than actual laws? According to Burke manners are important in at least two ways: somehow in themselves and insofar as they are not laws, i.e. have no threat of force behind them. Burke in fact adds a third, that they are pre-rational. Let us examine these claims and find out if manners are as important as Burke says.

First let us look at the claim that manners are in themselves important. While we may deduce their importance from Burke's own statement, we in fact see his point much earlier in Giovanni della Casa's Renaissance treatise on manners, Galateo. The importance of manners lies in the frequency of their use:
. . . everyone must deal with other men and speak to them every day; thus, good manners must also be practiced many times daily, whereas justice, fortitude and he other greater and nobler virtues are called into service much more seldom. [2]
Indeed, manners are with us all of the time, applying everywhere. Not all social intercourse is of great importance and calls upon us to make critical and life-changing decisions. Nonetheless these little interactions can be pleasant or unpleasant. It is truly remarkable how much rudeness, inattentiveness, and surliness can offend and wrack the nerves.  The essence of manners, according to Della Casa, is taking into consideration other people's pleasures. Extravagant or improper dress, over-fastidiousness, inattention, and coarse language are all subtle disdains for others. Yet extreme sensitivity is improper too, since living with such a person is tantamount to servitude, like living amongst many fine glasses, afraid to make a move. Breaches of manners, then, are instances of saying "I'm more important than you" but they are more. These breaches are more, and more frustrating and unpleasant, because they appear arbitrary and not calculated. For example, the person blasting music from his car stereo is not saying, "Listen to this great music; I have such great taste you should listen to my music!" He is saying, "I'm listening to my music how and where I want and you don't figure into my world at all." Understood as such, lack of manners is incompatible with, and detrimental to, anything to be called society. It is surprisingly easy to ignore someone with bad ideas, quite hard to ignore someone who lets a door slam in your face. Manners are thus omnipresent and practical.

Let us now consider Burke's point that manners have a unique function insofar as they are pre-rational, that is we do not really think about them or are taught how or why to be respectful of them. This is likely true insofar as we observe them before we fully comprehend them, but in the end is it so? Not if they are indeed a segue into learning duties, for learning manners is a step toward assuming duties. We would seem to need finer definitions of the fuzzy terms "manners" and "duties." This task is somewhat complicated by the common usages of these words and by the fact the concepts behind them are inextricably linked, and in some cases seemingly overlapping. Manners can either be simply a way of doing things, i.e. a manner in which something gets done, or a particular way of doing things, i.e. a way known to be good. Thus "manners" usually means "particular manners" or "good manners."

How should we consider manners then? First and following Aristotle we should note that we ought not to expect more precision in our discussion than the material permits, as such we should be content with some necessary generalities and exceptions. Second, it would be pedantic and impossible to attempt to redefine the word "manners" for analysis, thus we should use the common usage in our discussion.

Let us say then manners have two aspects, the practical and the dutiful. The first sense is unique to manners themselves. Their ability to smooth relations and make life pleasant is practical. Yet why are they so and why do we praise people with them? Only because they are themselves manifestations of duties. For example, we consider it good manners to act a certain way toward one's parents, yet such is only so because it is thought to be a duty to be pious towards them. Piety being a broader concept which encompasses manners towards one's parents. Without concepts of duties, manners are simply empty gestures. As such without a concept of duties it would be indeed unsurprising for manners to endure since anyone can see they have no purpose any longer. (Besides their practical aspect, of course, which I do not expect as many people would notice.)

To learn manners, then, is to begin relationships with others, relationships of particular natures. We learn how to behave toward parents, toward grandparents, siblings, friends, neighbors, fellow citizens, each relationship being somehow unique. We may observe that since we learn manners as children incapable of actually performing duties, manners come first as affectations and precursors. As such then we may see each manner as connected to some duty.

