Sunday, June 24, 2012

Manners Revisited: Lessons from a Founding Father

Complex and comprehensive moral philosophies like those of Plato, Aristotle, and Aquinas get the lion's share of credit when we praise works which offer a path of self cultivation. Indeed, they ought to. Yet if you tried to live solely in emulation of Socrates or the great-souled man I wonder how your life would transpire. How well along would you go as a querulous instigator or a detached contemplator? Very for yourself, in many ways, but certainly something would be lacking in one's relations with others. A certain and subtle smoothing of relations amongst individuals is necessary for social intercourse, manners if you will. Edmund Burke wisely justified manners on the grounds that they work by constant action and that they precede complex moral and legal thinking. Manners are not consciously acted or adopted. As habit they contribute with great force to the character of the individual and as inherited wisdom they contribute to the character of families, communities, and so forth.

For the same reasons they are difficult to bring into being ex nihilo. First, one is hard pressed to introduce manners to an adult accustomed reflexively to acting on his whims and inclinations. Habits resist change and manners, dealing as they do with the minutiae of social intercourse, can seem trite and even fatuous when explained. Second, it is no mean feat to establish a tradition. To cultivate oneself into a genteel individual, especially among barbarians and fools, is daily work; to create in yourself an example worthy of emulation is extraordinary; to pass on your ways is both beautiful and good fortune.

Colonial Americans, then, reached far when they sought to take up the manners of the British nobility. The young George Washington took up this endeavor when in his early teens he copied out 110 maxims from an English volume on manners and courtesy. This volume was in fact a translation of a French book which itself was a copy of an Italian one. They might be titled, "How to get along without dishonoring yourself or offending others," and are not such ends laudable?

Many are obvious, some matters of hygiene, and others strictly concern respect for the formal hierarchy of aristocratic life. I would like to look at a few of the more curious and those I think especially overlooked.

Check the full list of 110 rules here.

4th In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.

Repetitive motion and noise is distracting and annoying, especially for people suffering from misophonia.

18th Read no Letters, Books, or Papers in Company but when there is a Necessity for the doing of it you must ask leave. . .

This is one of many ways to send the insulting signal to your company that they are not important.

38th In visiting the Sick, do not Presently play the Physicion if you be not Knowing therein.

When someone is sick they don't care what you just read online. They don't care how you got better, or what your doctor said, what you saw on Dr. Oz, and unless you are at a conference of the American Medical Association, they don't care about any new studies. They're sick: leave them alone.

5th If You Cough, Sneeze, Sigh, or Yawn, do it not Loud but Privately; and Speak not in your Yawning, but put Your handkercheif or Hand before your face and turn aside.

Contrary to common practice, you do not have to engage your vocal chords to sneeze. There is in fact no "ahhh" even though there is a "choo."

40th Strive not with your Superiers in argument, but always Submit your Judgment to others with Modesty.

68th Go not thither, where you know not, whether you Shall be Welcome or not. Give not Advice without being Ask'd and when desired do it briefly.

You don't have to offer your opinion, even if a matter is being discussed in your presence. If asked, you don't have to go into detail. When explaining yourself there is much to take into consideration, including who might feel bad because he does not understand, who might be offended at the content, who is in fact an expert on the subject, and so forth. Sometimes it is simply best to express concern or doubt, or if necessary lest you be thought tacitly to disagree, a "lack of persuasion."

41st Undertake not to Teach your equal in the art himself Proffesses; it Savours of arrogancy.

Some of us are blessed with many gifts, but such people need not display them all, to all people, or at the same time. Likewise, in any given group of friends every individual has a skill at which he is expert within that group. It is usually best to let them keep their roles.

55th Eat not in the Streets, nor in the House, out of Season.

People look disgusting eating out of paper and foil containers as they hustle around.

91st Make no Shew of taking great Delight in your Victuals, Feed not with Greediness; cut your Bread with a Knife, lean not on the Table neither find fault with what you Eat.

I would add, with humility, not to find fault with other people eat.

75th In the midst of Discourse ask not of what one treateth but if you Perceive any Stop because of your coming you may well intreat him gently to Proceed: If a Person of Quality comes in while your Conversing it's handsome to Repeat what was said before.

When someone enters a room it is polite to clue them in on the content and direction of the conversation.

77th Treat with men at fit Times about Business & Whisper not in the Company of Others.

No one wants to hear about your business arrangements, especially what you are spending or saving on.

78th Make no Comparisons and if any of the Company be Commended for any brave act of Vertue, commend not another for the Same.

Do not set up comparisons amongst people present, it's a recipe for much awkwardness. Likewise, it is not necessary to spread the complements around. If someone complements Peter's photography and you know Gerhard is an accomplished photographer, find some other time and way to complement Gerhard.

Bonus Flash Game: How would your manners fare in Victorian England?

If you enjoyed this article you may also enjoy:

No comments:

Post a Comment