Manners, properly understood, are the instruments whereby we negotiate our passage through the world.
"Manners makyth man" — the old adage reminds us of an important truth: that people are made, not born, and that they are made by their relation to others. Of course, a human being might exist in a state of nature, savage, speechless, solitary. But he would not have our distinctive form of life; in an important sense, he would not be a person.
Manners were once described as la petite morale, meaning all those aspects of morality left unspoken by the judges and preachers but without which the preachers would have no one to speak to. The Ten Commandments are not addressed to savages: they presuppose an already existing community of listeners, people already in relation to their "neighbors," whom they might rob, kill, cuckold, or offend. Manners, properly understood, are the instruments whereby we negotiate our passage through the world, earn the respect and support of others, and form communities, which are something more than the sum of their members. But in a world where people hasten from goal to goal, with scant regard for the forms that secure the respect and endorsement of their fellows, these truths are increasingly obscured.
In the scramble for profit, the polite person is at a seeming disadvantage. He does not jump queues; he does not shout and push and fight his way to the goods; he loses precious moments giving way to slower, more defenseless people; he sits down to meals with family and friends, instead of scarfing a sandwich on the hoof; he listens patiently to bores and makes time for people whose only claim on his time is that they need it; he allows relationships to develop slowly and in an atmosphere of mutual respect; if he has a goal in getting to know you, he will reveal it only at the proper time, and when he has ascertained that you will feel neither used nor offended. He is, in short, a loser: or so many people seem to think, viewing politeness as an obstacle to personal success. In a world of cutthroat competition, the rude person will be first at the winning post. So why be polite?
This reasoning looks especially persuasive when everyone can obtain so much without the cooperation of others. Once, people needed someone to cook for them, talk with them while eating, relax with them over a card game. Neighbors depended on one another for entertainment, transport, nursing, shopping, a thousand daily needs. Today, this dependency is dwindling — at least on the surface, where most people live. Television has removed the need for cooperative forms of entertainment; fast food and take-out have made cooking obsolete; the supermarket teems with solitary solipsists who forage silently for their one-person families. In some workplaces, certainly, people need the acceptance and endorsement of others to get through the day, but many offices are places of solitude, in which the only object of study is a computer screen and the only vehicle of communication a telephone.
The fact that we can survive without manners, however, does not show that human nature doesn't need them in some deeper way. After all, we can survive without love, without children, without peace or comfort or friendship. But all those things are human needs, since we need them for our happiness. Without them, we are unfulfilled. And the same is true of manners.
It is children who most vividly remind us of this truth. Because there is a deep-down need (a species need) to love and protect them, there is a deep-down need to make them lovable. In teaching them manners, we are putting the finishing touches on potential members of society, adding the polish that makes them agreeable. (Etymologically, "polite" and "polished" are connected; they sound identical in French.) From the very outset, therefore, we strive to smooth away selfishness. We teach children to be considerate by compelling them to behave in considerate ways. The unruly, bullying, or smart-aleck child is at a great disadvantage in the world, cut off from the lasting sources of human fulfillment. His mother may love him, but others will fear or dislike him.
From the very outset, therefore, we strive to smooth away selfishness.
The teaching of manners to children goes beyond just controlling their behavior. It also involves a kind of shaping, which lifts the human form above the level of animal life, so as to become fully human, fully sociable, and fully self-aware. Eating is a prime arena of this transformation. Traditionally it has been a social occasion, in which food is offered and taken as a gift. Through eating, we nourish not only our bodies but also our social relations and therefore our souls. That is why table manners are so important — and the primary lessons in politeness that are given to children. "Please," "thank you," "may I have," and "could you pass the" — even when uttered by Mother, who has no choice but to provide — resound ever after in the consciousness of a child.
How we eat, what kind of consciousness we reveal in our eating — these are the important matters, since they affect what we are for others. Like the animals, we ingest food through the mouth. But the human mouth has another significance. It is the place from which the spirit emerges in the form of speech. It is with the mouth that we scowl, kiss, or smile, and "smiles from reason flow, and are of love the food," as Milton puts it. The mouth is second only to the eye as the visible sign of self and character. Our way of presenting it is therefore of the greatest importance to us. We shield it when we yawn in public; we dab at it with a napkin rather than wiping it with the back of the hand. The mouth is a threshold, and the passage of food across it is a social drama — a movement from outer to inner and from object to subject. Hence we do not put our face in the plate as a dog does; we do not bite off more than we can chew while conversing; we do not spit out what we cannot swallow; and when the food passes our lips, we strive to make it vanish, to become unobservably a part of us.
