December 13, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Mores and the Battle for Tomorrow, Part III
WITH THESE OBSERVATIONS, we approach the question of the origin of manners in human societies. The Marxist or crypto-Marxist interpretation of this origin is probably the commonest among us even today, and so it behooves us to begin here.
As we have mentioned above, this interpretation would have manners be the deliberate instruments of exclusion employed by an arbitrarily assembled group of rulers—yet another means of keeping their unmerited prerogatives intact. Now, to hold to this view of manners is to patronize a truly improbable vision of “rule” and “ruling”: namely, that such rulers were capable already from the earliest societies of understanding or instinctively divining the influence that a random set of communal standards, a perfectly accidental code of conduct, might exert on the masses, leading them therefore to use an invented social standard as a “tool of oppression.” This would entail in the first place the creation of specific comportments with the explicit and exclusive aim of estranging the members of another group of humans, who had been assembled with no eye toward natural distinctions, but just so, to form up a slave caste.
This story is frankly unbelievable—indeed, is as little believable as the idea that Darwinian evolution might have brought about life more generally; nor are these two theories unrelated. Now, in the first place, even the “Marxist” interpretation of manners must admit that the very manners used to “exclude” a given group or class of people were already in some form pre-existent, lest these manners should never have possessed that air of authority or tradition which might permit them to exert any influence at all. If these manners did not already exist in some prototypical form, as custom or habits or ways of bearing oneself, their mere invention could never have been taken by anyone outside the caste in question as being in any way authoritative. That is to say, the “exclusionary” aspect of manners, so far from constituting the origin of the same, in truth is nothing but an adaptation added on to them long after the fact.
We return to our original question: what is the origin of manners? It is clear that manners emerge naturally in given groups of human beings who long live in proximity, in community; that manners are the social expression of that which unites, rather than that which divides, these groups. Manners are indeed diametrically opposed to some kind of “exclusionary” and merely negative function. First and most primarily, manners are a means of including those like to oneself, of rendering a given social body more coherent and better united, of encouraging a sense of solidarity, of kinship, and yes, if you will, of “class.” More yet: without this primary and inclusionary quality, the exclusionary quality generally ascribed to manners is not only improbable but in fact unthinkable.
It is likely that the first manners were but the natural outgrowth of custom, a kind of proud awareness of customs extant. This proud awareness would be implicit in a noble race; it would become explicit so soon as that race came into contact with other and different groups. One can imagine that a given group of warrior folk, coming into conflict with other tribes, might conquer them and take the vanquished as slaves. These slaves would be marked most obviously by their differences of language and of consuetude with respect to their masters, so that it would be natural for victors and vanquished alike to associate the customs of the conqueror with what was strong, powerful, high, primary, splendid, and those of the conquered with what was weak, low, impotent, subsidiary, wretched. This is nothing but the most likely first form of manners in the world, a direct transfer of existing custom into a hierarchy of act, mores, bearing, with respect to a subdued and subjugated people. No fundamental alteration nor invention; only the pride of the victors, which indeed existed before the victory, transposed onto another plane. It is probably that manners first crystallized as manners proper—which is to say, as human ways pertaining to a distinct human class—when slavery was first made hereditary, when the breeding of the slave caste began, and this initial almost accidental and almost certainly heterogeneous group of conquered individuals was transformed into a real and proper class of its own, ossifying as well the differences between it and the ruling order in act, in bearing, in habit, in dress, in costume, in tendency—differences, that is, in manner, between master and slave.
Note a consequence of this. The master class remains unitary and singular, and does not change despite all vicissitudes of war or social alteration, save slowly and by the inherent laws of human development. But the slave class is inherently protean, innately transient, insofar as its ranks might be swelled by any new victory over new peoples or tribes and altered fundamentally by the ways of these new additions. It is characterized, not by unity, homogeneity, consistency, but by change, alteration, confused intermixing of customs divers, a kind of moral cacophony which cannot help even in the best of cases but render a people bland, characterless—a confused aggregate which is more easily defined negatively, by what it lacks, than positively, by what it possesses. The slave class thereby slowly becomes, not a group of individuals with different but distinct customs, different but distinct manners, but rather that group which does not have customs, does not have manners, at all. The quality of being “mannerless” is historically associated only with one group of people: the servile, dependent, dejected, conquered, enslaved.
