By MARSHA MERCER
In the entertaining novel, “Rules of Civility,” about 20-somethings in glamorous, 1930s New York, the enigmatic Tinker Grey keeps with him a much-underlined copy of George Washington’s rules of proper behavior.
Tinker aspires to the refined life the rules represent, though narrator Katey scoffs that the rules are “A do-it-yourself charm school. A sort of How to Win Friends and Influence People 150 years ahead of its time.”
You’ll have to read Amor Towles’s novel to see how it turns out – and you should. A welcome escape from today’s news, it was published in 2011, became a New York Times bestseller and Wall Street Journal best book of the year, and has been published in more than 15 languages.
And, besides, all 110 of Washington’s rules appear in the novel’s appendix, with the quirky spelling, punctuation and capitalization preserved. Anyone can benefit from an acquaintance with “Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation.”
Washington didn’t dream up the rules or even compile them. The Jesuits composed the rules about 1595 and they were translated into English about 1640. Washington wrote them out as a penmanship lesson before he was 16.
Biographers say Washington was self-conscious about his lack of a gentleman’s education and took the rules so seriously they helped form his character.
Many concern table manners, such as “Take no Salt or cut Bread with your Knife Greasy” (Rule 92) and some personal dress: “Wear not your Cloths, foul, unript or Dusty but See they are Brush’d once every day at least and take heed that you approach not to any Uncleaness” (51).
Others speak to personal conduct: “Associate yourself with Men of good Quality if you Esteem your own Reputation; for ‘tis better to be alone than in bad Company” (56).
And some offer sage advice on public discourse. “Let your Conversation be without Malice or Envy, for ‘tis a Sign of a Tractable and Commendable Nature: And in all Causes of Passion admit Reason to Govern” (58).
And, “Think before you Speak pronounce not imperfectly nor bring out your Words too hastily but orderly & distinctly” (73).
As we celebrate Washington’s 286th birthday on Presidents Day on Monday, more Americans lament the loss of civility.
“There is more civility in a death penalty case than there is in some congressional hearings,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, told Politico.
Gowdy, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform and a former federal prosecutor, announced Jan. 31 he’s leaving Congress and politics after this term to return to the justice system.
After a congressman was shot and gravely wounded last summer in Alexandria during practice for a congressional baseball game, members of Congress from both parties pledged to be more civil.
A bipartisan group of House members proposed a National Civility Day to remind people that “civility involves being nice or polite to others and treating others with respect.” The bill has gone nowhere.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, weighing in on our toxic politics, suggested a solution in a video: “We control our own actions. Let’s be more civil. Let’s improve our tone.”
Many people blame President Donald Trump and his barnyard vocabulary for the coarsening of the culture, and his insults and name-calling certainly hurt the cause of civility. Trump, as usual, blames the news media.
“I think the press makes me more uncivil than I am,” he told reporters last fall.
If Trump had read Washington’s rules, he’d know: “Use no Reproachfull Language against any one neither Curse nor Revile” (49), “Be not hasty to beleive flying Reports to the Disparagement of any” (50) and “Be not apt to relate News if you know not the truth thereof.” (79)
Anyone can read Washington’s rules on www.mountvernon.org. “Every action done in Company, ought to be with Some Sign of Respect, to those that are Present” (Rule 1) and “Labour to keep alive in your Breast that Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience” (110) are worthy goals.
And if, while on Mount Vernon’s website, you happen onto an annoying Page Not Found 404 error, you’ll find “Rules of Civility #404: `When confronted by a missing web page do not gnash thy teeth, but rather press forward with a fine countenance towards the next available page.’”
Sound advice. Washington would approve.
©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.