Table manners ensure that the mouth retains its social and spiritual character at the very moment when it is supplying the body's needs. They therefore enable us to combine conversation and consumption. Without manners, the meal loses its social meaning and fragments into a competition for the common store of fodder. Eating then degenerates into feeding — essen into fressen — and conversation into snorts and grunts.
Different cultures have developed their own methods to prevent this happening. There are few domestic sights more beautiful than a Chinese family sitting around a steaming mullet or sea bass, each adding to the common fund of hilarity while discreetly helping himself to the common dish. The chopstick, which deals in small portions and does no violence to the mouth, helps to guarantee both restraint and conversation. But the gentle reciprocity of such a family meal does not require this artificial mediator between hand and mouth. The African custom of eating with the fingers is just as effective at inducing good manners, when the bowl sits at the center of the family circle, and everyone must reach forward ceremonially to partake of it, afterward raising hand to mouth while looking and smiling at his neighbor. All such customs point toward the same end: the maintenance of human kindness.
When manners are forgotten, the meal as a social occasion disappears, as is already happening. People now eat distractedly before a TV screen, replenish their bodies in the street, or walk around the workplace with a sandwich in their hands. When I first taught in America, I was shocked to find students carrying into the lecture hall pizzas and hot dogs, which they proceeded to stuff into their faces while staring in mild curiosity at the dude on the dais. Later, colleagues told me that this behavior didn't spring from the university ethos; it began at school — it began in the home itself. Already the most important moment of social renewal — on which families depend for their inner self-confidence, and out of which serious friendships grow — was becoming marginal for the young. Eating was shrinking into a function, and it is not surprising if a generation of children brought up in this way should find it difficult or alien to settle down in any relationship other than a provisional and temporary one.
How we eat, what kind of consciousness we reveal in our eating — these are the important matters, since they affect what we are for others.
The rudeness of the glutton and the face stuffer are obvious. Equally ill-mannered — though it is politically incorrect to say so — is the food faddist, who makes a point of announcing, wherever he goes, that just this or this can pass his lips, and all other things must be rejected, even when offered as a gift. I was taught to eat whatever was placed before me, choosiness being a sin against hospitality and a sign of pride. But vegetarians and vegans have now succeeded in policing the dinner table with their non-negotiable demands, ensuring that even when invited into company, they sit down alone.
Both the faddist and the glutton have lost sight of the ceremonial character of eating, the essence of which is hospitality and gift. For each of them, I and my body occupy center stage, and the meal loses its meaning as a human dialogue. Though the health-food addict is in one sense the opposite of the burger stuffer and the chocaholic, he too is a product of the fridge culture, for whom eating is feeding, and feeding a solipsistic episode, in which others are disregarded. The finicky beak of the health freak and the stretched maw of the junk-food addict are alike signs of a deep self-centeredness. It is probably better that such people eat on their own, since even in company they are really locked in solitude.
Table manners help us to see that politeness is not, after all, a disadvantage. Although the ill-mannered person can grab more of the grub, he will receive less of the affection; and fellowship is the real meaning of the meal. Next time, he will not be invited. Politeness makes you part of things and so gives you an enduring edge over those who never acquired it. And this gives us a clue to the real nature of rudeness: to be rude is not just to be selfish, in the way that children (until taught otherwise) and animals are instinctively selfish; it is to be ostentatiously alone. Even in the most genial gathering, the rude person will betray, by some word or gesture, that he is not really part of it. Of course he is there, a living organism, with wants and needs. But he does not belong in the conversation.
Even in these days of hasty seductions and brief affairs, sexual partners have a choice between fully human and merely animal relations.
