What Makes Southern Manners Peculiar?


Southerners live in the 18th century. This common charge is not altogether false, since the peculiar habits, customs, and meanings of words found often in the American South are found also in 18th century English authors. Such a word is manners. Most English-speaking people and some Southerners use the word now in the only senses current during the past two centuries. These meanings are designated in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) as current: ‘External behaviour in social intercourse’ or ‘Polite behaviour or deportment; habits indicative of good breeding.’ But the oldest meaning for manners and the meaning which has had the longest continual use is now marked obsolete. The first citation in the OED for this meaning is dated 1225; the last citation is dated 1794, when, apparently, this sense fell out of use. The next to last citation for this meaning is dated 1757; it comes from Dr Samuel Johnson. Those who continue to use this sense, as many Southerners do, are living in the 18th century. This obsolete meaning is: ‘A person’s habitual behaviour or conduct, esp. in reference to its moral aspect, moral character.’

Those who think of manners in this sense are two hundred years behind the times. But the mode of thought which connects moral character to manners had been accepted for over two thousand years when it fell out of use among English-speaking people. The Greek word ethe and the Latin word mores join behaviour, character, and morals into a general notion. This general notion is the source for the concept expressed in the English word manners, ‘which early became the recognised translation of L. modus and mos, and its sense development has been affected by assimilation to both these words’ (OED). So, Southerners who continue to hold this concept are not merely two hundred years behind the times. Thinking by way of a notion which is central to Plato’s and Aristotle’s thought, Southerners are two thousand and five hundred years behind the times.

The Greek word ethe is translated as manners in the King James Version of the Bible, that book which has had such a conspicuous influence on the civilisation of the Bible Belt. In the prologue to Ecclesiasticus, which in the King James Version has been placed in the Apocrypha, it is stated that Ecclesiasticus is for ‘them also, which in a strange country are willing to learn, being prepared before in manners to live after the law.’ The Greek word translated as manners is ethe. Here the moral foundation for manners is the Law of Moses. St Paul warned the Corinthians that ‘evil communications corrupt good manners’ (1 Cor. 15.33). He is quoting Menander, an Athenian poet who lived in the 4th century B.C. We can assume, then, that Menander recognised the four cardinal virtues as the foundation for ethe. To these St Paul added the three theological virtues, faith, hope, and charity.

The four cardinal virtues are wisdom or prudence, fortitude or courage, temperance, and justice. Socrates has shown that the soul has three parts: the intellectual soul, the spirited soul, and the appetitive soul. The perfection of each part depends on the perfection of a cardinal virtue. For the intellectual soul the virtue is wisdom; for the spirited part the virtue is fortitude; for the appetitive part it is temperance. Justice, Socrates asserts, comes about when each part of the soul practices its virtue and keeps a proper relation with the other parts. These virtues lead, when perfected, to contentment and harmony.

For over two thousand years, countries influenced by Greece and Rome have acknowledged good morals as a foundation for good manners, and have understood good morals as Plato and Aristotle had plainly revealed them through analyses of human character. The cardinal virtues are found in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Old Testament which was made in the second century B.C. Here is a translation of the Greek version:

And if a man love righteousness, her labours are virtues: for she teacheth temperance and prudence, justice and fortitude, which are such things as men can have nothing more profitable in their life. (The Wisdom of Solomon, 8.7, from the King James Version of the Bible)

The four cardinal virtues are the subject of Book I, Cicero’s De officiis, written in the 1 st century B.C. and addressed to his son, Marcus, who was a student in Athens. The approach to moral goodness by way of the cardinal virtues has even yet a vibrant life. To name one current book on the subject, there is The Four Cardinal Virtues by Josef Pieper, a brilliant study which elucidates St Thomas Aquinas’ s explanations of the four cardinal virtues.

The four cardinal virtues illuminate the moral lives of Edward Gibbon’s characters. Examples from four consecutive paragraphs in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire will illustrate Gibbon’s use of these virtues. These illustrations come from Chapter 35, ‘Invasion of Gaul by Attila’, (419-455 A.D.). When the Emperor Theodosius died after being thrown from a horse, his sister Pulcheria became the Empress of the East. ‘She gave her hand to Marcian, a senator, about sixty years of age, and the nominal husband of Pulcheria was solemnly invested with the Imperial purple’ (Chapter 34).

