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Gentility Recalled

With crime and illegitimacy soaring, and cities often resembling Hobbes’s state of nature, where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” our policy wonks are hoping that national service, tax credits, etc. will manipulate us into coexisting decently again.

But social order depends far more on attitudes and conduct than on legislation. Gentility Recalled lucidly and thoughtfully explores the enormous role of manners in creating a decent, orderly society and shows that, indeed, it’s the little things that count.

As editor Digby Anderson observes, “It is only when one starts to recall the various sophisticated aspects of manners, the essential tasks they perform, and the millions of tiny incidents that make up that performance, that one understands what a treasure-trove manners provide, and what an act of profligacy it is to attempt to dispense with them.” Manners’ smallness is their strength: By innumerable tiny applications, they become part of one’s character. Manners matter because they instill the self-restraint and consideration for others that enable us to live together peaceably and make us fit for self-government. As Anderson rightly observes, “The crisis in order is a crisis in manners.”

The authors persuasively trace manners’ decline to “de-moralization of society,” or loss of a common morality. This in turn they attribute to the replacement of a moral view of conduct with a therapeutic one; reliance on technical competence rather than personal goodwill; and assaults on traditional morals and manners from leftist ideologues who see them as inegalitarian, hypocritical, and confining. And without a supporting common vision of who and what we are and of how we should treat others, manners collapse.

Since the effect of manners is pervasive, only a selective examination of their contribution to social order is attempted. Ten fascinating chapters address such topics as the notions of the lady and the gentleman (which rest on character, not social rank), cricket’s civilizing ethos, and the importance of professional manners in patient-doctor relationships. Michael Aeschliman, Director of the Erasmus Institute, argues compellingly that the family is the prime source of manners, since authority, or “untested acceptance of another’s judgment,” is first learned there, and since children learn by emulating parents and older siblings. Unfortunately, external influences, such as the entertainment industry’s bad examples, undermine the family’s moral authority. Hence the failure of trendy older adults to act their age, Anthony O’Hear cogently argues, makes moral, courteous conduct, and seriousness harder for the young to achieve. Today’s pervasive slovenly dress receives shrewd and profound criticism from Athena Leoussi, who points out that clothing “projects and even realizes” our “moral, aesthetic, and conceptual aspirations,” and that the modern embrace of casual attire like jeans reflects a pantheistic, romantic rebellion against structure and distinctions.

In an especially timely essay, Robert Grant establishes manners’ decisive importance for academe. Courtesy and toleration are vital for fostering the presentation and discussion of ideas which pursuit of truth requires. Dogmatic ideology like political correctness is lethal to this ethos.

More positively, John Shelton Reed’s delightful essay on Southern manners shows how manners not only make life pleasant but are in an important sense genuinely democratic. Southern manners both recognize the human dignity of even common laborers, and grant deference to men of stature–provided they earn it. Reed’s examples of Southern manners’ salutary effect on labor-management relations hold valuable lessons for modern capitalism, which is becoming impersonal and abstract as entities grow larger.

How can manners be restored? Bryan Wilson recommends emulating the professions, which have sustained high standards of conduct. More profoundly, Aeschliman argues that a strong revival of family morality is the best means of countering an entropic, self-indulgent culture.

The authors see modern capitalism as partly responsible for subverting manners and social order. They argue that consumer society replaces self-control with hedonism, and consumer choice weakens traditions, authority, and manners. The entertainment industry’s “culture of blatantly transgressive individuals and images” has displaced earlier wholesome examples, and, Aesch-liman warns, “a capitalist ‘culture’ may thus liquidate the older sources and momentum of social sanity that made its peace, prosperity, and leisure possible in the first place.” True–but we have our choices. Nobody is forcing anybody to make slasher movies or imitate toilet-tongued hooligans. If we do, the fault is in our souls, not the market, which merely gives us what we think we want.

Some authors hint at religion’s role. One wishes they had explored it more. If, as T. S. Eliot and Russell Kirk observe, culture flows from the cult, then the ultimate source of manners is religious: the metaphysical orientation underlying the shared world view on which manners rest. With the cake of faith crumbled, small wonder that, as Tristram Engelhardt observes, “we have significant disagreements about how to be respectful or show courtesy, because we have significant disagreements about the nature of morality and the good life.”

Gentility Recalled is a timely and outstanding explanation of how and why manners matter. For a society menaced by savagery and engrossed in politics, it is a salutary reminder that social order rests on character and conduct and the tiny daily private choices that shape both–and a valuable weapon in the struggle to restore civilization.