The Rules of Civility
George Washington was known to have copied over certain Rules of Civility as a thirteen year old. This is sometimes made to sound as if he had great insight and was foretelling his future character, but actually, the rules were old and well known, and many a young gentlemen learned them by rote, in class, as he did.
The rules were originally authored by Giovanni Della Casa, an aspiring figure in the Catholic church in sixteenth century Italy, based on classical research, including Plato and Aristotle. Il Galateo was published after Della Casa’s death. He could not have guessed at his creation’s survival and influence.
Il Galateo was frequently remodeled and translated into numerous languages. Primarily, its re-publication and use was by the Jesuits, who were busy schooling young nobility all over Europe. It was published in English for the first time in 1576 and later translations followed, with modifications being made at every opportunity. The edition young George learned from was Youth’s Behavior, or Decency in Conversation amongst men, was purportedly translated from the French by 8 year old Francis Hawkins in 1641. There is some doubt as to his achievement in that both his father and uncle were noted translators. Then again, the French was not that difficult (I can read it with a little help from a dictionary, which proves it's easy) and if he was bilingual, I don’t see why he could not have done it.
Manners, in the ideal, have not changed so much since young Francis Hawkins’ time. They are almost all recognizable as things we learn from out parents, although many of them are quaint and no longer apply. Although to some degree, these rules of civility are mostly given lip service nowadays, I expect that they have always been so to one degree or another. Even the rules about dealing with “superiors,” which makes up a large part of the rules, and possibly influenced Washington’s notable standoffishness as a general and president, have been internalized in us, at least by the time we are adults, although they are much tempered. For example, were we to take a walk with the president, we might not give him the wall as opposed to the street side, but we would probably be pretty deferential.
The following Rules stand out in interest for one reason or another, mostly because of their continued usage or need, but sometimes because of the differences between then and now. The Bold represents Washington’s notes and the sentence case my comments.
2. WHEN IN COMPANY, PUT NOT YOUR HANDS TO ANY PART OF YOUR BODY THAT IS NOT USUALLY DISCOVERED.
I think we can guess what they were getting at here, but frankly, ladies, sometimes men need to make “adjustments”. Of course, parts of the body that were usually “discovered” then were limited to the hands and face. We have much more leisure to “explore” nowadays without offending anyone, although “scratching” still gets raised eyebrows and snickering.
4. IN THE PRESENCE OF OTHERS, SING NOT TO YOURSELF WITH A HUMMING NOISE; NOR DRUM WITH YOUR FINGERS OR FEET.
You can’t even get that kind of peace and quiet in a library these days. Noise is so prevalent in our society, that it sometimes drops into the background. Many of us would like to add to this rule – NOR SPEAK UPON YOUR CELL PHONE AS IF YOU WERE IN A PHONE BOOTH OR YOUR OWN ROOM.
7. PUT NOT OFF YOUR CLOTHS IN THE PRESENCE OF OTHERS, NOR GO OUT OF YOUR CHAMBER HALF DRESSED.
We often see speculation these days of what the forefathers would do or think about certain situations. I expect that our dress would shock them most, particularly if a young woman in a bikini top walked past them.
11. SHIFT NOT YOURSELF IN THE SIGHT OF OTHERS, NOR GNAW YOUR NAILS.
So, nail biting was a big eye sore back then too. You have to wonder if that was a problem for George. Frankly, the thought of a young John Adams or Thomas Jefferson chewing away distractedly is quite amusing.
12. . . . BEDEW NO MAN’S FACE WITH YOUR SPITTLE BY APPROACHING TOO NEAR WHEN YOU SPEAK.
Once again, we learn the immortality of some human foibles. Probably this was a problem in Aristotle’s time as in ours.
13. KILL NO VERMIN SUCH AS FLEAS, LICE, TICKS & ETC., IN THE SIGHT OF OTHERS. IF YOU SEE ANY FILTH OR THICK SPITTLE, PUT YOUR FOOT DEXTOUROUSLY UPON IT. IF IT BE ON THE CLOTHES OF YOUR COMPANIONS, PUT IT OFF PRIVATELY, AND IF IT BE UPON YOUR OWN CLOTHES RETURN THANKS TO HIM WHO PUT IT OFF.
