My parents had conflicting views about the nature and origin of good manners. My father took the Romantic view that they were the expression of man’s natural goodness of heart and that they therefore emerged spontaneously—that is, if they emerged at all. If they didn’t, it was because of the social injustice that inhibited or destroyed natural goodness. My mother took the classical view that good manners were a matter of discipline, training, and habit and that goodness of heart would, at least to an extent, follow in their wake. The older I grow, the more decisively I take my mother’s side.
My father, who was left-wing in everything except his life, believed that manners in my mother’s sense were but etiquette and that in turn etiquette was but a code by which the elite distinguished itself from hoi polloi in order to maintain its economic and cultural dominance. An elaborate code of conduct with arbitrary rules was a mask for sectional self-interest...
On a side note, now that he mentions it, I have known people who more or less fit that "left-wing in everything except his life" description, although I hadn't thought of them that way before this. Hmmm. I need to think about this a while.
And, in case anyone was wondering, the older I grow, the more decisively I take his mother's side, too. Definitely.
Theodore Dalrymple is a British doctor, a contributing editor of City Journal, and Dietrich Weismann fellow of the Manhattan Institute. His latest book is Our Culture, What’s Left of It: The Mandarins and the Masses.
An earlier book:
Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass
hat tip: A Circle of Quiet (who gives her hat tip on this to The Autumn Rain).