From One of Our Readers…

One of our readers, Jay, was quite generous in forwarding to me the following article. It was initially published in Crisis Magazine, I believe. Jay noted that a lot of Old Money attributes might be found in it. I am certain he’s correct.

Thank you, Jay. Here’s the article…

Accounts vary, and a few say that the story about our civil Founders is apocryphal, but it would seem that the story is true. As one of the more jovial national patriarchs, Gouverneur Morris, a native of New York City, but representing Pennsylvania, willingly accepted a challenge from Alexander Hamilton during the Constitutional Convention in 1787 to pat George Washington on his left shoulder and say “My dear General, how happy I am to see you look so well!”

Having vowed, he did exactly that in front of surprised onlookers. The General was a formal man, even austere in manners, and had already assumed a sense of presence that would befit him two years later when he became president of the United States. Washington froze, and then removed Morris’s hand, casting an icy stare at him. The room fell silent save for the sound of the offender’s wooden leg as he withdrew in confusion. Hamilton rewarded him with the promised dinner with wine for a dozen friends, but Morris said: “I have won the bet, but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it.”

Washington’s grace and tact was capable of eliciting deep affection along with admiration, but he had no patience for what he considered boorishness.

At the age of sixteen, he had laboriously copied out in his fine script a long list of “Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour” compiled by French Jesuits in 1595 and translated around 1640 in London by a twelve-year old boy named Francis Hawkins. Rule 47 said: “Mock not nor Jest at any thing of Importance…and if you Deliver any thing witty and Pleasant abstain from Laughing thereat yourself.” Similarly, Rule 64: “Break not a Jest where none take pleasure in mirth. Laugh not aloud, nor at all without Occasion…”

Washington wrote this out in the same year that Lord Chesterfield in one of his famous letters to his teenage son, albeit disparaged by Dr. Johnson, advised: “Many people, at first, from awkwardness and mauvaise honte, have got a very disagreeable and silly trick of laughing whenever they speak.”

None of this was a formula for pomposity. The rules were gentle protocols for avoiding the sort of self-conscious exuberance that masks pride as affability. From Plato and Aristotle to Seneca the Stoic, the virtuous man was one of piety, dignity, courage, and gravity. A man does not soar to moral heights by being a lightweight.

Saint Benedict (480-547) raised this up a notch by associating these virtues with true humility, which was an undeveloped concept in pagan times. He writes in his Rule for monks: “The tenth degree of humility is, when a monk is not easily moved and quick for laughter, for it is written, ‘The fool exalteth his voice in laughter.’” Then: “The eleventh degree of humility is, that, when a monk speaketh, he speak gently and without laughter, humbly and with gravity, with few and sensible words, and that he be not loud of voice, as it is written: ‘The wise man is known by the fewness of his words.’”

Saint Benedict was a happy man and his monasteries were beacons of joy in a darkening society. Not in spite of that but because of it, he carefully carved the difference between serenity and giddiness. In the same vein, no one today would want to buy a used car from a man who is constantly giggling.

Slapping a man on the back may be fraternal, but it also may be a subtle form of domination. And clownish behavior can scream insecurity. In the days of vaudeville, if the audience started booing, an actor’s last defense was to hold a baby and wave the American flag. When institutions are failing, false sentiment distracts from the rot, and pantomimes virtue.

Sometimes, an affectation of simplicity can be an innocent, if not naïve, indulgence, like Marie Antoinette playing the part of a dairymaid with scented cows in her rustic retreat of Le Hameau. But it was a costly reverie and an expensive pretense. The singer Dolly Parton dressed as a tinseled cowgirl said: “You wouldn’t believe how much it costs to look this cheap.”

On the other hand, the heroically humble John Henry Newman regretted that a photograph of him showing a frayed cuff “advertised poverty.” When he returned from Rome having been made a cardinal, he arrived at the London Oratory where a crowd had gathered to see the new prince of the Church. Advanced in years, and much discomfited, he struggled to don the cassock and ferraiuolo in his carriage before alighting so as not to disappoint those who had come to see some scarlet.

A few days after the battle of the Allia River on July 18, 390 BC, the Senones tribesman of the Celtic Gauls sacked Rome, this being the first of the six notorious pillagings over more than a millennium. While most of the citizens fled by way of the Janiculum Hill where the North American College now stands, patricians sat on ivory chairs outside their houses in their senatorial robes to await death. One of Livy’s most moving passages described the scene:

The houses of the plebeians were barricaded, the halls of the patricians stood open, but they felt greater hesitation about entering the open houses than those which were closed. They gazed with feelings of real veneration upon the men who were seated in the porticoes of their mansions, not only because of the superhuman magnificence of their apparel and their whole bearing and demeanour, but also because of the majestic expression of their countenances, wearing the very aspect of gods. So they stood, gazing at them as if they were statues, till, as it is asserted, one of the patricians, M. Papirius, roused the passion of a Gaul, who began to stroke his beard—which in those days was universally worn long—by smiting him on the head with his ivory staff. He was the first to be killed, the others were butchered in their chairs. After this slaughter of the magnates, no living being was thenceforth spared; the houses were rifled, and then set on fire.

