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Cato's Letter No. 121

Of Good Breeding.

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, March 23, 1723)

SIR, Good breeding is the art of shewing men, by external signs, the internal regard which we have for them. It arises from good sense, improved by conversing with good company. A well-bred fool is impertinent; and an ill-bred wise man, like a good instrument out of tune, is awkward, harsh, and disagreeable. A courteous blockhead is, however, a more acceptable guest, almost every-where, than a rude sage. Men are naturally so fond of themselves, that they will rather misspend their time with a complaisant ape, than improve it with a surly and thwarting philosopher. Every bow, or good word, whencesoever it comes, is taken by us as a sign of our importance, and a confession of our merit; and the neglect of that complaisance, as a token that we are thought of none: A reproach which, however silent, few care to bear.

Good breeding is never to be learned by study; and therefore they who study it are coxcombs, and formalists and stiff pedants. The best-bred men, as they come to be so by use and observation only, practice it without affectation. You see good breeding in all that they do, without seeing the art of it. It is a habit; and, like all others, acquired by practice. A weak and ignorant man, who has lived in good company, shall enter a room with a better grace, and say common things much more agreeably, than a profound wise man, who lives by himself, or with only such as himself, and is above the forms of the world, and too important to talk of indifferent things, and to be like other people. A footman employed in How díyeís shall address himself to a person of figure with more decorum, and make a speech with more ease, than a learned serjeant, who lives wholly over briefs; or the deep head of a college, occupied only in a momentous science. I have known a man, who, with the learning of a whole university, had the manners of a clown, and the surliness of a porter; not from the want of sense, though that want be very consistent with a world of learning, but from living long in a college, and dictating to boys and pupils, or with old Fellows, who had no more breeding than himself, and, like himself, were spoiled by living rarely upon the square with any other sort of people.

Good breeding therefore is never to be learned in a college, where the sphere of conversation is so narrow, where the distance between men is so great, and where the old have none to teach the young. Hence you generally see young men come from the universities with a conceited air, and a quaint manner, which often turns them into fops: They are generally either pert or prim: The tone of their voice, and the position of their muscles, shew their accomplishments, before they have spoke two words: Their step, and the manner of using their legs and arms, do the same; and every joint about them, and every action they do, declares the place and way of their education. As to the senior fellows, and heads of houses, they are such starched pedants, such solemn mamamouches, and such kingly old fops, that from their mien you may know their characters, and read their titles and preferments in their hats. They carry the college about them where-ever they go, and talk at a table as they do at a lecture; or, if sometimes they break into gaiety, it is either imperious or insipid, disrespectful or awkward, and always ungraceful: They want a good manner, less conceit, and the appearance, at least, of more humility; all which are only to be acquired by living abroad in the world, and by conversing with all sorts of men. This accustoms one to treat all men as they expect to be treated; and such general good treatment given to all is called good breeding.

Hence the breeding of courts is always the easiest and most refined. Courtiers have the constant advantage of living daily with the best-bred men: Besides, having occasion for all sorts of people, they accustom themselves to use all sorts of people civilly. By conversing with all sorts, they can fall readily into all sorts of styles, and please every body by talking to him in his own way. They find too, by daily experience, and promiscuous conversation, that the difference between men and men is not so great, as an unacquaintedness with men would generally make it: They are therefore under no awe, nor shyness, in speaking to the greatest; nor have any general contempt for the meanest: a contempt which too often rises from a wrong judgment, grounded upon pride, and continued by inexperience. They consider, that as the greatest can do them good, so the meanest can hurt them: They are therefore respectful without awe to those above them, and complaisant without disdain to those below them. Courts therefore are the best schools for good breeding; and to be well-bred we must live not only with the best sorts of men, but must be acquainted with all sorts.

The want of this general conversation may be one reason why the country clergy are so often accused of want of breeding. They come from the university full of an opinion, that all that is to be learned is to be learned there; and believing themselves to have already every accomplishment, often remain without any. In their parishes they can learn nothing but an additional pride, from seeing or fancying themselves the biggest men there. If there be a squire in the place, he rarely mends them. If he have a delicate taste, he will not converse with them: But it frequently happens, that his taste is as crude as theirs, and consists in eating much, and drinking more, and talking loud. From this conceited education, and narrow conversation, arises their impatience of contradiction, and their readiness to contradict. I own that I am always cautious of reasoning with the vicar: His first argument is generally an assertion; and his next, an affront.