Marcian’s ways of preserving an honourable and secure peace came from Marcian’s ‘temperate courage.’ This phrase joins two of the cardinal virtues into a proper harmony. Sebastian, on the other hand, was virtuous, ‘but his courage, when he became unfortunate, was censured as desperate rashness.’ Aetius, ‘born for the salvation of the Roman republic,’ possessed ‘the genuine courage that can despise not only dangers, but injuries: and it was impossible either to corrupt, or deceive, or intimidate the firm integrity of his soul.’ This illustrates the four virtues joined in harmony. The courage is genuine; temperance precludes corruption; prudence forestalls deception; integrity preserves justice. Theodoric, who held the Gothic sceptre, proved that ‘his prudence was supported by uncommon vigour, both of mind and body.’ A fruit of the vigour was the education of his six valiant sons. In this education, ‘the harmonious sense of Virgil contributed to soften the asperity of their manners.’ Virgil’s representations of just human souls and descriptions of just societies form a frame in the Aeneid for this ‘harmonious sense’ (Gibbon, Chapter 35).

Gibbon uses manners throughout his history in the sense of the quotation above, manners being one of the three chief elements which bind a people into a society. The other elements are language and religion. That the use of manners as a concept to match ethe and mores became obsolete just at the moment when Edward Gibbon and Samuel Johnson were using the word in this sense is puzzling, because these two men are two of England’s most fluent prose stylists. Both were masters of words. And with the loss of the word the concept was lost. In his Life of Samuel Johnson L. L. D, Boswell portrays a scene which illustrates the loss (A.D. 1775, Aetat. 65).

In this scene the essential difference between the obsolete sense of manners and the senses which have continued current comes clear. Boswell had maintained that ‘the genteelest characters are often the most immoral. Does not Lord Chesterfield give precepts for uniting wickedness and the graces? A man, indeed, is not genteel when he gets drunk; but most vices may be committed very genteely; a man may debauch his friend’s wife genteely; he may cheat at cards genteely.’ Standing firmly for the union of morals and manners, Dr Johnson answered: ‘You are meaning two different things. One means exterior grace; the other honour. It is certain that a man may be very immoral with exterior grace.’ The English language owes to Lord Chesterfield the current and common word for exterior grace. That word is etiquette which Lord Chesterfield introduced into English in 1750. This is a French word which has the root meaning of ‘ticket.’ The rules of etiquette are tickets to ‘polite society,’ a phrase from the definition of etiquette in the OED.

Manners and honour being torn asunder, the traditional idea of a gentleman became obsolete. But Southerners clung to the idea, which led clever people in step with the times to disparage Southerners for their manners which were peculiar. ‘ Southern men were proud of being gentlemen, although they have been told in every conceivable way that it was a foolish pride’ (Basil L. Gildersleeve, The Creed of the Old South 1865-1915, p. 11). But it is this very idea of a gentleman which has kept current in the South the concept of manners which elsewhere became obsolete. My aim is to describe a surviving remnant of this concept in one Southern gentleman and to trace the moral underpinnings of three Southern customs.

That Southern gentleman is Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, who was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on 23 October 1831, and who died in Baltimore, Maryland, on 9 January 1924. He graduated from Princeton at the age of eighteen and received a Ph. D. in classics from Gottingen at the age of twenty-one. In 1856, he became professor of Greek at the University of Virginia, and during his summer vacations, 1861-1864, he fought with the Confederate army. Severely wounded, he limped with a ‘choriambic rhythm’ (long-short-short-long) for the rest of his life. In 1875, he was appointed the first faculty member at Johns Hopkins University. His vast amount of scholarly work, which is still current, and his honorary doctorates attest to his reputation as the foremost scholar among American classicists. The honorary doctorates came from William and Mary (1869), Sewanee (1884), Harvard (1886), Princeton (1889), Yale (1901), Cambridge (1905), Oxford (1905).

