Saturday, May 13, 2017

Manners Makyth Man

The motto of New College, Oxford, is manners makyth man. It was the device of William of Wykeham (ca. 1320–1404), who also applied it to Winchester College.

I spent a minute staring at this motto when I visited New College’s library in February and saw William’s arms blazoned on a college register. The great mystery of the phrase is its banality. Mottoes that glint hellfire – like Archbishop Parker’s mundus transit & concupiscentia ejus – are striking the first moment you read them, but they lack the gnomic power of Manners makyth man. The problem is: what could have prompted a thinking scholar to write something so seemingly empty?

Noble manners embiggenyth the smallest man.
It’s useless to muse listlessly about a koan. The only way out is to draw some clearer hypotheses. So after a little thought, I’ve managed to resolve the vague formula into four sharper possible meanings.

               1. Sui quemque mores componunt. 

“A man is made by his manners.” This is the first meaning to come to mind. It expresses public-school morality. ‘Want to be a man?’ it seems to say, ‘then get up at dawn to row, memorise lots of Homer, read a book a day, etc.’ In other words, the training a man gets is what ends up constituting his character. With nothing but the gifts of birth it might be possible to achieve some savage virtue, but it’s impossible to learn real humanity without intense discipline.

Furthermore: though it might seem that it’s something else that makes a man – like property, birth, rank, profession, or beauty – William insists (following this interpretation) that the essential thing is manners. Blot out everything but a man’s behavior, and you’ll see his soul.

Fair enough; both prongs of that make good advice. But it’s also advice so obvious that no thinking person should need it. Could such a banal observation have really lived in William’s mind?

               2. Suos quisque mores componit.

“A man makes his manners.” This one’s a little harder to swallow. Read in this way, it seems similar to what Dumbledore says to Harry at the end of The Chamber of Secrets. Harry is disturbed that the Sorting Hat marked him out for Slytherin, only agreeing to put him in Gryffindor on special application. Is he secretly rotten? No, Dumbledore replies, the essential point was that he asked not to be in Slytherin.
‘It only put me in Gryffindor,’ said Harry in a defeated voice, ‘because I asked not to go in Slytherin . . . .’ 
‘Exactly,’ said Dumbledore, beaming once more. ‘Which makes you very different from Tom Riddle. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are.’ (p. 332)
Like any predestinarian, I’m suspicious of human choice’s ability to rework an inborn character. An act of will is too weak and too fickle to remake a person’s soul; only something weightier, like changed social surroundings, is capable of that. It’s also worth pointing out that Dumbledore didn’t say that choices make what we are. They show it. It is only because Harry was good-hearted all along that it even occurred to him to make the choices that he did. This is true almost universally. Edmund is cursed by his evil nature, Edgar is blessed by his virtue, and that’s almost all there is to say.

In any case, as long as we fix on one of these two meanings, we’re doomed to stay in the realm of personal-development slogans. Let’s take a more philosophical point of view.

               3. Homo mores componit.

Man makes manners.” That is, human beings, as a species, decide the rules of their collective lives. No aspect of human behaviour is a law of nature; it can all be overthrown by social fiat.

This seems tempting. No thinking person has managed to go through four years of high school without hearing that everything is a social construct. Whether it’s the rules of language, gender, or truth, it’s always exciting to discover that the fabric of our lives – even if it seems to be immutable – is in fact the mere result of an unspoken contract among men. This is the reason it’s exciting: once you’ve decided that all the rules are a human artifice, you’re free to flout them with a clean conscience.

But putting matters this way attributes illusory agency to individuals. Just because a social convention is logically contingent, it is not therefore unreal. Human social laws has just as much of a real existence on earth as Twitter or Versailles or the Manicouagan Reservoir. It’s inane to object that just because our manners could have been otherwise, our manners are not practically binding.

So say that truth is a social construct: good, but you’re still bound by truth when it comes to defending your property in court. Or say that rules of language are a social construct: fair, but that doesn’t exempt you from them when you want to warn your grandmother about inflation or a bear. If something is a social construct, it doesn’t follow that we’re free from it. To the contrary, we’re just as bound to it as we are to the laws of gravity; perhaps even more strongly. Physics can be overcome; social structures not so. When Galileo wanted to escape gravity, he invented a flying machine. But he also tried to escape the prejudices of his generation – and that he could not do. The only way to escape your age’s manners is to wait for a new generation to be born. What’s more, your own internal feelings and commitments are bound to be controlled, at least indirectly, by the ways of thought that surround you.

Nor is it even defensible to say that human beings collectively decide the manners that bind them. Think about it carefully, and you’ll see that no social laws – whether in the realm of language or morals – are ever set down in an actual compact. In the Middle Ages, for example, it was assumed that guilt was best decided by combat or by ordeal. Now we universally agree that ordeals are superstitious, and we put just as much trust in random townsfolk to weigh the evidence. In the Middle Ages, moreover, people would blow their noses into their hands and spit onto the table at dinner. Now we don’t do that. At no point were these changes ever established by agreement. No group of people ever chose to be disgusted or otherwise by a certain form of table manners.