An engaging manner and a genteel address may be out of their power; but it is in their power to be condescending and affable. When people are obliging, they are said to be well-bred. The heart and intention are chiefly considered: When these are found friendly and sincere, the manner of shewing it, however awkward, will be kindly overlooked. Good breeding is artificial good nature; and complaisance is understood to be a copy of the invisible heart. When people are satisfied of one anotherís good-will and sincerity, the forms they shew them are generally laid aside. Between intimate friends there is little ceremony, and less between man and wife. Some, however, is still necessary, because by signs and actions the affections are shewn. But a courteous behavior, which is known to mean nothing, goes for nothing, and is not necessary when the meaning is known to be good. Expressions of kindness, when they are not thought the marks and effects of kindness, are empty sounds: And yet these unmeaning expressions are necessary in life. We are not to declare to every man whom we dislike, how much we dislike him, nor to shew it by dumb signs. When a man says, that he is my humble servant, he obliges me; not by the words, which in common speech signify scarce any thing, but because by these words he shews that he thinks me worth notice. Good breeding therefore is then just, when the actions which it produces are thought sincere: This is its end and success: It must seem produced by kindness for the person for whom it is shewn.

Good breeding is of so great importance in the world, that an accomplishment this way goes often further than much greater accomplishments without it can do. I have known gentlemen, who with moderate parts and much good breeding have been thought great men; and have actually come to be so. Great abilities alone make no manís person amiable; some have been unpopular with the greatest, and some even ridiculous. But the gay, the easy, the complaisant man, whose chief abilities are in his behaviour, pleases and obliges all, and is amiable to as many as he obliges. To learn this behaviour, people must begin early. One who sets out into the world at twenty, shall make twice as much progress in life, as one who with twice his sense sets out at forty; because he is then less susceptible of the arts of life. Habits are not to be got in a day; and after a certain age, never. Forced complaisance is foppery; and affected easiness is a monster. I have seen a world of tradesmen, and almost as many gentlemen, take such pains to be well-bred, that I have been in pain for them: Native plainness is a thousand times better.

Complaisance is ingenious flattery: It makes those to whom it is paid flatter themselves, while they take every act of complaisance in others as the declaration of merit in themselves: And beyond a certain degree it is not innocent. Courtiers know its efficacy so well, that to it alone no small part of their power is owing. Hence so many people have always been deceived by civil words and kind looks. To know speculatively the delusions of this art, is not sufficient to put you upon your guard against it. A fair and plausible behaviour, with a ready rote of kind expressions, and all the appearances of sincerity, will be apt to mislead you in spite of your foreknowledge. They will catch your senses, and beat you off your theory in politicks. You must find their insincerity some time before you will come to distrust it. Their art and your own self-love will conspire against you, drive away your incredulity, and beget faith, as it is often begot, against evidence and reason. You will still flatter yourself, that you are an exception to the rule, though there were never another exception. The credulity of some is perfectly incurable; many have continued steady believers, in spite of daily proofs and fatal experience for twenty years together. They were always persuaded, that every promise was at least intended to be kept, and always forgave the breaking of it. The great man smiled graciously, bowed courteously, excused himself earnestly; and vowed to God, that you should have the next thing. You miscarried; and then, with a concerned face, he vowed to God, that he could not help it, promised again with the same solemn vow, was again believed and always believed. This wretched credulity is the fruit of self-love, of an opinion that we are as considerable in the eyes of others as we are in our own. Mankind are governed by their weaknesses; and all that statesmen have to do to keep expecting crowds about them, and attached to them, is to promise violently, to seem violently in earnest, and never be so: That is, they must be extremely well-bred.

Good breeding is indeed an amiable and persuasive thing: It beautifies the actions, and even the looks of men. But equally odious is the grimace of good breeding. In comparison with this, bluntness is an accomplishment. The ape of a well-bred man is just as offensive as the well-bred man is agreeable: He is a nuisance to his acquaintance. I am frighted at the affected smile, and the apish shrug. When these foul copies of courtiers throw their civil grin in oneís face, it is as much as one can do to avoid spitting in theirs. A starched rogue forcing smiles, is a more hideous sight than a mummy. He is a fugitive from nature; and it is notable impudence in such a creature to pretend to be courteous.

As to ill-breeding, or rudeness, there is something still worse in it than its deformity. It is immoral; it is using others as you would not be used.

G. I am,&c.

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