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Manners and Morals

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 is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.