Moral qualities were the foundation of his gracious manners. One of these qualities was courage. In later years, his northern students shared with their southern compatriots admiration for his soldierly valour’ (Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, p. 214). His way of life was modest and temperate. ‘I have lived well so far if bene qui latuit bene vixit is true, and I am content to live well to the end’ (The Letters of Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, edited by Ward W. Briggs, Jr., p. 60. The Latin is from Ovid, Trislia 3.4.25. Ward Briggs translates this, ‘He has lived well who has lain well hidden.’) As all of Gildersleeve’s works show, he was wise. Paul Shorey, the great Platonist, ‘noted that at the memorial service for Gildersleeve at Johns Hopkins, all the speakers “dwelt not so much on the wit, brilliancy, the scholarship, which they took for granted, as on the moral qualities of the man, the teacher, the companion, the helper, the friend'” (Leitch, p. 215).

Gildersleeve’s zeal for teaching good manners—mores bonos— distinguishes the examples for grammar and syntax in his Latin Grammar. These examples, Paul Shorey has remarked, have set this grammar apart from the compilations of examples in ordinary Latin grammars. A letter, written to Paul Shorey in 1920, illustrates how Gildersleeve chose his examples with an eye on teaching a moral quality. He had written to Shorey many ‘letters of thanks, amost difficult branch of composition’ and consigned them ‘to the waste basket as soon as completed.’ ‘Goethe maintains that gratitude is a feeling that ought not to be entertained by a high and mighty mind, that a lofty soul resents obligations, but I am rather of Cicero’s opinion which I incorporated half a century ago in my Latin Grammar, where one reads “Est anirni ingenui cui multum debeas eidem plurinum velle debere'”: this is rendered in the Grammar as, ‘It shows the feeling of a gentleman to be willing to owe very much to him to whom you already owe much’ (Gildersleeve, Letters, p. 345, and Latin Grammar, p. 234). All who use this Latin Grammar will find their characters refined and their minds delighted by Gildersleeve’s graceful English translations.

His training in morals and manners began early. When he was four years old he had read the complete Bible in English, though, he says, with little understanding. At the age of five, he had read St John’s Gospel in Greek. From then to the end of his life he thought most readily in the Greek language. A letter to a South Carolina friend, who had congratulated Gildersleeve on his ninety-second birthday, carries memories of Gildersleeve’s childhood in Charleston.

Your good letter is the only one that has carried me back to the first quarter of my long life. As your congratulation was read to me I seemed to breathe again the atmosphere of my father’s house, to sit once more in the family circle at morning and evening prayer, and listen to the Scriptural phrases whose music has never ceased to haunt me, whose lessons have ever been before me, though sometimes only to rebuke. (Gidersleeve, Letters, p. 356)

The haunting musical phrases show the enduring influence of Holy Scripture on Gildersleeve’s manners. The rebukes from lessons heard in childhood show his lifelong openness to correction by Scripture. In like manner he was open to the lessons from the ancient classics.

The rich, varied, and profound adaptations of the cardinal virtues in classical literature were at his command. His breadth of vision in interpreting those virtues shows in a letter written to Charles Eliot Norton, who had asked Gildersleeve’s opinion concerning some dark lines in Pindar’s ‘Nemean Ode 3’ (Gildersleeve, Letters, p. 231). In the victory of Aristokleides in the games at Nemea, the young man’s action shows an excellence which reflects the four cardinal virtues. Gildersleeve explains the ambiguity of the dark lines as offering two possible interpretations of these virtues. Does Pindar mean that Aristokleides now has these four virtues? Or, does the victory by way of fortitude show that he has the potential of excellence in each of the four virtues? If we follow Plato, Gildersleeve says, we will ‘think of the four virtues’ as a tethrippon [a four-horse team], with phronesis [prudence] ‘the dominant mare.’ This makes phronesis the controlling element of a virtuous life. But if we follow Homer, we may see the virtues as a ‘popular Dorism,’ rather than Plato’s ‘idealised Dorism.’ The virtue of boyhood is sophrosune [temperance]; the virtue of manhood is andreia [manliness]; the virtue of the maturer years is dikaiosune [justice]; the virtue of old age is phronesis [prudence]. These four virtues compose the tetragdnos aner [the squared man]. Old age brings sophia [wisdom] which leads to resignation. To this Gildersleeve adds the warning that olbos [happiness, bliss, wealth] calls for temperance; for wealth and happiness may bring satiety and insolence. But if insolence arises, the check to it is fortitude; justice quells hubris; prudence ‘is the truest guard against’ reckless impulse. This letter gives a bird’s eye view of those moral qualities which the speakers at the memorial service dwelt on.

