A Metaphysic of Manners

by Samuel Hux (August 2015)

A pretentious title, but this is as close as I’ll ever come to Immanuel Kant—to whom I apologize most politely for my titular imitation of his Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. And there is, isn’t there, something graceful about the alliteration?

It has been my experience that conservatives (“traditionalist” conservatives at any rate) are generally more responsive than liberals to the notion that manners and graciousness, far from being mere secondary considerations, matter profoundly, and indicate to a significant degree the health of a society. I don’t necessarily claim that conservatives are really more spiritual, of more refined sensibilities, than liberals, but I have found that their public mythologies better prepare them than liberals theirs to admit that spirit and sensibility do have some essential connection to manners and graciousness, whether they themselves possess those virtues or not. Conservatism is stuck, no matter how its adherents may strive to show that they’re really regular guys and dames, with a patina of elitism, simply because conservatism has always assumed some truth in the notion of natural hierarchies—and the world, its conservative constituents included, will continue to associate that with a premium on refined behavior. Liberalism is stuck, however much its adherents may protest that merit must be rewarded, with an aura of leveling, simply because its claims have always been that it’s the party of egalité—and the world, its liberal constituents included, knows that the common denominator is lower than higher. I hasten to add that I take both public mythologies with an ocean of salt, but believe in their powers to compel or endorse modes of behavior; and I add, further, that I have usually distrusted elitism and leveling in about equal measure; or thought I did, although—reason for the reflections that follow—I am beginning to think the latter, in some of its manifestations, the greater danger.

So James Como’s essay in the May 2015 issue of The New English Review is all the more welcome to me: “’The Tongue Is Also a Fire’: The Left, Madness, and Manners.” While everybody talks about civility, the Left only talks the game while it practices what Como calls “diseased speech”: Robert Bork would have brought back slavery, Sarah Palin should diet on excrement, and a plague of etceteras. Como is writing Big Ethics, let me call it, lamenting the absence of grace in the political arena. My present concern, call it Small Ethics, is less public:  I just want the slob next door to turn down his f***in’ radio. Both the Big and the Small are subsumed under the wonderful expression of John Fletcher, Lord Moulton, “obedience to the unenforceable.” I am profoundly grateful to Como for introducing me to the English parliamentarian and his unforgettable definition of manners and grace.

I have become obsessed of late with some lines of a poet long out of critical favor, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and not likely to be returned to favor soon for fairly complicated reasons which would take a volume to explain and even then would not reflect too kindly on the shapers of literary opinion in this age which values rawness. Nor do I think that radical feminists (who have already seized upon, as “sisters,” several poets from the past with whom they could never have carried on a conversation) will try to revive her (not if they read her). She was too insistent on being a lady, in an old-fashioned way, no matter how sexually liberated, and I cannot imagine her being peeved by a bow or a lifted hat, nor imagine her entering a room unless the accompanying male opened the door first. And there are, perhaps, other vaguely sociological reasons for her current disfavor of an apparently more consequential nature.

I invite one to ponder some lines deeply. “Sweet sounds, oh, beautiful music. Do not cease! / Reject me not into the world again,” she pleads in her sonnet “On Hearing a Symphony of Beethoven.” “Reject me not, sweet sounds! oh! let me live”—for as long as the music continues (“Music my rampart, and my only one”), one escapes the world out there of “The spiteful and the stingy and the rude.”

“Reject me not into the world again.” To some, that is suspect: music should be a pleasure, yes, but not a refuge or escape; the “world” is where we belong and where we must fulfill our tasks. Agreed, but not so simple. The occasional eccentric genius excepted, we normally judge a person deficient in spirit if he or she cares not for music; but we don’t go far enough. I doubt that a contemporary music critic would risk the verb “to transport,” but should. One doesn’t care for music unless one knows it to be a better place than this harsh and abrasive place that one would prefer, at moments, never to inhabit again.

But there’s a complication here which should clarify things and refine the point. Millay wrote a poem, “Dirge Without Music,” about the inability to resign herself to the death of friends, “the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.” (I might change herself to oneself or ourselves or.  .  .  oh my God, yes.  .  . myself.) This dirge requires no music because it is itself music.  .  . and not only in its poetic cadences. Freud was right about “the mighty and primordial melody of the instincts,” responsive to the primordial melody of the way-things-are. Death, yearning, dissatisfaction, lamentation. Calm, and ecstatic joy. When one listens to music, one hears the mathematics of harmony and dissonance—harmony achieved from dissonance, or dissonance denying the harmonious; expectations, with a return to the home key or to a dominant phrase, or expectations crucified. But however purely aesthetic the composer’s or performer’s intentions, the dance of sounds is ultimately a metaphor for profounder rhythms; for music, with its turns, returns, promises satisfied and hints uncompleted, is an art derived from nature and the way-things-are. Which is why, of course, it can “speak” to us and be understood although verbally mute. And why it strikes us as so elemental. Hence the “transporting” that occurs is not away from reality (and thereby escapist) but deeper into reality (and thereby a profounder confrontation).

