“Southerners live in the 18th century.” This common charge is not altogether false, since the peculiar habits, customs, and meanings of words found often in the American South are found also in 18th-century English authors. Most English-speaking people use the word “manners” now only in the senses designated by the Oxford English Dictionary as current: “External behaviour in social intercourse” or “Polite behaviour or deportment; habits indicative of good breeding.” But the oldest meaning for “manners,” which has also had the longest continual use, is now marked obsolete. The first citation in the OED for this meaning is dated 1225; the last citation is dated 1794. The next to last citation, dated 1757, comes from Samuel Johnson. This obsolete meaning is: “A person’s habitual behaviour or conduct, esp. in reference to its moral aspect, moral character.”
Those who think of manners in this sense are 200 years behind the times. But the mode of thought that connects moral character to manners had been accepted for over 2,000 years when it fell out of use among English-speaking people. The Greek word ethos and the Latin word mores join behavior, character, and morals into a general notion. This general notion is the source for the concept expressed in the English word “manners,” “which early became the recognized translation of L. modus and mos, and its sense development has been affected by assimilation to both these words” (OED). So, Southerners who continue to hold this concept are not merely 200 years behind the times: Since this notion is central to the thought of Plato and Aristotle, Southerners are 2,500 years behind the times.
The Greek word ethos is translated as “manners” in the King James Version of the Bible, which has had a conspicuous influence on the civilization of the Bible Belt. The prologue to Ecclesiasticus states that the book is for “them also, which in a strange country are willing to learn, being prepared before in manners [ethos] to live after the law.” St. Paul (quoting Menander) warned the Corinthians that “evil communications corrupt good manners” (1 Corinthians 15:33).
In the late 18th century, Edward Gibbon uses “manners” throughout his history in the older sense. That this use became obsolete just at the moment when Gibbon and Samuel Johnson were using the word in this sense is puzzling, because these two men are among England’s best prose stylists. With the loss of the word, the concept is lost. In his Life of Samuel Johnson L.L.D., Boswell had maintained that
the genteelest characters are often the most immoral. Does not Lord Chesterfield give precepts for uniting wickedness and the graces? A man, indeed, is not genteel when he gets drunk; but most vices may be committed very genteely; a man may debauch his friend’s wife genteely; he may cheat at cards genteely.
Standing firmly for the union of morals and manners. Dr. Johnson answered: “You are meaning two different things. One means exteriour grace; the other `. It is certain that a man may be very immoral with exteriour grace.” The current and common word for exterior grace is etiquette, which Lord Chesterfield introduced into English in 1750. The rules of etiquette are tickets to “polite society,” a phrase from the definition etiquette in the OED.
Manners and honor having been torn asunder, the traditional idea of a “gentleman” became obsolete. But Southerners clung to the idea, which led clever people in step with the times to disparage Southerners for their peculiar manners. “Southern men were proud of being gentlemen, although they have been told in every conceivable way that it was a foolish pride” (Basil L, Gildersleeve, The Creed of the Old South, 1865-1915). But this very idea of a gentleman has kept the concept of manners alive in the South while it became obsolete elsewhere.
Gildersleeve, who was born in Charleston, South Carolina, became professor of Greek at the University of Virginia and, during his summer vacations from 1861 to 1864, fought with the Confederate army. His vast scholarly work and his seven honorary doctorates attest to his reputation as the foremost scholar among American classicists.
Moral qualities were the foundation of his gracious manners. His way of life was modest and temperate. “I have lived well so far if bene qui latuit bene vixit [He has lived well who has lain well hidden] is true, and I am content to live well to the end.” As all of Gildersleeve’s works show, he was wise. Paul Shorey, the great Platonist, noted that the speakers at Gildersleeve’s memorial service “dwelt not so much on the wit, brilliancy, the scholarship, which they took for granted, as on the moral qualities of the man, the teacher, the companion, the helper, the friend.”
His training in morals and manners began early. When he was four years old, he had read the complete Bible in English, though, he says, with little understanding. At the age of five, he had read St. John’s Gospel in Greek. From then to the end of his life, he thought most readily in the Greek language.
Gildersleeve had an unsurpassed knowledge of the ancient classics. But, in the South, there were enough general readers to keep current the idea of manners as an English equivalent to ethos and mores. A favorite book among Virginia gentlemen was Parallel Lives, written in Greek by Plutarch, who examines character and its influence on the governance of society. Those who could not read Plutarch in Greek had at hand an English classic, the translation of the Lives, by John Dryden. A passage from Dryden’s “Pericles” draws together virtue and manners:
But such is the effect of virtuous actions, that we not only admire them but long to copy the example. The goods of fortune we wish to enjoy, virtue we desire to practise; the former we are content to receive from others, the effects of the latter we are ambitious that others should receive from us. For it is the nature of virtue to draw us powerfully to itself to kindle in us an active principle to form our manners and engage our affections, and this even in an historical description . . .
