November 16, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
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.
The manner of our modern age – or politeness, as we may call it – is universally accessible. It carries with it a single, simple proposition: Thou shalt not offend against thy Brothers. Though perhaps we err to say only this, for, in fact, it carries also a more obscure command: Thou shalt ease thy Brother’s way. (And needless to say, it presupposes in all this that one’s brother is identical to every man, no matter to what creed, race, or class he belongs.) It bids that one genuflect before that Idol of modernity, Everyman. One is obliged to confront every member of the human species with the same respect, the same nicety, the same timidity. Man is no longer differentiated from his fellows; manner no longer differentiates. Our decorum is degenerated into an imperative rife with meekness: treat every man as though he were your better; be servant to every man you encounter; and when your Brother is servant to you, make him feel superior for his acts of minor slavery. Hold doors. Say please, say thank you. Greet everyone with a smile; make everyone feel important, feel wanted. Never say anything which causes discomfort. Never be insulting, even if it is honesty which insults. A white lie is better than a black truth. A thousand tenuous friends are better than a single tenuous enemy. In short, treat men with the dignity they deserve for having been born. And if you follow these commandments, if you are wholly polite, down to your very roots, you will be – a Good Democrat.
The motives that flow beneath the surface of this shallow propriety are clear enough. We live in an age devoted to protecting every form of weakness from every form of strength; hence our obsession with the protraction of life, regardless of its quality; hence our almost neurotic opposition to opposition; hence our unquestioning affirmation of the “virtues” tolerance and philanthropy. One cannot stand the thought of a man suffering; and woe be to him who dares to frown. Worse yet is he who causes frowns; he is an enemy. But one cannot face this enemy on exposed ground; men like that are commonly of a powerful and unashamed sort. So one builds great walls of decorum around one’s weakness, great walls to fend off intruders and protect the degraded from ever being reminded of their degradation, from ever being subjugated to something superior; and we promise Peace and Pearled Gates to all who would set a new brick. Thus has propriety become the insidious tool of every coward and weakling and wretch, the excuse for unexamined weakness itself; the strong are expected to lay down petty alms on a daily basis to such pathetic men as that, that the strong may slowly come to respect and fear what they ought by rights despise when it is wicked, and magnanimously defend when it is innocent. This new politeness is a psychological ploy; a man cannot seriously regard one human as better than another, if he spends his life prostrate before all and sundry. Propriety enforces this prostration. It insists upon it; it penalizes us if we transgress it, if we stand; it punishes us with execration and the bad will of our peers. We are made to feel ashamed of whatever vestiges of the noble instinct we might yet possess. We are made to feel evil insofar as we are not soft. By and by, we are made – democratic.
Alas, it is difficult to believe that we shall not continue sliding gently into our black pit of “equality”; far more likely than a return to aristocracy, is some self-sustaining, self-perpetuating Brave New World, where every man eternally has his fancies fed, where every man is fat, stagnant, and inertial, and the most promising are so infused with a bad conscience. But we are not yet doomed to this fate: we can fight it yet; and so long as there is life in us, we must fight it yet. Wherever can be found means, let us set them to our cause. Wherever can be found a sword, and an arm to bear it, let us give it motive force, and let us put it to battle against these greatest foes of mankind: resignation, complacency, cowardice, love of weakness, love of meekness, love of small souls and small minds – all these modern auspices of recession, decay, and death.
n this breath, let me indicate a sword against all enemies of our contemporary morbidity. It is a heavy blade, difficult to bear and harder to wield, but it lies potential at the foot of every true man, if only he be independent enough to see it. I speak now of a return to manners, a movement away from the tired mimicry of politeness. I speak of a revolt in everyday affairs. Not that we should become replicas of the nobles of old, which at any rate is for a great many reasons beyond us, but that we should become wholly our own men; that is what mastering this sword entails. Let us look to our propriety, let us look to what deleterious principles our decorum has quietly sheltered in us; then let us kill the old commandments and supplant them with our own. Of every act of politeness, of every small, apparently unimportant encounter we have with another human being, let us carefully analyze what seemliness wants of us, and let us make rubble of everything of sickness we encounter therein.
n the end, this much is certain: a man is not his own so long as he is not lawmaker and judge to himself: – and the decrees of propriety are ubiquitous. We must become suspicious of this ubiquity; we are lost if we continue to be guided blindly by social amenities. For how can a man fight the state of the world, if has not even the strength to relate to other men after his own fashion? How can a man stand up against this modern age, if he is constantly subjecting himself to its laws in his every and most minute act? How can a man become or create himself, if he will not look to every one of society’s mores, no matter how trivial, and uproot whatever venomous plants they are growing inside of him? We have forgotten how integral are manners to soul.
Surely we shall hear someone or other arguing that to be polite requires only minor acts. Yes – but how many? Collect them all together; see how often you are confronted and stifled by your society’s concept of decency, and then ask yourself how you can go unaffected by this mass. Minor acts? But together they mean so much; who we are and what we shall become are built upon this enormity.
For anyone desirous of a future not like to this today, there is no command more essential than this; take yourself back from the age into which you have been born. Give yourself wholly unto a new ideal. Understand your needs in the service of this ideal, and ask but one thing of your manners and mannerisms: that they aid you in your one essential cause – the cultivation of yourself; that they lead you to grow; that they lead you to – become. – Whatever battles are fought will be waged on the terrain selected here. Do not march into war on uncertain ground, wielding untried arms; do not let your enemy determine the rules of engagement. Already, too many good men have had their better sight stolen by the pressure of their times. If you will fight, then open your eyes; go not blindly into this fray.
SEE ALSO AUTHOR’S ESSAYS