|Manners Maketh Man
One of the many victims of the rapid decline and decay of contemporary
society into disbelief and materialism is the custom and practice of
It may seem that ‘good manners’ are a trivial matter compared with the
crimes of inhumanity perpetrated by vicious state war machines, and by
narrow minded, fanatic bigots, with equal zeal.
It may seem that the loss of good manners is merely the idle complaint of
the rich and gentrified who like to pretend to a monopoly in this matter.
It may seem like a hangover from more overtly class ridden times.
|It may seem an irrelevance in a world in which the rich squander wealth on frivolity and excess and the
vain pursuit of sensuality, while the poor struggle to put bread in their mouths.
It may seem insignificant in a world in which the pursuit of increased hedonistic intensity is termed
mistakenly as ‘living life to the full’.
Bemoaning the loss of good manners may seem like a vain exercise in nostalgia perpetrated by the
elderly on the young. It may seem that loss of good manners is merely a symptom of a cultural malaise
The Significance of Manners
There is another way of understanding the real implications of good manners, their centrality in the
human condition, and what really constitutes ‘good manners’.
According to the mystics, who have always venerated them, good manners are those things which
differentiate mankind from the animals. Or to put it more succinctly, differentiate man’s lower bestial
nature from his higher angelic nature or spiritual aspiration.
The inclination of our lower nature, like the beasts, is to satisfy certain needs and drives immediately
and fully by any means available. The need for food and survival, the need to protect territory and
achieve dominance, and the need to satisfy mating urges. Amongst actual animals this is readily
perceived as the natural state of affairs – no one complains of the bad manners of a lion that tears its
raw food with its claws, and devours it rapaciously, or if the dog publicly mounts the bitch at any moment.
The existence of a lower animal-like nature is inherent in the human condition; it differentiates us from
the angels whose nature is pure obedience to the divine. It is the challenge to the soul, of overcoming
and subduing this lower nature, which gives rise to the great potential of man to be more even than the
angels. This is an implication of the story of Adam and Iblis (Satan) as related in the holy Qur’an.
The need to subdue the innate bestial cravings, and to control the basic instincts of men, women and
children, is what gives rise to the development of social manners, culture, good conduct, and in the
intellectual sphere, morality.
To take a random example, it is self evident that food goes down the gullet and is processed by the
body in much the same way, whether it is eaten raw off the ground or as part of grand banquet. Delaying
and surrounding this necessary process with fine cuisine, in moderate portions, at fixed times, perhaps
preceded by prayer with various social conventions being imposed on the process, distances us from,
and helps to manage the beast within; who, however, must at the end of the day have his needs met.
Similarly in the sphere of mating, with the application not merely of legal, religious or social conventions,
but conventions of romance too, there is an attempt to delay and refine an innate drive.
Similarly even warfare (territorial dominance) has accumulated conventions and codes to modify to
some extent its more bestial nature. In other allied spheres of human behaviour such as business
competition, conventions also exist. All of these, when applied, are forms of ‘good manners’. In some
respects the law itself is the imposition of manners.
The root of good manners then, is the individual’s struggle to control his lower nature extended into the
interpersonal, familial, social and even political and cultural spheres. The complement of this is the
struggle to enhance, develop, and refine man’s spiritual nature, which extends into the development of
society and indeed the formation of civilisation.
Examples of good manners such as particular sets of behaviour are of course only a manifestation they
are not the essence of good manners, and it is the commonly made mistake of identifying good
manners with particular, culturally conditioned, behaviours that results in good manners being dismissed
as of minor importance, or more negatively, as cultural, social, or class impositions. Eckhart said:
People ought not to consider so much what they are to do as what they are; ‘let them but be good and
their ways and deeds will shine brightly.’
Particular socially or culturally conditioned forms of behaviour are indeed merely indicators of
something deeper, and should not be mistaken as good manners in themselves. When we see leaves
blowing in the wind we do not suppose that they are the wind, but they are evidence that the wind is
blowing. Specific ways of eating food, for example using particular implements in a particular order, or a
particular convention of greetings, are not essentially good or bad manners in themselves.
Nevertheless, whilst recognising this, it would be a mistake to ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’.
External ritual, whether at meal times as in our example, or in any other sphere of life including the
religious, enables a common standard to be set that is a powerful social tool in inculcating the delay of
immediate gratification or other inclinations of our lower nature. Socially they are the framework which
inhibits the naked expression of transient impulses and encourages the expression of human values. It
is in fact of course nothing less than discipline. Society well recognises the need of such disciplines and
each has tended to develop and impose these, sometimes by laws but more frequently by convention.