One can imagine as well a tributary and perhaps corresponding origin of manners in the development of those characteristics which pertain naturally to various inter-community groups, as the shaman or priestly class, the warrior class, the farmer class, etc. Manners of such a kind grew out of the soil of basic human types, and so wore the marks and normal characteristics of these; these were the archetypes of the manners that even today one more or less associates with different “professional” types of human beings.
This twin origin of manners reflects a binary classification of the same, which has existed in every healthy society, between what one might call classist manners, pertaining to a given human caste or the levels of a natural hierarchy, and professional or vocational manners, pertaining to a given human activity, guild, profession, etc. The first are given exclusively with birth; one is raised into them, one imbibes them as it were with mother’s milk, and only imperfectly and with great natural talent and years of willful practice can they be imitated, abandoned, or acquired. Every healthy aristocracy knows its kin by a hundred signs, and can sniff out at a distance those who belong to it by their very birth, and those who do not. Even as a man might after long decades of cohabitation or immersion with a foreign people become the honorable member of a society to which he was not born, perennially bearing nonetheless certain indelible marks of his true origins, so a man might through long practice and diligent application render himself congenial to this or that higher social echelon, even though the “scent” of his true origins can be rubbed away with no mortal soap.
The second type of manners—that which perforce must interest us the more—does not possess, or does not entirely possess, this heritable nature. True, in every healthy and traditionalistic society profession is in countless cases passed on generation to generation, and therefore in some way implicated with questions of birth, upbringing, natural education; but nonetheless, there have in all societies everywhere also been cases of individuals hereditarily alien to a given trade but gifted in it nonetheless—be this trade tinkering or cobbling, pomology or warfare, writing or magic—individuals who were thus drawn to their destined work by a kind of secret magnetism, called to its bosom by a true vocation. The Medieval Guilds, for instance, in numerous cases fed their ranks through this process. For this reason, the second type of manners is not essentially a matter of heredity, but on the contrary, can be acquired through assiduous study and exercise. Such manners are tied to a given way of life, not merely insofar as they accompany this way of life, but rather insofar as their acquisition, their conscious and intensive assumption, corresponds to an education of the soul into the morality and the virtue of the way of life in question. These manners are at once a preparation, an initiation, a cultivation, and finally a culmination of the way of life in question; and while the first type of manners, as it were, are “given by the gods,” the second type are essentially the work of man.
And here we arrive at the value of manners for us, for our dark-starred community with its high-starred aims. It is obvious that the grand hereditary aristocratic manners of old have passed on from the world along with the aristocracies themselves; already half way through the nineteenth century, Tocqueville lamented their passing:
Men have lost the common law of manners and they have not yet resolved to do without it; but each strives to form a certain arbitrary and changing rule with the debris of former usages, so that manners have neither the regularity nor the grandeur that they often display among aristocratic peoples, nor the simple and free turn that one sometimes remarks in them in democracy; they are all at once constrained and without constraint.
What remains of these old manners are but the vestiges and residues, not unlike the ghosts of deceased human beings; and just as these ghosts are often limited, mindless, and even somehow perverse compared to the fullness of the life that once inhabited them, so the remnants of manners in our day are but the pale and vapid relic of once hale and healthy mores. In truth, they may not be called “manners” in any but the loosest and emptiest of ways. For true manners, truly binding manners, divide their holders both physically and psychically from all those who are unlike them in the decisive respect. Manners at their highest manifestation are the outward symbol of the pathos of distance.
Yet amidst this “debris of former usages” in which we dwell and struggle, we might find our way to a new creation. We must look to reframe and remold the very meaning of manners in our broken day—we who are not mere derelict children of this embattled present, but also are the bearers of the flame of its future. For in the remaking of manners with a new sense, a new goal, a new destiny, we might prepare the very rebirth of society itself into a new hierarchy reflecting, not merely the gold a man possesses, but the mettle of his soul.
Return to Part II
Continue to Part IV