By A. Gentleman.
The formalities of refined society were at first established for the purpose of facilitating the intercourse of persons of the same standing, and increasing the happiness of all to whom they apply. They are now kept up, both to assist the convenience of intercourse and to prevent too great familiarity. If they are carried too far, and escape from the control of good sense, they become impediments to enjoyment. Among the Chinese they serve only the purpose of annoying to an incalculable degree. “The government,” says De Marcy, in writing of China, “constantly applies itself to preserve, not only in the court and among the great, but among the people themselves, a constant habit of civility and courtesy. The Chinese have an infinity of books upon such subjects; one of these treatises contains more than three thousand articles.—
Everything is pointed out with the most minute detail; the manner of saluting, of visiting, of making presents, of writing letters, of eating, etc.: and these customs have the force of laws—no one can dispense with them. There is a special tribunal at Peking, of which it is one of the chief duties, to ensure the observance of these civil ordinances.”
One would think that one was here reading an account of the capital of France. It depends, then, upon the spirit in which these forms are observed, whether their result shall be beneficial or not. The French and the Chinese are the most formal of all the nations. Yet the one is the stiffest and most distant; the other, the easiest and most social.
“We may define politeness,” says La Bruyre, “though we cannot tell where to fix it in practice. It observes received usages and customs, is bound to times and places, and is not the same thing in the two sexes or in different conditions. Wit alone cannot obtain it: it is acquired and brought to perfection by emulation. Some dispositions alone are susceptible of politeness, as others are only capable of great talents or solid virtues. It is true politeness puts merit forward, and renders it agreeable, and a man must have eminent qualifications to support himself without it.” Perhaps even the greatest merit cannot successfully straggle against unfortunate and disagreeable manners. Lord Chesterfield says that the Duke of Marlborough owed his first promotions to the suavity of his manners, and that without it he could not have risen.
La Bruyre has elsewhere given this happy definition of politeness, the other passage being rather a description of it. “Politeness seems to be a certain care, by the manner of our words and actions, to make others pleased with us and themselves.”
We must here stop to point out an error which is often committed both in practice and opinion, and which consists in confounding together the gentleman and the man of fashion. No two characters can be more distinct than these. Good sense and self-respect are the foundations of the one--notoriety and influence the objects of the other. Men of fashion are to be seen everywhere: a pure and mere gentleman is the rarest thing alive. Brummel was a man of fashion; but it would be a perversion of terms to apply to him "a very expressive word in our language,--a word, denoting an assemblage of many real virtues and of many qualities approaching to virtues, and an union of manners at once pleasing and commanding respect,-- the word gentleman."* The requisites to compose this last character are natural ease of manner, and an acquaintance with the "outward habit of encounter"- dignity and self-possession--a respect for all the decencies of life, and perfect freedom from all affectation. Dr. Johnson's bearing during his interview with the king showed him to be a thorough gentleman, and demonstrates how rare and elevated that character is. When his majesty expressed in the language of compliment his high opinion of Johnson's merits, the latter bowed in silence. If Chesterfield could have retained sufficient presence of mind to have done the same on such an occasion, he would have applauded himself to the end of his days. So delicate is the nature of those qualities that constitute a gentleman, that there is but one exhibition of this description of persons in all the literary and dramatic fictions from Shakespeare downward. Scott has not attempted it. Bulwer, in "Pelham," has shot wide of the mark. It was reserved for the author of two very singular productions, "Sydenham" and its continuation "Alice Paulet"--works of extraordinary merits and extraordinary faults--to portray this character completely, in the person of Mr. Paulet.
* Charles Butler's Reminiscences.
This is taken from The Laws of Etiquette.
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