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Musings on Politeness as Handmaiden to Philosophy: 1/2
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2007-08-03 09:58:50
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Way back in the 18th century Montesquieu quipped that “The English are busy; they don’t have the time to be polite.” Later on, toward the end of the 19th century Henry Bergson gave a lecture on good manners to French students. He divided politeness into three kinds: of manners, of the spirit, and of the heart. Similarly, Max Scheler, his contemporary, exhorted anybody who would aspire to wisdom to cultivate empathy (Einfulblung) and sympathy (Mitfublung).

José Ortega y Gasset was of the opinion that philosophy ought to educate desire as well as the mind. Closer to our times we have the American philosopher Richard Rorty who in the 90s complained that philosophers in general had become not smarter, but meaner, more pugnacious, more argumentative and rationalistic and much less imaginative; while Umberto Eco has quipped sardonically that some wish to see truth naked, at any cost, but truth is a very modest and well mannered maiden and eludes the curious voyeur.

That witticism applies to publications too. Some of them debate the issues in a more or less “well mannered” mode (the more views expressed and the more freely discussed, without descending to ad hominem arguments, the more well mannered, in my opinion), others want the naked truth, the kind of truth that leaves little room for ambiguities, conceives of truth rationalistically (only the rational is real) and reduces the humanities to mere frosting on the cake. Those publications eventually reveal their true colours: they end up as mere ideological propaganda parading as the truth: a sort of biased and prostituted truth. The end result is what Vico dubbed "the barbarism of the intellect."

One may ask: what exactly is the nexus between philosophy and good manners? After all, isn’t philosophy supposed to instruct us to swallow the bitter medicine called truth? Isn't Socrates’ sense of wonder at what exists and Aristotle’s will to truth, found at the origins of the Western philosophical (which is also scientific) enterprise, simply covering up a Nietzschean will to power? And if so, why not honestly admit it? Why the silly insistence on good manners? Before attempting an answer to these questions let us analyze a bit more carefully each of Bergson's categories of good manners.

Everybody can easily identify good manners by its opposite, rudeness. We have all met the intellectual bully; I dare say he is found in every school and in every publication. He narrow-mindedly and jealously guards the gates of political correctness (usually a self-appointed position), reducing complex cultural phenomena to caricatures, pigeonholing them under some pet category, rationalizing what ought never be rationalized or permitted.

Politeness and gentility, on the other hand, are usually associated with behaviour that is consonant with being a gentleman or a gentle-woman. Those are virtues originally taught to aristocrats at court in the tradition of Baldassare Castiglione who in the 16th century wrote a treatise titled Il Cortigiano at the Renaissance court of Urbino.

These gentlemanly virtues are sometimes confused with their caricature, that of the elitist Club based on the principles of exclusion and snobbery, or with what the French aristocracy would characterize as “noblesse oblige,” a sort of hypocritical condescending “urbanity” (the Latin root of the word politeness) accompanied by a propensity for diplomatic rhetoric, often hiding Machiavellian motives and agendas; a sort of looking down to the unwashed masses.

Indeed, good manners may degenerate to a hypocritical affectation and snobbery that militates against sincerity; however, that is not what a philosopher of the stature of Emmanuel Kant had in mind with his injunction to “treat humanity always as an end, never as a means.” Kant was simply saying that, if one wants to keep intact the integrity of one’s own humanity, each individual person one encounters needs to be recognized as a centre of values; no human being ought to be reduced to a means to achieve one's ends, no matter how idealistic and legitimate. It goes without saying that one needs first to recognize that centre of values in oneself. Know thyself, know what it means to be and to act as a human being is a wise counsel even today. To cavalierly disregard it as ancient and anachronistic, not suited to a modern paradigm of values, is to risk loosing one's humanity.

However, what is emphasized by Bergson, Scheler and Ortega y Gasset is not so much politeness of manners but politeness of spirit. That is to say, the ability to place oneself in other people’s shoes, in their particular circumstances, and to imagine oneself living their lives. Every good poet and story teller is able to imagine and narrate alien circumstances. One cannot experience personally all there is to experience.


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