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Manners and Morals Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Wednesday, 06 May 2009

A new edition of my book, The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry, is being published today. I hadn’t intended to do a book about courtesy, manners, etiquette, or whatever we wish to call formal politeness, nor — but for a few paragraphs such as those that follow — did I write such a book. Yet I’ve found that the rules of behavior — and the role Catholicism played in the genesis of chivalry — are what most people want to discuss. After a while, I even stopped mentioning that the compleat gentleman, the chivalrous man, isn’t always polite, although he’s never rude.

The root of the word “rude” is interesting: it comes from the Latin, rudis, meaning unsophisticated, which remains its primary definition today. It wasn’t until the late Middle Ages that the word came to mean ill-mannered, which is to say the opposite of polite.

And what about “polite”? We think of the word today as meaning, more or less, mannerly. A polite person has good manners. But in origin the word is closer to polish, with the implication, perhaps, that the polite person is a sort of gleaming silver teapot. From its Latin roots through its emergence in Middle English and well into the 1700s, the word meant a thing buffed up or cleansed or even organized, although other meanings also emerged. So it always is with important words.

Once upon a time it was a man’s sword that might be polite — if his squire kept it burnished; then, late in the 1400s, the knight himself might be polite if he was “polished” enough to speak sensibly about the liberal arts; and finally, sometime after 1750, a man might be thought polite or gentlemanly simply for doffing his cap to a lady.

I’m in favor of politeness, because manners are minor morals. “Manners are to morals.” Henry Hazlitt wrote, “as the final sand papering, rubbing, and polishing on a fine piece of furniture are to the selection of the wood, the sawing, chiseling, and fitting. They are the finishing touch.” Manners are good.

On the other hand, I believe in tit-for-tat, in what Robert Axlerod (in his 1984 book, The Evolution of Cooperation) has called the “robustness of reciprocity.” A gentleman is a warrior, not a doormat, and he will cooperate with others only insofar as they cooperate with him. Cooperation begets cooperation, kindness begets kindness, but neither cooperation nor kindness is quite the appropriate response to aggression or rudeness. Lots of well-intentioned Christians have misunderstood this to their sorrow and to the detriment of the Church.

Axlerod’s book details the reasons why the tit-for-tat strategy outperforms all others in a computer game called Prisoner’s Dilemma. The scheme’s success, he writes, is “due to being nice, provocable, forgiving, and clear.” A further amplification provides a good description of the compleat gentleman: “Its niceness means that it is never the first to defect [to fail to cooperate], and this property prevents it from getting into unnecessary trouble. Its retaliation discourages the other side from persisting whenever defection is tried. Its forgiveness helps to restore mutual cooperation. And its clarity makes its behavioral pattern easy to recognize, it is easy to perceive that the best way of dealing with tit for tat is to cooperate with it.”

Many a modern gent has had the sword taken from his hand. Exceptions include West Point’s Catholic cadets. At the Academy’s Most Holy Trinity Chapel, stained glass windows portray soldier-saints: St. Barbara, patroness of artillery; St. George, patron of armor; Knights of Malta and of the Holy Sepulcher — among many reminders that faith and the sword are compatible.

A short digression into politics: the best constitutional structure in the macrocosm is simply an extension of the well-ordered microcosm, which is to say the compleat gentleman. This gentleman is sweetness and light to his friends, acid and fire to his enemies. He may be slow to anger, but he will be awesome in action when he strikes. Having purged his righteous anger, he will then be quick to forgive. It is a miracle that among America’s closest allies today are those countries that were once our greatest enemies: Germany, Italy, and Japan, the earlier Axis of evil. Their friendship is directly proportional to Allied generosity.

Emily Post defined the American gentleman as well as anybody ever has:

Far more important than any mere dictum of etiquette is the fundamental code of honor, without strict observance of which no man, no matter how “polished,” can be considered a gentleman. The honor of a gentleman demands the inviolability of his word, and the incorruptibility of his principles; he is the descendant of the knight, the crusader; he is the defender of the defenseless, and the champion of justice — or he is not a gentleman.

No matter who tries to define chivalry, most commentators tend to agree on five attributes: fidelity, prowess, generosity, courtesy, and honor. If historically fidelity approached chauvinism, if prowess was menacingly close to brutality, if generosity degraded into profligacy, if courtesy became hypocrisy, and if honor slipped over into arrogance then we have reason to doubt the authenticity of traditional chivalry, and we should; so long, that is, as we are willing to acknowledge our own ethical failures.

Brad Miner, a former literary editor of National Review, is senior editor of The Catholic Thing.

