Wednesday Quotes
The Significance of Manners
November 20, 2013


These people will also discover the seemingly insignificant conventions their predecessors have destroyed. Things like this: When it is proper for the young to be silent in front of their elders, when they should make way for them or stand up in their presence, the care of parents, hair styles, the clothes and shoes to wear, deportment, and everything else of that sort.
Socrates, in Plato’s Republic, Book IV

Seemingly insignificant conventions. Powerful phrase indeed. We easily slip into judging certain things to be insignificant—in any case in the shadow of, well, other looming issues. Hair styles, standing-up or not, deportment: do we have the energy to notice and evaluate, much less address such issues? Parallels between Socrates’ day and ours can be rather striking. He seems to think that certain customary habits didn’t just slip away, or fade out of fashion. They were destroyed. He also thinks that these customs can express, and cultivate, fundamental moral dispositions and convictions and thus make an important difference in life. Soon after the above statement Socrates points out that such matters are normally not the subject of legislation; we don’t make laws about hairs styles, posture, manners, or even the care of parents. Education—and this taken broadly to mean how we form the young—is what sets the standards, and by and large determines such things.

Considering the state of education over the past fifty years, perhaps it is not a stretch to say that our conventions—many of which even if not perfect did contribute to good community and real happiness—have indeed been destroyed. But perhaps it is too easy to point fingers. Education can and should, in its most basic sense, be going on in all our homes. It is worth asking ourselves whether we are cultivating customs that reflect and buttress our moral convictions, and whether we are leading by example in the areas Socrates mentions, and in “everything else of that sort.”

Plato (427-347 B.C.), a student of Socrates, and teacher of Aristotle, is considered one of the greatest philosophers of all time. The Republic is one of the most widely read and influential of all books.

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  1. What a great topic and much needed! I am increasingly appalled at the lack of manners being taught to children. I can’t say how many times I have been in a conversation with another parent, and a child, small or otherwise, interrupts quite rudely. Rather than teaching these children that they are not the center of the universe and showing them to respect others by making them wait until sentences are at least finished, parents are breaking off conversations mid-sentence to respond immediately to children. And I am not referring to situations of emergency. No one is bleeding! Even very young children can be made to “wait their turn” so to speak by putting one’s hand on their arm or shoulder to show that they have been heard, finishing one’s sentence or listening attentively to the other adult finish his sentence, then excusing oneself to respond to the child. And if the interruption is insignificant, the child needs to be told not to interrupt again unless it is important. This is just one of the ways we seem to be allowing children to run our lives now days rather than the other way around. I agree that these types of things do reflect deeper moral or cultural attitudes in that we seem to be losing the much needed distinction between adults and children. It is not just an age difference! It is a difference in the attitude towards self and others to begin with. Children are naturally self-centered and need to be brought out of this narrowness to become mature adults. It is our responsibility, as parents, to help them learn to do this. And then there are table manners, which I will not even go into. Enough said.

  2. Thank you John for this great post. Indeed the greatest part of the education should be done in the home, and a large part of such education is the example of parents (and other adults present in the lives of children). This holds very true in the area of manners/customary habits. Actions are more powerful than explanations. Therefore we ought to make sure that the manners we teach are the one we practice and the manners we practice, to take your words, “reflect and buttress our moral convictions”.

    Let’s start with an example (and I use this example because of the picture you put at the head of this post). If a father always opens the door for his wife when entering any structure (house, car, church, etc.), his son will try to imitate him and do the same for his mother. The father can teach the son that this is the proper behavior not just with regards to his mother but for all women, and he can teach the general principal when any man is entering a structure he should always open the door to the woman that accompanies him. The key here is the example of the father, followed by the explanation (where you can present the general rule base on the specific action). However, if the Father never opens the door for his wife, but teaches his son that he should always open the door to a lady, it is doubtful that the son will practice that specific manner.

    The lack of manners we see in children today are a result of the behavior of the adults surrounding them. If a child interrupts a conversation over and over again, it is probably because the adults that surround him are interrupting each other in their conversation. Hence if we are going to regain manners it all start with our own manners.

    On the second point, regarding the reflection of our moral convictions through our manners, this requires a much greater deal of attention. We can clearly see that the destruction of certain manners have a direct correlation with the destruction of morality. Take the earlier example of opening the door for a lady. This manner would reflect the great respect men must have for women. Today seldom you see a man opening the door for a woman. This reflects the lack of respect men in general have for women (and I don’t think I need to explain this point as it is self-evident only looking at the increase in abortion, prostitution, pornography, battered women, portrayal of women in modern entertainment, etc).

    Therefore we need to reflect first on what we truly believe, and second how such belief ought to change our actions, even our “insignificant conventions”. Then once we have change our actions we will be able to teach them to our children, and to all around us, for we are also called to be examples and teach not just to our children but to all people we encounter.

  3. Laura and Jonathan,
    Thank you very much for these thoughtful comments. Laura I think you have really hit on something as regards forming children in the manners of conversations. Our ability to have good conversations is threatened in so many ways.
    Jonathan you have pointed to the connection between manners and many fundamental issues. These are well worth more discussion and consideration. Thank you again.

  4. I’ve enjoyed the comments as much as the original post. We have a book from the 1950’s regarding manners and children that is a great value to me. I tend to stick with literature of a bygone era as well because it gives examples of children with respect and manners. Our culture has adults behaving like children just as John has said and a teaching body for parents that does anything but equip them in raising up children with manners, respect, and discipline, which Laura has pointed out…is it any wonder they end up medicating those children later. It is a snowball effect, and so sad.

  5. Our manner of dress also speaks to these concerns. The culture, it seems to me, fails to recognize the discretion of time and instead treats it homogenously. Among other examples, I’m thinking of the custom of “Sunday best” clothes which reflects our appreciation of the kairotic quality of the Lord’s Day.