Item of the Day: The Enquirer (1797)

Full Title:  THE ENQUIRER.  Reflections on Education, Manners, and Literature, In a Series of Essays by William Godwin.  Philadelphia:  Printed for Robert Campbell & Co. by John Bioren. 1797.


Of Politeness.


It has been no unfrequent profession among men of a bold temper, and who are smitten with a love for the sublimer virtues, that they are enemies to politeness.

One of the greatest misfortunes incident to morality, as well as to a majority of sciences, flows from the ambiguity of words.

By politeness many persons understand artificial manners, the very purpose of which is to stand between the feelings of the heart and the external behaviour.  The word immediately conjures up to their mind a corrupt and vicious mode of society, and they conceive it to mean a set of rules, founded in no just reason, and ostentatiously practiced by those who, are familiar with them, for no purpose more expressly, than to confound and keep at a distance those who, by the accident of their birth or fortune, are ignorant of them.

In this sense no doubt politeness is worthy of our decisive disapprobation, and in this sense it is to be regretted that there is vastly too much politeness in the world.

Urbanity is a term that has met with a better fortune among our contemporaries, than politeness.  Yet, if we have recourse to their etymology, politeness is certainly not less appropriate and laudable.  As it descends to us from the Greek, its nature is precisely coincident; as it comes to us through the medium of the Latin word, which signifies to polish, to make smooth, agreeable to the eye, and pleasant to the touch, it is sufficiently adapted to that circumstance in morals which may admit of a substantial vindication.

Morality, or the exercise of beneficence, consists of two principal parts, which may be denominated the greater morality, and the less.  Those actions of a man’s life, adapted to purposes of beneficence, which are fraught with energy, and cannot be practiced but in an exalted temper of mind, belong to the greater morality, such as saving a fellow being from death, raising him from deep distress, conferring on him a memorable advantage, or exerting one’s self for the service of multitudes.  There are other actions, in which a man may consult the transitory feelings of his neighbours, and to which we can seldom be prompted by a lofty spirit of ambition; actions which the heart can record, but which the tongue is rarely competent to relate.  These belong to the lesser morality.

It should seem as if our temper and the permanent character of our minds, should be derived from the greater morality; but that the ordinary and established career of our conduct, should have reference to the less.

No doubt a man of eminent endowments and fortunate situation may do no more good by the practice of the greater morality, than he can do mischief by the neglect of the less.  But, even in him, the lesser moralities, as they are practiced or neglected, will produce important effects.  The neglect of them, however illustrious may be the tenour of his life, and however eminent his public services, will reflect a shade of ambiguity upon his character.  Thus authors, whose writings have been fraught with the seeds of general happiness, but whose conduct towards their relatives or acquaintance has been attended with any glaring defect, have seldom obtained much credit for purity of principle.  With the ordinary rate of mankind it is worse:  when they have parted with the lesser moralities they have nearly parted with every thing.

The great line of distinction between these two branches of morality, is that the less is of incomparably more frequent demand.  We may rise up and lie down for weeks and months together, without being once called upon for the practice of any grand and emphatical duty.  But it will be strange if a day pass over our heads, without affording scope for the lesser moralities.  They furnish therefore the most obvious test  as to the habitual temper of our lives.

Another important remark which flows from this consideration, is that the lesser moralities, however minute in their constituent particles, and however they may be passed over by the supercilious as unworthy regard, are of great importance in the estimate of human happiness.  It is rarely that the opportunity occurs for a man to confer on me a striking benefit.  But, ever time that I meet him, he may demonstrate his kindness, his sympathy, and, by attentions almost too minute for calculation, add new vigour to the stream of complacence and philanthropy that circulates in my veins.

Hence it appears that the lesser moralities are of most importance, where politeness is commonly least thought of, in the bosom of family intercourse, and where people have occasion most constantly to associate together.  If I see the father of a family perpetually exerting himself for what he deems to be their welfare, if he give the most unequivocal proofs of his attachment, if he cannot hear of any mischance happening to them without agony, at the same time that he is their despot and their terror, bursting out into all the fury of passion, or preserving a sour and painful moroseness that checks all the kindly effusions of their soul, I shall regard this man as an abortion, and I may reasonably doubt whether, by his mode of proceeding, he does not traverse their welfare in more respects than he promotes it. . . .

Politeness is not precisely that scheme and system of behaviour which can be learned in the fashionable world.  There are many things in the system of the fashionable world, that are practiced, not to encourage but depress, not to produce happiness but mortification.  These, by whatever name they are called, are the reserve of genuine politeness; and are accordingly commonly known by the denomination of rudeness, a word of exactly opposite application.  Much true politeness may often be found in a cottage.  It cannot however conspicuously exists, but in a mind itself unembarrassed, and at liberty to attend to the feelings of others; and it is distinguished by an open ingenuousness of countenance, and an easy and flowing manner.  It is therefore necessarily graceful.  It may undoubtedly best be learned in the society of the unembarrassed, the easy and the graceful.  It is most likely to exist among those persons who, delivered from the importunate pressure of the first wants of our nature, have leisure to attend to the delicate and evanescent touches of the soul.

Politeness has been said to be the growth of courts, and a manner frank, abrupt and austere, to be congenial to a republic.  If this assertion be true, it is a matter worthy of regret, and it will behove us to put it in the scale as a defect, to be weighed against the advantages that will result from a more equal and independent condition of mankind.  It is however probably founded in mistake.  It does not seem reasonable to suppose the the abolition of servility should be the diminution of kindness; and it has already been observed that, where the powers of intellect are strenuously cultivated, sensibility will be their attendant.  But, in proportion to the acuteness of any man’s feelings, will be, in a majority of cases, his attention and deference to the feelings of others.





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Filed under 1790's, England, Manners, Political Philosophy, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Uncategorized

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