September 09, 2011

An Old Kind of Hero…

When George Washington was a young man, he copied out a list of 110 “Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.”
The 110th. read - “Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.”
As the biographer Richard Brookhiser has noted, these rules were not just etiquette tips. They were designed to improve inner morals by shaping the outward man.
Washington took them very seriously. He worked hard to follow them. Throughout his life, he remained acutely conscious of his own rectitude.
In so doing, he turned himself into a new kind of hero, not only a military or political hero. As the historian Gordon Wood has written, “Washington was acclaimed as a classical hero because of the way he conducted himself during times of temptation. It was his moral character that set him off from other men.”
Washington absorbed, and later came to personify what you might call the dignity code. The code was based on the same premise as the nation’s Constitution — that human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions. A system would have to be created to balance and restrain these desires.
The dignity code commanded its followers to be disinterested and to endeavor to put national interests above personal interests. It commanded its followers to be reticent to never degrade intimate emotions by parading them in public and to be dispassionate.  To distrust rashness, zealotry, and fury.

The old dignity code has not survived in modern times. The costs of its demise are there for all of us to see.


a fan said...

Great post, as usual – good stuff to hear. I find that every time I drift away from regular visits here, I come back out of the blue and get a plethora of great posts. Thanks!

your gaggle of fans said...

A couple of comments. The maxims are purely good manners, behaviour expected of serious, sober gentlemen of Washington’s era.
Recall that Washington was an autodidact with very little formal education, and the “Rules of Conduct” are an 18th century version of a 16th century book, which in turn relied upon earlier rules of conduct.
Benjamin Franklin wrote and relied upon a similar series of maxims…and used a daily checklist to track his adherance to his written standards.

frenchtoast said...

One of the elements of dignity is privacy, is holding to yourself what belongs to your inmost thoughts or at least not sharing them when you're not on an analyst's couch. That has gone by the boards in our "confessional culture" that makes the Oxford Group look like a Trappist prayer meeting.

Charles said...

We have given up much that guides our social discourse at the risk of being 'old fashioned'. The most important part of what can be simply called manners is the effort to make others at ease. It precludes a "me first" presentation to the world.