We assume the responsibilities of duties by being born to a particular people, most centrally to a family, and learning how, i.e. the manner in which, to relate to them. Assuming duties toward them is something necessary, quite obviously, for the continuance of society. In a simply practical way, the assumption of familial duties is practical: no one can take care of himself as a child and as an old man, times when your parents and children ought to take care of you. Of course such is not always possible, and in such cases extended family and friends and neighbors help you. The authority to carry out these essential tasks is thus quite diffused, in unpredictable and imperceptible ways, amongst family and neighbors, forming a complex web of obligations, with the individual assuming various duties towards different people: friend to friend, son to parents, neighbor to neighbor, and so on. These complex webs give communities, both families and towns, unique characters.

Thus manners and associations, for example those familial ones which exist by nature, are inextricable. Manners are the immediate facilitators of duties.

None of this is of course codified anywhere and there is no legislation to turn to. It is simply customary, or custom. The best analogy here is that of the mores maiorum of the Romans. The customs of the Romans' ancestors were preserved not primarily through law and enforcement but by the impetus of the feeling that they had to be preserved, that such was simply the way a Roman ought to do things. How else would you do it, how else would a certain thing get done? The Roman way, this way.

It would be foolish and impossible to consider transplanting Roman virtues to the present day as is, though inquiry would be instructive as many of Rome's problems then are ours now. To that end let us briefly look to Cicero, who wrote de Officiis (On Duties) in the last year of Cicero's life in 44BC. We ought first to note that the Latin "officiis" and English "duties" do not quite carry the senses of consistency, propriety, and rightness of the Greek καθηκόντως (kathekontos.) Looking at Cicero's whole program is beyond our scope here, but there is one argument quite relevant to our Burkean concept of rights, in which Cicero contrasts the notion of a voluntary protector and personal domain and the ruler, or the notions of patrocinium (defense patronage), dominium, and imperium (rule.) C. N. Cochrane aptly summarizes the implications of Cicero's outlook:
From this standpoint there can be no question as to the ultimate residence of sovereignty; it is and must remain with the populus or organized community whose primacy is, thus, theoretically secure and final. This community is the generative source both of imperium and dominium, the former the principle of public order, the latter that of private right. But, in contradistinction from dominium, imperium is non-hereditary and, so far from conferring any title to ownership, it exists in order to protect owners in their titles. Accordingly, to transform it into an instrument of possession is to deny the fundamental idea of the commonwealth and to confuse it with those forms of barbaric kingship for which no such distinction exists. On this fact depend the scope and character of magisterial power. The magistrate is charged with the maintenance of public order and, for that reason, armed with coercive authority. But that authority is limited by the terms of commission; to abuse it is to create a right of resistance on the part of the sovereign people whose 'majesty' is thus infringed (laesa maiestas populi Romani). A situation like this is, however, pathological; it develops only when terrorism (vis et terror) has replaced the true basis of political cohesion, viz. consent (voluntas.) [3]
Aside from the republican, legal-political, natural rights, and what someone today would unavoidably characterize as Jeffersonian nature of these ideas, Cicero here acknowledges spheres of influence. Namely, that the domain of the family is not that of the state. The former, natural and hereditary, is the domain of our obligations to one another, and the latter positive, of legal maintenance, i.e. custodianship. The mixing of these spheres is destructive of families and obligations. Such a mixing could have a variety of causes, most obviously a broad failure of some highly necessary obligation which then gets taken up by the state or an outright usurpation by the state. In his essay on Burke, Ian Crow nicely summarized this transformation:
Of course, as our natural sympathies and associations are swept away there is one relationship that remains inviolable–that between the liberated individual, and the source of his liberation, the central government. If this is a contract, it is hardly one between equal parties! Nevertheless, the trappings of this liberation are likely to be present in force: written constitutions, paper rights, and all the other guarantees that lead us to equate legitimate authority with rationalism on parchment and, by a trompe l’oeil, the omnipresent government as the only legitimate source of that authority.

