Friday, January 18, 2013

Edmund Burke on Manners

From The Imaginative Conservative:
It is somewhat surprising, then, to find that this enormous threat brought out Burke’s most urgent defense of an aspect of civilization as trivial as “manners.”  Of course, the very fact that we consider manners “trivial” was all part of the problem from the start, as far as Burke was concerned, and he felt driven to state his case unambiguously in his First Letter on a Regicide Peace (1796):“Manners are of more importance than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend.” How can this apparent inversion of common sense be justified?

Manners are clearly not the same as laws. They are generally unwritten (unless we are talking about ritual), and they lack the regular, codified sanctions that support institutes and decrees. However, they have a similar function: in our small social communities and informal relationships they lay down expectations of behavior that facilitate the smooth-running and therefore expedite the purpose of these various bodies from the nuclear family to the shopping mall. These very circumstances which make sense of our manners mean that they cannot be constituted and implemented like laws and they should not; but we commit a serious mistake if we allow the institutionalized power of the latter to diminish our respect for the former. It is the very superficial weakness of manners that actually constitutes their crucial importance in our lives.
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