Reclaiming Manners: A Series
November 30, 2016

“Etiquette and ethics, rightly understood, are in fact continuous, partly because character is often revealed in outward display; moreover, the principles of self-command and consideration for others shown in ‘small manners’ are of a piece with virtue and justice. Indeed civility may very well be the heart of the ethics of everyday life.”
Leon Kass, The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfection of Human Nature

Suppose, as strange as it would be, that all of us forgot how to give a hug. The once common practice of hugging a close relation, especially after a long absence, is thus lost, and a few generations pass by. What then would people do in the circumstance in which people used to give a hug?

If no other comparable practice replaced hugging, then it seems that one of two things would happen: we would have an urge to show our affection but feel helpless or very awkward, given the lack of a common language of showing it; or, having no way of expressing our affection, we might slowly lose the disposition that used to be expressed by the hug. The very joy of greeting another would tend to be suppressed through its lack of being expressed.

Though the example might be extreme, I think we should consider to what extent we are in a very comparable situation today regarding manners, and the good moral dispositions they express.

By and large, we are losing the common language of manners. And we are either frustrated by our inability to express the good interior dispositions we have—a good example is respect for the elderly, women, and various dignitaries—or, what is worse, we no longer have such interior dispositions.

Good customary manners were an essential means of cultivating the basic moral dispositions of human life, precisely since they expressed those dispositions. And now, we are losing them.

Many young people—not to speak of others—barely take notice, for instance, of the aged. Entering a room of adults, even in a formal situation, they often feel nothing–perhaps other than awkward–and do nothing. They don’t really notice elders for what they are, and consequently do not have proper feelings of respect. Even if they have good intentions, they tend to be trapped through their lack of manners in a shrunken world where they fail to respond to others in a properly human way. And we all suffer for it in ways we have scarcely begun to comprehend.

But manners can be reclaimed. We can stand up and take notice, and act. It is never too late; human nature itself has much potential for renewal. Good manners, as an expression of the higher inclinations of our nature, have always spoken to something deep within us. And so they can speak again.

Our reclaimed manners will have the advantage of being more intentional. In them we will seek to express and cultivate good moral dispositions. In this way there is little danger that our manners will be an empty shell.

In our own lives, in our homes, in our micro-communities, we can make a choice for manners. It will not be easy, and it will require being prudent, courageous, and humble.

~ ~ ~

This is the first in a series dedicated to Reclaiming Manners.
Upcoming posts in the series will include:
Reclaiming Manners in… Speech, Posture and Movement, Dress, and Eating
I will use ancient and modern sources in an effort to understand the manners that Leon Kass suggests are “at the heart of the ethics of everyday life.”

Note: The series will continue starting two weeks from today. Next Wednesday, I will post an article I have written for Biola University Center for Christian Thought on … Friendship between Siblings.

Leon Kass (1939–) is Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago. In his words he is an “old-fashioned humanist. A humanist is concerned broadly with all aspects of human life, not just the ethical.”

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  1. Very good point, Dr. Cuddeback.

    If I may be so bold as to offer my own practical suggestion, I think one good way to begin is to try and smile more. It’s a habit that I’ve been working to cultivate for some time now; whenever you happen to make eye-contact with someone — even if it’s just passing them on the street or in a hallway — offer them a smile. All the smiles you get in return are wonderful — to know you’ve brightened someone’s day, even if only just a little — and it has also sparked many delightful conversations.

    1. JSG, Great point. I couldn’t agree more.

  2. Manners, obviously including respect for my elders, was taught and strictly adhered to in my family. I am now 63 years of age. From my vantage point, the youth of today, not including my daughter, have lost these attributes in day to day socializing.

    I am looking forward to this series, in hopes it might provide a new, and refreshing, perspective on todays youthful generation.

    Thanks John

    1. Thanks Wint. We’re certainly all in this together, and we’re going to need to work on it together.

  3. Thank you, Dr. Cuddeback, for offering this series. I am very much looking forward to it, especially since this particular topic has been on my mind a lot lately. God bless you.

    1. Thank you Elizabeth; and God bless you.

  4. Thank you Dr. Cuddeback. I am very much looking forward to the series. This very subject has been on my mind and I hope it will help me with the five children I have at home as well as my two in college. The word “refinement”, as a virtue, keeps coming up in my readings. This, to me, has a great deal to do with manners though rarely talked about. I hope you will address it in the series if you can. Thank you so very much. Lucille

    1. Thank you for this Lucille. Refinement is a tricky notion; I’ll look into it some more. With best wishes.