Where this defect most dismayingly shows itself is in sexual relations. Even in these days of hasty seductions and brief affairs, sexual partners have a choice between fully human and merely animal relations. The pornography industry is constantly pushing us toward the second option. But culture, morality, and what is left of piety aim at the first. Their most important weapon in this battle is tenderness. Tender feelings do not exist outside a social context. Tenderness grows out of care and courtesy, out of graceful gestures, and out of a quiet, attentive concern. It is something you learn, and politeness is a way of teaching it. Not for nothing do we use the word "rude" to denote both bad manners and obscene behavior. The person whose sexual strategies involve coarse jokes, explicit gestures, and lascivious embraces, who stampedes toward his goal without taking "no" or "maybe" or "not yet" for an answer, is looking for sex of the wrong kind — sex in which the other is a means to excitement, rather than an object of concern. Entered into in this frame of mind, sex is not an accepting but a discarding of the other, a way of maintaining an iron solitude in the midst of union. That is why it is so deeply offensive, and why women, especially, feel violated when men treat them in this way.
Codes of sexual conduct are an obvious example of the way in which we try to raise our conduct to a higher level — the level where the animal sinks away and the human replaces it. And what distinguishes the human is the concern for others, whose sovereignty over their own lives we must respect and whom we are not to treat as though our desires and ambitions take automatic precedence over theirs. This is what Kant had in mind in his second formulation of the Categorical Imperative: act so as to treat humanity, whether in yourself or in another, always as an end in itself, and never as a means only. Kant's way of putting the point shows the truth in the old French description of manners as la petite morale. Morals and manners (and law, too) are continuous parts of a single enterprise, which is to forge a society of cooperative and mutually respectful individuals out of the raw material of self-seeking animals.
But, says the cynic, we are self-seeking animals, and all these attempts to disguise the fact are just hypocrisy. This insidious thought takes many forms. La Rochefoucauld described hypocrisy as the tribute that vice pays to virtue — a compliment, in its way. Without hypocrisy, what praise does virtue ever get? But more influential to moralists have been Christ's words: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" This is the master thought of the Protestant tradition, which tells us that we establish our title to goodness and salvation by inner obedience, not by outward show. Manners, forms, courtesies, and graces are mere ornaments, designed to distract attention from the moral truth. And much of the boorishness of modern Britain and America can be seen as the last legacy of this Puritan way of thinking.
Manners seem like hypocrisy when they are not second nature to you. You move in them awkwardly, as in a set of borrowed clothes. And then arises the peculiar thought that somehow, somewhere, trapped inside all this constricting artifice, is the real me, crying to be let out and show itself. "Let it all hang out," said the Californian prophets, and hang out it did. The result was not just the loss of manners; it was the loss of morals, too. The real me, when finally it shook off its social integument, stood revealed as nothing but the self-seeking animal that civilization had tried to tame. Indeed, it was not really a me at all. The "I" exists, as Martin Buber poignantly reminds us, only in relation to a possible "you" — a "you" who is the partner in a dialogue, and in whose gaze I stand corrected. Manners exist to make this dialogue possible.
It is a discipline at once of the soul and of the body. And if you do not acquire it at an early age, there is a danger that you will never acquire it at all, or never feel at home with it.
Oscar Wilde wrote that, in matters of the greatest importance, it is style and not sincerity that counts. Not that we should learn to be insincere — but that we should learn something else, so that sincerity is worth it. The something else, which Wilde calls style and I call manners, resides in the minute ability to live and act for others, to stand in their gaze and to influence and be influenced by their judgment. It is a discipline at once of the soul and of the body. And if you do not acquire it at an early age, there is a danger that you will never acquire it at all, or never feel at home with it.
Without this discipline, sincerity becomes only rudeness. Who is more sincere, less a hypocrite, than the person who farts and burps as his body suggests; who swears and curses at the smallest irritation; who makes a grab for whatever he immediately desires, be it food or drink or sex; who is "in your face" to everyone and as explicit in his needs as a dog or a horse? And who is a better proof of Wilde's remark? If that is what sincerity amounts to, then let's have more hypocrisy. If sincerity means showing what you really are, it's good to be sincere only if it's good to show what you are.
The modern preference for sincerity over politeness is in part a result of a social and political movement that goes back to the eighteenth century, and in particular to the egalitarianism of the French Revolution. The Revolutionaries set themselves against the "inhuman" artifice of aristocratic life, against the elaborate forms and titles and manners of an elite that no longer fully believed in its right to social power, and whose rococo ways seemed merely a last-ditch effort to retain its distinction and prerogatives. The Revolution simplified dress, rejected the confectionery of the toilette, and adopted blunt, uncompromising forms of address in place of the old styles and titles. Everybody was now citoyen, a word that very soon acquired the ironical tone of "comrade" in the Soviet empire, when people saw that the destruction of manners was, after all, no more than a prelude to the cutting off of heads.
