I have read somewhere that courtesy is the highest form of charity. Whether or not that is true (I like to think it is), courtesy is certainly charity in its least expensive form. Which prompts the question of why, in the age of what an anonymous wit a generation or so ago dubbed conspicuous benevolence, it is the rarest form of charity as well.
Conspicuous charity is never cheap. Like every other form of economic and social ostentation, it is exceedingly expensive. Yet the gratification the conspicuously benevolent earn from it seems to be worth the price. Another, much cheaper form of charitable indulgence is the acquiescent pleasure some people claim to take in paying confiscatory taxes: in the redistribution, that is, of their own wealth at the gentle behest of their respective local, state, and national governments. (Concerning this business of taxation, I intend to have a serious conversation some day with an intellectually and theologically responsible priest regarding the spiritual accounting in respect of forcible charity in a socialist country like our own where the poor, legally entitled to welfare payments tied to the cost of living at subsistence level, should not—theoretically speaking—have need of public charity at all.) The abundant generosity of the rich, and even the merely affluent, is the more surprising in a materialist society in which nobody becomes rich by being either spiritual or generous, but rather the opposite. In the circumstances, you might expect these titans of charity rather to expend their beneficence through personal expressions and demonstrations of courtesy, which cost them nothing materially, in preference to hemorrhagings of wealth and infusions of capital into the coffers of more or less faceless charitable organizations, no matter that their contributions are legally deductible from their tax liabilities at the end of the year. So much money jettisoned on industrial charity, when all that is really needed to be charitable in the highest and most profound sense is fairness and civility toward one’s business competitors, and simple, natural humanity toward underlings and servants! One would think it a bargain, a pearl of great price, the one bargain with the Devil that the Devil was certain to lose. But no—the charitable man is a metaphorical prince in the world of today, while the courteous man is as nearly extinct as the real prince of yesterday’s world.
Inbred courtesy costs nothing, neither effort nor even thought on the part of the bestower. Like the theological grace with which it is associated, courtesy is a gift—a gift at a distance perhaps, bequeathed directly by a gracious upbringing and indirectly by a gracious society. For the courteous man, courtesy is a motor, a reflexive, action, like breathing; a natural response that is the next thing to instinctive with him. But if the cost is nothing, the benefit is limitless. The courteous man is at ease with his fellow man. Better yet, he is at peace with him, and at a profound level. Courtesy, however formal and even condescending in the original connotation of the word, is human warmth, which is always a true pleasure, not an inconvenience or a burden. And human warmth is brotherhood, a sense of being at one with mankind, and therefore with God. “If a man be gracious and courteous to strangers it shows he is a citizen of the world,” Francis Bacon wrote. The saints gave alms in order to believe. So it is with courteous people, who dispense courteous gestures as a type of alms. “He giveth grace unto the lowly,” says the Proverb. “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble,” Saint James said. And, “by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God,” according to Saint Paul. Thus, in the divine economy, grace flows from God to the courteous, and thence to the graceless, the uncouth (even if Baltasar Gracián held equal courtesy to all to be an injustice). That is infinitely more than the Bill & Melinda Gates or the Ford Foundation can accomplish, or even the Department of Health and Human Services. One cannot purchase grace, or what, in a somewhat different sense, Burke called the “unbought grace of life,” either for oneself, or for others.
Courtesy, theologically speaking, is a fruit of Christian faith; in social terms, it is an aspect of hierarchical society, not just extraneous but positively antithetical to the secular, mass-democratic, and industrial-commercial world of the past two centuries. Courtesy, though typically exchanged among equals belonging to the higher classes, is essentially de haut en bas. As Claude Polin has noted in these pages, democracy is the worship of man, and the worship of man amounts to the worship of self. Men who worship themselves will accept nothing but wealth from those superior to themselves in wealth and power, and they will confer tax-deductible wealth alone on their inferiors. No other transfer satisfies them, and every other offends them. Democrats do not go about bestowing alms upon one another, nor do they feel the need for grace descending from any source; assertive equality in the here and now is enough for them, and provides them with a type of human connection they find entirely satisfactory. For the ideological democrat, courtesy is at best artificial, at worst condescending: either the expression of assumed superiority or else the equivalent of an extravagant sartorial impediment, like culottes, or lace cuffs and collars.