The ancient classics now have few readers in the South, and common readers of the English classics are also few. Nonetheless, customs that have their origin and support in the classics have survived, including the reply, “Just fine, thank you,” to the query, “How are you?”; the query to a single person, “How are you all?”; and the use of “sir” and “ma’am” in addressing parents, teachers, overseers, pastors, and priests.
Visitors to the South have regarded as peculiar the automatic reply, “Just fine, thank you.” Some have criticized the custom as encouraging hypocrisy and falsehood. Older and wiser people once had an answer to this charge: The inquiry is not about your health, your lungs, your bank account, or love, but asks after your disposition. “And,” a grandmother would tell you, “if your disposition is not just fine, you stay in your room, young man.” “Disposition” is a grand old word, now seldom heard. Its Middle English sense, “turn of mind,” is still in use. This suggests that the virtue that leads to a good disposition is the virtue of the mind: wisdom. But in his De officiis, Cicero assigns a steady disposition, a steady turn of mind, to fortitude.
We all know that adversity calls for fortitude. But Cicero suggests that prosperity also calls for fortitude: “When things are prospering and flowing according to our will, let us with great labor flee pride, fastidiousness, and arrogance.” Would the critic of Southern manners think it hypocritical if someone in good health, with a large bank account, with good grades in school, with success in love, were to reply, “Just fine, thank you”? Taking these conditions as circumstances warranting the word “fine” exposes a narrowness in one’s conception of human nature that sees well-being as resting on accidents rather than essences. Cicero and the grandmother have kept the soul in view. Thus, Cicero’s advice is much the same as the grandmother’s. In both adversity and prosperity, keep idem vultus—”the same face”—and eadem frons—”a contented countenance.” The Southerner may recall St. Paul’s haunting words, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content (Philippians 4:11). King James’ translators proposed “disposition” as a gloss to “good manners” in their rendering of 1 Corinthians 15:33.
Often, in the South, a conversation will begin with “How are y’all?” and end with “Tell all of’em I say, ‘Hello there.'” A single person addressed as many people, a pronoun without an antecedent, and an adverb without a referent strike visitors to the South as peculiar, Hollywood as amusing, and English teachers as intolerable. But those who mind their manners ask after “all,” who may be family, friends, members of a church or club, or any other association of people. One way to keep current the sense of manners that combines behavior, character, and morals is to preserve the customs that sprang out of that sense. Such is the custom of asking after “y’all,” which subordinates the secular to the spiritual state. This question asks generally about a family and, at its best carries the hope that their spiritual state is just fine, a state that “cannot be accounted for by any human formula.” Cicero assigns the bonds of kinship to the cardinal virtue of justice. The family, he asserts, is the foundation of the city and the seminary of a republic. “Just fine.” Taken as an adverb, “just” here means “precisely”; as an adjective, “fine” means “free from dross or impurity” (OED). Thus Socrates, condemned to the, but true to his principles, could answer truthfully, “Just fine.” This is one of those memorable moments in Western civilization when a human being becomes a living image of ideal behavior. “Just fine” is a reminder of the ideal to which we should be faithful, however obstinately opposed to that ideal our feeling may be at the moment.
The guardians of a family are parents. The guardians of a city are teachers, pastors, and officers of the law. The guardians of a republic are soldiers. All of these guardians have courage as their foremost virtue. The foremost virtue of citizens is temperance. A Southern custom trains children, citizens in embryo, to respect their elders, the guardians. This training maroons Southerners in the waste places of past ages. Erasmus illustrates, in his Colloquy on Manners (1522), this very training for schoolboys.
Master: How long have you been away from home?
Boy: Nearly six months.
Master: You should have added “sir.”
Boy: Nearly six months, sir.
Southerners find terms of respect natural. Children use them in addressing their parents; students use them in addressing teachers; workmen use them in addressing overseers; laymen use them in addressing pastors and priests. These terms are common in various relations of society.
An old friend of mine lay ill and extremely weak. His son, himself a father, entered the room. The old man mumbled in a weak voice. The son asked courteously, “What?” In a strong, urgent, and imperative voice, the old man said, “You say ‘sir’ to your father.” “Sir?” the son obediently answered. With this custom, the relation of father to son does not fade with age.