Despite the moral and political catastrophe that ensued, something of the Revolutionary contempt for artifice survived as a permanent feature of European and American civilization. The Americans were particularly loyal followers of the Revolutionary ideal. Dickens, after his 1842 American tour, described Americans as rejecting what they called the "withering conventionalities" of the oppressive old world, since they were "nature's noblemen," which they displayed by incessant spitting and grabbing at the communal dish with knives — knives! — that they had already put into their mouths.
We are not merely animals; we are also persons — moral beings, with rights, duties, and a need to bestow and receive respect. The word person comes from persona, the bearer of rights and duties, a term borrowed from the theater, where it means a mask. And in a sense, it is right to compare the person to a mask — one that is created not only for others, but also by them. The moral being is the creature of dialogue, and politeness is his way of making a place for himself in the conversation of his kind. Hence clothes too are part of manners. You dress for others, and even if you thereby make yourself more attractive, it is the opinion of others that tells you so.
The young are acutely aware of the social meaning of what they wear and are careful to signal through their dress the kind of social relations that they feel comfortable to engage in. When I first entered an American lecture hall, I was amazed to confront a room in which the young women were all different, clearly making an effort to stand out, and the young men were all alike, devoted to being inconspicuous, part of a crowd. The symbol of this is the baseball cap. Anyone can wear it, whatever his intelligence, culture, or physique. And because it signifies attachment to a team, the cap lays claim only to a vicarious prowess and makes no personal boast on the wearer's behalf.
Is this a new form of politeness, one that cancels the rudeness of wearing a cap indoors? I pondered the question for many weeks before concluding that no, it is not politeness but a way of retreating from the world where politeness counts — the world where you are judged for what you seem. By adopting the outward appearance of a moron, the American college kid hopes to ensure that nothing will be demanded of him. His talents, conversation, looks, and achievements will all seem surprising and creditable, if they emerge from a body rooted in sneakers and crowned by a baseball cap. The cap is his refuge from a world that can be successfully negotiated only by style — only by the manners and graces that he has never been taught. And when, under the cap, a dripping pizza is crammed into a distorted maw at the very moment when you are explaining Kant's distinction between the sublime and the beautiful, how can you avoid the thought that this kid has been badly treated by his parents and mentors, that he has been sent into the adult world in a state of acute vulnerability to a judgment that he can do nothing either to respond to or avert?
Of course, this simple form of rudeness can coexist with a gentle temperament and a real concern for others. The problem is: How do we convert that temperament into a polished personality? For if we do not do so, then we do a great disservice to the young. We deprive them of something they need to win the full trust and cooperation of others — not of their intimates only, but of the many strangers on whom they will be every bit as dependent for their happiness.
A parent facing this problem confronts a seemingly insuperable difficulty: the surrounding culture seems to promote rudeness as a way of life. Young people who set their sights on the world of commerce, for example, see nothing but a mad scramble for profits, in which old and gentlemanly ways of doing business are obsolete, and the monsters come away with the goods. Adam Smith's account of the market, in which self-interest produces by an invisible hand a benign, orderly abundance, is immensely appealing; but Smith's era clothed self-interest in politeness, and the market moved more gently and more slowly. In the new world of commerce, things move too fast for manners. Commercial life seems like a buzzing cloud of atoms, in which a myriad of solitary individuals bump and bruise one another in their search for some momentary advantage.
By adopting the outward appearance of a moron, the American college kid hopes to ensure that nothing will be demanded of him.
The most striking symbol of this new world is the mobile telephone — perhaps the most effective addition to the repertoire of rudeness since take-out. A person with a cell phone is never really with the company he keeps. Even when eating out or visiting, he is secretly attached to his own sphere of action, the sphere of private profit, which can at any moment call him away from his conversation and cause him to shout into the distance, negating his companions and rubbing out their thoughts, with that hint of belligerence characteristic of rudeness.