Passages from Goethe in German came often to Gildersleeve’s lips. During the war he was riding to the front during Early’s Valley campaign with a captain ‘of winning appearance, sweet temper, and attractive manners.’ This officer ‘was highly educated, and foreign residence and travel had widened his vision without affecting the simple faith and thorough consecration of a Christian.’ As he and the captain rode along, their talk fell on Goethe and Faust. We can assume that Goethe had in some part fashioned the captain’s ‘attractive manners.’ The soldier’s song came to Gildersleeve’s lips.

Kiihn ist das Mtihen, Herri ich der Lohn. [Tr:’Bold is the effort,
Glorious the reward.’ Faust 1.2.889-90,899-900]

Suddenly the captain was mortally wounded. ‘The peace of heaven was on his face as I gazed on his noble features that afternoon.’ This event serves as context for a large assertion. ‘Here let me say that the bearing of the Confederates is not to be understood without taking into account the deep religious feeling of the army and its great leaders’ (Gildersleeve, Creed of the Old South, pp. 12-15).

Basil Gildersleeve had an unsurpassed, atypical knowledge of the ancient classics. But there were in the South general readers enough to keep current the idea of manners as an English equivalent to ethe and mores. During the Valley campaign, Gildersleeve met such a man, an old gentleman at Millwood in Clarke County, ‘a Virginian of the old school, who declaimed with fiery emphasis in the original, choice passages of Demosthenes’ tirade against Aeschines.’ The old gentleman was typical of the Southerner who, ‘always conservative in his tastes and no great admirer of American literature, which had become largely alien to him, went back to his English classics, his ancient classics’ (Gildersleeve, Creed of the Old South, p. 85). These common readers came from many walks of life. In his essay, ‘The Classics and the Eighteenth-Century Gentleman’, Louis B. Wright shows the influence of the ancient classics on Virginians of various occupations. There is ajurist, George Wythe, whose students included John Marshall, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and Henry Clay. There is a farmer, the second Richard Lee, who kept his farm notes in Greek, Latin, or Hebrew. The planter, William Byrd, read daily in Greek and Hebrew. Robert Carter of ‘Corotoman’ read with enthusiasm ‘the Janua Linguarum in Latin, English, and Greek, writ by John Comenius’ (Louis B. Wright, Tradition and the Founding Fathers, pp. 106-116).

A favourite book among Virginia gentlemen was Parallel Lives, written in Greek by Plutarch, who examines character and its influence on the governance of society. Those who could not read Plutarch in Greek had at hand an English classic, the translation of the Lives, done by the poet, John Dryden. Here is a sample passage from Dryden’s ‘Pericles’ which draws together virtue and manners.

But such is the effect of virtuous actions, that we not only admire them but long to copy the example. The goods of fortune we wish to enjoy, virtue we desire to practise; the former we are content to receive from others, the effects of the latter we are ambitious that others should receive from us. For it is the nature of virtue to draw us powerfully to itself, to kindle in us an active principle to form our manners and engage our affections, and this even in an historical description, and not only when it is represented before our eyes. (Plutarch’s Lives, 2,2-3. Edinburgh: Printed by Alexander Donaldson, 1774; emphasis mine)

It is true that the ancient classics now have in the South few readers. Common readers of the English classics are also few. Nonetheless, customs which have their origin and support in the classics have survived. I shall name three of these customs and trace their origin to the four cardinal virtues. My text for this exercise is the first book of Cicero’s De officiis, ‘Concerning Moral Duties’.

The three customs are: 1) the reply ‘Just fine, thank you’ to the query ‘How are you?’ 2) the query to a single person, ‘How are you all?’ 3) the use of’sir’ and ‘ma’am’ in addressing parents, teachers, overseers, pastors, and priests.

