Excepting deconstructionists, who believe there really is no such thing to begin with, most people who are at all conscious of language are in agreement that it exists in degraded form today. Similarly, those who do not make a point of being self-consciously “of the people” (as the British used to say), or do not believe vulgar language to be a mark of honesty and authenticity, concur that manners have sunk to a state of corruption unheard of, apparently, since the invention of writing, no record having come down to us from so deep a deportmental abyss. (In the cave paintings of Lascaux, families seated about their cookfires in backward baseball caps to eat their evening meal are not depicted.) The critics who deplore the decline of language, and those who decry the decay in manners, are not, however, always—or even ordinarily—the same people; nor are the double phenomena typically presented as being somehow connected except in the most general sense, as in the collapse of civilization overall. And yet it seems reasonable and even obvious, when we think about it, that behaving properly means thinking properly, and that thinking properly is a matter of understanding and, even more, respecting the language we think in—in which we can only think and, therefore, must think.
There is, first, the empirically verifiable fact that carelessness in any single aspect of human address leads to, if it does not originally reflect, carelessness in others as well. Carelessness in language as in manners, unlike deliberate sloppiness—a form of behavior whose price is eternal perverse vigilance on behalf of its slovenly credo—is an habitual thing, and habit cannot be compartmentalized in anyone’s mind. But there are more specific connections as well between the destruction of manners and the destruction of morals than the general civilizational connection or that of simple habit, links that have to do with the particular nature of language, on the one hand, and manners, on the other. And these connections, once made, explain the existence of another element in the dual relationship that we see now as a triangular one: that of morals and morality.
If correct behavior depends on right thinking, and right thinking on the right use of language, then we may say that, in terms of active influence, the sequence actually proceeds the other way: Language > thought > behavior. (Though action may, in some instances, influence thought—more likely, rethought—it seems a stretch to try to imagine behavior leading to a rethinking of language itself.)
Before we know how properly to act—that is, what sort of action suits us as human beings—we have to know what we truly are, what our human nature is. The only way to gain such knowledge lies in thought and reflection, activities made possible only by the medium of those designative symbols we call words, amounting collectively to language. But language, as the instrument of human thought, is an effective instrument only when it is an instrument honestly employed. And honest usage, in language, means using words as they were intended to be used—that is, as they are commonly understood to be used—and using them in no other way. Further, it means arranging words in patterns that conform to a commonly accepted logic, and not logic in some eccentric or private form. In all matters of language, as in those involving money, we need to recognize that “honestly” implies “carefully,” even if carelessness in speech and writing does not carry with it the penalties incurred where dollars and cents are concerned (though, rightfully, it would entail sanctions more draconian still).
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” That proposition is a foundational one for our civilization; yet it is our own civilization that, after hugging the divine Truth to its bosom for 18 centuries, has devoted the last three to trying to get round Truth by whatever means at hand or devisable, however false. The reason is not that it lost the ability to see Truth, but rather that it no longer wished to apprehend Truth, had no use for Truth, and hoped Truth could be made to go away by denying or simply ignoring It. The historic Will To Believe was replaced by the Will Not To. And so the attempt was, and remains, a dishonest thing: the dishonest use of words to deny the one Word that has always refused to be used dishonestly. No other civilization has ever dreamt of attempting such a thing, including that of the ancient Jews who disobeyed or, at worst, defied their God, without ever denying Him (though, when He came at last, they did refuse to recognize Him). After the Fall, the worst violence done himself by man is to deny the Truth of the Word—and, by implication and descent, all words and their inherently divine relationship with one another.
This is because man cannot, through his abuse of words, distort the concept of the divine Nature without distorting his understanding of human nature along with it, as Orwell and other critics of the enemies of language have understood. “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . . ” According to the Word, man is a kind of copy, however faint and imperfect, of God. But if the Word does not exist, then God does not exist, and what, then, is man a copy of, in God’s absence? The problem is, all language is constructed according to a logic that assumes the existence of God and a divine relationship with man: God, in other words, is structured into human language, because He is encoded in the human mind and in human thought. To refuse to know Who God is, is to refuse to accept what we are and how we are meant to act in the world, how we are intended to comport ourselves, how we are expected to behave, in respect of ourselves as well as of others. In the degree that men deny the reality and integrity of language, they reject the idea of Model-Modeler and Modeled, and with it the possibility for the coherent and respectful human activity and behavior they once called decency and manners.
