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Liberal Learning, Decorum, and Propriety

In On Good Manners, Desiderius Erasmus—the 15th-16th century Renaissance humanist—explains how “decorum of the body proceeds from a well-ordered mind.”[1] He also mentions how “external decorum is a very crude part of philosophy… [but] it is very conducive to winning good will and to commending those illustrious gifts of the intellect to the eyes of men.”[2] In one sense, Erasmus affirms that decorum is naturally begotten from a cultivated mind; in another sense, he seems to promote it for the sake of utility because it wins the esteem of man. Which point, however, is more essential to Erasmus? It is reductive and, in the case of religious piety, dangerous to limit decorum to serve a useful end. Since decorum pertains to all spheres of life, it necessarily has a place within Christian worship. But this raises a problem. If decorum is solely to impress others, then religious practices like bowing, kneeling, and crossing oneself become vain excesses.[3] To properly understand Erasmus, it is necessary to explore his liberal pedagogy and how this may inform his understanding of propriety. As will be shown, beauty and decorum necessarily proceed from a cultivated mind and are indicative of what it means to be human.

Erasmus lays out his pedagogy quite simply: “nature, method, and practice.”[4] Nature suggests that man has an inclination toward the good; method helps shape this natural disposition through learning; practice affirms method through habituation.[5] Erasmus explains that “It is a serious mistake, therefore, to think that the character we are born with is all-determining.”[6] That is to say, a man’s natural disposition toward the good can and ought to be refined. Personal experience and reflection does not suffice. Philosophy and education are needed to inform and refine the intellect to know what is good, while practice helps the individual to act in accordance with good reason.[7] Therefore, three strands (nature, method, practice) are intertwined to form a strong cord: “nature must be developed by method and method must finds its completion in practice.”[8] It is because man can develop his nature that man “is called a rational being, and this is what sets him apart from the animals.”[9] By refining rationality and habits, individuals become more fully human. How does this relate to decorum? Since decorum pertains to personal conduct and propriety, it rightfully belongs to the practice “strand” of Erasmus’ pedagogy. Therefore, good decorum plays a critical role in Erasmus’ overall framework. It helps confirm good nature and method.

The idea that a good, well-ordered intellect also practices good manners seems commonsensical. However, some of the topics in On Good Manners may seem ridiculous or excessive. For example, when commenting on the appearance of eyebrows, Erasmus notes how “The eyebrows should be smooth: not contracted; which denotes fierceness; not arched, a sign of arrogance; not pressed down over the eyes, like those of a schemer. The brow also should be cheerful and smooth, indicating a good conscience and an open mind.”[10] This may appear to be pedantry, but it is important to observe how these small details relate to other aspects of decorum. All these minute details become relevant when Erasmus relates this to important social settings. For example, Erasmus notes how governing officials and magistrates should always be shown proper respect, even if they have never done good. Erasmus says “This mark of respect is being bestowed not on a mere man, not upon the worthy, but on God.”[11] Social propriety is not a matter of earning praise or esteem, but of moral obligation. God established the magistrates and they ought to be honored. However, proper honor cannot be given if one has not practiced the former methods of decorum. In other words, one must be keenly aware of one’s facial expressions and avoid what can be perceived as condescending or arrogant. Even if one naturally expresses a look of contempt, one ought to practice habits which reform this expression in order to communicate honor clearly and effectively. This is what it means to abide in reason. Through reason, man can improve and reform naturally unpleasant expressions to be in accordance to what is truly good and proper.[12]

Thus far, it is clear that decorum reflects the intellect, and is a good and useful tool for social propriety. The final consideration of decorum is religious. When commenting on behavior in church, Erasmus describes how the honor given to an earthly king relates to the honor given to Christ the King.[13] He notes, “If someone intended to address a king… without uncovering his head and bowing, he would be taken by all to be not merely uncivilized but completely mad.”[14] Erasmus invites us to ask “what kind of behaviour would it be to have one’s head covered during mass and to remain standing in the presence of the King of Kings, immortal and giver of immortality, surrounded by the venerable host of heavenly spirits?”[15] Such a question points to the gravity of decorum. Before an earthly king, respect is given for the sake of civic propriety; before God, respect is due because the church reveals the whole company of heaven—Christ, the Blessed Virgin, angels and archangels, and Cherubim and Seraphim—“they see you” and “It does not matter that you do not see them.”[16] Therefore, celebration of the Mass is a heavenly banquet, and decorum ought to reflect this truth. Beautiful liturgy, song, and art all confess this reality.

All of Erasmus’ advice pertains to one thing: beauty. By nature, it is completely useless. And yet, it is indicative of the presence of truth and goodness. Social decorum and propriety reflect this truth. In fact, Erasmus’ On Education for Children would not be complete without On Good Manners: the former naturally begets the latter. But the question still remains: why does Erasmus argue that decorum can have a utilitarian end? For one, it may function as a simple rhetorical point. The treatise is especially meant for nobility, so an argument about social esteem would be relevant. Secondly, there is a reason why good decorum “is very conducive to winning [the] good will” of men.[17] Because men have a natural inclination to what is good, men naturally perceive beauty as connected to the truth and goodness. Therefore, decorum is only effective at gaining social esteem precisely because it reflects a good and clear intellect. The third century Neo-Platonist Plotinus even notes how “beauty, then, of bodily forms comes about in this way—from communion with the intelligible realm.”[18] Beauty, as it is present in good decorum, is not arbitrary, but rather reveals the intellect to be in union with the divine. To Erasmus, this is the most essential component to good manners. When beauty is pursued to serve a prideful end, it is vanity. When truth and goodness are pursued for their own sake, beauty is naturally begotten in the form of decorum.

 

 

End Notes:
[1] Erasmus, The Erasmus Reader (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 102.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Cf. Matthew 6:16.
[4] Ibid., 77.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid., 78.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 103.
[11] Ibid., 117.
[12] It should be noted: poor decorum does not reflect poor piety; instead, it exclusively reflects poor method: “sometimes even upright and learned men lack social grace because they have not been taught properly” (On Good Manners, 102). Oftentimes, however, good method comes from good theology/philosophy.
[13] Ibid., 109.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid., 102.
[18] Plotinus, The Essential Plotinus (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1964), 3.

 

 

References:
Erasmus, Desiderius. The Essential Erasmus. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014.
Plotinus. The Essential Plotinus. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1964.