Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Fundamental Principles of Victorian Etiquette

"Courtesy is the beautiful part of morality, justice carried to the utmost, rectitude refined, magnanimity in trifles." Life Illustrated

I.--MANNERS AND MORALS

Good manners and good morals are founded on the same eternal principles of right, and are only different expressions of the same great truths. Both grow out of the necessities of our existence and relations. We have individual rights based on the fact of our individual being; and we have social duties resulting from our connection, in the bonds of society, with other individuals who have similar rights. Morals and manners alike, while they justify us in asserting and maintaining our own rights, require us scrupulously to respect, in word and act, the rights of others. It is true that the former, in the common comprehension of the term, is satisfied with simple justice in all our relations, while the latter often requires something more than the strictest conscientiousness can demand--a yielding of more than half the road--an exercise of the sentiment of benevolence, as well as of equity; but the highest morality really makes the same requisition, for it includes politeness, and recognizes deeds of kindness as a duty.



II.--RIGHTS


In this country we need no incitements to the assertion and maintenance of our rights, whether individual or national. We are ready at all times to do battle for them either with the tongue, the pen, or the sword, as the case may require. Even women have discovered that they have rights, and he must be a bold man indeed who dares call them in question. Yes, we all, men, women, and children, have rights, and are forward enough in claiming then. Are we equally ready to respect the rights of others?



III.--DUTIES


Out of rights grow duties; the first of which is to live an honest, truthful, self-loyal life, acting and speaking always and everywhere in accordance with the laws of our being, as revealed in our own physical and mental organization. It is by the light of this fact that we must look upon all social requirements, whether in dress, manners, or morals. All that is fundamental and genuine in these will be found to harmonize with universal principles, and consequently with our primary duty in reference to ourselves. 


1. The Senses 

 

Whenever and wherever we come in contact with our fellow-men, there arises a question of rights, and consequently of duties. We have alluded incidentally to some of them, in speaking of habits and dress. The senses of each individual have their rights, and it is your duty to respect them. The eye has a claim upon you for so much of beauty in form, color, arrangement, position, and movement as you are able to present to it. A French author has written a book, the aim of which is to show that it is the duty of a pretty woman to look pretty. It is the duty of all women, and all men too, to look and behave just as well as they can, and whoever fails in this, fails in good manners and in duty. The ear demands agreeable tones and harmonious combinations of tones--pleasant words and sweet songs. If you indulge in loud talking, in boisterous and untimely laughter, or in profane or vulgar language, or sing out of tune, you violate its rights and offend good manners. The sense of smell requires pleasant odors for its enjoyment. Fragrance is its proper element. To bring the fetid odor of unwashed feet or filthy garments, or the stench of bad tobacco or worse whisky, or the offensive scent of onions or garlics within its sphere, is an act of impoliteness. The sense of taste asks for agreeable flavors, and has a right to the best we can give in the way of palatable foods and drinks. The sense of feeling, though less cultivated and not so sensitive as the others, has its rights too, and is offended by too great coarseness, roughness, and hardness. It has a claim on us for a higher culture.


2. The Faculties 

 

And if the senses have their rights, we must admit that the higher faculties and feelings of our nature are at least equally dowered in this respect. You can not trespass upon one of them without a violation of good manners. We can not go into a complete exposition of the "bill of rights" of each. You can analyze them for yourself, and learn the nature of their claims upon you. In the mean time, we will touch upon a point or two here and there.


3. Opinions

 

Each person has a right to his or her opinions, and to the expression of them on proper occasions, and there is no duty more binding upon us all than the most complete and respectful toleration. The author of "The Illustrated Manners Book" truly says: "Every denial of, or interference with, the personal freedom or absolute rights of another, is a violation of good manners. He who presumes to censure me for my religious belief, or want of belief; who makes it a matter of criticism or reproach that I am a Theist or Atheist, Trinitarian or Unitarian, Catholic or Protestant, Pagan or Christian, Jew, Mohammedan, or Mormon, is guilty of rudeness and insult. If any of these modes of belief make me intolerant or intrusive, he may resent such intolerance or repel such intrusion; but the basis of all true politeness and social enjoyment is the mutual tolerance of personal rights."


4. The Sacredness of Privacy

 

Here is another passage from the author just quoted which is so much to the point that we can not forbear to copy it: "One of the rights most commonly trespassed upon constituting a violent breach of good manners, is the right of privacy, or of the control of one's own person and affairs. There are places in this country where there exists scarcely the slightest recognition of this right. A man or woman bolts into your house without knocking. No room is sacred unless you lock the door, and an exclusion would be an insult. Parents intrude upon children, and children upon parents. The husband thinks he has a right to enter his wife's room, and the wife would feel injured if excluded, by night or day, from her husband's. It is said that they even open each others letters, and claim, as a right, that neither should have any secrets from the other. "It in difficult to conceive of such a state of intense barbarism in a civilized country, such a denial of the simplest and most primitive rights, such an utter absence of delicacy and good manners; and had we not been assured on good authority that such things existed, we should consider any suggestions respecting them needless and impertinent.

