Permanent And Transient Institutions In Society
" CRABBED age and youth cannot live together " says the old song, and the unregenerate heart of man repeats it. But modern civilization not only brings youth and age together, she accomplishes even greater wonders. Black and white, rich and poor, educated and ignorant, Christian and heathen, evil and good, powerful and weak, sick and well, civilized and savage, high and low, all races, classes and ages of men she brings together pitilessly, and without hesitation. Nay, she does more than this, for she tells them that they must not only live together, but live peaceably - and on the whole they do so.
When you consider what a seething caldron of op-posing nationalities, creeds and views a modern city consists of, what widely differing people are thrown together in steamships, hotels and railway trains by the remorseless Cook and the wide-reaching Vanderbilt, the wonder is, not that somebody occasionally kills somebody else, but that men do not slay their tor-mentors daily. If we lived in those cheerful old times when the world was still young, we should do so, as a matter of course, just as those individuals among us whose civilization remains crude, slay one another for any slight difference of opinion, and promptly make an end of the female of the species, if she does not have supper ready in time.
The composition of our modern society is not only cosmopolitan in the extreme, but another element of complexity is added to it, in the vast and ever-́nereas-ing intricacy of the machinery of our daily life. We have become so highly and uncomfortably civilized, our surroundings are so artificial, that there is some danger of our all turning into so many machines, each one being a part of the great central Corliss engine of our civilization.
It is this, or the forest. In past ages every high state of civilization has wrought its own ruin, and vigorous barbarism has taken the place of effete luxury and corruption, just as the vacuum of idiocy succeeds to over-activity of the brain.
In our own time the fleeing to the country, the desertion of large cities by the very rich, during the greater part of the year, is something more than a new whim of Fashion, a feature of Anglo-imitation. It is instinct which teaches such people to return — as far as is agreeable and comfortable - to Nature. Having plenty of leisure time in which to note their feelings, they find themselves suffocated with the fingers of iron whose grasp extends into every comer of a great city.
Was it not with some such blind instinct that poor Marie Antoinette strove to escape from the artificial life of the French court? Did she not have a foreboding of the dreadful fate that awaited her, of the frightful collapse of that rotten state of society, so soon to follow? Alas! the Little Trianon was A poor, weak substitute for the lap of great mother Nature, and could ill protect its votary from the nihilism of the eighteenth century, the nihilism of the guillotine.
In such a complex state of society as ours at the present day, the code of manners must evidently be a complicated one. It is true that we have simplified forms in some instances and have abridged much of the ceremony that was once thought necessary. There is still much that we cannot abridge, and the variety of our life must involve a corresponding variety of customs.
Through all the meshes of these confused details, however; run certain unchanging principles, like the strong midrib in a delicate leaf. These great general truths are bodied forth in what may be called the permanent institutions in society as distinguished from those transient features which change with every generation, one might almost say with every year.
The great truths on which our code of manners is founded are those of the Christian religion, — a due regard for others, humility, a sense of duty, and self-respect.
Humility may have existed before the Christian era, but it was not counted a virtue - in men. The old Romans, even in their most civilized days, believed in vaunting their own exploits. Cicero continually tells us what prodigies he performed in saving the State, and Virgil makes his hero boast of his own prowess in a way to put a Harvard Sophomore to the blush. Saarages of course proclaim their own great deeds and those of their ancestors; and as Herbert Spencer points out, Egyptian and Assyrian inscriptions prove tat this habit of self-praise long persists in some cases.
Self-respect cannot exist where there is not due humility, since it is inconsistent with boasting and self-flattery, just as a true respect for others is inconsistent with adulation and undue glorification of them. Respect implies a proper consideration for its object, — a right measuring of it.
Love for one's neighbor, at least in a modified form, — a due regard for him and his rights, --- may be considered as the key-stone of our code of manners, which even the most selfish man does not dare wholly to ignore, if he is well-bred and wishes to appear so.
