Virtues and Values

As a ninety year old, one of the saddest and most distressing things I have observed in my lifetime is the loss of manners.  I believe I could write on that subject at some length.  Instead, I have chosen to selectively quote from an article on this subject by Jeff Minick.  For 20 years Mr. Minick taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va.  

Though we usually think of manners as handling a fork properly or holding the supermarket door open for an elderly person, we may quickly broaden the definition to include courtesy, comportment, and decorum.

The erosion of formal etiquette and decorum over my lifetime is beyond debate. Some of our public figures, for example, especially celebrities like movie stars and athletes, use language once confined to locker rooms and military barracks. On social media, people rage at one another, hurling vicious insults at strangers with whom they disagree. Obscenities and bad manners are the norm today on the big screen and television.

Crudeness and vulgarity are no strangers even in ordinary life.  Practices once common are now passé. Some no longer write thank you notes to those who have given them gifts or favors. “Please” has gone missing in the vocabularies of many people, and rather than receiving a “you’re welcome,” a “thank you” is often met with “no worries” or “no problem.  Public rudeness and crudeness is not uncommon.

Yet, not all is lost. Every day I encounter people who do practice their manners.  I have eaten in restaurants where the

manners of parents and children were impeccable.   I have on occasion received a thank you note for a gift given or a service rendered.

As noted above, however, our decorum, which my online dictionary defines as “behavior in keeping with good taste and propriety,” has slipped, some might say plummeted.

If we look back 60 or 70 years, we find presidents and members of Congress treating one another with respect, at least in public, and movie stars and celebrities would have gotten canned had they used the language of their 21st-century counterparts. Common citizens took pride in their appearance and behaved like grownups.

So what brought about this demise in decorum? We have progressed in so many other ways, inventing miraculous means of communication, ending racism, and practicing tolerance toward those with beliefs different than our own. Why are propriety and courtesy in such short supply in the 21st century?

Perhaps it is a matter of  Virtues Versus Values. Virtues exist outside the realm of the individual as broad governing principles based on morality, goodness, and what C.S. Lewis called “the traditional moralities of East and West.” The world’s great religions and many of its civilizations have all adhered to these core virtues, what some would call natural law.

On the other hand, when I again consult my online dictionary, it defines values as “a person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life.”  This substitution of values for virtues, a relatively new concept, means that we each make our own rules for right and wrong behavior.  We carve our commandments not in stone, not as universal laws given to us by nature or a god, but by the willfulness and desires of our own hearts. Unlike virtue, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison” is the rule by which values abide.

This subjectivity, this relativity we now practice, has immense consequences for virtue, decorum, and manners. The Ten Commandments Moses brought from the mountaintop, edicts regarded as true by so many cultures outside of Israel, are no longer in force, at least not in Western civilization.

When we adopt as our guiding lights values rather than virtues, we become little gods, deciding for ourselves what constitutes right and wrong. Some, for example, applaud the near-nudity and lewd performance at a Super Bowl halftime show; others find it disgusting. Some tell us that each person has a right to choose a gender, or several genders; others stand with tradition and science, and proclaim that people are either male or female depending on their chromosomes.

Most of us know and admire people who practice manners and exhibit decorum, and we would do well to imitate them. Even better, we would do well to put the idea of values into a closet, lock the door, and seek instead to devote ourselves to those virtues that, however hidden, remain written on the human heart.

The practice of virtue will make us creatures of comportment and manners.

Thank you, Mr. Minick.  Truth is truth, and I trust you will not mind my borrowing from your eloquent defense of virtues and manners.

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