December 24, 2017 by John Bruce Leonard
Mores and the Battle for Tomorrow, Part IV
WE HAVE SPOKEN of the time in which we live as a mannerless epoch; it would be well for us to articulate this more completely. By this formulation we obviously do not mean that in the present day there are no manners, no etiquette at all, taking these words in the petty sense; we are not simply lamenting, for instance, that the youngsters of today no longer say “please” and “thank you,” or give due ear to their elders. Only a democratic epoch could interpret manners in so mean a way, and only a “conservative” party within such an epoch could believe that the fate and soul of society somehow hinged upon such trivialities. We mean rather this: that with that razing of all social and political hierarchies which has been effected these past centuries, and the attendant democratization of the soul, higher manners, those manners which contradistinguish superior expressions of human life from inferior ones, have been largely banished from society, and wherever they remain they remain predominately in their purely negative function, as mere barriers for keeping the so-called “lower classes” out of the sphere of the so-called “upper classes”—classes which differ in nothing save in the weight of their wallets. These classes are founded and defined on a purely economic basis, and therefore have become, for the first time in history, really and literally comprehensible by Marxist dogma alone; that dogma in truth could never understand the aristocratic castes of old, founded as these were on firmer foundations than mere pedestals of gold.
Now, the total absence of any natural and organic manners in our day opens a possibility which would in any other time have been not only absurd but even asocial: the conscious artificing of a set of manners fit to a given kind of human life, both as this life is lived and as it is intended. By which we mean that manners may be produced by a given group of human beings both to represent and manifest their particular values, and to encourage and prepare the way for the development of their qualities.
In any age or society which possesses distinct manners, such an attempt would rightly be regarded as a most disagreeable idiosyncrasy or eccentricity, the work of a suspicious and perhaps even diseased tendency. Any such attempt would be bound to result in either cult or failure; it would rightly be scorned, ignored, reproached, ridiculed. In our day, on the other hand—in the midst of this reign of “democratic manners” (supposing this is not finally a contradiction in terms)—the development of personal manners, which stand in open contrast to the usual ways of doing and being, is not only possible but is rapidly becoming necessary for whomever would save himself from the dissolving, corrosive plebeianism of the hyper-democratic spirit. Any man who opposes democracy in his soul will sense the truth in these words, so soon as he reviews his own inner life and his own outward deportment. He will see that he has in countless ways, small and large, strongly or feebly, shallowly or profoundly, sought out a kind of attitude and bearing at odds with the amorphous, mobbish, standardless, featureless behavior of these modern masses and their feeble etiquette. He has sought out these hidden ways often quite blindly, in accord with a secret imperative instinct, by necessity as it were, as a merest question of survival—the survival of what is best and noblest in him. We propose only to make that which has previously been instinctive and haphazard, now conscious, deliberate, systematic; that which one has done hitherto blindly will now be done with open eyes and clarion aims. For the first time, thanks precisely to our democracy, the conscious elaboration of an organic complex of manners and mores is possible today; the extremity of our situation makes it for us nigh mandatory.
Let us begin to see, then, what manners might mean to us, what they might offer our lives and our purpose. Following the reflection above, it is evident that manners might serve us in three principle ways: first, as a means of personal discipline and personal strengthening, a kind of training of the soul; second, as a way of bringing our lives into more perfect harmony with our ideas; and finally, as a stimulus and a stamp for our communal existence.
Anyone who doubts that hard times are coming, and especially for our kind, is unlikely to give himself over to our cause, save as he is strongly preconditioned to it for deep personal reasons—in which case the following considerations will strike him simply as congenial and natural. Most of us, however, see hardship fast upon the horizon; we feel approaching, almost certainly within our lifetimes and perhaps at the very corner of tomorrow, great troubles of a political and a social nature—troubles indeed which everywhere today are indicated by a thousand signs, but which have not yet begun to make themselves manifest. If we hope to confront these hardships without attaining first a degree of inner stability and outer hardness, a quantum that is of self-mastery, we are living in a very curious ingenuity and indeed inner contradiction, and we would do well to awaken to it before it is too late.