Visitors to the South have noted as peculiar the automatic reply to a question as to one’s state, ‘Just fine, thank you.’ Some have criticised the custom as encouraging hypocrisy and falsehood. Can you trust the words of anyone who is in poor health, has lost money, has received poor grades, or been disappointed in love, but who replies to your query, ‘Just fine, thank you?’ Old and wise people once had an answer to this charge. The inquiry is not about your health, your lungs, your bank account, love. The question asks after your disposition. ‘And,’ a grandmother would tell you, ‘if your disposition is not just fine, you stay in your room, young man.’ Disposition is a grand old word, now seldom heard. Its Middle English sense, ‘turn of mind,’ is still in use. This suggests that the virtue which leads to a good disposition is the virtue of the mind, wisdom. But in his De officiis, Cicero assigns a steady disposition, a steady turn of mind, to fortitude.

We all know that adversity calls for fortitude. But Cicero points out the shocking truth that prosperity also calls for fortitude. This truth is so shocking that I shall quote it in Cicero’s Latin.

Atque etiam in rebus prosperis et ad voluntatem nostram fluentibus superbiam magnopere fastidium arrogantiamque fugiamus.

Here is a rough English paraphrase: ‘When things are prospering and flowing according to our will, let us with great labour flee pride, fastidiousness, and arrogance.’ The dangers of prosperity to the soul are monstrous distortions.

Would the critic of Southern manners think it hypocritical if one in good health, with a large bank account, with good grades in school, with success in love, were to reply, ‘Just fine, thank you?’ Taking these conditions as circumstances warranting the word fine exposes a narrowness in the conception of human nature. Such a view sees well-being as resting on accidents rather than on essences. Cicero and the grandmother have kept the soul in view. Thus, Cicero’s advice is much the same as the grandmother’s. Keep always in adversity and prosperity idem vultus, ‘the same face,’ and eadem frons, ‘a contented countenance.’ Cicero’s first example of a man who kept such a countenance is Socrates, whose disposition was marked by the rule of the four cardinal virtues. A Southerner may be conscious of this lesson by recalling Cicero. Or, the Southerner may recall St Paul’s haunting words, ‘I have learned in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content’ (Phil. 4.11). These words make a keen gloss on the grandmother’s words. One’s disposition is a state.

The word disposition in the OED, as a characteristic of behaviour, has one genus, a state or quality, and a differentia, an inclination to put things in a proper order. When applied to the soul, Cicero saw the proper order for the soul to be a state which came from the proper regulation of the four cardinal virtues. King James’s translators of the Bible proposed disposition as a gloss to ‘good manners’ at 1 Corinthians 15.33. The margin, it was proposed, should read, ‘or good natures, good dispositions’ (John Bois, Translating for King James, ed. Ward Allen, p. 48). This gloss requires a reader to understand manners in the sense which is now obsolete.

A neglect of manners is here and there introducing cavities into the once solid South. The reply, ‘Pretty good,’ instead of ‘Just fine,’ is such a cavity. Is it possible to imagine Socrates, to imagine St Paul, when asked ‘How are you?’ answering in reply, ‘Pretty good’? Suppose that either, being imprisoned, had answered ‘Just fine.’ Who would dare to accuse either of hypocrisy?

Often in the South, an enquiry as to one’s disposition is, ‘How are y’all?’ ‘You’ and ‘all’ are elided. Otherwise a pedantic hiatus will rupture the natural flow of speech and put an abrupt emphasis on ‘you.’ ‘Tell all of’em I say, “Hello there'” will probably terminate the conversation. A single person addressed as many people, a pronoun without an antecedent, and an adverb without a referent strike visitors to the South as peculiar, Hollywood as amusing, and English teachers as intolerable. But those who mind their manners ask after ‘all,’ who may be a family, friends, members of a church or club, or any other association of people. The conversation which precedes the terminating words will generally establish the society to which ‘all’ refers. ‘Them’ refers to a body of people asked after; ‘there’ raises the image of dwelling-houses and other places.

One way to keep current the sense of manners which combines behaviour, character, and morals is to preserve the customs which have sprung out of that sense. Such is the custom of asking after ‘y’all’; since, in asking about a family, it is subordinating the secular to the spiritual state. The influence of the Bible in the South has kept prominent the distinction of men’s ways and God’s ways. Joseph’s brothers feared when they fell into the hands of Joseph that he would take revenge for the injuries which they had done him. But he said to them, ‘Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me, but God meant it for good’ (Gen. 50.19,andseeGen45.5). The mystery of God’s ways comes clear, as in this case, only in the total context of a series of individual actions. Thus, as seen from God’s dwelling place in heaven, evil may be turned into what is just and what is fine, for God is a just God. God’s ways place individual acts in their relation to the family and to the whole of history. In selling Joseph into slavery, the brothers affected the course of Western civilisation.

