Miss Manners

Miss Manners & The Ugly:

A fine point made by Judith Martin, better known by her pen name of "Miss Manners." She is responding to this letter:

I am a very private person, and I believe that having good manners is important, so I work hard at being polite every day. I have had a co-worker for the last two years who keeps asking me what I'm "really like."

When this happens, I answer, "This is what I'm really like," until he gets tired of it and gives up. I have encountered other people who ask me variations of this same question, e.g. "What is the real you like?"

If my co-worker ever hears me say something even vaguely negative or not entirely polite, he says with great pleasure, "Now, there's the real you coming out."

I am getting frustrated with people who assume that my slip-ups and mistakes expose more of my real character than the manners I work hard at every day....
Miss Manners notes:
Whole schools of unpleasant art have been built on the idea that only the ugly is real.

The same notion applied to people appeals to those who, like your co-worker, want to justify their own rudeness on the grounds that they are being natural, honest and true to themselves. As they undoubtedly are, more's the pity for the rest of us.
She is right; but that's only the first part of this story.

I recall a historian writing about General Washington -- sadly, I cannot recall his name -- who pointed out that Washington composed and personally copied rules of etiquette. These were not things he always did perfectly, that he wanted others to copy: he did not present himself as a Mohammed, a model for others to emulate because of a special and perfect relationship with God. Rather, the copies he made of these rules were to impress the etiquette upon himself, in the hope of making himself into the man he wanted to become.

The historian pointed to our culture of "authenticity," and noted that George Washington didn't have it. What he had was a vision of the good, and a desire to be better than he "authentically" was.

I've written about that as well:
The best people devote themselves to attempting to make real some part of that ideal beauty in their own lives. This is done through training and practice. Once you have performed the deliberation to know what is right in a given circumstance, you become virtuous by training your character so that you do that, and silence in your mind all arguments to the contrary. Eventually you should become the kind of person who can only do the right thing -- but it was freely chosen training and practice that got you there.

What Aristotle was saying in the initial quote was that we can best be sure that a man has is fully trained in a given virtue if he expresses it in sudden circumstances without time for deliberation. His character is fully formed, so that the deliberation and argument is no longer necessary: he just does what is right, without thought.

This is, for ethical decisions, precisely the condition that the martial arts aspires to teach in physical decisions. It is the condition the Japanese martial arts calls mushin, "No Mind."
The vision you are training to be is the "real you." The vision of the beautiful is the real thing. The rest of it -- all of it -- falls away. Your consciousness of being in charge of those lesser decisions may even be an illusion.

It is the vision, only the vision, that is real.
And I thought, “I will go with you,
As man with God has gone,
And wander with a wandering star,
The wandering heart of things that are,
The fiery cross of love and war
That like yourself, goes on.”

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