VII. Grace & Grandeur

~ The Marquise de Pompadour by Maurice Quentin Delatour

The pastel portrait above depicts one of the rare women that played a decisive role in the political, intellectual and artistic life of 18th-century France. She was first the mistress and later friend of King Louis XV. Maurice Quentin shows in his portrait the Marquise as a protector of the arts. Arranged on a table beside her are Diderot’s Encyclopedia and Voltaire’s La Henriade. Other attributes symbolize literature, music and the sciences. All of which represent humanity’s attempt to achieve a higher state of civilization.

The court of the Sun King, Louis XIV achieved a high level of cultural refinement within the palace of Versailles. Originally, Versailles was just a modest and humble hunting lodge that the young king used to entertain his more intimate friends. But in the late 1660s, Louis begins his project of reconstructing the old lodge into a great royal palace. The hidden motive behind the palace was simple. By making Versailles the permanent seat of the royal court and government, Louis persuaded the nobility to exchange provincial power for influence and rewards at court. This would strengthen the power of the king at Versailles while diminishing the influence of the nobles in their respective provinces.

The exquisite court etiquette and mannerism required at Versailles matched the glittering court renowned for its beauty, splendor and hall of mirrors. The system of court etiquette was rumored to be so complex that constant study was necessary to prevent humiliation. At Versailles, one never knocks at the door but one scratches it with a fingernail instead. Leading noblemen of France rose at early dawn just to watch Louis awaken and hear him speak his first words. Dozens followed the king from hall to gallery and then from gallery to chamber as he washed, dressed, prayed and ate. And while the nobility studied this complex web of court decorum, they could not plot a rebellion against the king.

One of the ultimate marks of civilization and cultural refinement lies without a doubt in the presence of a well designed and adopted system of proper conduct. Social etiquette and mannerism lies at the forefront of such a system together with laws erected for the benefit of good governance. Without such a system of proper conduct, a society would turn from order into chaos and succumb to barbarianism. Without etiquette, the world of men would lose the binding element that holds a society and a culture together.

Mannerism and etiquette is more that just a set of rigid rules. It is not something that should be practiced only by the wealthy and well bred. Like many other practices, mannerism and etiquette is a philosophy. To follow social etiquette and to be of good manners is to practice the philosophy of respect, consideration and honesty in the eyes of another individual. Someone of good manners genuinely respects another person irrespective of their background, race, creed or gender. He treats others impartially and without prejudice. He believes that although he may not always agree with another person, it is necessary to respect the opinions of others. To quote Voltaire, “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

A person educated in mannerism and social etiquette adheres to the Golden Rule; do onto others as you would have them do unto you. He is thoughtful and considerate. He holds the door open for strangers when he knows they are walking behind him. He takes off his hat when he enters a place of worship. He queues up in the line and gives his seat to the elderly and disabled when he is in public. All praises him and all loves him. But on top of that, he is happy being the well-mannered person that he is. He is not pretentious and deceptive but takes joy in being sincere to the people around him.

Perhaps the most evident place to judge good manners is when one is engaged in pure conversation. In a conversation, there are no scripts to be memorized or lines to be rehearsed before hand. The conversationalist probes, considers, changes and adapts to the situation. According to Cicero: speak clearly; speak easily but not too much, especially when others want their turn; do not interrupt; be courteous; deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter ones; never criticize people behind their backs; stick to the subjects of general interest; do not talk about yourself; and never lose your temper.

Dale Carnegie, a teacher of public speaking, gave a similar set of guiding principles: remember the names of other people; be a good listener; smile; talk in terms of the other person’s interest; and make the other person feel important. In French salons, the basic skills of conversation are sincere good manners, wit, gallantry, obligingness, cheerfulness and flattery. Whether it is advise given by Cicero, Carnegie and the French salons, the principle behind social etiquette during a conversation remains the same: respect, consideration and honesty.

Conformity plays a part in social etiquette as well. As the saying goes, ‘do as most men do, then most men will speak well of you.’ The young Saint Augustine was once troubled by the diverse practices he found within the Church and asked Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan, whether it was correct to fast on Saturday, as the Romans did, or eat normally, as the Milanese did. Saint Ambrose replied, ‘in Rome, do as the Romans do,’ as it was his practice to follow the local custom in each city he was in.

After the death of the Louis XIV, the Sun King of France, his great grandson Louis XVI would suffer terrible consequences as a result for ignoring the principles of respect, consideration and honesty. The absolutely monarchy became everything for the state and everyone else was reduced to become nothing. The court at Versailles with its intricate web of social etiquette and mannerism found itself disconnected from the common men. When peasants were starving in hunger, Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis, proposed to her advisors to, “let them eat cake.” The die was cast for a social upheaval. In October 1789, Parisian women march to Versailles to force Louis XVI to return to Paris as a prisoner. Later in 1793, both Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were executed by means of the guillotine for treason.

Although manners change with time, it is not a thing of the past. The principles behind social etiquette and mannerism are timeless. We cannot always oblige; but we can always speak obligingly[1]. “Mend your speech a little, less you mar your fortune,” said Shakespeare. So deal with people courteously, be patient, and be tolerant of the practices and philosophies of others. Express respect through your posture, the way you sit, walk, and stand.  Dress formally and avoid useless talk. Civility costs nothing but it is the core foundation of the civilized man. What is the use of grandeur if one does not have the grace to match it?!


[1] Quote attributed to Voltaire

 

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