I am trying to define the “world” one doesn’t want to be rejected into again. And it’s not the large world of death and lamentation, creation and joy—which is expressed in the music—but the trivial, petty, and disheartening world of “the spiteful and the stingy and the rude.”

Let me oppose them to “the wise and the lovely,” “the beautiful, the tender, the kind,” “the intelligent, the witty, the brave”—as Millay has it in “Dirge Without Music.” There’s something elemental, almost archaic and epic, about these catalogues: not the “anal-retentive” adult, but the “stingy”; not the “integrated personality,” but the “brave.” And there is also something external about them: internal capacities expressing themselves in behavior, and the behavior itself mannerly and gracious, courtly. As if to say: the intelligent and witty are brave. The beautiful (clearly of soul) are tender and kind, the wise become lovely. While the spiteful and stingy are rude. The eternal battle between good and evil in the human being is partially an aesthetic matter: the good has a graciousness about it.

Several years ago I reviewed a book in which the explicit assumption was a kind of native congruence between rudeness and authenticity, and between civility and inauthenticity. The latter was merely manners after all, while the former was really real. It seems to me such notions have an enormous currency today. Find me an educator who likes to think he’s graduating ladies and gentlemen; that, he thinks, has nothing to do with intellectual pursuits, is finishing-school tripe. I know intellectuals who bristle when called gentlemen or ladies, as if to say “How dare you call me superficial!” Unfortunately, I also know intellectuals I would never dream of addressing in such fashion. Lady and gentleman can also suggest—an inevitable legacy from the history of linguistic usage—class. And class, given the history of the West, can suggest race. So that one unsympathetic to those Millay lines can hear: The spiteful and the stingy and the rude “and the lowly born and poor and dark”—thus dismissing both Millay and me as incredible snobs. Can hear: The beautiful, the tender, the kind, “the well-born, the moneyed, the leisured, and the sun-tanned”—with the same result.

I could defend myself (and Millay) readily and dismiss the notion in several superficial ways. I could say for instance that I mean the opposite, I mean that the lower classes are civil and gracious and the middle and upper are rude and gross. But, in fact, I don’t mean that. I could say the lower tend to be crude but that’s good because authentic, and the established tend to be genteel but that’s a mark of phoniness. But I think that’s nonsense. I could say that some of the lower are this, some that, some of the upper that, this. And if I were the reader then, I’d stop reading so as not to indulge the inane. What I would prefer to be able to say is that rudeness and civility have nothing to do with class. But that is merely a variant of the immediately above, and although I would thereby insure liberal credentials I don’t even possess or wish to, I’d know I was lying to myself. They do have to do with class.  .  . but in a very complicated way.

Some animals are very courtly in their intraspecific behavior. But if manners were ever “natural” with us, it’s a gift we’ve long since shed in some evolutionary moment. Manners are for us, now, acquired. And when or if one acquires them, one is acquiring something traditionally associated with those classes which had enough leisure to polish themselves, not with those classes which barely had enough time to polish the skills they needed to stay alive. Unfair, but true. And we know it. We might remark with surprise that a certain dish-washer is as courtly as a judge; but we’d never remark a judge as being as courtly as a judge, and certainly not—specific uses of irony aside—as courtly as a dish-washer. Of course we can imagine a navvy who behaves as if he’d just stepped from the House of Lords and a Lord who seems to be imitating an orangutan. But we remark them thus, and the principle still holds. We’re not snobs to admit that it does, but we’re fools to insist that it doesn’t. I’ve known liberals, and conservatives trying to be regular guys, who have practically pulled facial muscles attempting not to frown in the presence of crude behavior. I’m surprised at the number of acquaintances I have who pretend that someone’s public breaking of wind is a breath of fresh air. 