Yes, absolutely, thank you for wiping the spit off my shirt. I’m not surprised that fleas and ticks were pests in George’s day, but who knew spittle was such a huge problem? How often did it happen that there had to be a rule about it?
43. DO NOT EXPRESS JOY BEFORE ONE WHO IS SICK OR IN PAIN, FOR THAT CONTRARY PASSION WILL AGGRAVATE HIS MISERY.
So much for laughter is the best medicine. I guess what he was trying to say is misery loves company.
50. BE NOT HASTY TO BELIEVE FLYING REPORTS TO THE DISPARAGEMENT OF ANY.
So, that means the stuff I read on magazine covers about Brad and Angelina every time I stand on the supermarket check out line may not be true? That’s ridiculous.
51. WEAR NOT YOUR CLOTHS FOUL, RIPPED OR DIRTY . . . .
Well, there goes my whole wardrobe.
55. EAT NOT IN THE STREETS, NOR IN YE HOUSE, OUT OF SEASON.
I thought the right to eat whenever and wherever we want is why we fought the Revolution.
70. REPREHEND NOT THE IMPERFECTIONS OF OTHERS. FOR THAT BELONGS . . . TO PARENTS, MASTERS AND SUPERIORS.
Right, but because parents seem not to bother these days, feel free to yell at their kids.
87. . . CONTRADICT NOT AT EVERY TURN WHAT OTHERS SAY.
I’m sure he meant to add . . . unless you are blogging.
89. SPEAK NOT EVIL OF THOSE WHO ARE ABSENT, FOR IT IS UNJUST.
Isn’t that 90% of conversation?
91. MAKE NO SHOW OF TAKING GREAT DELIGHT IN YOUR VICTUALS. FEED NOT WITH GREEDINESS. . . . 97. PUT NOT ANOTHER BIT INTO YOUR MOUTH ‘TILL THE FORMER BE SWALLOWED. LET NOT YOUR MORSELS BE TOO BIG FOR THE JOWLS.
Proof positive that George Washington could not have been my ancestor.
109. LET YOUR RECREATIONS BE MANFUL, AND NOT SINFUL.
Hmmm. These rules are for young men. What sinful recreations could they have been talking about?
I used as my text George Washington’s Rules of Civility by John T. Phillips, II (2005) which provides George’s note’s with a little editing (it was originally shorthand), Hawkins’ text and the French. Admittedly, as always, it all sounds much better in French. “Vous vous garderez de laisser aller avec paroles de la salive, ou du crachat aux visage de ceux, avec qui vous conversez” – meaning - be warned, my translation – “You should take care not to let go with saliva laden words or spit in the face of those with whom you are speaking”. See how much nicer the French is.
Here are ten modern rules of civility, which, not surprisingly, reflect my own pet peeves and which Della Casa could not have thought up.
1. Try not to answer your cell phone when you are with company. Keeping it off is even better.
2. If you must take a call because it is important, apologize before you take it, walk slightly away or outside and get off quickly.
3. Under no circumstances, simply away turn from someone you are conversing with and start speaking on the phone (I hate that).
4. If you are speaking on the cell phone and you run into someone you know, try and get off the phone and speak to the person you are actually with. Although sometimes business or emergency prevents that, most often, you can do it.
5. Crying babies do not belong in restaurants, stores and most importantly, libraries (this one has become my crusade).
6. When it is your turn at the cash register, don’t wait until you are rung up to take out your money, card or check book. We are busy too.
7. Do not drive like a mad person. You are frightening everyone.
8. Phone trees (“press 5 if you want . . . “) are a form of rudeness. Have a receptionist pick up the phone.
9. We don’t want to hear your music. Turn it down (off is better).
10. In a car, the driver controls the radio.
In time, these will need to change too. For example, we can expect to see if future lists:
1. When taking an alien to your leader, do not step on its tentacles.
2. Don't dematerialize in the middle of a conversation.
3. It's not polite to use laser pistols to cut your meat.
You see, the future is certain. We will still need help with civility.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .