Uses Of Society
WHAT is the use of the thing called Society? What are the objects for which men come together in social meetings of various sorts? " Empty show and vulgar display, the wish to marry their daughters and to advance their own way in the world," cry the cynics. " Vanitas vanitatum " they say of it all, and deny that it has any real use or gives any real pleasure.
Yet these very same people who so decry what is technically called society in our great cities, usually have a society of their own, a circle of friends whom they enjoy meeting very much. Indeed, these carpers will often go themselves to balls and parties, when they are invited, and will, to all outward appearance, enjoy themselves as much as anybody. If you speak to them on the subject, however, they will say that it was all very great folly and nonsense, etc.; that they only went because So-and-So was kind enough to ask them.
There are comparatively few people who do not really enjoy society of some sort, though they may dislike that which seems to them too showy or too formal. Even the cynic Diogenes himself occasionally attended festive gatherings, and when asked what kind of wine he liked best, replied, " That which is drunk at the expense of others."
Man is eminently a gregarious animal. Is not condemning him to pass his life in solitude the most terrible punishment that can be bestowed on him, a punishment which- has often driven its victims into hopeless madness?
It is true that Swift has said, "A wise man is never less alone than when he is alone; " but what a terrible commentary on this saying was the lonely, unhappy life of its author, alone in the midst of crowds! Thaekeray says of him, " It is awful to think of the great sufferings of this great man. Through life he always seems alone, somehow. . . . The giants must live apart. The kings can have no company. But this man suffered so, and deserved so to suffer." And again, " He was always alone; alone and gnashing in the darkness, except when Stella's sweet smile came and shone upon him." Swift was alone, not because he did not mingle with other men, but because he had little in common with them. His genius lifted him far above ordinary people, while his unhappy temper and disposition placed him far below them in the moral scale.
Whether society is of any use to us must depend largely on the spirit in which we go into it. If that spirit is purely mercenary or selfish, it is not probable that we shall do ourselves or any one' else much good; but if we go into the world in the spirit of good-fellowship, meaning to have a good time and to help others to have a good time, to be amused, instructed, cheered or moved, as the occasion may demand, then society will be both a pleasure and a benefit to us.
If you want to enjoy salt-water bathing, you don't go into the ocean clad in a waterproof garment; and if you wish to enjoy society, you mustn't enter it clad in a cast-iron armor warranted sympathy-proof. If you enter it in the spirit which Swift too often showed, the unamiable one of bullying and snubbing men and saying unkind things to women, why, you will enjoy it about as much as he did, and quite as well as you deserve.
Emerson says, " The delight in, good company, in pure, brilliant, social atmosphere, the incomparable satisfaction of a society in which everything can be safely said, in which every member returns a true echo, in which a wise freedom, an ideal republic of sense, simplicity, knowledge, and thorough good-meaning abide, doubles the value of life; the hunger for company is keen, but it must be discriminating, and must be economized." Would that we could all hope to enjoy often such society as is here described, and that we might be intellectually and morally capable of appreciating it!
One very positive use of society, though not the pleasantest one, is to teach us our own limitations, and to keep down that self-conceit which, like a cork, is forever bobbing up to the surface.
Narcissus met his foolish fate because he stayed alone, his eyes and thoughts fixed on himself; if he had been content to dwell with other men, he would never have been the victim of his own vanity.
Goldsmith says, " People seldom improve when they have no other model but themselves to copy after." The chief use of society, it seems to me, is threefold: first, the amusement it affords, the relaxation from care so necessary for every human being to have, second, the good-will and good-fellowship that it pro-motes between men and their fellows; and last, but not least, the sharpening of the wits, the intensification of the intellectual powers, which it brings to pass in many people, Even two chips of wood if rubbed together will produce flame; and even two dull wits if brought in contact with one another, will throw out more light than either could do alone. And when you assemble in one company men of brilliant talents instead of dullards, how dazzling is the effect! The electric current of intellectual sympathy runs through the assembly, and flashes of wit, the wit that is wisdom, — of brilliant satire, and of sparkling anecdote, delight the lookers-on at such a contest of intellectual giants!
Could we spare from our literature the brilliant things that have been said in this world, and said in society, though not always at court balls? Great as are the delights of the written word, we cannot live upon them alone. Deaf-and-dumb people are proverbially gloomy. All the treasures of literature may lie open before them, but the spoken word of their fellows, the social word, they can never hear nor know save in image and dumb-show.
In one of Plato's dialogues we have an exposition of the value of the spoken word that is truly wonderful. Through the mouth of Socrates he shows us how it may leaven the whole world of thought. This would not be an astounding discovery in our day, since the modern world knows that Christianity was taught orally; but that a Greek philosopher of ancient times should have thought it out before the Christian Era, shows how profound was his reasoning, how keen his insight! These wonderful thoughts were worked out largely in solitude; but one must prepare for social life in solitude, as one prepares for war in time of peace.
Madame de Staël said, " Fine society depraves the frivolous mind and braces the strong one." Those who live for society, to whom it is the end and object of their existence, instead of merely a means of agreeable relaxation, and a pleasant way of meeting their kind, — such people may fairly be considered frivolous, and may incur the reproach of dissipation.
The poet Cowper says: —
" Man in society is like a flower
Cynics like Byron may contend that society creates neither good-feeling nor mutual kindness, but mankind
knows better than to believe them.
" Society itself, which should create
These lines express only a half-truth, not a whole one. Even worldlings give us unconsciously a proof that society promotes good-will among its members. Do not many of them mingle in it with the avowed purpose of bettering their fortunes or improving their business? Yet how could this be if it only promoted ill-will and contempt among its members? Do people help the fortunes of those whom they dislike, or intrust their business to those whom they despise? The man who affects to despise society, and yet mingles in it to further his own ends, may or may not be a hypocrite, but he lays himself open to the charge of being a designing person, who makes other people his dupes and tools.
It would be foolish to deny that there is a vast amount of humbug and of empty pretence in society; but there is something more, something that we can ill do without.
Every one who has lived for any length of time in the real country understands, as no dweller in towns can understand, what a blessing society is to mankind. Is not suicide especially common among farmers' wives, who cannot endure the dreary solitude and endless round of toil in which their lives are spent? Rustics coming to a great city are like men who taste wine for the first time, — the crowds, the life, the gayety, all intoxicate them; they seem to be in a dream of fairy enchantment from which, alas! a rude wakening follows only too speedily.
It has been said that great men are born in the country and come to the city to live. This is not al-together true; but most great men, and may I not say all great women, have found their account in social rather than in solitary life, and have preferred for the most part to dwell in cities.
Mrs. Howe in her treatise on " Modern Society " distinguishes between " society of representation " and genuine society. The former is entirely a show affair; and the extreme instance of it which she cites, is found in the ministerial balls in Paris, where the guests are admitted by card, and do not necessarily know their host and hostess, nor need they make the latter's acquaintance. The whole is a grand pageant, but no introductions are given, and no social fusion takes place.
Mrs. Howe goes on to say, " Now, this I call society of representation. It bears about the same relation to genuine society that scene-painting bears to a carefully-finished picture. People of culture and education enjoy a peep at this spectacular drama of the social stage, but their idea of society would be something very different from this. Where this show-society monopolizes the resources of a community, it implies either a dearth of intellectual resources or a great misapprehension of what is really delightful and profit-able in social intercourse.... No gift can make rich those who are poor in wisdom. The wealth which should build up society will pull it down if its possession lead to fatal luxury and indulgence."
( Originally Published 1911 )
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