The ancient Persians believed in treating their neighbors well, but from a rather singular motive. Herodotus says, " They honor above all those who live nearest to themselves; in the second degree, those that are second in nearness, and after that, as they go farther off, they honor in proportion; and least of all they honor those who live at the greatest distance; esteeming themselves to be by far the most excellent of men in every respect, and that others make approaches to excellence according to the foregoing gradations, but that they are the worst who live farthest from them."
The permanent institutions in society are those in which every one believes — at least theoretically — and whose primary importance no one is disposed to deny. Respect to elders and deference to superiors belong to this class of institutions, as do also courtesy to women and kindness to inferiors.
Who is my superior? He who is higher and greater than I am, — not in the mere accident of outward circumstances, but greater in himself, in his character, nature, talents, deeds.
Fortunately for ourselves we are not obliged by law and tradition in this country to look up to any set of men as our superiors; we have no aristocracy of birth, but we are in imminent danger of making for ourselves what is infinitely worse, a plutocracy whose only recommendation shall be that they have amassed vast wealth, — in what manner, we must not ask too curiously.
Not long ago a book agent called upon me, and with extraordinary volubility sang the praises of the volume for which she was canvassing. This was nothing more nor less than a compilation of the lives of all the very rich men of the present day, with an account of the ways in which their fortunes had been accumulated, the whole intended as a guiding star to the tender mind of youth, that should shine upon their path in the world, and help them in all troubles, with its noble, golden light.
It seemed to me I had never seen Mammon-worship so openly recommended. Far be it from me to say that all rich men are bad, or their fortunes accumulated by ignoble means. All honor to the good and great, be they rich or be they poor; but for Heaven's sake let us not set apart as a class worthy of all praise and imitation, a certain set of men whose claim to our attention is that they have amassed a large amount of shekels Do not let us (yet awhile at least) say
" Lives of [rich] men all remind us
The man who has made a large fortune must have talent of some sort, to have prevailed over his fellows in the Goldrace; but often it is his only talent, and too often it has been helped out by unscrupulous means.
When we come to the question of respect to elders, there seems to be little danger of excess in this direction.— among the present generation. If our young people feel a natural inclination to show excessive reverence to their superiors in age, why they repress that inclination in a most surprising manner.
Our elders are always our superiors — in length of life and experience, if in nothing else. Magnanimity, too, bids us treat them always with a certain gentleness. Are we not t heir conquerors, to whom sooner or later they must abandon their inheritance, the earth? As conquerors then, Iet us bear ourselves with becoming meekness, remembering always how hard it is to be old, to be in the past tense instead of the present.
How touching is that story of Hans Andersen's, in which a young married couple are made to see how unfilial their conduct is, when it is imitated by their little child! They have put the old father in the corner and given him a wooden spoon to eat with; whereupon the boy takes out his knife to carve a spoon for his parents to use when he shall be a grown man!
Courtesy to women we may surely claim as an American virtue; not that our men are always perfectly polite, or that we may not hope to make further progress in this direction, but that on the whole, American women are better treated than any others on the face of the globe. In Dickens's "American Notes " he says, in commenting on our behavior at table, " But no man sat down until the ladies were seated; or omitted any little act of politeness which could contribute to their comfort. Nor did I ever once, on any occasion, anywhere, during my rambles in America, see a woman exposed to the slightest act of rudeness, incivility, or even inattention."
The elegance of manner, the profound obeisances with which courtly Europeans honor the women whom they admire, we cannot perhaps rival in this new country; but the spirit of true chivalry, the respect for women of all classes because they are women, and not because they are beautiful, young or rich, prevails here to an extent of which we may well be proud.
How permanent the essential elements of good manners are, strikes one very forcibly in reading the books of bygone times that relate to courtesies, as well as the truths that great thinkers have uttered on this subject. Lord Chesterfield's wise and witty sayings may still be read with much profit, while the profound maxims of De la Rochefoucauld remain as true as ever. Hear what the former says of the treatment of inferiors:-
" You cannot, and I am sure you do not, think yourself superior by nature to the Savoyard who cleans your room, or the footman who cleans your shoes; but you may rejoice, and with reason, at the difference which fortune has made in your favor. Enjoy all those advantages, but without insulting those who are unfortunate enough to want them, or even doing anything unnecessarily that may remind them of that want. For my own part, I am more upon my guard as to my behavior to my servants, and others who are called my inferiors, than I am toward my equals, for fear of being suspected of that mean and ungenerous sentiment of desiring to make others feel that difference which for-tune has, and perhaps, too, undeservedly, made between us."
