Saturday, January 5, 2013

The value of politeness

I'm not a fan of David Brooks. I stopped regularly reading his column in The New York Times several years ago. I found his writing tendentious in the extreme as he praised politicians who I found to be outrageous in their views and downright unpatriotic in their actions. I suppose if I had agreed with him, I wouldn't have found him quite so tendentious!

Anyway, I don't usually read his column but the one from yesterday caught my eye and I did settle down to read it. I'm glad I did.

The title of the column is "Suffering fools gladly" and the topic is politeness, a value that is too often missing in our lives today. Indeed, the modern view seems to be that politeness is a weakness. It's a philosophy of life that is much more interested in the snappy comeback, in showing up the ignorance or stupidity of one's adversary than in being kind to people. And, in this world view, everyone is an adversary.

Brooks points out that many of the people that we admire are said not to "suffer fools gladly" and that we seem to find this a desirable quality. He makes the argument that the more admirable trait is to be willing to extend courtesy to everyone, even fools.

He writes about a senior member of the House of Representatives and his rude treatment of a young reporter  and says, "He was exposing a yawning gap between his own high opinion of himself and his actual conduct in the world. He was making the mistake, which metaphysical fools tend to make, that there is no connection between your inner moral quality and the level of courtesy you present to others." Brooks goes further to quote Edmund Burke, who said, “Manners are of more importance than laws. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us, by a constant, steady, uniform, insensible operation, like that of the air we breathe in.” 

Burke's argument - and Brooks' - seem valid to me. In fact, they just give intellectual underpinings to what my mother always told me; namely, treat other people the way you would want to be treated yourself. I can't say that I absorbed everything that she tried to teach me, but I did take that bit to heart and have always tried to live by it.

My acceptance of that simple philosophy may be at the root of my love of Jane Austen's books. Her novels of manners are the most elegant framing of the argument for treating others with politeness. Those who transgress society's rules regarding manners invariably suffer in the end.

In his column, Brooks quotes a French philosopher who I frankly had not heard of, but after reading his thoughts here, I feel I may need to get to know him better:
In his extremely French book, “A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues,” the contemporary philosopher AndrĂ© Comte-Sponville argues that “politeness is the first virtue, and the origin perhaps of all the others.” Politeness is a discipline that compels respectful behavior. Morality, he writes “is like a politeness of the soul, an etiquette of the inner life, a code of duties, a ceremonial of the essential.” (I told you it was very French.)    
"Politeness is the first virtue, and the origin perhaps of all the others," and morality "is like a politeness of the soul, an etiquette of the inner life..." I like that. Politeness - treating others the way we want to be treated ourselves - as the origin of all virtues and the basis of morality.

So, once again, my mother was right.

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