Manners and Soul

THERE WAS A TIME when the concept of human equality did not mar the evaluations of men. There was no absurd belief then in a substratum of “basic human goodness,” no naïve faith in the inherited value possessed by each and every, simply because each and every was born humanoid. Men were noble, men were base, and such titles carried import and announcement: these men must be cultivated, these men cannot be; these men must grow, these men are soil; our energies are limited – we must not waste them – so let us set the best aflame, and use the rest for kindling. All of society felt the weight of this purpose, for each man carried his title in his bearing: character was written on deportment. And the distinguishing deportment of the noble was his manner.
      Like so many of our inheritances, manner has been appropriated by the equality-mongers; it has been altered, twisted and polluted; it has been made smaller and smaller yet ‘till even the dullest simpleton alive can fit his narrow approbation around it. What was once the exclusive prerogative and indication of nobility has become common property; manners have degenerated into mere politeness, which has had the unsalubrious consequence of simultaneously diminishing manners and rendering politeness disagreeable. Just as everything the diseased flesh of egalitarianism comes to touch, manners have acquired vulgarity.
      What were they, once? To those men of an aristocratic age, what purpose did they serve? – As I have stated, they provided a palpable differentia between classes; the nobles possessed an air of decorum, of self-control and self-assurance, of duty and destiny, while the men of the lower class, unable to acquire self-possession, thoughtless of distant targets or faraway goals, were incapable of the kind of discipline necessary for manifestations of nobility. Upright posture, honest deference to superiors, finesse with tongue and with sword, self-reverence – the meaning of such things cannot be fathomed by the common man. He takes such mannerisms to be pretense and vanity (if he takes them at all), when in fact they are at once promise and education – the promise of a future for the best men, and the education needed to achieve it. Manners demand of a person everything requisite to his cultivation: the strictest self-discipline, to train him in hardness, both with himself and with others; honor, that he may come to feel utterly devoted to the import of life; etiquette – that is, small actions of respect offered up to his betters and his equals – that he may come to understand, and defer to, all things of quality and power in this world; noblesse oblige that he may take his responsibilities to his inferiors with utmost seriousness; dignity, that his amour propre might be justifiably augmented, that his sense of his own destiny might spur him to greatness and genius; superciliousness, that he may never feel unworthy of his cause, that he may never lose clear sight of the beauty and strength in himself.
      It would be foolish to aver that manners have always fulfilled this exact purpose or to claim that they have not been badly handled by the conceits of waning aristocracies. Yet it is necessary to indicate their possibilities in this world, that this might be contrasted with what today is being built upon this rubbled ground.

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