In our reduced culture when wealthy celebrities go about unshaven, neckties are considered an imposition, form letters from the bank address customers by their first names, and no thought is given to how to dress for church, attention to the gravity of one’s office may seem archaic and indeed affected. But the opposite is the case.

The amiably eccentric Queen Christina of Sweden, having abdicated her throne to become a Catholic, wrote to a friend: “Dignity does not consist in possessing honors, but in deserving them.” Customs and outward forms signal that one’s duty is greater than one’s self, and neglect of them is an exercise in egotism. The man who says, “Call me brother, call me pal,” would not have to sloganize that way if he really were a brother and a pal.

The irony is this: Those who are silly on the outside can be sly on the inside, and the comic can be cruel to those who see through the charade. Chesterton was a genuine wit and champion of the common man, which is precisely why he was skeptical of sham self-deprecation and warned against the “easy speeches that comfort cruel men.” Cruel men dressed Jesus as a clown on the way to the Cross, but he never abandoned his dignity. His humility made Pontius Pilate so anxious that with deliberate ambiguity the governor hung a sign over his head calling him a king.

  • BGT

12 thoughts on “From One of Our Readers…

  1. Great citation form Rev. Canon Roberts’s, J. M. Dent & Sons, Ltd., London, 1905, The History of Rome By Titus Livius, or Livy, History of Rome, English Translation by Rev. Canon Roberts, New York, NY, E. P. Dutton and Co. 1912.

    However, let’s put things in order. Before mentioned citation, I would squeeze in two following citations by the same author:

    “…. the patricians and the plebeians were bitterly hostile to one another, owing mainly to the desperate condition of the debtors. They loudly complained that whilst fighting in the field for liberty and empire they were oppressed and enslaved by their fellow- citizens at home; their freedom was more secure in war than in peace, safer amongst the enemy than amongst their own people. The discontent, which was becoming of itself continually more embittered, was still further inflamed by the signal misfortunes of one individual. An old man, bearing visible proofs of all the evils he had suffered, suddenly appeared in the Forum. His clothing was covered with filth, his personal appearance was made still more loathsome by a corpse-like pallor and emaciation, his unkempt beard and hair made him look like a savage. In spite of this disfigurement he was recognised by the pitying bystanders; they said that he had been a centurion, and mentioned other military distinctions he possessed. He bared his breast and showed the scars which witnessed to many fights in which he had borne an honourable part. The crowd had now almost grown to the dimensions of an Assembly of the people. He was asked, “Whence came that garb, whence that disfigurement?” He stated that whilst serving in the Sabine war he had not only lost the produce of his land through the depredations of the enemy, but his farm had been burnt, all his property plundered, his cattle driven away, the war-tax demanded when he was least able to pay it, and he had got into debt. This debt had been vastly increased through usury and had stripped him first of his father’s and grandfather’s farm, then of his other property, and at last like a pestilence had reached his person. He had been carried off by his creditor, not into slavery only, but into an underground workshop, a living death. Then he showed his back scored with recent marks of the lash.“


    “Another crowd, mainly of plebeians, for whom there was not room on so small a hill or food enough in the scanty store of corn, poured out of the City in one continuous line and made for the Janiculum. From there they dispersed, some over the country, others towards the neighbouring cities, without any leader or concerted action, each following his own aims, his own ideas. and all despairing of the public safety.”

    ….. and now comes “The houses of the plebeians ….. “

    Aubrey De Selincourt, Livy: The Early History of Rome, Books I-V (Penguin Classics) (Bks. 1-5) puts the same thing in the following way:

    “The chief cause of the dispute was the plight of the unfortunates who were ‘bound over’ to their creditors for debt. These men complained that while they were fighting in the field to preserve their country’s liberty and to extend her power, their own fellow–citizens at home had enslaved and oppressed them; the common people, they declared, had a better chance of freedom in war than in peace; fellow Romans threatened them with worse slavery than a foreign foe. Finally, their growing resentment was fanned into flame by a particular instance of the appalling condition into which a debtor might fall. An old man suddenly presented himself in the Forum. With his soiled and threadbare clothes, his dreadful pallor and emaciated body, he was a pitiable sight, and the uncouthness of his appearance was further increased by his unkempt hair and beard. Nevertheless, though cruelly changed from what he had once been, he was recognized, and people began to tell each other, compassionately, that he was an old soldier who had once commanded a company and served with distinction in various ways – an account which he himself supported by showing the scars of honourable wounds which he still bore upon his breast. A crowd quickly gathered, till the Forum was as full as if a public assembly were about to be held; they pressed round the pathetic figure of the old soldier, asking him how it was that he had come to this dreadful pass. ‘While I was on service,’ he said, ‘during the Sabine war, my crops were ruined by enemy raids, and my cottage was burnt. Everything I had was taken, including my cattle. Then, when I was least able to do so, I was expected to pay taxes, and fell, consequently, into debt. Interest on the borrowed money increased my burden; I lost the land which my father and grandfather had owned before me, and then my other possessions; ruin spread like a disease through all I had, and even my body was not exempt from it, for I was finally seized by my creditor and reduced to slavery: nay, worse – I was hauled away to prison and the slaughterhouse.”