Another way to keep current the connection between character and morals is to keep current those words which carry in their connotations suggestions of this connection. When this connection becomes obsolete, words that express the connection drop out of use. Such is the word dwell. The editors of the Oxford English Dictionary have marked this word as obsolete or archaic in the senses of ‘To abide or continue for a time in a place, state, or condition’ and ‘To continue in existence, to last, persist.’ Dwell in the sense of ‘having one’s abode’ is now ‘mostly superseded by live in spoken use; but still common in literature’ (OED, s.v., dwell). But the connotations of dwell and live raise unlike associations. Associated with dwell are stability, continuity, and good order. Phrases associated with live suggest qualities opposite to these; live down, live fast, live high, live in a glass house, live in clover, live on one’s capital, live out, live up to, live well, live it up, live and let live. The way in which connotations shade our understanding of a word shows in two translations of Acts 17.24. ‘God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth dwelleth not in temples made with hands’ (King James Version). ‘The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands’ (New International Version). The connotations of live throw the second translation awry. He does not’ live it up,” live in clover,’ or’ live at such and such an address.’ Perhaps it is through the influence of the King James Version of the Bible that the words dwell, dwelling, dwelling-house, and dwelling-place have yet a flickering of life in the South. And who knows whether this flickering light may burst into flame?

People determine whether ideas and words become obsolete, and people can recover for current use ideas and words which have become obsolete. Anthony Purver, a remarkable autodidact, made in the 18th century a substantial list of words from the KJV which were obsolete. In this 1 ist are words which were returned to current use in the 19th century. Such a word is ‘unwitting’ which, the OED reports, was ‘rare after c 1600 until revived …. c 1800.’ David Norton concludes that ‘the KJB caused some of these reappearances, acting as a kind of uncrowded ark for vocabulary for perhaps two hundred years’ (David Norton, A History of the Bible as Literature 2, 71-85). Quite possibly, people who speak English will restore to currency dwell and the sense of manners which has been obsolete for two hundred years.

Another influence for the flickering life of dwell in the South is the English classics, to which the Southerner, ‘conservative in his tastes and no great admirer of American literature’ turned (Gildersleeve, Creed of the Old South, p. 85). Dwells is the last, and a key, word in Ben Jonson’s great poem, ‘To Penshurst.’ From this home came the poet, soldier, and admirable man, Sir Philip Sidney. His admirable sister, the Countess of Pembroke, wrote poetry which is four hundred years later still fresh and potent. Her translations of the Psalms are stunning. ‘To Penshurst’ reveals the broad scope of connotations which dwells may carry. Summed up in the word dwells are such qualities as health, sport, young love, innocence, charity, and the mysteries of manners, arms, and art. The poem opens by contrasting ‘Penshurst,’ which is an ‘ancient pile,’ with homes built for ‘envious show.’ A contrast between the characters of those who have built for show and Sir Robert Sidney who occupies ‘Penshurst’ is the subject of the final couplet.

Those proud ambitious heaps and nothing else,

May say, their lords have built, but thy lord dwells.

The children at ‘Penshurst’

… have been taught religion: Thence

Their gentler spirits have suck’d innocence.

Read innocence as ‘Freedom from sin, guilt, or moral wrong in general; moral purity’ (OED).

Each morne and even, they are taught to pray,

With the whole houshold, and may, every day,

Reade in their vertuous parents noble parts,

The mysteries of manners, armes, and arts.

The word dwells suggests in its connotations that sweet society which the word all in ‘How are y’all?’ asks after.

The crown of dwells in this poem is an innocent life whose mark is morally pure manners. Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic Christian who lived in an old dwelling-house on a Georgia farm, has put succinctly the connection between manners and mystery:

The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes these things there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula. (Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald)

‘How are y’all?’ This question asks generally about a family and, at its best, carries the hope that their spiritual state is just fine, a state ‘which cannot be accounted for by any human formula.’ Cicero assigns the bonds of kinship to the cardinal virtue of justice. The family, he asserts, is the foundation of the city and as it were, the seminary of a republic. ‘Just fine.’ Taken as an adverb, ‘just’ here means ‘precisely’; as an adjective, ‘fine’ means ‘free from dross or impurity’ (OED). Thus, Socrates condemned to die, but true to his principles, could answer truthfully, ‘Just fine.’ Here is one of those memorable moments in Western civilisation when a human being becomes a living image of ideal behaviour. The reply, ‘Just fine,’ is a reminder of that ideal to which we should be faithful, however obstinately opposed to the ideal our feelings may be at the moment.

