I gotta have my orange juice.

Jesu, Juva

Manners

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Manners have the power to preserve [a] salutary distance between the public and the private by enabling us to recognize the distinctive and legitimate claims that others make on us. The codes of charitable behavior require lessons in wearing the right kinds of masks. Against the contemporary urge to dispense with masks and to “let it all hang out,” as the crude metaphor has it, W. H. Auden insists:

Only animals who are below civilization and the angels who are beyond it can be sincere. Human beings are, necessarily, actors who cannot become something before they have first pretended to be it; and they can be divided, not into the hypocritical and the sincere, but into the sane who know they are acting and the insane who do not.

The ancient Greeks understood this necessity of wearing a face, the requirement to project a certain image of oneself in order to exist as any self at all. We become the things we perform, as the outward life largely shapes the inward, despite modern notions to the contrary. In fact, the Greek word persona means “mask.” The question is never whether we shall wear masks, therefore, but what kind of masks we shall wear.

Auden further elaborates the nature of manners: “To be well–bred means to have respect for the solitude of others, whether they be mere acquaintances or, and this is much more difficult, persons we love; to be ill–bred is to importune attention and intimacy, to come too close, to ask indiscreet questions and make indiscreet revelations, to lecture, to bore.” Good breeding and gracious manners cannot serve, of course, as a surrogate for grace itself. Yet in a culture at least nominally Christian—as O’Connor’s Christ–haunted South most surely was—the two orders of grace should not be wholly alien. There is something profoundly courteous in the call of the gospel to count others better than oneself: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). O’Connor believed that the social manners of the South, despite their many deceptions and hypocrisies, could sometimes serve as a far–off reflection of God’s own incarnate love.

. . .

In a speech given at the outbreak of World War I, John Fletcher Moulton dealt with what O’Connor calls the social discipline that must be rooted in manners by distinguishing between the obligatory and the voluntary spheres of human life. He argued that the domain of “Positive Law” prescribes the things we are required to do and to refrain from doing in order for society to exist at all. Here our masks are effaced, as it were, in the act of becoming public citizens. At its opposite extreme lies the domain of “Absolute Choice”: there we are at liberty to follow the bent of our own wills, without prohibitions or commands of any kind—thus wearing whatever masks we choose. In that realm of utter freedom are born all “spontaneity, originality, and energy.” But between these two rather restricted realms lies the vast uncharted region that Lord Moulton calls “manners.” Here we impose limits on ourselves; here we do what we ought to do even though we are not obliged to do it; here we refuse to turn our liberty into license, honoring instead “the sway of duty, fairness, sympathy, taste.” The task of manners, therefore, is to find the right mask, the projected image that enables uncoerced charity. Hence Moulton’s description of manners as “Obedience to the Unenforceable”:

To my mind the real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of Obedience to the Unenforceable. It measures the extent to which the nation trusts its citizens, and its existence and area testify to the way they behave in response to that trust. Mere obedience to Law does not measure the greatness of a Nation. It can easily be obtained by a strong executive, and most easily of all from a timorous people. Nor is the license of behavior which so often accompanies the absence of Law, and which is miscalled Liberty, a proof of greatness. The true test is the extent to which individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self–imposed law.

(Ralph Wood, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ–Haunted South, 128–129, 132)

See also: Nowhere

Written by Scott Moonen

October 27, 2018 at 4:11 pm

Posted in Books, Quotations

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