    …. and ads the following:

    “So deeply was the country divided by its political differences, that the people, unlike their oppressors in the governing class, hailed the prospect of invasion with delight. For them, it seemed like an intervention of providence to crush the pride of the Senate; …”

    Looks like plebeians did not care much about patricians. I think it is called reciprocity. You look after my farm while I’m on the battlefield, and I will look after you once in trouble. You come to my party; I will come to your party.

    The article writes: “While most of the citizens fled …………” I recommend the author to double check who were the Roman citizens and who were the rest. To my knowledge (I might be wrong), through out the entire Roman history, the citizens made only 2.5 % of the entire population.

    Regarding Catholicism, I admire their marketing. They have the best marketing in the world – they promote the “product” no one has ever seen. One has to unmistakably understand that faith and religion are two different things. For that matter I would recommend Durkheim and his The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.

    Hmmmm……, appears the author of posted article is either very clever and familiar with Aristotle and his situational ethics, or just innocently and unknowingly mixing things together as they come. However, I would be very careful with Aristotle. He is appealing and one can easily say that he is right. The opposite may be truth. It is the same as reading authors like Max Weber, George Lukács, Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Herbert Marcuse ……. – generally speaking, Frankfurt School. Let’s not forget current Jürgen Habermas (I almost did not pass the exam – extra difficult to read, not to understand!). It seems they are right and one can easily identify himself with their thought and writings, but I’d be very careful.

    Sorry for being so wordy.

  2. “Jay noted that a lot of Old Money attributes might be found in it.”
    The title of the article and the ethos of the magazine already confirm this.

    As for the content, it resonates indeed with Old Money self-restraint — although this is exercised by people of all backgrounds. Among Stoics, Marcus Aurelius was a patrician, but Epictectus was born a slave. One of the strictest institutions within the Church was founded by a man of rather humble origins.

    “From Plato and Aristotle to Seneca the Stoic, the virtuous man was one of piety, dignity, courage, and gravity.”
    Yes, the Stoics believed that laughter should be exercised with moderation. But they also believed that humour was necessary, in a world often marked by suffering. Anyone who reads carefully will notice their dry wit. And who would dare say that a highly respected monarch can’t have a lively sense of humour?

    “neckties are considered an imposition”
    Dress codes are important in specific social and professional environments. There are even those who believe “never trust a man in a smart suit and no tie”. However, the highest echelons of society, from politics to private banking, have shown us that proper attire does not necessarily imply righteousness.

  3. You might find it odd that the point that resonates with me is the form letter from the bank that addresses the customer by the first name. I don’t like it when the nurse at the doctor calls me back by calling, “Kathie!” and I am made to feel snobbish by preferring ‘Mrs. Truitt’. I also still appreciate being called ‘ma’am’. But unfortunately, we have so many women that take offense to ‘ma’am’ and not being called by their first name, that it ruins it for the few of us.

    1. In such situation one would continue addressing the other person kindly yet formally, as if one didn’t notice. It will probably make the point, without creating embarrassment. Perhaps, it is preferable to be known in the first place as a person who shows politeness, than one who expects it from others.

      1. I agree! I went back and re-read my remark and I meant that society and today’s norms make me me feel like I’m being snobbish. I just smile and grit my teeth when they call out my first name. I never correct them. 🙂

    2. Yes, it’s an increasingly casual world we live in. The lack of formality devalues the time and effort required to have a certain amount of familiarity with someone, to come to the point, after some water under the bridge, where you could say, Please, call me Kathie. Going from zero to 60 is rarely a good thing to do in a hurry. Thanks for sharing. I know many empathize. – BGT

  4. I do wonder if there’s a possibility of our culture becoming any more casual? That is not a “dare” by any means, but sweatpants at the ballet, pajama bottom clad adults at the grocery store, and shorts that cover little more than a standard pair of underwear does tend to give me pause. Disrobing any further would at some point preclude arrest!

    And I haven’t even touched on Tinder, the languishing death of RSVPs and thank you notes, the inability of people to tear their eyes away from their devices to engage in conversation with human beings in their vicinity, and the reluctance of people to grow up. When did the word “adult” become a verb? People are now “adulting” when they are engaging in activities that befit their age… like paying bills or renewing their driver’s license. I recently took my 8 year old daughter to watch a (child’s) film. I was shocked by how many adults were in the theater unaccompanied by children.

    The absolute end of Western Civilization.

    I have always been told by older (wiser) people that culture is a pendulum that swings from one side to another. I am patiently waiting for people to come to their senses and slowly start to make their way back to some cultural dignity.

    Thank you so much for starting this webpage! I enjoy your posts as well as the comments from your readers. It’s good to know that while my values aren’t reflected by the current culture, that there are people out there who share them.

    1. Thank you, Lenka. We’ll try to hold firm here and weather the storm. When the ‘casual’ mores of the present finally hit the breaking point, people will come back around to a little formality in their lives. Stay strong. – BGT

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