Mores and the Battle for Tomorrow, Part II

Part I of this essay can be found here, and Part III here.

A SIMPLE, BUT SUGGESTIVE, observation shall set us on our way: every age which has ever enjoyed anything of true order, or ever been touched and marked by the divine flame, has always and everywhere been rich in the forms of sophisticated manners—etiquette, laws, customs, rules determining the relations between man and man, between level and level, class and class, which govern deed, bearing, and speech. More, the best men of all such times have generally reveled in the manners given them, have been as it were the finest flowerings of those manners; and in those few celebrated cases that scorned and even shunned, contemned, or toyed with extant manners (one thinks of the likes of Alcibiades, Heraclitus, Socrates, Diogenes—or more recently, Byron, Beethoven, Wilde), this was the sign of a great and overriding personality which could not—and this is important—make itself felt save by means of such contrasts, and which would never have been able to “stand out” in such a way in the absence of this pre-existing convention. That is to say, even those high men who most spectacularly “rebel” against the manners of the class into which they were born, thus tacitly valorize manners in their very disregard of them. As much as we are wont to divorce the question of manners from the question of culture more broadly speaking, in any and all historical investigations in to this matter, the connections reassert themselves with such vigor, universality, and blunt insistancy that we cannot help but conclude an even rigorous link between the one thing and the other: manners issue from mores. It is thus strange to the utmost that so far as this author knows, no study has ever been made into the deep connection standing between manners and culture.
      Reasons can be found to explain this failure. To some extent, the question has been an invisible one up until the contemporary period, for the simple reason that until a fairly late stage of modern Americanized civilization, there never existed a mannerless society. (More on this most peculiar phenomenon later.) Manners, it might be said, could be taken for granted in all periods prior to the modern. One might analyze them, or compare them, as was done, for example, by Herodotus, by Burckhardt, by Castiglione, or by Don Quixote in a few of his more remarkable speeches to Sancho Panza; one might thereby arrive at a tolerably complete idea of the limitations, the virtues, the defects of a given set of manners. But in all of this one always had a clear sense of their necessity and inevitability; they were the natural outgrowth of peoples, climes, nations, cultures, and so could not be altered, adjusted, or substituted by the mere fiat of men. Those who transcended them had to make of themselves hermits, like Heraclitus, or masters of irony, like Socrates. Only since the modern advent of democratic or communistic aggregates of individual human beings in the place of organic peoples and folks, has the possibility arisen of making manners into the object of choice. But no one has yet attempted to understand what this might mean, nor to analyze the ramifications or causes of this development.
      It is common today to think of manners as purely external aspects of human life. As Tocqueville says,

      There is nothing, at first sight, that seems less important than the external form of human actions, and there is nothing to which men attach more value; they become accustomed to everything except living in a society that does not have their manners. The influence that the social and political state exerts on manners is therefore worth the trouble of serious examination.

The Marxist interpretation of the manners of the old aristocratic eras presses this view to its absurdist extremity, by concluding that manners were nothing but the artificial appendices of an arbitrary, violent, and subjective rule, employed solely so as to exclude the “common man” or proletarian from penetrating the charmed and gilded circle of aristocratic privilege. Manners were an invention, that is to say, used by the ruling classes to withhold their own unmerited rights from the grasp of the unjustly oppressed lower classes. Indeed, this kind of thing is supposed to happen even in our own day, albeit subtly, as the “moneyed classes,” by means of silly and inscrutable conventions like using four forks at dinner or putting foreign name on sandwiches, evidently work toward the same exclusionism, making all the “uninitiated”—meaning whoever is not rich—feel uncomfortable and out of their element in those places where the rich like to loiter. This is supposed to be a great insidious injustice of our times.
      Leaving aside the question of why anyone would wish to penetrate into the circle of these money-grubbers, knowing the likely caliber of their souls, it is also well worth asking of this is really all that manners represent or could represent—if it is just to reduce all manners to the petty practices of this contemptible “etiquette.” Yet the word “etiquette” itself belies such thoughts: for it suggests to our ears precisely the Greek word ethos. It might be taken as the French diminutive of that word, meaning something like “small” or “petty” or “lesser ethics,” those minor rules governing in particular human relations. Similarly with the word “manners,” which derives most evocatively from the Latin word for “hand,” and specifically from the Latin word manuarius meaning “pertaining to the hand”; manners are implicated with a man’s physical acts, his bearing, his comportment, and thus consequently also his deportment with respect to other human beings. It is nothing but another of our manifold modern corruptions to reduce the noble scope of manners to the mere outward habits of the very wealthy—such practices as might be drilled into a chimpanzee, so little have they to do with the soul, with virtue, or with higher and more human spiritual conditions. Such habits or practices as these really are “arbitrary” and “external”—but they form only the transient and plastic periphery of manners proper; they are the minimization of previous and profounder orders. A reminder yet again that if one takes as one’s point of departure this sick modernity and whatever it has in its illness spawned, one will arrive inevitably at equally infirm conclusions.
      To regain some clarity we must in the first place consider our terms. We must note that “manners” do not refer indiscriminately to all human actions or comportment or habits. A distinction must be made in the first place between customs and manners, customs referring to the habits and actions proper to different peoples, by which they might be discriminated one from the next, manners refering rather to differences pertaining to various groups, classes, and castes, in one and the same people. Supposing we were to travel to a foreign nation, to a small village whose citizens held to ways radically different from anything we are accustomed to; still we would not say that they as a people have different “manners” than we, but rather that they as a people hold to different customs. We would reserve the judgement of manners proper for, say, the mayor, or the judge of the town, or for those who are most like to us in our own social standing. For manners are associated inseparably with a given class of human beings, which helps us understand also why there should be the vestiges of manners even in our “mannerless” modernity. And indeed, that fact, too, acts as a signpost for us along our way: for even in our democratic and demagogic extremities, we still use words like “class” and “classy” to refer to high or superior comportment or quality: for indeed, strictly speaking, manners are what pertain to the high-born of any nation or country; manners are what distinguish them from the low-born. The plebeian does not have manners, save in contrast and negation; he has bad manners.
      The “high-born” in all previous ages, of course, coincided with distinct classes and levels; in our day of unconscionable and indiscriminate intermixing of human beings taken willy-nilly from here and there, it is of course impossible to expect that the connections between quality and class, which are even in the best of times but tenuous and only generally reliable, should have any near relation to reality. Those born to wealthy families in our day are in any number of cases almost even less likely to show real quality than a random human being selected out from amongst the wider populace; for in democratic capitalism the wealthy tend to be but the most avaricious and ruthless of human beings, and their children, even beyond inheriting such traits and being inculcated with such tendencies, also have every opportunity to become the ruined slaves of their appetites, which they have endless resources to feed. The notions of “high-” and “low-born” possess in our day a relative character; or better say, in our day it is more likely than ever that a really “high-born” soul might arise in classes which just yesterday were considered socially “low” or “poorly bred.”
      But then, the necessary consequence of this, which has yet to be drawn, is simply that manners, rather than vanishing or diminishing as they have been doing, might really change meaning, change bearer, change their role and their destiny within the context of society and history itself…
      And it is equally obvious that, if anything of the sort is to come about, it must be those truly born for manners who shall, in all consciousness and willfulness, effect such a change.

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Part III Forthecoming


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