Haste is the natural enemy of politeness. A man who is in a hurry is seldom polite, and the constant high pressure under which we all live has had its legitimate effect on our manners.
A person who is in great haste necessarily appears selfish, because he cannot stop to consider any one else, all his energies being bent on his own business of the moment. That business may be in reality some deed of pure philanthropy or utter unselfishness; it will still make the doer appear selfish if he is pursuing it at headlong speed. People will avoid him, much as they get out of the way of a fire-engine running at full speed through the streets. They respect the mission of the tearing, rattling creature of steam, but they do not want to get in its way.
A wise man therefore apportions his affairs in such a manner as to leave a little leeway for possible contingencies, and allows himself a certain amount of leisure time which can be expended in speaking or listening to others if occasion shall require it. Thus a man who has allowed himself five minutes more time than he needs to catch a train, will be able to stop and speak a few words if he meets an old friend on his way; whereas if he has left no margin, he must rush on, with some hasty and half-heard apology, perhaps giving lifelong offence, and all for want of five minutes!
What a picture Mrs. Stowe gives, in her " (Midtown Folks," of one of these ever-hurried philanthropists, old Uncle Fliakim! His special mission is to drive around the country and bring all the forlorn and feeble old women " to meeting," - arriving late, of course.
" The benevolence of his motives was allowed; but why, it was asked, must he always drive his wagon with a bang against the doorstep just as the congregation rose to the first prayer? It was a fact that the stillness which followed the words ` Let us pray' was too often broken by the thump of the wagon and the sound ' Whoa, whoa! take care, there! ' from without, as Uncle Fly's blind steed rushed headlong against the meeting-house door, as if he were going straight in, wagon and all."
Lord Chesterfield says, " Whoever is in a hurry, shows that the thing he is about is too big for him."
The details of behavior and outward observance, what one might call transient or minor manners, are certainly of great importance, but of little real value unless they are founded upon a true spirit of politeness. Where an arrogant and brutal nature seeks to shield its essential qualities under a thin varnish of good manners, the disguise is a poor one, and deceives no-body permanently.
To master all the details of etiquette except by mingling in the society of well-bred people is obviously impossible. One cannot become polished unless by social friction, any more than you can make a piece of marble shine without rubbing it.
A wise Frenchman has said: " Politeness is a quality [qualité] which a man living in society should acquire first of all things. It is the key of all human relations, and gives them their charm. The man who possesses only the instruction of colleges may be but a sort of rustic in the midst of a city. . . . There is a great difference between civility and politeness. A man of the people, a simple peasant even, can be civil ; it is only the man of the world who can be polite."
In democratic America we should not use quite such strong language as this, but we recognize in a measure the truth it contains. With us, it is but a half-truth, since the absence of all distinctions of class and caste, the diffusion of education, and the high level of general intelligence, unite to put us on a par with one another far more than can be the case in any European nation.
The manners of an American, imbued with the self-respect which is the birthright of all our citizens, have a dignity that would be sought vainly among a people who had grown up with the idea of their own social inferiority forever hanging over them. The danger with us is that the thoughtless and ill-educated some-times forget the respect they owe to others, in their over-anxiety to claim what is due to themselves. Thus a Yankee coachman spoke of a gentleman who was visiting his master as " that man," but called the driver of the carriage " the gentleman." In the case of this Yankee, self-respect was so abnormally developed that it had become self-assertion, — a very different quality from self-respect, and resembling it as some grotesque caricature resembles the original.
It has been well said that the source of good manners to-day is found in respect for human nature, one's own and that of others, heightened by a sense of the value of life, and a desire to make the most of its opportunities for others as well as for ourselves.
( Originally Published 1911 )
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Frankness Of Modern Manners
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Etiquette Of The Table
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