Armies defend the family, the city, the republic. And arms, too, are a mystery. As Gibbon shows, a prudent man who is courageous may fail because he is intemperate. Or, as Shakespeare shows, the man we expect to be a hero, Peter Bullcalf, is a coward. When pricked for service by Bardolph, Bullcalf says, ‘In very truth, sir, I had as life to be hanged, sir, as go.’ Bardolph pardons him in exchange for ‘four Harry ten shillings in French crowns’ (The Second Part of Henry IV, 3.2.222-23). But Feeble, a woman’s tailor, marches off to war.

By my troth I care not, a man can die but once, we owe God a death, I’ll ne’er bear abase mind. An’t be my destn’y, so — an’t be not, so. No man’s too good to serve’s prince, and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next. (3.2.233-238)

Like Joseph, Feeble detects mystery and destiny in God’s ways. He and his words glow with courage.

The guardians of a family are parents. The guardians of a city are teachers, pastors, and officers of the law. The guardians of a republic are soldiers. All of these guardians have as their foremost virtue courage. The foremost virtue of citizens is temperance. A Southern custom trains children, citizens in embryo, to respect their elders, the guardians. In his discussion of temperance, Cicero endorses this training (De officiis 1.34.122).

This training maroons Southerners in the waste places of past ages. Erasmus shows, in his Colloquy on Manners (1522) this very training for schoolboys. The language is Latin. Here is an English translation by Craig R. Thompson.

Master: How long have you been away from home?
Boy: Nearly six months.
Master: You should have added ‘sir.’
Boy: Nearly six months, sir.
(Collected Works of Erasmus, Colloquies, Volume 39,70)

Being behind the times, Southerners find terms of respect natural. Children use them in addressing their parents, students use them in addressing teachers; workmen use them in addressing overseers; laymen use them in addressing pastors and priests. These terms are common in various relations of society.

An old friend of mine lay ill and extremely weak. His son, himself the father of children, entered the room. The old man mumbled in a weak voice. The son asked courteously, ‘What?’ In a strong, urgent, and imperative voice, the old man said, ‘You say “Sir” to your father.’ ‘Sir?’ the son obediently answered. With this custom the relation of father to son does not fade with age.

At a country church in Alabama, a minister was reading from an old-fashioned service for a wedding. He read in that rich, resonant, baritone voice, which is God’s gift to black men. ‘Do you take this woman to be your wedded wife, to live together after God’s ordinance in the holy estate of Matrimony?’ When he had read the last words of the charge, ‘so long as ye both shall live,’ he whispered to the groom,’ Say I do.’ The groom answered in a loud voice and emphasised each word, ‘Yes, sir, I do.’ Never have I heard a more convincing affirmation to that charge.

In a recent court case in Louisiana, a working man was called to the stand as a witness. His answer to one question was ambiguous. ‘Do you mean this or that?’ the judge asked. ‘Yes,’ the witness answered. ‘ Yes, what?’ the judge asked. ‘ Yes, sir,’ the workman answered. That man had been trained in the very same manner as Erasmus’s master trained his boys in 1522.

An Alabama student from a country town said of a boyhood friend, ‘He was one of the most considerate people 1 ever knew, especially to older people. It was always “Yes ma’am,” “yes sir'” (The Auburn Plainsman, Thursday, 29 June 2000). An Auburn University student, who had gone to the North for graduate work, addressed his teacher as ‘Sir.’ The professor corrected him. ‘Don’t say “Sir.” People don’t like that up here.’ To catch up with the times, we must revise Erasmus.

Professor: How long have you been away from home?
Student: Nearly six months, sir.
Professor: You should not say ‘sir.’
Student: Nearly six months.

