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Why Everyday Politeness Is One of the Best Gifts of All, Part One

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Allegory of Virtue by Simon Vouet
During the Month of Self-Giving, I’ve put a lot of thought into the gifts that really matter–the acts of sacrifice that really change us.

For example, when I give make my husband an elaborate brunch (one of his favorite treats), I often expect some relaxation time in return. Even though I’ve worked hard and given him something he really enjoys, I haven’t really made myself more generous spirited. How do I go from doing something generous to being a generous person, who makes sacrifices for others without thinking about them and without feeling self-righteous or resentful?

I want to strengthen the virtue of generosity within myself.

Virtues Are Habits

For the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle—and almost two millennia of philosophers after him—virtue is an excellence of character. It means the capacity to do the right thing without force or the promise of a reward.

Being virtuous is, predictably, harder than it sounds.

Imagine I want to be a more generous person. I can resolve to be a generous person, but that resolution only takes me so far. It doesn’t help me, say, staring at my husband over the last bit of a hot fudge sundae. That’s when I must pit my resolve to be a generous person against my strong desire for one last bite of ice cream.

Without the virtue of generosity, I have to carefully weigh each choice. I might choose to share out of fear of punishment (“He’s just going to pout all night if I don’t give in”) or desire for a reward (“Maybe he’ll do the dishes if I share”). Or I might give in and take the ice cream, making me unable to do the right thing, even though I want to—incontinent. Because I am not generous, I choose to act for the wrong reasons, or choice a selfish action even though I want to do the right thing.

According to Aristotle, virtues don’t involve individual choices at all. Instead, virtues are habits. The virtue of generosity is a habit built from hundreds and thousands of little choices about whether or not to be generous. Every time I choose to do the right thing, I strengthen the habit. Over time, I do the generous thing automatically. I have the virtue of generosity.

So, on another night, over another sundae, I must choose whether to give Adam the last bite or to take it for myself. But, as I strengthen the virtue of generosity in myself, I can do the right thing for its own sake. In fact, I can do the right thing automatically, without any inner struggle at all.

By choosing to treat people well over and over again, we change—not only our habits—but ourselves as well.

So how do we apply these rules in our daily lives?

Civility and Decent Behavior

George Washington’s lifelong commitment to building virtuous habits in his own life makes him one of the greatest men in American history.

As a young man, Washington copied out a list of 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior from a 1595 manual written by French Jesuits for young noblemen.

Many of the rules from the manual sound hopelessly out-of-date. (Consider rule thirteen: “Kill no vermin, or fleas, or lice, ticks, etc. in the sight of others; you see any filth or thick spittle put your foot dexterously upon it.”) But the first rule sums up the principle behind the other 109:  “Every action done in company ought to be with some sign of respect to those that are present.”

When he memorized and owned the 110 rules, Washington gave himself a framework for building virtuous habits in his own life. That’s what “rules for civility and decent behavior” are. Etiquette is a culturally-specific code of behavior for showing other people respect and charity.

In other words, the rules of etiquette tell us how to build virtuous habits.

Unfortunately, today Washington’s rules don’t provide a great framework. “Put not your meat to your mouth with your knife in your hand” is a good reminder to slow down during mealtimes, but it is no longer an important part of showing other people respect. The rules of etiquette have changed.

Virtues are universal, though each culture celebrates some virtues more than others. Etiquette, on the other hand, is particular to each society and varies even decade to decade.

George Washington’s list isn’t enough for the challenges of virtuous, twenty-first century living. So how do we build virtuous habits in this society, in this generation?

Manners for the Modern Age

In the United States, Emily Post has been the name in etiquette since she published Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home in 1922. For most of the last century, her manual has set the rules for behavior in polite company. By following the rules, you could both show respect and charity to those around you and build your own virtue as well.

Post’s Etiquette is in it’s eighteenth reprinting, subtitled Manners in the Modern Age. Manners today are “more situational, tailored to the particular circumstances and expectations of those around us.” For those of us practicing good manners because we want to be virtuous, fluid rules about how we behave can be a little problematic.

Just think back to the last time you were having a conversation when your cellphone rang. You want your actions to show charity and respect, but your desires don’t tell you how to act. Is it ruder to ignore the (potentially urgent) call or to ignore the person right in front of you? If you do choose to ignore the call, is it ruder to let it ring or to get it out of your purse to hang up. Without a clear standard, it’s hard to build good habits—instead of being virtuous by habit we have to make tedious moral choices hundreds of times each day.

When the rules of etiquette collapse, we have to find our own solutions. Stay tuned next week for ideas about how to get started…

3 responses »

  1. Hope all is well. Have been enjoying these posts and look forward to more of them. –kristina

  2. Miss you Experimental Wifery!


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