(c) 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

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Comments (18)Add Comment
0
...
written by Liz, May 06, 2009
Today I will be purchasing 3 copies - one for my 35 yr old son, one for my 36 yr old son-in-law and one for the son of a dear friend who will be graduating high school this month. The two older ones need this book badly - and I assume there are many more out there as well who could learn a thing or two from Mr. Miner. My husband, on the other hand, is the quintessenail "Compleat Gentleman" - nice to know there are others out there. Keep up the good work.
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Thanks Liz
written by Brad Miner, May 06, 2009
Dear Liz: Thanks for the kind words. I do hope readers will enjoy the book. My intent in writing it is to encourage men and women to consider what chivalry is and why it's important. Obviously, you already know. -Brad
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A question
written by David, May 06, 2009
Mr. Miner,
What do we make of Jesus' commandment in Matthew 5:39, ie, to turn the other cheek if someone strikes us?
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To: David
written by Brad Miner, May 06, 2009
Arms, force, violence--these are last resorts, but Christ has not called us to pacifism. Here's the Catechism: “Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty . . . The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. For this reason, those who legitimately hold authority also have the right to use arms to repel aggressors against the civil community entrusted to their responsibility."
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To David & Brad
written by debby, May 06, 2009
Our 10 yr old son was about to be punched by his good friend when dad happened to observe & prevent said blow. Dad sent neighbor boy home & proceeded to practice our boy in the art of a solid delivery of a well executed single punch from the shoulder. Being a mom & friendly neighbor I called & let the other parents know we will not stop fist-fighting bet friends but of course don't prefer that method. its just necessary for boys at certain times. However, we did school our son in turn the other
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cont.- sorry editors
written by debby, May 06, 2009
turn the other cheek to the point of death if/when assaulted 4 Sake of Faith in Christ. Defend our Lady w/virtuous behavior.
In matters carnal, swift delivery of enough punishment to prevent further harm, mercy and kindness afterwards is our unhappy state on this sinful planet.
BTW, since neighbor boy has been warned that Joey packs a solid knock-out/bloody nose punch, no incidents have occured. Joseph is respected but not feared or taken advantage of on the playground.
Is this in line w/U?
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I'm with debby
written by Brad Miner, May 06, 2009
I've always wanted my sons to be Galahads, not Gandhis. To all who may wish to comment, please understand: I am NOT in favor of violence; I'm in favor of realism. That realism is always tempered by faith in Christ, which faith prohibits neither self-defense nor the defense of others.
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2 questions
written by de Med, May 06, 2009
Brad, I bought the 1st ed. in 2004. Haven't read it. Pristine condition. Anyway to exhange it for the 2nd. edition?

How do you handle rude, insulting & uncharitable Catholic bloggers who insist they are doing nothing un-Christian b/c it's done in furtherance of a good cause, such as Catholic moral teaching on torture or abortion?
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Follow-up to Brad
written by David, May 06, 2009
Jesus is not discussing collective defense in Matthew 5:39. He is instructing his followers about how to deal with an evil person in a one-on-one situation (ie, the personal behavior of a "Compleat Gentleman"). In the prior verse, He instructs us to reject an "eye for an eye" (another way of saying tit-for-tat). I'm not trying to be argumentative, but it is very difficult to reconcile these. If you generalization that"we are not called to be pacificists" is true, what then did Jesus mean?
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The wisest man in America
written by Kirk Kramer, May 06, 2009
I just finished Wendell Berry's novel "Jayber Crow" which discusses some of these same questions. The most brilliant book I have read in years.
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Follow-ups
written by Brad Miner, May 06, 2009
To de Med: An exchange program for revised books? Not so far as I know. As to the insulting & uncharitable--present facts simply and charitably.
To David: Argumentative is fine. Mt.5:39 is about forgiveness--always our first impulse, and perhaps second, third--of insults, and the like. I'm saying that in confrontation with--to simplify--crime, we don't turn the other cheek, and that a man ought to be ready not to. Adam Smith: "Kindess to criminals is cruelty to their victimns."
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One more for Brad
written by David, May 06, 2009
With respect, one more exchange. Verse 43 onward (...pray for your persecutors...) is more about forgiveness. Verses 38-39 clearly have a different emphasis: they discuss real and physical confrontation, and Jesus does not mince his words. He differs from Smith/Axelrod. He could have easily said, "Once justice has been done, let your anger dissolve away and forgive them." PS I have 2 sons...Honestly, I'm indifferent to Galahad/Ghandi. I want them to be Christ-like. Thx for the dialogue.
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...
written by Liz, May 06, 2009
Dear Brad: Thanks for including "ladies" in your comment - however, being a former women's libber (huge mistake) I have noticed over the years that when men take the lead in being "chivalrous" - women tend to follow suit respecting not only the men, but themselves as well. Maybe we are on to something here!!
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...
written by Murray Love, May 06, 2009
The English philosopher Roger Scruton put it well, in his book 'The West and the Rest':

"Christ even commanded us, when assaulted, to turn the other cheek. But ... he was setting before us a personal ideal, not a political project. If I am attacked and turn the other cheek, then I exemplify the Christian virtue of meekness. If I am entrusted with a child who is attacked, and I then turn the child's other cheek, I make myself party to the violence."
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...
written by Murray Love, May 06, 2009
To follow on from Scruton's point: A government leader cannot feasibly turn HIS cheek to, say, a dreadful terrorist attack, just as a father cannot invite his child's tormentor to hit the father instead.

Similarly, a leader who turns his peoples' cheeks to such an attack is like the father who invites the schoolyard tormentor to hit his child again, and offers his child's cheek to the bully. Both acts are in the service of evil, and I do not believe this is what Christ was recommending to us.
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On an island and.........
written by de Med, May 06, 2009
To Brad:

Thanks. I'll just buy the 2nd ed. Looking forward to it. What are the top 5 books (excluding Bible and yours) you absolutely would take on deserted island? Make that top 5 Catholic ones and top 5 non-Catholic ones. I'm just interested in what you read and consider "non-negotiable" reads. Thanks.
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10 Books? For de Med
written by Brad Miner, May 06, 2009
I'm afraid listing 5 Catholic and non-Catholic books would take some considerable time and careful thought . . . I may have the latter; I don't have the former. But not wishing to disappoint: I'd want the Bible and the New Jerome Biblical Commentary, and then I'll swap out the other books for music; mostly Bach, Palestrina, Muddy Waters, and John Coltrane. And can my wife come? The rest is silence.
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Mr.
written by Anthony Zamarro, May 07, 2009
Absolutely. This came to mind for me in light of the recent Brouhaha over Miss California's comments on gay marriage. As we have seen in recent days, she is under attack. And we should all be quick to admit that in some cases her behavior has been less than exemplary.

Would that she were not the only one fighting this battle. Why is it that a wispy twenty-one year old girl is the only high-profile figure speaking out against gay marriage?

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