“Etiquette and ethics, rightly understood, are in fact continuous, partly because character is often revealed in outward display; moreover, the principles of self-command and consideration for others shown in ‘small manners’ are of a piece with virtue and justice. Indeed civility may very well be the heart of the ethics of everyday life.”
Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfection of Human Nature
Suppose, as strange as it would be, that all of us forgot how to give a hug. The once common practice of hugging a close relation, especially after a long absence, is thus lost, and a few generations pass by. What then would people do in the circumstance in which people used to give a hug?
If no other comparable practice replaced hugging, then it seems that one of two things would happen: we would have an urge to show our affection but feel helpless or very awkward, given the lack of a common language of showing it; or, having no way of expressing our affection, we might slowly lose the disposition that used to be expressed by the hug. The very joy of greeting another would tend to be suppressed through its lack of being expressed.
Though the example might be extreme, I think we should consider to what extent we are in a very comparable situation today regarding manners, and the good moral dispositions they express.
By and large, we are losing the common language of manners. And we are either frustrated by our inability to express the good interior dispositions we have—a good example is respect for the elderly, women, and various dignitaries—or, what is worse, we no longer have such interior dispositions.
Good customary manners were an essential means of cultivating the basic moral dispositions of human life, precisely since they expressed those dispositions. And now, we are losing them.
Many young people—not to speak of others—barely take notice, for instance, of the aged. Entering a room of adults, even in a formal situation, they often feel nothing–perhaps other than awkward–and do nothing. They don’t really notice elders for what they are, and consequently do not have proper feelings of respect. Even if they have good intentions, they tend to be trapped through their lack of manners in a shrunken world where they fail to respond to others in a properly human way. And we all suffer for it in ways we have scarcely begun to comprehend.
But manners can be reclaimed. We can stand up and take notice, and act. It is never too late; human nature itself has much potential for renewal. Good manners, as an expression of the higher inclinations of our nature, have always spoken to something deep within us. And so they can speak again.
Our reclaimed manners will have the advantage of being more intentional. In them we will seek to express and cultivate good moral dispositions. In this way there is little danger that our manners will be an empty shell.
In our own lives, in our homes, in our micro-communities, we can make a choice for manners. It will not be easy, and it will require being prudent, courageous, and humble.
Reclaiming Manners Mini-Series
This is the first in a series dedicated to Reclaiming Manners. Upcoming posts in this series include reclaiming manners in… Speech, Posture and Movement, Dress, and Eating. I will use ancient and modern sources in an effort to understand the manners that Leon Kass suggests are “at the heart of the ethics of everyday life.” Find the other posts below!
Leon Kass (1939–) is Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. In his words he is an “old-fashioned humanist. A humanist is concerned broadly with all aspects of human life, not just the ethical.”
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