No one can deny the decline of civility and manners, both a cause and effect of our decadent society. Digby Anderson and the British-based Social Affairs Unit have explored this trend, and the quickening downward spiral toward barbarism so evident in the Western world. Gentility Recalled is a defense of the old-fashioned concept of “manners” as a civilizing force—in fact, the cement that binds our culture. The essays in this book address various aspects of “manners,” and all of them emphasize what Anderson calls “trivia”: the little things that are the foundation of order and that make life and society bearable.
As Bryan Wilson points out, emphasis on technological expertise is one of the many modern contrivances that serve to lessen the importance of manners, and indeed of social interaction itself. “Reliance on technical competence,” he writes, “reduces dependence on personal goodwill, inherent grace, gestures of respect, and hence the self-esteem that looks for confirmation in the esteem of others.” One thinks of the recent advertising campaign by one of the major telecommunications companies that praises a world where identity, and thus character and behavior, are irrelevant; we all communicate through a computer “mind to mind.”
Recognizing the need for a code of conduct, the left has sought to develop its own system to govern human inter action. Typically, however, it ignores custom and even human nature itself, as political correctness advances through academia, politics, and now the armed forces: “a transparently artificial, alien, rigid, and mechanical code that lacks the essential mainsprings of common sense, common consent, and common conscience.” In an atomized and anonymous world, manners cannot have the weight of cultural authority because of our remove from a rootedness in place that necessarily dictates a common code of manners. Manners schools, “sensitivity training,” and political correctness simply add to the problem, since “mannerly behaviour cannot be enforced by conscious and deliberate planning: manners must grow spontaneously in propitious social locales, and then be cultivated.”
H. Tristram Engelhardt, Jr., argues in his essay “Why Do It? Because That’s What We Do” that cosmopolitanism is ultimately at the root of our unmannerly society. “Substantive understandings of manners can only bind those with whom one shares traditions, customs, and, ideally, content-full moral principles.” For example, it is impossible—or ought to be—for me to comprehend what passes for good manners in such exotic places as Austria, Saudi Arabia, or Vermont. I am not tied to those places or those people, and any effort of mine to standardize what is acceptable there will end in failure.
This is why John Shelton Reed’s “Flirting and Deferring: Southern Manners,” an essay composed of two columns that originally appeared in Chronicles, is a necessary inclusion in the book. Traditionally, the South represents one of the most mannerly societies in the world, in large part owing to Southerners’ passionate love for place. Southerners have accepted as axiomatic, by and large, what T.S. Eliot stated in Notes Towards the Definition of Culture: “On the whole, it would appear to be for the best that the great majority of human beings should go on living in the place where they were born.” Southern love of place, exhibited by Southerners from Thomas Jefferson (who called Virginia his “country”) to the Nashville Agrarians and now Wendell Berry, has allowed them to take a firm grasp on the traditions that dictate their strong code of manners, and hold it. As Reed mentions, some find Southern manners false and artificial. But to say this is to miss the entire point of manners. Manners induce us to be nice to a person (if niceness is called for in the circumstance) even when we would rather punch him in the nose. They are society’s mediating influence. In part, the South’s mannerliness is a reaction against the greatest show of poor manners in the history of the Old Republic: the War of Northern Aggression, in which the Federal Union acted as an agent of atomistic modernity, pushing its abstractions with a bayonet on a region without regard to that region’s long established traditions or manners.
Recalling Andrew Lytle’s argument that the South was a last stronghold of Christendom, we should also consider the tic between religion, in particular Christianity, and what we consider good manners in the West. As Caroline Moore points out in “Being a Gentleman,” it was the knights of old who embraced His example of charity and servanthood: they were the forerunners of the modern gentleman, embodied no more perfectly than in the person of the very religious Robert E. Lee. Moore points out that the Victorians saw how “the final source of all good manners is inward charity . . . an explicitly Christian ethos.”
Thus Robert Grant, in “Respecting the Truth: Manners in the Academy,” strangely blames Christianity for poor manners, since “to take religion at all seriously” is necessarily to eschew civilized behavior toward those who are viewed as hellbent: thus the Inquisition, and burning heretics at the stake. Grant, wanting everyone to maintain a religious shell without actually believing in religion, is guilty of setting “civilized discourse” above all else, a valuation he claims as necessary to the pursuit of truth. But, what is Truth? Grant views political ideologues and Christians equally as dangerous fanatics, which only demonstrates his fundamental misunderstanding of Christianity, whose moral principles prohibit the very actions of which he accuses it. Ideology, by contrast, is a secularized religion without these moral constraints.
Striking the right balance on the subject of manners, T.S. Eliot wrote that “good manners, without education, intellect or sensibility to the arts, tend towards mere automatism . . . [but] learning without good manners or sensibility is pedantry.” In exploring topics such as “Speaking Properly,” “Knowing Your Place,” and “Running a Respectable Household,” the authors of Gentility Recalled usually are able to capture the balance to which Eliot referred. Their prescriptions are a needed antidote to the disorder that surrounds us.
[Gentility Recalled: “Mere” Manners and the Making of Social Order, Edited by Digby Anderson (London and Grand Rapids: The Social Affairs Unit and The Acton Institute) 206 pp., $19.95]