The question becomes naturally how to prepare ourselves. Certain disciplines can be of great use here—as for instance the so called “martial arts” by which the warlike aspects of the spirit might be aroused in a measured way and the will and body honed. Those of these practices which are still linked to a particular discipline, understood in the widest sense as a manner of self-control and self-comprehension, a particular way of being and living, and which do not reduce themselves simply to a series of lessons in physical self-defense (important though this be), are of particular interest. Even rigorous schools of use in weapons, such as fencing and kendo schools, might be of value here. And with a little imagination, one can envision the development which we ourselves might effect in such practices, so as to produce our own kind of training and education, toward our own explicit ends—living, that is, no longer as heirs and recipients, but as doers and makers in our own right. But in the meantime, the problem with all such disciplines remains eternally the same: they are all too easy to leave in the training room and the dojo, so that the moment one steps out of their doors one immediately becomes once more “democratic man,” shedding all extraneous ways of being and behaving and transforming once more into that “nice” and meek type of human being so favorable to democratic days. These practices thus run the risk of becoming the mere hobbies of an hour, while we require a discipline which never rests.
Manners have a definite role to play here precisely. They force one to consciousness of one’s way of being in all kinds of contexts and in all kinds of company, and indeed, even when one is “on one’s own”; they do not ever sleep, if only the heart is diligent. They bring one to steady awareness of one’s short-comings, one’s weaknesses, with no moralizing or moralistic shame attached; they are “moraline-free” as Nietzsche liked to say. Yet at the same time they permit no laxity nor complacency, for they render one eternally conscious of what is yet to be done.
Sure it is that such action, such self-molding of one’s own comportment in the world, this work upon oneself even as the sculptor works upon his marble, requires as its prerequisite already a degree of discipline in the commoner sense. But for those who lack this discipline, the very attempt to alter their daily and most commonplace actions might act as a revelation of precisely that deficiency.
It would be well to furnish a few concrete examples from amidst the myriad that could be brought out to show precisely what is meant by all this.
To begin with an example which will be in many ways already familiar to my readers, consider the modern illness of political correctness. Now, political correctness could well be comprehended as a kind of commonplace manifestation of democratic mores, which is meant to reinforce and express those mores in any number of real and day-to-day situations. That is to say, political correctness is a system of democratic manners. It is meant to keep all men subjugated to the egalitarianism of the day, and to cut the finer edges from off their souls, so that, worn of these cutting points, they might rub against each other in greater liberty, as any herd animals are like to do. Political correctness makes meek: it is for that very democratic indeed, and very characteristic of our time. To cast off this political correctness; to refuse to permit it to bind one’s tongue or bend one’s actions; to speak with manly frankness and to have no fear of truths which bruise brittle spirits; in certain cases even to deliberately offend against it for the honorable and necessary purpose of awakening the men of today to its soporific regime—all of these actions represent the reconstitution of manners in our day. No one among us will doubt the value that this kind of reaction has, both as regards the society standing around us, and as regards our own spirits. No one who quakes in timidity before the tyranny of this “correctness,” no one who does not dare to strike against it or at the very least to press against it, rather than letting it simply crush him, is ready to stand with us. Then it is evidently also true that the personal war against political correctness forms as it were a kind of preliminary training for any of the greater projects we cherish. Similarly, insistence, through dress, speech, action, habit, etc., on the difference between the genders can form an integral part of this work.
Let us suggest further possibilities in this wild field, limiting ourselves however to but a handful taken out from their endless number. Until such a day as someone hazards a systematic work on manners—a work on the order of Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, only dedicated, not to describing manners as they are (which is a valuable undertaking only in a noble age) but rather to describing what they might be—until such a day, I say, we must leave the better part of this work to the imagination and the independent reflection of the reader. If we manage to give some hint of what this study and this attempt might mean in our day, and of its great value in our present self-development as individuals and as a people, that will already be much indeed.
