Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Aristocratic Chivalry, Manners, And Good Taste–Forever More Irrelevant?
The French Revolution changed all that. The ‘Let them eat cake’ courtiers of Louis XVI were beheaded along with their monarchs, and Robespierre and the Terror made sure that their kind would never again rise to power.
Of course this populist dream was short-lived. It wasn’t long before the French aristocracy was restored and although there was no monarchy, there was no doubt that those with a “‘de la’ devant et une grosse fortune derriere” would return to prominence in France. They would not necessarily rule the country politically – a separate aristocratic technocracy would see to that – but they would certainly assert their privilege as arbiters of taste, manners, and high-culture.
There might be no more of the dandyism of the 18th century court, but chateau balls, masquerades, formal dinners, elegant soirees, and lawn parties were common. The people had had their chance; and now were complicit in the return of nobility to its proper place in French society.
In the American Civil War the North destroyed the culture of the Southern Cavalier – one of gentility, manners, culture, and sophistication – and ensured that the South would never rise again.
Of course it did, and soon Southern plantation owners regained their land, their influence, and their political power. No Yankee retribution and punitive enforcement through Reconstruction could dim the Cavalier spirit; and before long plantation mansion were once again home to lively balls, masquerades, formal dinners, and lawn parties.
After the French Revolution, the princes of Europe were quick to institute democratic reforms in order to forestall any similar populist uprisings, but they too never ceded cultural authority and privilege.
Western society, however, is changing so radically that aristocratic privilege and culture will soon be things of the past. Chateaux and country manors will be on historical registries, maintained as part of national heritage and patrimony, and toured by tourists and amateur historians; but they will be lifeless, abandoned, and consigned to irrelevance as will the few remaining aristocrats who claim currency.
There has been, of course, an American Northern aristocracy – the nobility of Beacon Hill, Rittenhouse Square, Park Avenue, Georgetown, and smaller enclaves throughout New England. Farmington, Stonington, and Cornwall are Connecticut towns that have always had a privileged ancestry.
The 18th and 19th century New England industrialists have passed on their wealth to successive generations who have moved out of ancestral towns and cities, but have preserved some sense of patrimony in Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. However, this American landed aristocracy like its European counterparts will soon be a thing of the past.
While many democrats applaud the demise of American class privilege, such demise is not without consequence. While democracy may be an ideal political system and populism its most representative expression, it has many unattractive by-products.
Aristocracies have always provided a strong cultural center to society. They, because of wealth and influence have been patrons of the arts. There would be no Louvre, no Sistine Chapel, no Winchester Cathedral, no Champs Elysees, no Ghiberti doors, no Florence without European nobility. Through this patronage they have created a universal culture.
Without this cultural center, culture itself becomes centripetal. Untethered from the intellectual genius of aristocrats whose education, upbringing, and breeding encouraged an innately sophisticated taste, valuation of art, music, dance, and literature, modern Western culture can only be a grab bag of sporadic, individualistic things – some brilliant but most ordinary and self-supposed.
In America where populism is at its height, where ‘elites’ have no place and should be marched to the guillotine with as little ceremony as in the days of the Jacobins, it is no surprise that popular culture is an even more the norm than ever before. A culture based on individual self-expression, image, idolatry, and short attention spans (‘In the future everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes’); and one which prizes innovation and enterprise, cannot help but be permanently disassembled. If there are tens of millions versions of culture, then there is can be no culture.
At best America’s ‘culture’ is the process of enterprising capitalism. There is no substance to our culture as there is in Europe – i.e. 1500 years of cultural patrimony; nothing to point to, nothing of lasting value. The past is irrelevant. Cultural centers are figments of imagination.
Aristocratic culture has always had an important by-product – social codes. European courts have always had prescribed and precise codes of conduct. Chivalry was a moral code of honor, courage, and perhaps above all respect for and admiration of women. Duels were fought, maidens in distress rescued, families strengthened and honored through marriage, respect shown for monarchs, princes, prelates, and generals.
Such moral codes are not European inventions. Cato the Elder, a Roman educator, wrote ‘diptychs’ on which he inscribed the basic principles of governance – principles to be taught to young aristocrats and future leaders. Honor, courage, discipline, respect, compassion were among the most important. Aristotle and Plato decades before contemplated the nature of good and evil and how morality was the foundation for any society.
A subset of these social code is manners – the treatment of others with grace, gentility, and respect; and the conditioning of one’s behavior with this in mind.
Manners are now in disrepute – a bourgeois trifle, a vestige of a discredited elitist society, a superficial meme of privilege and social authority.
Yet manners are what hold a society together. If only individualism is encouraged then cultural cohesion disappears. If personal behavior becomes sacred – anything goes in the pursuit of self-expression – then many others will necessarily be offended. There is a point to being moderate in dress, appearance, and behavior. Moderation is the principle according to which individual identity can be expressed within a social context.
Thomas Jefferson when penning the words ‘Pursuit of happiness’ never meant them to encourage the quest of individual satisfaction at all costs. Individual happiness, he went on to explain, is only valid when it is pursued with the context of others. Manners are a less significant but still important measure of this principle.
‘Good taste’ is perhaps the one attribute of a civilized society hardest to define. De gustibus non disputandum est has never been more the hallmark of modern America. Anything goes. There is no taste but taste. In a pluralistic, multicultural society, there should never be one prescribed or authorized taste.
Yes and no. It is not a question of one or multiple tastes, it is taste itself which matters. Italians prize bella figura –looking, sounding, and acting good. It is an ethos rather than a prescription. According to bella figura there is no one fashion, way of speaking required – only paying absolute attention to the way you look, behave, and sound.
Americans need more bella figura. Lack of any sense of style in the name of ‘informality’ is a neglect of manners which in turn is a neglect for a sense of unifying culture. It does matter how you look. French women are known for being svelte and well-dressed; and even women from modest backgrounds adhere to this principle. It is not only part of French culture but a French bella figura.
The aristocracy may be dead, but the best cultural spirit embodied in it should never be.
There is no reason why cultural centrality need be either-or; the guillotine or Versailles.