Manners—we know what they are—are yet hard to delineate. The haughty duchess who looks with disdain upon the lowly is merely being arrogant. The ostler who bows nervously, twisting cap in hands, before the “gov’nor” is merely obsequious.  .  .or perhaps practical. But really—must one spell it out? On one level it is to avoid shouting in the street (emergency aside), to play one’s radio so that one can hear it, to try not to disgust fellow diners when one eats, to extend oneself far enough to pronounce the name of the Señor Perez one has just met PEres or PEreth instead of PeREZZ; it has nothing to do with the spatial relation of pinkie to teacup. On a deeper level it is.  .  .harder to put, exactly.

I think if you’re going to insult some deserving one you should do it with style, as a rapier is keener than a baseball bat. (Example: On hearing that a suspicious growth removed from Randolph Churchill turned out to be benign, Evelyn Waugh remarked that it was a doubtful achievement of modern medicine to discover the one part of Winston’s son that was not malignant and to remove it.)  There is of course this rhetorical aside to manners. But, to the substantial.  .  .  .  If one is a decent person, if one is kindly disposed (at least to some people), if one is what used to be called a “good” person, a “moral” person, then why should there be a discrepancy between the graciousness of one’s soul (for that’s what we’re talking about) and one’s private and public manners? Why shouldn’t there be an external sign of one’s inner grace? And isn’t it a mark of alienation, on the other hand, to be decent inside and to insert finger in ear and dig with same across from a soup-eater? I’m speaking of a kind of moral-and-aesthetic consistency. (George Santayana thought ethics and aesthetics twin disciplines. See his The Sense of Beauty.) And this requires attention, it seems to me, or there would be no problem: manners are, again, acquired.

Well and good, one might say; then let there be for the indecent an external sign of their inner gracelessness.  Do not make manners a universal imperative: let the bastards behave like beasts; that way we’d know who they are and could be on guard. But.  .  .why should they agree to expose themselves? I take it there will always be rapists, murderers, thieves, bigots, and bullies, and their manners, good and bad, will be indistinguishable as often as not from their victims’. So I speak to a different level of seriousness, and about a different kind of victimization.

One lives in the world of death and lamentation by natural necessity. One lives in the world of personal relationships—casual, profound, and unavoidable—by social necessity. One is victim of the first world, and there is little to be done about it, although we try with science to prolong life and with psychology and art and philosophy and religion to adjust to the unavoidable. One is victim as well as beneficiary of the second world, and we do have some choices. But, while we try to limit the victimization in the first world through public controls of economic and political behavior and through religious-moral schemes (Big Ethics), we increasingly reject the notion of self-controlled behavior in the second. Manners are froth, merely bourgeois stuff.

So the man who would never burgle your home, insult your wife, or sell porn to your kids, and would condemn such acts in others, is supposed not to be fazed if a salesperson barks at him, if a transistor radio (whatever they’re called today) disturbs his reverie on a park bench, if his and everyone else’s conversation in a restaurant is drowned out by the loudmouth at the next table; and if he’s fazed, he’s uptight. But if he’s responsive to the current wisdom—express yourself!—he’ll not be fazed, and may even loosen up, bark, turn up volume, and monopolize eardrums. If he’s with-it and sophisticated about the ethic of unmannerly self-expression, he’ll know he doesn’t have to shake your hand and say “Pleased to meet you” unless he truly is, doesn’t have to say “Have a nice day” unless he truly wills it, and will not respond to your obvious wish to have the dinner complimented because he’s doing you the instructive and consciousness-raising service of allowing you to see how little he stands upon ceremony.

None of this bothers me—someone might say. (Insensitivity is a great defense against botheration.) Well, but you can’t call it victimization—another might urge. I think I can, at three levels: as (1) a thoughtless tampering with delicate psychological balance, as (2) a delimiting of chances of intimacy, and as (3) a symptom of cultural schizophrenia. 

We are none of us so strong that we don’t have our peculiar weaknesses; and we are none of us omniscient so that we know infallibly what will and will not damage another. Manners are a way of not overstepping ourselves and of not being overstepped upon. A person may seem inordinately concerned with verbal appreciation for the dinner he or she has served, or seem foolishly desirous that one say something complimentary about the weekend painting; but one has no right to withhold the gracious words on the grounds that the other should be “beyond that sort of thing”—because we simply do not know how deep the need goes in the other unless we know that person well; we simply do not know what profound uncertainties and grapplings with self “that sort of thing” is an external manifestation of. Therefore we may applaud ourselves on our disavowal of ceremony, but we do so in self-indulgent ignorance.

The formality of manners is not necessary in intimate relationships. Or, rather, the formality deepens into instant gestures, into half-finished sentences mutually understood, nods, and all the short-hand attitudes expressing respect, trust, and knowledge. But the fact is that the intimate gesture and attitude grow out of mannered formality. If, when we first meet a person we stand not upon ceremony, tell-it-like-it-is, and eschew “all that,” we never get to know the person, although we think we do immediately; for we are too intent upon parading and imposing our selves, advertising our directness and our freedom from superfluities, to extend ourselves to the other. The resultant relationship, so direct and free it seems, is merely a stand-off between egoists supplied with current jargon which allows them to think they are “relating.” I wonder if my experience is unique, and doubt that it is. I have found that the people to whom I would trust my soul are those with whom I served a mutually formal “apprenticeship.”

But most important of all: the denigration of manners and graciousness, or the insistence that they are of no large consequence, is a symptom of a disease which wracked the twentieth century and wracks this one as well: the dissociation of culture from morals, morals from culture.

Manners are a mode of moral behavior. But so eager are we to dissociate cultivation from a parody notion of manners—proper cravat, teacups, cocktail-party trivialities—that we are willing to consider a person cultivated if he knows of sonnets, sonatas, and slide-rules, but has the manners of a swine and the grace of a sloth. This dissociation might be innocent enough if it were not the lesser form (but of a piece) of the attitude which holds a murderer “cultivated” if he collects art. Culture is one thing and morals another; thus we trivialize both. They both become “specialties,” as it were. The specialization of our society, so often noted, affects more than profession. Were we to take our logic where it leads, I can imagine an aesthetician justifying the rape of a student on the grounds that ethics is not his field.

I don’t know if I am merely complaining or suggesting a program of reform. For the latter I am at something of a loss: perhaps insisting that school children be forced to say “Sir” and “Madam,” that any teacher who says “Just call me Jack” be locked in a room with a very loud boom box, unbreakable and with dials removed. Considering such, I prefer merely to complain. But I locate the complaint in a specific social area.

Manners and graciousness, as I have said, do have to do with class, in the way I have already suggested. I welcome the democratization of society. I am often told that one evidence of it is the slow disappearance of class distinctions as the middle class becomes slowly ubiquitous. I allow that question to be begged for the sake of argument. But need the price that’s paid be the wasteful abandonment of those traditional middle-class values that aren’t economic, that were originally imitations of an aristocratic ideal of behavior? (And that newcomers to comfortable status are now to be discouraged from embracing.) Need the price be the elevation of those mythical lower-class values that excite so many of us as being “authentic”? It’s the middle class that leads revolutions, of manners as well as politics. And as Marx himself said, revolutionists tend to imitate. And they usually imitate a myth.

As far as manners go, I prefer Jefferson’s kind of revolution—the imitation of the Roman myth, which was in turn an imitation of the Greek. Among the many patterns of narrative in Homer’s Odyssey (a book, I remind us, about the world of death, lamentation, creation, and joy) is one I would sum up in inadequate fashion thus: A man meets a stranger; there is then a kind of dance of formal manners; one says to the other, “Who are you?” and then corrects himself, “No—you are weary. Come to my house, bathe, eat, and enjoy the hearth. Let us observe the formalities. Then, perhaps, you may wish to share your story.” I imagine music, something on the lyre, before the hearth. But I do not imagine that the stranger—so far is he at that moment from the spiteful and the stingy and the rude—would feel the urgent necessity to pray not to be rejected into the world again. 

Such is the progress of my reflections, occasioned originally by those lines of Edna St. Vincent Millay. Small Ethics, I have called my thoughts. I note that the TV “journalist” Martin Bashir did apologize for inviting Sarah Palin, in effect, to a manure casserole, whether through shame or professional necessity. I suspect the latter; however, I politely consider, merely consider, extending benefit of doubt. But I have to confess that I am something of a hypocrite, preaching more than he would practice, for I would have zero inclination to practice politesse, would instead pleasurably decline into a joyfully energetic rudeness, had I the chance to engage with the late bibulous lard-ass Edward Kennedy, who could no more have privately welcomed the Homeric stranger to the hearth than he could publicly welcome the distinguished Robert Bork to the senate floor.

But, hypocrite though I may be, maybe the point is that Como and I are not far apart at all. Big Ethics needs Small Ethics. Civility in the public realm is not a very likely expectation from people incapable of “obedience to the unenforceable” in the daily exchanges of ordinary life.




Samuel Hux is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at York College of the City University of New York. He has published in Dissent, The New Republic, Saturday Review, Moment, Antioch Review, Commonweal, New Oxford Review, Midstream, Commentary, Modern Age, Worldview, The New Criterion and many others.


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