One of the most striking features of thoroughgoing democracy for any stranger visiting it from a non-democratic or less democratic society, is the extraordinary degree of familiarity it promotes between human beings, and sometimes even between utter strangers. One speaks to persons one has only just met quite as if they were long acquaintances, or even in some cases friends; nor does one limit oneself to mere words. I myself in the United States (which is always on the far front of these kinds of developments, being as it is one of the most hyperdemocratic societies of all history) have on numerous occasions found myself approached by persons I had never seen before, who have insisted on embracing me as a form of introduction, where in all normal cases one would previously have limited oneself to a handshake. This is an obvious and evident extension of the humanistic idea that all men are brothers. Resistance to it is of great importance for reasons which cannot be indifferent to anyone who holds a higher future in his breast. In the first place, men are not all brothers, and it happens more and more that our very enemies gain from such conventions as these, because they tend to soften the heart and weaken the head. To take but an obvious example—and let it be said that the subtle aspects of these behaviors are perhaps more important than the evident aspects—how can one, without making oneself utterly absurd, coldly and powerfully resist the ideological nonsense spouted by the man one has just embraced?
Again, this is but the obvious and evident part of the question. But one must really wonder as well, for instance, what it does to the psyche, when, following another outrageous common practice in our day, one takes to speaking to all and sundry on a first-name basis—friends, relatives, strangers, employers, men, women, young and old alike. The reinstatement of formality is, in my opinion, a great necessity in our day; for no hierarchy and no rank can exist without it, to say nothing of independence and courageous self-expression. Much of the necessary work here can be undertaken simply by altering one’s physical bearing, and it is most interesting to experiment with different approaches to human beings, noting their responses and how one’s relations with them are affected thereby. But even on a very obvious level, it is well to throw in a “Mr.” and “Mrs.” and “Ms.” now and then, even, and especially, when these ring strangely in our modern day.
Or again, we should really begin to reevaluate the importance of clothing on human relations and on human activities. It is widely believed—and this is another clear artifact of democratic thinking—that clothing is a kind of superfluous adornment on human life, and that one may as well dress casually as formally in most any situation without appreciably altering anything at all. This bad habit has been encroaching in recent years even into places which could have formed a bastion of resistance, if only enough individuals had been aware of the importance of resistance here—places like the church, the opera and concert hall, the art museum, to name a few obvious examples. In places where reverence is due, it is a piece of ill breeding to dress in street wear, and when one does so, the importance of these things is thereby diminished. A convention hall filled with formally dressed men and women has to it a certain gravitas that the same hall with the same men and women will not have, if these are clad in blue jeans and t-shirts. We quite literally change the atmosphere surrounding us in the way that we clothe ourselves. It would be eminently worth our while to apply a little care and consciousness then to the changes that we thereby wreak.
A final example, and we shall be forced to leave the matter lie. These is an inverse relation between the quantity of democracy in a society on the one hand, and the quality of its language on the other. There are numerous reasons standing behind this little fact, but the most evident of them is surely this: that the care for the human being as human being necessarily promotes actions and behaviors which are accessible and acceptable to all human beings, even the least gifted of them. But then it is in bad taste to say or do anything which escapes the capacities of this last group; this last group forms, as it were, the ceiling on democratic sensibility and democratic capability. Certain peculiar vices of our present day speech are also related more or less intimately to this—such as the fragmentary nature of our speech, in which we begin five thoughts without concluding one, or the widespread use of obscenities. One should apply all consciousness to one’s own language, in awareness of what these alterations might effect in one’s soul. One should strive to enrich the tongue, rather than troubling oneself incessantly as to whether one’s neighbor will necessarily understand the specific words one has used. There can be no heights in society, no heights in the soul, if one’s language remains low, pedestrian, and mundane.
The value of all this must not be underestimated. If finer manners are permitted to permeate one’s life and one’s being, if one becomes really and truly their owner and possessor, their patron, the possibility arises of gaining a quantity of control over one’s very soul which is not common in this world—control, certainly, which our daily automatism and amnesia does not permit. One becomes aware of countless conditioning forces of democracy and democratic mores, and their secret and insidious influences on one’s state of being. And one slowly acquires the power to liberate oneself in countless unexpected ways from the poverty and impoverishing stranglehold, so as to cleave to a higher form of both spiritual and social existence. Only then can one really and in all honesty oppose modernity; only then can one really prepare oneself, inwardly and outwardly, for some future maelstrom.
Aristocracy is dead, and democracy is dying. Then we must attempt without our power to make ourselves into aristocrats, into elites, so far as we are able—for only in this way may we prepare for the rebirth of the first amidst the ashes of the second.
Return to Part III
Part V Forthecoming