Jesus the Christ has been presented for two millennia as the model for nearly every sort of goodness and virtue: charity, compassion, forgiveness, large-mindedness, honesty, truthfulness, chastity, bravery, fortitude, etc. Somehow, even His greatest admirers, His most devoted followers, never get around to recommending Him to us as the paragon of manners, meaning that everything that He ever did or said was exactly appropriate to both the company and the situation in which the Son of Man and Creator of the world discovered Himself at any given moment in His life. The Lord dressed well but unostentatiously, not at all like a liberation theologian or even John the Baptist, the opposite also of both Carlyle’s Dandy and King Herod. His voice and manner were exquisitely keyed to what He had to say at the instant He needed to say it: never “meek and mild” but, by turns, gracious (the Samaritan woman at the well), stern (the woman with the issue of blood), fierce (the Pharisees), dignified in restraint (the interview with Pilate), grateful (the Good Thief). He appreciated (but did not, standing upon His dignity, demand) good manners shown to Himself (the six lepers), yet knew how to accept not manners alone but special favors graciously (the prostitute with the vial of nard). Christ, in short, remained always Himself, while leaving others unconstrained to be comfortable and at ease as themselves: the epitome of good manners, as manners were to become progressively codified in the West, according, in turn, to the ideals of the Gentil and Parfait Knight, the Renaissance Courtier, and, lastly, the English Gentleman, who is really one and the same thing as the Christian Gentleman.
Throughout the length and breadth of recorded history, other, non-Western civilizations have developed more or less exquisite deportmental forms, from the coffee-drinking ceremonials of the Bedouin in their desert tents to the elaborate formalities of Mandarin China and Shinto Japan, and with these their own masculine ideal. It is doubtful, however, that any sort of gentleman has ever existed other than the Christian Gentleman. The case, it seems, is one of “breeding will out,” as the English used to say. The Christian Gentleman (and his lady) can be and indeed have been aped, just as “American” marriages replete with white gowns and veils for the bride and a tailcoat for the groom, a “chapel” with flowers, benefit of “clergy,” a rented limousine, and a lavish wedding reception following the ceremony are presently being aped by the Japanese. But it was always, quite literally, a case of the spirit being absent from the hollow form. The Christian Gentleman was what he was for the very good reason that he understood himself to be a direct descendent of the first Christian Gentleman, Who was no other than Christ Himself. Quite unlike the 18th- and 20th-century dandy (for whom he has, at times, been mistaken), the Christian Gentleman was, whether consciously or not, engaged in an Imitation of Christ, of His manners and spirit rather than His clothes. The Christian Gentleman could not be faked, therefore, except perhaps by would-be Christian Gentlemen, who, as they were both imitating the Common Model, were hardly fakes at all but rather co-imitators. The postclassical West never had any other model for behavior than its beau-ideal, the Christian Gentleman, at all. Consequently, when the West abandoned Christianity as its civilizational form, the Christian Gentleman as ideal stumbled on for a few generations, futilely and hopelessly faking himself (and this time he really was faking), until, at last, in his blindness and disorientation, he fell off the edge of the world, somewhere in the vicinity of La Jolla, California.
>Manners, like language and the civilization they help to create, are essentially a matter of form. And here form, as it always does, implies hierarchy. The idea of the gentleman, as much as the idea of the aristocrat, is a hierarchical idea, the product of a developed sense of dignity and formality. It is an error of levelers, egalitarians, and democratists, however, to suppose that hierarchy confers dignity upon members of the gentlemanly class alone, while excluding the orders below it from the secure and protective structure afforded by the formalized social order. On the contrary: In hierarchical society, each order, from the highest to the lowest, enjoys the dignity proper to its station, a dignity assured by the formality that gave rise to it in the first place. Both the dignity and the formality are conveyed and preserved by the reciprocal system of manners that, in a healthy society, respects this system by embodying and expressing formality and dignity.
Last year, readers of the New York Times were subjected to a serialized sociological dissertation, spread from end to end of the first section of the newspaper over a period of days, whose appalled conclusion was: There is such a thing as class in America! (Q.E.D., one suspects.) The Times’ presentation was considerably exaggerated and satisfactorily dramatized by its misidentification of simple inequality with a class system, and by the authors’ confusion of economic status with social class. The Founding Fathers, the series implied, abhorring inequality and class distinctions alike, would be scandalized to witness the subsequent perversion of the American dream (a fantasy the Times seems to believe is traceable from the founding era) in our own unhappy time.
In fact, anyone with the scrappiest working knowledge of American history knows that the American founders were staunch defenders of inequality and class stratification. The point to be taken here, though, is that true class systems are always signified and expressed by differences in the language (both written and spoken), manners, and morals of their component classes. Throughout history, until almost the day before yesterday, the upper classes spoke, cogitated and wrote, and comported themselves on a level so far above those below them as to constitute, almost, a different species, or subspecies. Nowadays, of course, these distinctions between the “classes” have disappeared nearly to the vanishing point. Rich, upper-middle-, middle-, lower-middle-, and lower-class people in general speak, think, dress, and behave alike. Reading much the same “matter,” watching the same movies and TV shows, listening to the same music, holding the same opinions (those relating to economic and political interest excepted), wearing the same clothes, ignorant of formal (or even good) manners, following the same moral codes in business, sex, and everything else, we are all of us, now, “of the people.”
I am sorry to have to conclude that the Times, not for the first time in its history, is simply wrong. We do not enjoy the innumerable, immeasurable—in truth, God-given—benefits of a class system in America. Our language, manners, and morals are irrefutable testimony to the contrary.