"How Italians Educate Their Children:
A regimen which gives prominence to fine manners, free intercourse of the different classes in Italy, and why it pays to be polite."
The sincerity of affection of American fathers for their children cannot be questioned, but the quality of its practical manifestation as a whole is open to comment. American fathers are too reserved and undemonstrative; two little given to intimate association with the joys, chagrins, and personal training of their children. From want of practice they do not know how, as do European fathers, to participate in their lives and become their confidential companions. They are over-solicitous to see them on an independent, self-made footing early in life, working out their own careers prematurely, in their separate responsibility, while relieving them of theirs in the matter.
The talent, or "smartness" which finds success in any chosen line is considered to be the most enviable quality children can show. Absorbed in their own business or pleasure, they are disinclined to make time, as do Italian and French fathers, to instruct and initiate their children in the customs and wisdom of the world, while winning their confidence in multiform sympathetic ways. A New-England father, cold and commanding in deportment, when not forgetful and indifferent; austere and abrupt and speech, if not taciturn and careless, bountifully provides the means of education, comfort, and entertainment of his offspring, and is prompt to enunciate Lycurgian rules and abstract apothegms for their guidance by already physically and mentally over-taxed mothers, or those whom he liberally pays to vicariously execute the most needful of his own duties, in the inculcation of those habits and principles on which the future welfare of his family depends. Hence, between American fathers and sons there is less free intercourse and affectionate courtesy, with intermingling of pleasures and interests, than in European families. Domestic life has more centrifugal than centripetal force. In infancy there is begotten a restraint which tinges all subsequent intercourse between them, and leaves uncomfortable associations on both sides. This state of domestic life is more a defect of the head than heart, chiefly arising from the neglect to cultivate those endearing habits and manners which should be the crowning grace of intellectual accomplishments and parental authority.
The tact with which cultivated Italians pay compliments is equal to their fastidious sense of personal beauty. Nothing elicits more heartfelt admiration than grace or brightness, particularly in children. The most common place are noticed, while any special attraction gets enthusiastically praised. Their quick eyes, even in adults, seize on any distinguishing feature, if it be only a well shaped ear or nose, or other minor organ, and cordially praise that, politely ignoring the homely ones out of consideration of the feelings of their possessor. Their aesthetic sympathies are so keen that they detect charms which untrained senses overlook. They are much less prone than Anglo-Saxons to see only defects and crudely condense them into one sweeping condemnation of absolute ugliness or badness, with no discrimination of mitigating or compensating details. In social intercourse they are less inclined to the superficial, impressive, and wholesale prejudices of people of coarser fibre and colder hearts, in regard to persons of unprepossessing appearance. Instead, they charitably discover something to recommend the most forbidding in looks, if, like themselves, well bred, while their respect to age is particularly commendable. Whether this conduct springs from charity of heart or policy of head, it is certainly good breeding.
The habit of considering others sometimes brings unexpected results. There lived in Florence some years back and Irish painter of merit, who was on the verge of starvation from inability to sell his works. One evening as it so happened that the journal he had taken up at a café to distract him was asked for by a stranger. He immediately handed it to the inquirer, saying another would serve his purpose as well. This led to an acquaintance, which ended in his selling all of his Winter's work to his new friend, who was an amateur, and placing him at once in a comfortable position. Another more remarkable instance is the following: An elderly gentleman, partially paralyzed, was traveling by himself in a railway carriage, in which was a young lady, unknown to him. Accidentally dropping the newspaper he was reading, and finding it difficult to recover it, she promptly assisted him, following it up by other little services and pleasant conversation. When the train stopped she considerately assisted him out. He begged her address, which she gave him, and soon the incident faded out of her mind. A year afterward, to her astonishment, she received a letter from the old gentleman's lawyer with the intelligence that he had died, and bequeathed her $150,000, "because of her politeness to a stranger." This was indeed casting her bread of civility on the waters of life to some purpose, and forcibly illustrates the power of "politesse de coeur," as the French aptly designate this humane accomplishment.
Matthew Arnold defines civilization as the "humanizing of man in society." Politeness is one of the most efficient agents in affecting this transmutation of human nature. Poetry, music, painting, and sculpture or even less direct agencies in its improvement, for polite manners are apostolic in their proselytizing functions. No supreme civilization is reached, however, on a single line of progress. To form a complete, well-rounded humanity, scope must be given to every healthful aspiration and no faculty left to lie dormant. The ideal race is yet to be created out of the perfections of all. Hebrewism has given us religion, the spiritual aspects of faith, sacrifice, obedience, duty, and worship as its supreme ideal; Hellenism, the might of philosophy, beauty, and mind in heroic guise of earthly mold; Rome, The power of unity and supremacy of law. Germany now proffers inquiry, scientific analysis, and thought; the Latin races, their sensitiveness to beautiful form and behavior; their delicacy of apprehension and technical touch; England, her broad eclecticism, practical skill, and resolute utilitarianism, while inventive, receptive America, the mosaic of nations, opens her doors with the impartial welcome to all but benign influences. Let us hope that humanities highest polish and finest amalgamation will finally be ours. But to secure, this something besides a deep-seated passion for beauty, abstract truth, or prosaic utility is required.
Progress toward the ideal to be lasting, must be as deeply rooted in the heart as the head. It's complete code exists only in the divine principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the most beautiful manifestation of spirit in the flesh vouchsafed to men. He was the complete gentleman. His perfect brotherhood, gentleness, truth, sympathy, sacrifice, intuition, forbearance, courtesy, kindness to women and children; His energy, courage, and righteous anger; His devotion to His one great object, the alleviation of life's miseries, succor of the afflicted, healing of the sick, regeneration of all man; His exalted, purifying doctrines and practice- all this, combined with an aesthetic temperament that made Him, the most radical of reformers, enjoy nature and art, wear fine apparel, and come "eating and drinking;" a Saviour appreciating the refinements and blessings of life, not despising and fearing them like a misery-coveting, cowardly ascetic; this makes Jesus, after 18th centuries of example, still the "first gentleman" of all time, universal Teacher and ideal man of humanity.
From "How Italians Train Their Youth," an article originally published in the NY Times, sent from Florence, Italy, August 10, 1880, by James Jackson Jarves
Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Moderator for Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia. To inquire about contributing a post, please contact us at Etiquipedia@gmail.com