Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Gravitas and Comitas

In a recent conference between your humble co bloggers I commented that a lack of seriousness in one's character and purpose is not admirable. Likewise an overwhelmingly somber character is not particularly healthy or satisfying for one's friends either. No one looks forward to the presence of the dour fellow, no matter his brilliance, who drags down an evening's pleasant badinage with his dilemmas. The remaining question of course is how to balance the two and the apparent dichotomy has fascinated, or plagued, man for ages, from the time of Greek tragic and comic theater and the contrasting personalities of Heraclitus and Democritus (the "happy philosopher" and the sad) to Milton's poems L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, in which he characterized and contrasted the happy man with the thoughtful man. Of course different movements and cultures had their ideals too but two of them to me seem particularly wise, and similar. 

The Romans contrasted the virtues of gravitas and levitas. Gravitas is the characteristic of man who understands the the importance of the matter at hand and in turn treats the matter with appropriate seriousness. Maintaining such a disposition requires stability of character (disciplina) and a firmness of purpose (constantia.) For example, one takes placing his vote seriously because he is aware of many aspects of it which are serious, the history of his nation and government, the fact he is delegating his natural right to someone else, the need to do good, and so forth. To treat it lightly is to treat it as if it is trivial and thus demeans it. Eventually, demeaning it will result in it. . . not having any meaning. Thus treating that which is serious with levity is in fact not just foolish but damaging. It is not levitas which ought to balance gravitas, but comitas, a general "good humor" and relief from the burden of seriousness. It does not exist for its own sake but in order that you may do what is necessary. Such a distinction is not too removed from us, wherein one used to speak of being "amused" or "diverted" by something, something which was appreciated for the relief it provided but not praised too much. Aristotle put this is in similar terms:
The happy life is thought to be virtuous; now a virtuous life requires exertion, and does not consist in amusement. And we say that serious things are better than laughable things and those connected with amusement, and that the activity of the better of any two things-whether it be two elements of our being or two men-is the more serious; but the activity of the better is ipso facto superior and more of the nature of happiness. [Ethics,; Trans. Ross]
Indeed the idea of "good humor" was up until recently fairly common. A little farther back, John Adams was quite fond of the turn of phrase and the ideal of the man of good manners, sound judgment, and balanced disposition that it connoted. "When a young New England merchant named Elkanah Watson, the son of a friend, wrote to inquire what sort of manners he should cultivate in anticipation of touring Europe, Adams's answer went far to explain his own conduct under the circumstances and the kind of guidance he was giving his sons."
You tell me, sir, you  wish to cultivate your manners before you  begin your travels. . . permit me to take the liberty of advising you to cultivate the manners of your own country, not those of Europe. I don't mean by this that you should put on a long face, never dance with the ladies, go to a play, or take a game of cards. But you may depend upon this, that the more decisively you adhere to a manly simplicity in your dress, equipage, and behavior, the more you devote yourself to business and study, and the less to dissipation and pleasure, the more you will recommend yourself to every man and woman in this country whose friendship or acquaintance is with your having or wishing. There is an urbanity without ostentation or extravagance which will succeed everywhere and at all times. You will excuse this freedom, on account of my friendship for your father and consequently for you, and because I know that some young gentlemen have come to Europe with different sentiments and have consequently injured the character of their country as well as their own bother [and at home]. [McCullough, 237]
Adams speaks of a balance, an "urbanity without ostentation" which seems most reasonable. The advice has a clear Roman sensibility, unsurprising given Adams' education and his knowledge of and respect for those ancient people. One ought to cultivate good sense and a manly simplicity, not let one's character be whittled down by activities which dissipate. Be serious, but do not offend with severity, be neither too easygoing or rude in sternness. Of course one ought to attend to his affairs and duties also. You'll be respected for when you abstain and when you retire from fun to attend to your private affairs you'll be well-thought of.

Of course achieving this requires time and experience, but it also requires one to know himself and where to draw the limits on all things. To perfect such a disposition you ought to pull it all off in your own idiom and with a congenial charm. Simple, no? No, it's a life's work of conscious effort, but when you're done so you might just be an old gentleman.

McCullough, David. John Adams. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks. New York. 2001.

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