That is, the basic rules that bind human society do indeed change, but they change on a scale far vaster than any single human life or community. Moments of sudden social convulsion – like the 1960s, for instance – give the illusion that human communities control their fate. But like an earthquake is just the crisis of a much bigger continental movement, so does a social revolution represent only the decisive moment of a much more ancient process. “When the oak tree is felled,” said Carlyle, “the whole forest echoes with it; but a hundred acorns are planted silently by some unnoticed breeze.”

So if you want to know why the Catholic Church suddenly lost its power over Quebec in the 1960s, you shouldn’t be satisfied with the answer “the Quebecois decided to leave the church.” You’ll need instead to look at the larger social movement that gripped the West in that decade, a movement that shook Ireland and France just as well as Quebec, and whose beginnings are to be sought at the start of industrialisation. No single city had control over its social destiny in the ’60s. When the social revolution came, no community had the power to hasten or prevent it.

No: human beings are not the masters of their manners. It’s just the opposite. This brings us to:

               4. Hominem mores componunt.

“Man is made by manners.” I hope this was William of Wykeham’s point.

Out language binds us into ways of life that make us something other than foraging creatures. The concepts that give structure to our lives are all social and intellectual. They are concerns like honor, shame, honesty, deceit, eloquence, and stupidity.

If you were writing the encyclopedia article “Slugs”, you could give a complete report of those animals just by describing their anatomy, their evolutionary descent, their habitats, and their behavior. Nothing like that would suffice for human beings. Of course we have descent, habitats, and the like, but the important part of our lives is made up by our thoughts, our conversations, and our intricate mental passions. Those social and mental features are not supplements to the basically biological story. They are the kernel of our nature, just as their absence expresses something essential about the dumb animals.

We can play with one convention or another, but there is no escaping from human manners altogether. If we think we can live like Zarathustra or Thoreau, and go alone into ice and high mountains, then far from escaping human society, we’re only demonstrating our slavery to it. No one cuts himself off from humanity without being in the grip of an elaborate social attitude to his fellow human beings. Disgust with humanity, after all, is just as much a part of human social life as gregarious love. Human behaviour, whether it amounts to entering or leaving a given social circle, is entirely made by the mental and spiritual structures that come out of social life.

This is something like what Wittgenstein meant when he said: “Giving orders, asking questions, telling stories, and having a chat belong as much to our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, and playing (PU §25).”

Open any reliable book about the Middle Ages, and you’ll find that the introduction contains some variant on the following incantation:
We cannot describe medieval religion as something artificially superadded to men’s basically utilitarian consciences. We must to reckon with Christianity in all its intellectual detail as the basic constituent principle of our subjects’ world. Otherwise a good deal about them will make no sense at all. Terror on behalf of a baby who dies unbaptised. Costly pilgrimages to Rome. Hatred of the Jews. Lust for Jerusalem. Only when we lay aside the spectacles of modern prejudice can we begin to understand the lives of our ancestors.
Well-worn though these declarations are, they are there for a reason. They remind us that we can infer nothing about a human community without first paying close attention to their ways of life and thought. There are indeed common features of all human nature, but these features themselves only become visible when we perceive the deep gulfs separate one human thought-world from another. Because mores are essential to our natures, we can’t lay them aside when we want to understand other people.

Marx’s mistake was to conceive of manners as something given off like smoke from man’s essential activity, which is the pursuit of material welfare. Augustin Thierry, for his part, thought that manners were just the cloak of Frenchman’s primordial inclination, which was to seek freedom. Both of these men – like anyone who tried to find the single secret spring of human action – failed to see that human passions and manners are the important things in themselves. Sometimes human manners are to be taken at face value, and sometimes men themselves don’t know the significance of their own motives. (Illiterate peasants, for example, rarely grasp that their customs fit into vast geographical patterns.) But the untrustworthiness of face-value explanations is merely part of what it means for human life to be endlessly diverse.

Only after reviewing a vast number of examples – from history, anthropology, and even literature – can a person begin to grasp the outline of the human species. Only a God could be a perfect knower of men, because he would see all of our variety.

A corollary is that no human life is more germane to the species than another. Human nature is human thought and human manners, which means that no example of thought or manners can be judged a deviation from human nature. Savage puritanism is just as much a part of the human species as free love. Now, because we live in a part of the world that has committed itself to tolerance, our political orthodoxy makes it look like tolerance is the necessary end-stage of all human manners. It isn’t true. Manners are a many-colored thing, and there is nothing to logically prefer one set of moral commitments, or one system of social organisation, to another. (That’s all more the reason to fight for the death for tolerance: secular society has nothing to hand but sheer force to break the back of thuggish religious illiberalism. The history of the human species will not favour us as a matter of course.)

To close: it might be possible with some research to find out what was actually in William of Wykeham’s mind. But if we’re going to learn the most valuable lesson from it, “Manners makyth man” can’t be taken as an observation on any individual soul. It should be read as a statement of the nature of the human race.

Explicit glossa.

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