At a country church in Alabama, a minister was reading from an old-fashioned service for a wedding. He read in that rich, resonant, baritone voice that is one of God’s gifts to black men: “Do you take this woman to be your wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony?” When he had read the last words of the charge, “so long as ye both shall live,” he whispered to the groom, “Say, ‘I do.'” The groom answered in a loud voice and emphasized each word, “Yes, sir, I do.” Never have I heard a more convincing affirmation to that charge.
In a recent court case in Louisiana, a working man was called to the stand as a witness. His answer to one question was ambiguous. “Do you mean this or that?” the judge asked. “Yes,” the witness answered. “Yes, what?” the judge asked. ‘Yes, sir,” the workman answered. That man had been trained in the very same manner as Erasmus’s master trained his boys in 1522.
An Auburn University student who had gone north for graduate work addressed his teacher as “sir.” The professor corrected him: “Don’t say ‘Sir.’ People don’t like that up here.” To catch up with the times, we must revise Erasmus:
Professor: How long have you been away from home?
Student: Nearly six months, sir.
Professor: You should not say “sir.”
Student: Nearly six months.
Those who are in step with the times find the old-fashioned Southern and Erasmian manners peculiar. But who can foretell the future? The hand of fortune is fickle. Will old-fashioned manners come back into common use? Will the common manners of this age come to seem peculiar? Will students again be taught to say, “Nearly six months, sir”?
As Cicero makes clear in his analysis of temperance, the old as well as the young must be temperate if the family circle is to be just. The duty of elders is to exhibit in their own conduct temperance joined to prudence; by this union, they will serve their children, their friends, and the state. Southern fathers learned this lesson of temperance both for the old and the young in the ancient classics and in the Bible. It is clear in St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, 6:1-4.
Children obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.
Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first com-
mandment with promise;)
That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long
on the earth.
And ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but
bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
A visit to a country house 74 years ago has left me a vivid and fond memory. Even at that time, the house was ancient. The ceilings seemed to a four-year-old boy as far away as the starry skies. The stair was a way to heaven. The wonder of the sight startled a four-year-old boy who had forgotten to remove his cap. My father looked down. “Don’t forget your cap. Captain.” He and I played like soldiers. Sometimes, he was the captain, and I his soldier; sometimes, we reversed roles. A sharp rebuke would have humiliated me and provoked me to anger. But anger was averted. I remained the captain. Honor and rank were mine, even though I had failed to mind my manners.
Southern manners have left this province stranded with Edward Gibbon and Dr. Johnson in the 18th century. Or, are we isolated with Ben Jonson in the 17th century? With Erasmus in the 16th century? With Cicero in the last century B.C.? With Plato in the fifth century B.C.? With Pindar in the sixth century B.C.? Basil L. Gildersleeve’s Pindar, first published in 1885, remains standard. Although Pindar came from a province, Boetia, which was “hopelessly behind the times,” men still read and admire his poetry, written 2,500 years ago. Gildersleeve has pointed out that his case is not singular.
Large historical views are not always entertained by the cleverest minds, ancient and modern, transatlantic and cisatlantic; and the annals of politics, of literature, of thought, have shown that out of the depths of crass conservatism and proverbial sluggishness come, not by any miracle, but by the process of accumulated force, some of the finest intelligences, some of the greatest powers, of political, literary, and especially religious life.
As an example of religious life, Gildersleeve offers Cappadocia: “A Cappadocian king was a butt in the time of Cicero; the Cappadocians were the laughing-stock of the Greek anthology, and yet there are no prouder names in the literary history of the Church than the names of the Cappadocian fathers, Basil and the Gregories.”
The South, like Boetia, has been “hopelessly behind the times.” Like Cappadocia, it has been the laughing-stock of clever minds. Yet from the South have come “some of the finest intelligences, some of the greatest powers, of political, literary, and especially religious life.”
Among those whose intelligences, formed by the “process of accumulated force,” have put their work beyond destruction by time’s fleeting hand is Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve. Behind his love for his native country was an intelligence which, refining that love, dispelled sentimentality. He was not sentimental about his country or himself In a letter, written in his 88th year, he quoted Goethe: “‘Vollkommen is die Norm des Himmels, Vollkommen wollen die Norm des Menschen?‘—a sentence I have long cherished and alas! applied too feebly.” This long-cherished sentence states, in sum, that men long for perfection, but it is found only in heaven, God’s dwelling-place.
Experience has shown that the old-fashioned view of manners has pointed the way to an agreeable, if less than perfect, society in the South. These manners are a source for contentment with your state and destiny. Wherever these manners and contentment remain, they will seem peculiar to restless, clever minds.