This happens not just in the world of commerce. I recently saw two young students, boy and girl, walking hand in hand through a narrow and otherwise deserted street in Oxford, the dignified walls of colleges on either side of them, a pale autumn moonlight glinting on the cobbles. Only a year or two ago, such a couple would have paused to whisper and kiss; but these two merely staggered from side to side, shouting into their separate telephones — a vivid symbol of the essential apartness of young people, once grace and courtesy have vanished from their lives. And the worst thing, as with every fault that comes from a lack of education, is that they themselves have no notion of what they lack, since no one has bothered to teach them.
Human beings endlessly create problems for themselves, but they also find solutions. Having abolished one solution, of necessity we create another. Manners were a solution to the problems of social existence. They enabled people to raise one another up to a higher plane — a plane on which they appeared as idealized, spiritual beings, open to intimacy but only toward those who had established a right. Manners enchanted the human world and filled it with a congenial mystery: the mystery of human freedom.
In a world organized and disciplined by manners, therefore, strangers could have confidence in one another. They did not feel threatened in the street or in public gatherings; they negotiated their passage with relaxed, easy gestures. Take manners away, and public space becomes threatening, relations take on a provisional aspect, and people feel naked and exposed.
Where manners prevail, people stand at a certain distance from one another. They hold themselves in reserve — in just the way that courtship holds sex in reserve.
In such a situation, people begin to arm themselves with law. Accusations of sexual harassment and date rape replace the old interdictions that went without saying yet compelled obedience. In every sphere of human relations — work, study, romance, even family — lawsuits begin to wipe away the smile. But litigation, caused by distrust, also causes it: the more people settle their disputes through law, the more do they turn away from one another and lock themselves within an adamantine solitude.
In the absence of manners, law is not the only recourse. You can try to preempt conflict by pretending that you are not living among strangers at all. Thus arises a substitute for manners that, while it generates an inferior ideal of human life, nevertheless enables us to avoid the worst of our frictions. This substitute is informality. Where manners prevail, people stand at a certain distance from one another. They hold themselves in reserve — in just the way that courtship holds sex in reserve. Such reserve does not diminish the value of intimacy but, on the contrary, augments it by raising it to the level of a gift. The loss of manners implies that true intimacy is less and less obtainable, since less and less is there the condition with which intimacy is contrasted and from which it gains its meaning. Instead, a pretense of intimacy has arisen, enabling people to deal with one another not as strangers but as friends — at least until the word or deed that initiates the lawsuit.
Familiarity, then, is both an offense to good manners and a substitute for them, a way of getting others to your side with the speed and impersonality of a transaction on the stock exchange. Modern business therefore depends upon familiarity. The person who insists on antique forms and courtesies is on his way to early retirement. Hence in the world of business and the professions, there is much affectation of friendship but very little friendship. Paradoxically, the loss of manners, rather than abolishing hypocrisy, has created a vast realm of pretense.
Where today's presumptuousness has destroyed the sense of shame, we cannot shame ill manners away. But in the young, the sense of shame often vibrates just below the surface. In the young, shame is not an evil but a necessary preparation for social life — a sign of the readiness to be corrected. It is therefore a powerful foundation on which to rebuild the old, life-enhancing courtesies. The fashion among young people for swing dancing, and the popularity of the recent Jane Austen films, re-creating the ceremonious world where manners are a mirror of the soul, show that the young are susceptible to, even hungry for, the enchantment that comes from formality and distance. By precept and example, therefore, parents and teachers could still do for young people what parents and teachers traditionally have done — namely, show them the slow track to an intimacy that the fast track can never reach.
Roger Scruton. "Real Men Have Manners." City Journal (Winter, 2000).
This article reprinted with permission from The American Spectator.
Sir Roger Scruton (1944-2019) was a philosopher, public commentator and author of over 40 books. He was a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and Professor at the University of Buckingham. He is the author of Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, On Human Nature, The Disappeared, Notes from Underground, The Face of God, The Uses of Pessimism: And the Danger of False Hope, Beauty, Understanding Music: Philosophy and Interpretation, I Drink therefore I am, Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged, The Palgrave Macmillan Dictionary of Political Thought, News from Somewhere: On Settling,An Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture, An Intelligent Person's Guide to Philosophy, Sexual Desire, The Aesthetics of Music, The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, Death-Devoted Heart: Sex and the Sacred in Wagner's Tristan and Isolde, A Political Philosphy, and Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a Life. Roger Scruton was a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.Copyright © 2000 City Journal
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