Those who are in step with the times find the old-fashioned Southern and Erasmian manners peculiar. But who can foretell the future? The hand of fortune is fickle. Will old-fashioned manners come back into common use? Will the common manners of this age come to seem peculiar? Will students be taught again to say, ‘Nearly six months, sir?’

As Cicero makes clear in his analysis of temperance, the old as well as the young must be temperate, if the family circle is to be just. The duty of the elders is to exhibit in their own conduct temperance joined to prudence; by this union they will serve their children, their friends, and the state (De officiis 1.34.123). Southern fathers learned this lesson of temperance both for the old and the young in the ancient classics and in the Bible. It is clear in St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians, 6.1-4.

Children obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right.

Honour thy father and mother, (which is the first commandment with promise,)

That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.

And ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

A visit to a country house seventy-four years ago has left for me a vivid and fond memory. The house was then ancient. The ceilings seemed to a four-year-old boy as far away as the starry skies. The stair was a way to heaven. The wonder of the sight startled a four-year-old boy who had forgotten to remove his cap. My father looked down and spoke. ‘Don’t forget your cap, Captain.’ He and I played soldiers. Sometimes he was the captain and I his soldier. Sometimes I was the captain and he my soldier. A sharp rebuke would have humiliated me and provoked me to anger. But anger was averted. I remained the captain. Honour and rank were mine, even though I had failed to mind my manners.

In later years I learned that this custom for teaching manners to sons was older by two hundred and fifty years than the house which had startled me. Polixenes describes in The Winter’s Tale the games that he plays with his son. Was Shakespeare remembering here his own childhood?

If at home, sir,

He’s all my exercise, my mirth, my matter:

Now my sworn friend, and then mine enemy;

My parasite, my soldier, statesman, all:

He makes a July’s day short as December;

And with his varying childness cures in me

Thoughts that would thick my blood. (1.2.165-171)

Does Shakespeare remember here the cures by which this discipline restores a father’s health? The ancient English classics recall to those who are behind the times a world that is familiar and happy.

Southern manners have left this province stranded with Edward Gibbon and Dr Johnson in the 18th century. Or, are we isolated with Ben Jonson in the 17th century? with Erasmus in the 16th century? with Cicero in the 1 st century B.C.? with Plato in the 5th century B.C.? with Pindar in the 6th century B.C.?

Basil L. Gildersleeve’s Pindar, first published in 1885, remains standard. Although Pindar came from a province, Boetia, which was ‘hopelessly behind the times,’ men still read and admire his poetry, written 2,500 years ago. Gildersleeve has pointed out that his case is not singular.

Large historical views arc not always entertained by the cleverest minds, ancient and modem, transatlantic and cisatlantic; and the annals of politics, of literature, of thought, have shown that out of the depths of crass conservatism and proverbial sluggishness come, not by any miracle, but by the process of accumulated force, some of the finest intelligences, some of the greatest powers, of political, literary, and especially religious life. (Pindar, p. viii)

As an example of religious life, Gildersleeve offers Cappadocia.

A Cappadocian king was a butt in the time of Cicero; the Cappadocians were the laughing-stock of the Greek anthology, and yet there are no prouder names in the literary history of the Church than the names of the Cappadocian fathers, Basil and the Gregories. (Ibid.)

The South, like Boetia, has been ‘hopelessly behind the times.’ Like Cappadocia, it has been the laughing-stock of clever minds. Yet from the South have come ‘some of the finest intelligences, some of the greatest powers, of political, literary, and especially religious life.’

Among those whose intelligences, formed by the ‘process of accumulated force,’ have put their work beyond destruction by time’s fleeting hand is Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve. Behind his love for his native country was an intelligence which, refining that love, dispelled sentimentality. He was not sentimental about his country or himself. In a letter, written in his eighty-eighth year, he quoted Goethe: ‘Vollkommen is die Norm des Himmels, Vollkommen wollen die Norm des Menschen? — a sentence I have long cherished and alas! applied too feebly’ (Letters, p. 342). This long-cherished sentence states in sum that men long for perfection, but it is found only in heaven, God’s dwelling-place.

Experience has shown that the old-fashioned view of manners has pointed the way to an agreeable, if not perfect, society in the South. These manners are a source for contentment with one’s state and destiny. Wherever these manners and contentment remain, they will seem peculiar to restless, clever minds.

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