While the fight for influence, when it happens, turns upon this central power, the collapse of our true sources of liberty proceeds almost unnoticed. Burke saw a resistance to that centralism as built into our natures, but it is also a resistance rooted in our local affections: “The strong struggle in every individual found to belong to him and to distinguish him, is one of the securities against injustice and despotism implanted in our nature.” [4]
Indeed exchanging one's unwritten laws, customs, traditions, and manners for some theoretical guarantee from the government is a most unwise trade. First, it is depersonalizing. Instead of an individual personally carrying out duties of, say charity, toward his neighbors, the government "liberates" him from this duty. Now with the government "taking care of" charity, what is the relationship amongst neighbors? Between them and the state? The government is a sort of proxy in between relationships, usurping power of money and of loyalty. And as we said above, without duties, why should we expect manners to endure? Indeed having some unwritten code of living together, i.e. a society, is preferable to having everything legislated and administered.

In Rhetoric I.xiii Aristotle categorized these unwritten laws into two types, one essentially of honor ("springing from goodness or badness") and one of a practical nature, supplementing the written law. The latter, what he calls equity, is a similar smoothing of relations, asking us to distinguish between criminal acts and instances of misfortune and poor judgment." Equity bids us be merciful to the weakness of human nature; to think less about the laws than the man who framed them, and less about what he said than what he meant." Equity relies on similar conceptions of life, i.e. literally common sense, and good will. That it does not legally bind and has no threat of physical force behind it is significant,  and abiding by such ad hoc judgments reflects a desire for harmony and not simply requital. It requires, though, one to acknowledge bonds with others.

A hyper-litigious society in part is one whose people have forgotten how to relate to one another. A society with a massive welfare state is one whose people have either defaulted on their social obligations or had them usurped, in both cases to the detriment of liberty and community. Without duties, the end reason for manners, manners are mere pleasantries and people will sense their superfluousness and not bother with them. The result in both cases is a people who can only relate to each other through the state, or not at all.

A solution, or at least a step in the right direction, would be to suppress the urge that "there ought to be a law for. . ." and simply in one's personal life carry out one's duties. The difference on man can make not only by doing good but by being known to be good is quite remarkable.

[1] Burke, Edmund. The Works of the Right Honourable Edmund Burke: A New Edition, v. VIII. London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 1815. p.172

[2] Eisenbichler, Konrad and Bartlett, Kenneth R. (trans.) Galateo: A Renaissance Treatise on Manners by Giovanni Della Casa. Center for Reformation and Renaissance Studies. 1994.

[3] Cochrane, Charles Norris. Christianity and Classical Culture. Oxford University Press. London. 1968. p. 57

[4] Crowe, Ian. Edmund Burke on Manners. Modern Age, Volume 39, Number 34. Fall 1997. [PDF] [Journal]

Recommended Reading
Free (PDF) via Google Books

Burke by John Morley.  [Link]

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke [Link]


  1. Very insightful--the link between a litigious society and a welfare state plus the idea that the state (and corporations) have a duty to protect the individual from themselves is an important one. And don't forget how human interaction is portrayed in sitcoms and reality TV (not to mention in social media and the internet). Lots to think about here--thanks!

  2. Thanks Tom! I was just doing some reading on Roman law and culture and thus thought of Cicero's "On Duties" and Burke's quote came to mind and it occurred to me what I was essentially asking again what I asked in a blog post from a few weeks ago: "when something is important you. . . what?" Do you institutionalize it or not? How do you protect it?

    Both institutionalization appear to have advantages and disadvantages, and seem to befit some things more than others. Hmmm, it sounds less profound when I say it like that. . .

    P.S. Your comment about Bach's Brandenburgs put me in the mood to make a list–of the musical variety. I usually shy away from them, but I think I shall attempt to write one. I've started two but welcome suggestions for more!

  3. Know what you mean about music lists--my top ten of anything change from day to day. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

    I'd have a hard time with the Brandenburg Concerto question, it would be between 1, 2, 5 and 6.

    An even harder question is which Ring opera would you want on the hypothetical desert island. Don't make me choose!

  4. Resisting the temptation to criticize and getting in the habit of giving praise and honest appreciation will do more than anything else to make people like us.
    • Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.
    • Give honest and sincere appreciation.

  5. I agree. While criticism can be fruitful it seems more often prudent to praise what is good and let the remainder be conspicuous in its absence.

    Thanks for stopping by and reading!