"Each person in a dwelling should, if possible, have a room as sacred from intrusion as the house is to the family. No child, grown to years of discretion, should be outraged by intrusion. No relation, however intimate, can justify it. So the trunks, boxes, packets, papers, and letters of every individual, locked or unlocked, sealed or unsealed, are sacred. It is ill manners even to open a book-case, or to read a written paper lying open, without permission expressed or implied. Books in an open case or on a center-table, cards in a card-case, and newspapers, are presumed to be open for examination. Be careful where you go, what you read, and what you handle, particularly in private apartments." This right to privacy extends to one's business, his personal relations, his thoughts, and his feelings. Don't intrude; and always "mind your own business," which means, by implication, that you must let other people's business alone. 


5. Conformity 

 

You must conform, to such an extent as not to annoy and give offense, to the customs, whether in dress or other matters, of the circle in which you move. This conformity is an implied condition in the social compact. It is a practical recognition of the right of others, and shows merely a proper regard for their opinions and feelings. If you can not sing in tune with the rest, or on the same key, remain silent. You may be right and the others wrong but that does not alter the case. Convince them, if you can, and bring them to your pitch, but never mar even a low accord. So if you can not adapt your dress and manners to the company in which you find yourself, the sooner you take your leave the better. You may and should endeavor, in a proper way, to change such customs and fashions as you may deem wrong, or injurious in their tendency, but, in the mean time, you have no right to violate them. You may choose your company, but, having chosen it, you must conform to its rules til you can change them. You are not compelled to reside in Rome; but if you choose to live there, you must "do as the Romans do." The rules which should govern your conduct, as an isolated individual, were such a thing as isolation possible in the midst of society, are modified by your relations to those around you. 

This life of ours is a complex affair, and our greatest errors arise from our one-side views of it. We are sovereign individuals, and are born with certain "inalienable rights;" but we are also members of that larger individual society, and our rights can not conflict with the duties which grow out of that relation. If by means of our non-conformity we cause ourselves to be cut off, like an offending hand, or plucked out, like an offending eye, our usefulness is at once destroyed. It is related of a certain king that on a particular occasion he turned his tea into his saucer, contrary to his custom and to the etiquette of society, because two country ladies, whose hospitalities he was enjoying, did so. That king was a gentleman; and this anecdote serves to illustrate an important principle; namely, that true politeness and genuine good manners often not only permit, but absolutely demand, a violation of some of the arbitrary rules of etiquette.  The highest law demands complete HARMONY in all spheres and in all relations. 


IV.--EQUALITY 

 

In the qualified sense which no doubt Mr. Jefferson affixed to the term in his own mind, "all men are created free and equal." The "noble Oracle" himself had long before as explicitly asserted the natural equality of man. In 1739, thirty-seven years before the Declaration of Independence was penned, Lord Chesterfield wrote: "We are of the same species, and no distinction whatever is between us, except that which arises from fortune. For example, your footman and Lizette would be your equals were they as rich as you. Being poor, they are obliged to serve you. Therefore you must not add to their misfortune by insulting or ill-treating them. A good heart never reminds people of their misfortune, but endeavors to alleviate, or, if possible, to make them forget it." The writer in Life Illustrated, quoted in a previous chapter, states the case very clearly as follows: "It is in the sacredness of their rights that men are equal. The smallest injustice done to the smallest man on earth is an offense against all men; an offense which all men have a personal and equal interest in avenging. If John Smith picks my pocket, the cause in court is correctly entitled, 'The PEOPLE versus John Smith.' The whole State of New York has taken up my quarrel with John, and arrays itself against John in awful majesty; because the pockets, the interests, the rights of a man are infinitely, and therefore equally, sacred. "The conviction of this truth is the beginning and basis of the science of republican etiquette, which acknowledges no artificial distinctions. Its leading principle is, that courtesy is due to all men from all men; from the servant to the served; from the served to the servant; and from both for precisely the same reason, namely, because both are human beings and fellow-citizens!"


V.--A REMARK OR TWO TO BE REMEMBERED 

 

We purpose, in succeeding chapters, to set forth briefly but clearly, what the actual requirements of good society are in reference to behavior. You must look at these in the light of the general principles we have already laid down. It is not for us to say how far you ought or can conform to any particular custom, usage, or rule of etiquette. We believe that even the most arbitrary and capricious of them either have or have had a reason and a meaning. In many cases, however, the reason may no longer exist, and the form be meaningless; or while it embodies what is a living truth to others, you may have outgrown it or advanced beyond it. You have an undoubted right, politely but firmly, to decline to do what seems to you, looking upon the matter from your highest stand-point, to be clearly wrong, and it is no breach of good manners to do so; but at the same time you should avoid, as far as possible, putting yourself in positions which call for the exercise of this right. If you can not conscientiously wear a dress coat, or a stove-pipe hat, or cut your hair, or eat flesh-meat, or drink wine, you will naturally avoid, under ordinary circumstances, the circles in which non-conformity in these matters would be deemed a breach of good manners. When it is necessary that you should mingle with people whose customs you can not follow in all points without a violation of principle, you will courteously, and with proper respect for what they probably think entirely right, fall back upon the "higher law;" but if it is a mere matter of gloved or ungloved hands, cup or saucer, fork or knife, you will certainly have the courtesy and good sense to conform to usage.