Democratic man insists on casualness, a value closely associated with ideology and the natural enemy of courtesy. Courtesy implies aspiration as well as condescension; casualness, an existence maintained entirely on the broad horizontal. Casual behavior is the behavior of the mass man, of whom Ortega said that he aspires to nothing, believing himself to be at once perfect and exactly like everyone else, an identity of which he is as supremely proud as Louis XIV was of his Bourbon lineage. Casualness, like democratism, is hedonism, which is another word for nihilism. Casualness in manners, dress, and general comportment, as in thought and art, has tunneled deep into the subterranean realm of the malformed—monstrum horrendum, informe—where it has become that paradoxical thing: casualness as a form of social aggression and chaos. So the political news in the first section of the New York Times is reflected by the fashion and arts sections of the same paper, where the wild dress of Somali pirates appears in only slightly altered form on the designer’s runway, and the social dissonance and uproar of the pro-abortion and “gay marriage” campaigns are evoked by the reviewers of rock concerts and postmodern Broadway musicals. Worse still is the Sunday “society page,” as the editors persist in calling it, though the phrase has become an obvious and dreadful misnomer. The old New York Social Register, I understand, has been replaced by a new Social Register, which “anyone” may get into. But whatever the complaint against old New York society, the fact remains that it was at least courteous, and it was courteous because it was at once formal and considerate, and it was formal and considerate because it believed in something quintessentially gracious—even if that something was only “Society.”
It is impossible to imagine two further opposites than courtesy and ideology, and we live in an age that is wholly ideological. Courtesy comes from God; ideology is the product of men who would be gods—and, indeed, in their own minds, are gods. Ideologists tell us that the world is driven by abstract historical forces; men of courtesy act as if it is held together by personal gestures and mutual accommodations. Nowhere is the difference between these two things more stark than in the relationship between the sexes. Courtesy, of course, is descended from courtoisie, from chivalry: a cultural phenomenon unique to the Christian world. Once the chivalric relationship between men and women is denied and indeed proscribed, as nowadays, courtesy itself becomes impossible. Courtesy in this respect is founded in a sense of difference, ideology in the insistence on sameness—sameness even between male and female, the grande difference C.S. Lewis considered the universal Great Divide. When Ransom, in Perelandra, saved the Lady from Weston, he performed an act of heroism that was heroic in the degree that it was also an act of courtoisie. Not only would rescuing the King have been theological nonsense, it would have been, metaphysically speaking, an incomplete action as well. Feminism has made the type of courtesy called chivalry, based on the biological fact of there being a stronger and a weaker sex, a fairer and a hairier one, functionally impossible.
But not, fortunately for what remains of the Christian world, intellectually impossible. It is true that chivalry has been banished from contemporary art, as it has been from contemporary behavior. Yet courtesy has a deep intellectual and artistic, as well as a moral, appeal, and that appeal is a deeply human one. Courtesy in its intellectual and artistic form is exemplified by the ballads of the Troubadours, by the Knights of the Round Table, King Arthur and Camelot, by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, if not terribly well by Tristan and Isolde. (I like to imagine that Cervantes, were he alive today and writing a sequel to Don Quixote, would be inclined to go easier on chivalric books and their influence.) Later it was embodied, in even more artificial and stylized form, in the person of the model courtier established by Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier. And chivalry is not completely absent from modern letters, not even American letters. Faulkner’s novels are chivalrous in a high degree, and so are those of Walker Percy, who titled one of his The Last Gentleman.
Percy’s may be the last book written for years to come whose hero is a gentleman, yet it is far from impossible—rather, it is likely—that literature will be the means by which chivalry, and simple courtesy, are reintroduced to a world jaded by shameless selfishness, barbaric manners, and atrocious art. Certainly there is no cause to expect courtesy to return through democratic politics, public education, or even, at this point, religion. But there is every ground for hope it will do so via the medium of the literary imagination, which is certain, soon or late, to reject ideology—in particular, that aspect of ideology called feminism which contradicts every human instinct, social, biological, and artistic—in preference for natural, social, and supernatural reality.
What we postmoderns call sex, that scourge of courtesy and of civilization, might easily be the basis for the eventual salvation of these three things—and hence of chivalry, and of Christianity itself.