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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Of Etiquette, or Small Morals

Below is the latest missive from my distinguished friend, Mr. Darlington. As you will see, he offers his apologies for his recent absence.

* * *

Writ from my Rooms in Cecil-Court, Westminster

April 23, 1755

I must apologize for my silence as of late. As you can see, I have come down to the City to attend to some Business relating to the impending Nuptials of my dear daughter Betty. My Rooms here are commodious, although the Neighbourhood is not a felicitous one. Stews and Gin-Shops spring up in the Streets of this City like the Pox, and Cecil-Court is no Exception. Happily, the Delights of Covent-Garden are close at hand, and it is there that daily I stroll with my Cousin, Mr. Savile, who has kindly provided me with my present Lodgings.

‘Twas yesterday, during one of these Perambulations, that we were discoursing upon one of our favourite Topicks, namely the Manners of the Present Age. My Companion juxtaposed the Squalors of the Seven-Dials, a miserable Hive of dirty and besotted Denizens busied in naught but drinking, brawling, jostling, and picking of one another’s Pockets, with the altogether more pleasing sight of the Citizens of Covent-Garden, strolling in their Finery, displaying all the improving Graces of a polite and commercial Prosperity.

“’Tis a thing to be remark’d upon,” quoth my Companion, “this Transition, from the crudest Manners imaginable, to the greatest heights of Refinement perhaps ever attained by any human Society, all in the course of a few Strides. And it is all owing to our English Freedom. For as my Lord SHAFTESBURY has it, ‘All Politeness is owing to Liberty. We polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides by a sort of amicable Collision’ [Characteristicks, Vol. I, p. 64 — Ed.]. All the shoving and jostling we saw about us in the Seven-Dials is but a necessary Prelude to the Improvement in Morals that is attendant to political Liberty. In time, today’s Dials will be tomorrow’s Covent-Garden.”

“My dear Savile,” I replied, “this may very well prove to be. And yet it is, and hath been for some time, a common Sewer of Vice, and a Nursery for new Villainies. Your coming Age may be a Golden one, but at present,

Nona ætas agitur peiorque saecula ferri
temporibus, quorum sceleri non invenit ipsa
nomen et a nullo posuit natura metallo -

‘We live in the ninth Age, an æra worse than the Age of Iron. Nature herself can find no Name for its Wickedness and has no Metal to label it’ [Juvenal, Satires, 13.28-30 — Ed.]. I am afraid that you mistake Liberty with License. For however much Liberty may be an improving influence, it must first take root in a human Soil made fertile by proper Education and Breeding, else it is a Seed that brings forth naught but Vice and Folly. Rough Manners are more apt to enforce themselves through Repetition, and become Habits, which provide a wide Field for Vice to roam.”

I then related to my Cousin an instructive Tale told by VALERIUS MAXIMUS, which has ever been in my Thoughts since I first read it when I was a young Man at the University. Publius Servilius was an eminent Roman, and a Personage of high Quality. He was a Man who had held every Office, and had been granted all the Honours that a grateful Republick cou'd bestow upon one of its Citizens. One day, he was passing through the Forum when he happened upon a Suit at Law, just as Witnesses were giving Testimony. Servilius immediately interrupted the proceedings, took the Stand, and began speaking unsolicited. He admitted having no Knowledge of the Facts of the Case, nor what point of Law was at issue. He only knew that once, as he was traveling along a narrow Road, the Defendant refused to dismount from his Horse to allow Servilius to pass. According to Valerius, “the Jury found the Defendant guilty almost without hearing the other Witnesses. They were impressed by Servilius’ Eminence and his grave Indignation at the neglect of his Dignity and believed that someone who did not know how to respect our leading Men wou'd rush into any Villainy” [The story is found in Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings, 8.5.6 — Ed.].

“Mark,” I said to my Friend, “the Roman Citizenry’s Wisdom in that uncorrupted Age; for they knew how jostling may become picking of Pockets, and how shoving and Murder are cousins-german. We each of us have, thanks be to GOD, few occasions to practice the larger Morals. We only learn to disdain the greater Vices by practicing the lesser Virtues. In this way, Etiquette, or what we may call small Morals are to the large, as tilting is to Warfare. If I find a Man knows not his Sword’s Point from its Pommel, I shall place him in the hind Ranks of the Battle Array. And when I find a man who cannot respect the Dignity of his Fellows in the smallest Degree, I am little surpriz’d to discover that he respects not their Property or their Lives, and I shall put him in the hind Ranks of my Trust. For such a Knave makes himself by Degrees capable of any villainy. What is Liberty in a Man of Virtue is mere License in a miserable Creature of this Stamp.”

With that said, we noticed that it had insensibly become late, and we began our homeward Journey.

I am, Sir,
Your humble Servant, etc.
Jos. Darlington, Esq.

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