“At table let mirth be with thee, let ribaldry be exiled…for at table it becometh not to be sad nor to make others sad. … Nothing should be blirted out at table that might diminish mirth. It is wrong to defame the character of those not present; nor should one’s personal sorrow be unburdened to another on such an occasion. …It is impolite to sit at table rapt in thought.”
Erasmus, On Good Manners for Boys
There is so much at stake in how we eat. Daily.
Table manners are at the heart of every day civility. We are inducted into them almost from our first days. From the start we learn that we are all in this together–having daily needs that we fulfill, always with an eye to the presence and needs of others. At table we are at one with our fellow men–first of all with our own household, but also with any who happen to join us.
In attending to the most pressing of human desires, we are brought through our appetite into relation with others. Yeah, when disciplined, this appetite blossoms into the occasion of communion with others. And so it is with other bodily appetites.
There are so many aspects of good manners at table. Where else are the multiple levels of human life, from lower to higher, from bodily to spiritual, so interwoven?
Erasmus focuses our attention on conversation, on what we say or don’t say. The table is a place to be present to one another, in and through our eating. And if manners are well observed, it is an unparalleled daily context for conversation. As Leon Kass notes, “Without conversation the belly rules the mouth, and the table becomes no different from a trough.”
Here we first learn to listen: others have something to say, to which I must hearken. We also learn that we have something to say, to which others will listen, and we learn how to say it.
It is always about presence. Eating together is the most obvious activity that constitutes who we are as a household, daily. How we do it is the recurring expression and cultivation of our self-understanding, of who we seek to be.
Not just feeding, as a rule we eat together, according to certain forms, gratefully celebrating what it is to be human.
So here’s to the parents and teachers and others who make heroic efforts in instilling and practicing manners. You enhance our mirth, at the table and in all corners of life.
This is the seventh and final piece in the series: Reclaiming Manners.
Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) was one of the great Renaissance humanists. According to Kass his On Good Manners for Boys was an immediate success and was used throughout Europe in the formation of youth.
Image: P.S. Kroyer (1851-1909, Danish)