The Ancient Legacy of Manners and Civility
Members Roundtable Discussion Invite
Dear Classical Wisdom Member,
It’s always a strange moment when you first learn of an ancient text that has been so hugely influential and yet today, is almost completely unknown.
Strange... and heartbreaking.
How could something so easy to read, understand and powerful in its message, a text which is so deeply ingrained in Western culture, be just... forgotten?
And does its recent obscurity reveal something... tragic... about now?
Today we’ll right that wrong to discuss the ancient legacy of manners and civility found in Cato’s Distichs.
The article below has been generously provided by long time friend of the Classics and regular collaborator with Classical Wisdom, Alexandra Hudson. It is an extract from her highly anticipated new book The Soul of Civility: Timeless Principles to Heal Society and Ourselves, coming out next month, which you can preorder here:
Classical Wisdom Members, you can find the original text of Cato’s Distichs below... along with a registration to our next Members Only Roundtable Discussion with Alexandra Hudson, taking place on October 4th at Noon EST.
We’ll discuss how the ancients can help us understand what true civility is… and how we can prioritize this virtue in our modern era. I hope you can join us!
All the best,
Founder and Director
The Ancient Legacy of Manners and Civility
By Alexandra Hudson
What one sees on the outside is not without significance, for it always signifies what is on the inside, too.—Thomasin von Zirclaere, thirteenth century Italian writer of the German courtesy poem Der Wälsche Gast
If you can, even remember to help people you don’t know. More precious than a kingdom it is to gain friends by kindness. —Cato’s Distichs
In most places that I am acquainted with, so great is the present corruption of manners, that a printer shall find much more profit in such things as flatter and encourage vice, than in such as tend to promote its contrary. . . . I confess, I have so great confidence in the common virtue and good sense of the people of this and the neighboring provinces, that I expect to sell a very good impression. —Benjamin Franklin, in the preface to his 1735 printed edition of Cato’s Distichs
Cato’s Distichs, a Latin textbook for children that consisted of a series of rhymes meant to inculcate manners and morals in young pupils, may be the most influential handbook of the Middle Ages.
This textbook was for many years incorrectly attributed to the famous Roman historian Cato the Elder, but it is now attributed to the relatively un- known Dionysius Cato. The work was revived during the Middle Ages and became an influence, though now under appreciated, on centuries of thinkers to come.
Luminaries from Geoffrey Chaucer and Cervantes to Benjamin Franklin learned civility by the Distichs’ instruction. Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, for example, makes frequent reference to the Distichs, often to affirm that the failure to have read the famous manual marked someone’s education as incomplete.
Many of the Distichs reiterate the practical ethics with which we are now familiar, exploring the theme of restraining self-interest for the sake of community. Forgive quickly and freely; don’t hold grudges; don’t gossip. Keep your temper: “Temper in fighting rival claims eschew: temper bars minds from seeing what is true.”
Franklin, nourished by Cato’s teachings as a child, said the book was “very proper to be put in the hands of young persons,”17 and even printed his own translation in 1735. In the preface to his edition, Franklin noted that he wasn’t sure printing an old manners manual was a wise business move, but that it was worth reproducing good and virtuous content for its own sake. And, besides, as the preface states, he had faith in the American people to know a good thing when they saw it—and, ideally, buy his book!
Franklin’s flattery did the trick: his edition sold well, and was a well-known textbook in the American founding era.
Facetus was the title of another beloved twelfth-century courtesy poem inspired by Cato’s Distichs, and remained widely used until the fifteenth century. Facetus offers advice on everything from table manners to dress to how to be a good conversationalist.
“He who speaks badly of women is a boor (rusticus), for truly we are all born of women,” Facetus wisely advises. The Latin word rusticus, whence we get our word “rustic,” was important to Facetus in particular and to medieval courtesy books in general. A “rustic” person was someone who hadn’t yet made the sacrifices necessary to live happily with others.
