LSS: Ah, civility…

Ah, civility.

Ah, courtesy.

Ah, chivalry.

The three C’s of yester-year?

In a country built on the virtue of democracy, common decency seems to be vanishing at an alarming rate. What most of us consider basic manners are practices rooted in ancient European nobility. Courtesy is derived from appropriate behavior at courtChivalry was behavior taught to chevaliers – knights.

With many cultures meeting in the middle, rules of behavior are sometimes unclear – and that lack of clarity shows. America has long been a melting pot of cultures, but how did early leaders cope?

Many believe one of the reasons George Washington was able to lead effectively was the respect he garnered by almost everyone, regardless of their social standing. Mason Locke Weems wrote the fable of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. He also wrote that it was “no wonder every body honoured him who honoured every body.”

History tells us that part of Washington’s ease in dealing effectively with many people from different social standings and cultures was his adeptness in civility. For that, at least partial credit goes to French Jesuits who, in 1595, wrote 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation, which Washington copied by age 16.

Richard Brookhiser wrote, “Washington was to dedicate himself to freeing America from a court’s control. Could manners survive the operation? Without realizing it, the Jesuits who wrote them, and the young man who copied them, were outlining and absorbing a system of courtesy appropriate to equals and near-equals.”

The Jesuit written-George Washington-imparted rules are good reminders for today’s society – myself included. Perhaps if parents and their children lived more by the manners of the man we call the Father of our Country, life would have much less strife for us all.

Though some are surely dated, most of the rules are as timely now as they were in 1595. In language of long ago – that’s worth figuring out, here’s a sampling:

1st Every Action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present.

3rd Show Nothing to your Friend that may affright him.

4th In the Presence of Others Sing not to yourself with a humming Noise, nor Drum with your Fingers or Feet.

9th Spit not in the Fire, nor Stoop low before it neither Put your Hands into the Flames to warm them, nor Set your Feet upon the Fire especially if there be meat before it.

19th Let your Countenance be pleasant but in Serious Matters Somewhat grave.

24th Do not laugh too loud or too much at any Public Spectacle.

41st Undertake not to Teach your equal in the art himself Professes; it Savours of arrogance.

44th When a man does all he can though it Succeeds not well blame not him that did it.

49th Use no Reproachful Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile.

110th Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.

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2 thoughts on “LSS: Ah, civility…”

  1. Jan, very good blog. I just did a series of stories on the outstanding leaders in the Shreveport area. Two of them started discussions with me about civility. Both talked of how it was lacking and how the community and society need to make it more important. One was a principal at an alternative school. She really, really stressed the importance of restoring civility. I couldn’t agree more. I guess the schools are really the best chance to try to do so, and, obviously, in the home. Can this become a nationwide initiative? 🙂

  2. Thanks, Jessica. I think your Shreveport educators are onto something. Without civility, all hope is lost — and I mean that. It’s difficult to teach or learn (almost impossible, in fact) in a hostile environment. Many places in our schools have lost so much civility that it would shock the average adult. The way the students treat each other blows my mind on an almost daily basis. The thing is I really don’t believe many of them know or understand what it’s like to treat someone with courtesy. They’re of the dog-eat-dog mindset and interpret demonstrations of courtesy as weaknesses.

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