The University Record, October 17, 1994

British historian discusses tension between civility and morality

By John Woodford
News and Information Services

Is being polite the same thing as being good? The answer in England during much of the early modern era would have been yes, at least among the middle and upper classes, says Keith Thomas, professor of history at Corpus Christi College, Oxford University.

Thomas, who is president of the British Academy, recently focused on the tension between civility and morality in

England’s early modern era in a lecture sponsored by the Program in British Studies.

Thomas recounted the adoption by the English of Italian and French manuals and rules of etiquette governing bodily comportment, cleanliness, refined speech, table manners and facial expression in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the evolution of these rules into the code of the British gentleman and gentlewoman.

Ideas about refined behavior have remained remarkably consistent over the centuries, Thomas said, and are essentially that one should maintain “emotional and bodily self-control” in carriage and speech. Specific rules (such as tucking one’s hand in one’s waistband, keeping one’s eyes half shut, lips pursed and feet turned outwards) might come and go, but modesty, quietness and cleanliness have almost always found favor.

Thomas noted, however, that such codes originated from a self-conscious and self-interested elite, and that questions of manners have been closely entwined with questions of status, and therefore of power and exploitation. The social and economic practices of the “gentle” classes became entwined with their principles of good manners, and from the 17th century on, Puritans and other religious and political dissenters—often joined by social critics from the privileged classes—strove to show that morality and manners were not equivalent qualities.

Studied politeness came to be attacked as a “mask for self-seeking,” and hypocrisy and flattery were seen as frequent outcomes of studied civility, Thomas said.

Residents of the provinces, and non-English members of the British polity, saw rules of manners as instances of London snootiness and imperial chauvinism.

Gentility also drew criticism as an un-English import from continental Europe and as a barrier to Christian morality. The attack reached its zenith under the Puritans, who developed a code of anti-manners that condemned expenditures on clothing, perfumes and social visits as vain and wasteful, and endorsed such practices as distorting one’s face and weeping loudly during prayer, and refusing to use upper-crust and royal forms of address.

The Quakers opposed “vain and empty ceremony” and valued the expression of the “true feelings of the heart.” Even though the Quakers’ democratic fervency led to a Restoration backlash in support of affability, ceremony and hierarchy, their censuring of sociable artificiality “survived into the Romantic era of Rousseau” and beyond, Thomas said.

“The old link between manners and morality was broken,” he continued, and even though the Victorians tried to resurrect it, most people in the English-speaking world have come to accept the notion that society depends on a measure of insincerity.

Today we see insincerity in the service of civility not as a vice, but as a necessity for social harmony and cohesion. We are rarely likely to wonder whether someone who greets us with a “How are you” sincerely cares about our well-being. And a phrase like “Yours very truly” at the close of a letter, Thomas said, “does not excite agonized analysis” as to the honesty of the person who wrote it.

When Hobbes wrote in the 17th century, “Let every man strive to accommodate himself to the rest,” he foresaw the evolution of civil religion, Thomas said, in which “the god worshipped is society itself.”

Today, people generally accept that good manners involves “behaving so as to make social life as agreeable as

possible and to avoid causing unnecessary pain to others.”

The style of behavior required is seen as informal, friendly, frank and truthful—qualities that the Quakers endorsed. But we also accept without contradiction the artifice of gentle good manners that the Quakers’ foes recognized as a lubricant necessary for the maintenance of a civil society.