In addition to Facetus, Cato’s Distichs also influenced the intellectual superstar of the European Renaissance, Erasmus of Rotterdam. Known as the “Prince of the Humanists,” Erasmus was the original cosmopolitan. He left his hometown of Rotterdam in the Netherlands at a young age, and for the remainder of his life rarely spent more than two years in any one location. He referred to himself as a “citizen of the world,” a term he popularized. He loved people, good conversation, and learning, and had a general joy for life. This gentleman-scholar was the most coveted dinner guest in all of Europe.
Erasmus was intellectually courageous, but had a peace-loving disposition. He translated a copy of the Christian New Testament from the original Greek—an extraordinary intellectual feat. This process highlighted many errors in a copy of the Bible, called the Latin Vulgate, that was used throughout the Western church for hundreds of years. The Catholic church was nonplussed by Erasmus’s discovery. Though he was a lifelong Catholic, he wasn’t afraid to show the church areas in which, to put it mildly, it needed to improve. (He hoped to reform it over time through improved access to education.)
His ideas for reform inspired a young Martin Luther—it’s said that Erasmus “laid the egg” of the Protestant Reformation that “Luther hatched.”
These were radical days, which was unfortunate, because Erasmus was not a radical in any way, shape, or form. There was no room for a moderate middle course at this moment in history. Erasmus earned enmity from Catholics and Protestant alike, and today is relatively forgotten because he established and inflamed no polarized religious tribe that kept his memory alive. In this way, Erasmus is a model of civility to us today.
Erasmus was acquainted with the mores of the most refined royal courts in Europe. He was also well-traveled—he made a point of relocating every few years for the duration of his life— when travel wasn’t an easy undertaking at this point in history, and meant that he had regular interactions with non-nobility, too. He had relied on Cato’s Distichs to prepare him for his regular encounters with kings and commoners alike, and so treasured the book that in 1514 he, as Benjamin Franklin would centuries later in the New World, published his own edition.
Sixteen years after that, Erasmus would write his own manual, inspired by Cato’s Distichs, entitled A Handbook on Good Manners for Children. First written in Latin, his book was an immediate international best seller and was quickly translated into every major language in Europe. Erasmus’s book became the most influential guide on civility for several centuries.
That Erasmus—the greatest intellectual luminary of his day—chose to dedicate time to manners shows how important it was to people of the Renaissance era. Like Ptahhotep, Isocrates, Daniel of Beccles, Thomasin, and Cato, Erasmus framed his civility manual as instructions to a young man in his life—a Dutch prince—through he also wrote it “for all young people.” Those who lament the decline of common courtesy and manners in today’s youth will find a champion in Erasmus, who was convinced—like Thomasin von Zirclaere and many others before him—that he was living in the most uncivil era.
“There was no one except one old man who greeted me properly, when I passed in the company of some distinguished persons,” Erasmus lamented, decrying the state of modern manners.
As the father of Christian humanism, Erasmus believed that piety was the first step in a child’s education. Like the great thinkers of antiquity whom he was influenced by, Erasmus cared primarily about cultivating good character and nobility of the soul. Like St. Augustine, Erasmus thought that a classical education in the humanistic tradition and in the liberal arts was the best remedy for disordered loves—which is the default state of humanity where we put ourselves before others or God. The humanistic tradition that Augustine and Erasmus were formed by and which they fostered involved reading famous works of literature and philosophy. It helped children develop habits of overcoming their selfish nature and their libido dominandi, and “rightly ordered” their loves.
Like Augustine, Erasmus understood that all people are born with disordered affections, that we naturally elevate our- selves and our needs above others, and that it is only through instruction, example, and practice that our loves can be put in their proper place. An education in Christian humanism helped students reorder their loves correctly. For Erasmus this meant putting God first, others second, and ourselves last.
Manners and common courtesy are important means of practicing rightly ordered loves, because they help us cultivate the habit of considering others alongside and before ourselves in our everyday interactions. Erasmus knew that basic consideration of others when it came to ordinary interactions was an important way of expressing inner character.
Like the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers whom he admired, Erasmus knew that virtue and true freedom of the soul consist of self-governance, controlling one’s baser impulses and passions in the name of a higher principle—namely, friendship and community with others. He referred to manners as “one of the most basic elements of philosophy.”
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