Thursday, April 06, 2006


Theodore Dalrymple has a wonderful little essay on manners in the American Conservative. (ht: Jeff Goldstien) In Minding Our Manners he first elicudates through anecdote two schools of thought about the instillation of manners.
My parents had conflicting views about the nature and origin of good manners. My father took the Romantic view that they were the expression of man’s natural goodness of heart and that they therefore emerged spontaneously—that is, if they emerged at all. If they didn’t, it was because of the social injustice that inhibited or destroyed natural goodness. My mother took the classical view that good manners were a matter of discipline, training, and habit and that goodness of heart would, at least to an extent, follow in their wake.

I, like the author, am most firmly in his mother's camp. I love my children and they have some wonderful qualities, but they are also stubborn and rude if not trained in the most basic of courtesies. Mr. Dalrymple continues:

My father, who was left-wing in everything except his life, believed that manners in my mother’s sense were but etiquette and that in turn etiquette was but a code by which the elite distinguished itself from hoi polloi in order to maintain its economic and cultural dominance. An elaborate code of conduct with arbitrary rules was a mask for sectional self-interest.

No doubt there is sometimes an element of truth in this. My mother taught me that when a gentleman accompanied a lady in the street—and he was to treat all women as ladies—he was always to walk on her outside, nearer the curb. There once was a time when this would have protected her from the splashes created by vehicles passing hurriedly by on muddy roads or perhaps even from the slops that householders emptied from their windows above. But this rationale had long since ceased to be the reason for a gentleman to walk on the outside of a lady.

To this day, I beg my (often exasperated) husband's pardon for eating in front of him if he is not eating. Even though I know he does not mind, that he would encourage me to eat, there is the undeniable force of training that reminds me it is rude to eat in front of someone else without offering a bite and asking their permission. Manners are not as Mr. Dalrymple's father suggests a means of "showing off", although they may certainly be used that way. Rather, a mannerly person is to use manners to make another comfortable, to show courtesy, and to keep discourse in the public square from decending into a barbaric free for all.

The argument goes something like this: formality is etiquette, and etiquette is a manifestation of an unjust, class-ridden, patriarchal society. The rejection of etiquette and the formality it entails is therefore a sign that one is on the side of the angels, that is to say, of the egalitarians. Modern egalitarians, at least in Britain, do not content themselves with the kind of abstract or formal equality before the law that allows any amount of difference in wealth, status, taste, and sensibility; they demand some progress towards equalization of everything, including manners.

...This excess of informality is very undignified and unattractive and results in a society constantly on edge, even in the smallest of interactions.
It is the want of manners that has brought societal discourse to it's present low. Not that manners produce goodness per se. You may be perfectly polite and harbor hatred, but if you are ingrained to think of others before yourself, you might bring about the fruits of charity (by charity I mean benevolent goodwill or love towards others) before the emotion.

This is the same type of habit pattern we are to develop in other areas as Christians. Will Vaus paraphrases CS Lewis' thought in Mere Christianity thus:
The Law (God's law) exists to be transcended, but it can not be transcended until I admit it's claims upon me. Until I reach perfection, the Law is there as a tutor to lead me to Christ. I must try to act as a Christian today whether I feel like it or not. One day, I will always feel like acting as a Christian should.
Christ is the one who helps us transcend the Law. We must in a sense pretend to love God and our neighbor. While we are pretending, Christ comes alongside of us and turns our pretense into a reality.

So the Law of God tells us to not lie, covet, murder or steal from our neighbors. Jesus tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus tells us to transcend the Law. So we know what we should be doing, loving our neighbors. Love does not miraculously appear in my heart towards my neighbors, it is striven for and cultivated. One of the ways is to be mannerly. It is perhaps the least part of developing charity towards others, costing little but my own self importance. Manners may cost us little but make a disproportionate impact on who we are well mannered to.

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