To give another example, armed forces have well understood the practical significance of imposing
ritual behaviour such as coordinated parade ground activity that has no direct relationship with their
business of fighting.
Whilst societies imposes these disciplines, some more than others, as a necessity, the one who can
really be said to have begun to develop good manners is not the one who merely exhibits specific
behaviours so as to conform to a particular social norm, it is rather the one who has internalised the
need to restrain and manage the beast within. The impositions such a person places on his lower
nature is not restricted to a particular set of behaviours but to the control of thoughts and feelings. In The
Masnevi of Mevlana Rumi the great saint talks about the use of the phrase ‘If God Wills’, which, in
Muslim society, people are required to say when talking about something they hope for in the future.
However Mevlana says: ‘The mere saying of this phrase is a superficial circumstance, how many a
man has not said these words but his soul is in harmony with the soul of it.’ We may say as much of
good manners in general.
The truly well mannered person cultivates positive thoughts of empathy, sympathy, tolerance,
forgiveness, compassion, good will, respect, and affection towards others. For him or her good
manners are internalised. The cultivation of such thoughts and feelings leads to a change in ‘attitude’,
which is the collective effect of these and which lead to the spontaneous expression of good manners in
actions and words. Real good manners then spring from a loving heart; where this exists, good
manners, in the sense of words and actions, follow - just as the flower grows when water is applied.
However the emphasis on internal sincerity does not relieve us of the responsibility of implementing
good social manners, it simply means that the ideal of good manners should flow spontaneously from
us. ‘By their fruits shall ye know them.’
In the example of ritual prayer, compliance with the prescribed actions can be imposed for the sake of
conformity, which has a limited if important function, for those with less development. It is more
meaningful if such external form can be married to sincere desire for spiritual development, requiring
real ‘presence’ in the actions. Having such ‘presence’ does not relieve the person of the responsibility
to fulfil his ritual words and actions.
The developing individual constantly refines and raises the standard of what constitutes good manners.
They begin to live with the sense that good manners are in fact whatever is pleasing to God. Good
manners then become increasingly subtle for the one who is advancing in his spiritual and moral
There is a story told by Mevlana Rumi in which a man goes to the house of his friend and knocks on the
door. The friend asks who is there – ‘It is I’ says the man and he is told by his friend to go away since
there is no room for another in the house. For a year he goes away racked by grief at separation from
his friend. A year later he returns and paces up and down outside the door anxious that no wrong word
comes from his lips. Eventually he knocks and his friend says again – ‘who is there?’ ‘Tis thou, O
charmer of hearts!’ he says. ‘Then come in’ replies the friend ‘since thou art I’.
In the first instance the man has not demonstrated bad manners by conventional standards, but at
another level it is bad manners, in the presence of the beloved, to cling to one’s own identity and to be
‘other’. If you read the stories of the Sufi saint’s interactions and conversations in Sufi literature you will
find that it largely revolves around an ever more refined understanding of good manners in this more
The subtleties of ‘good manners’ between lover and beloved appears again and again. There is the
story of the lover who insists on reading poems of love to his beloved and is chided for doing so in the
presence of the beloved, for what may have been good in separation is bad in the presence of the
beloved where love is required, not poems about love.
Good manners imply appropriateness to the situation, but in essence they arise from the purification of
the heart. The saint is distinguished in having access to the unseen by means of the cleansed mirror of
the heart. He cultivates the manners that pertain to his insight, irrespective of how they appear
externally. The pure hearted one does not exhibit bad manners precisely because he is pure hearted
and what proceeds from him is pure. The ‘attainment’ of a pure heart is really a gift from God but the
struggle to be well mannered is part of the process of making oneself ready to receive such a gift.
From Khawaja Muinuddin Hasan Chishti we hear about the good manners of the lovers at the Day of
Judgement. The one that speaks out to make a claim of lover hood is not thought to belong to the lovers
There are no bad manners in the Beloved, whatever the behaviour, but the lover must ever be in fear of
some exhibition of bad manners that indicate insincerity in his love.
Good manners between Sheik and disciple consist in endless attention by the disciple to every detail of
his behaviour towards the Sheik. To serving him in any way he can every moment. To guarding his every
thought from any bad thought about his Sheik. This is axiomatic in Sufism, but even here the knowledge
of inner realities may change what constitutes good manners at this level. As in the story of the Sheik
who was sitting with a disciple. Without any outward change of behaviour the disciple found himself in a
particular altered spiritual condition. As it happens the two were sitting together with others around who
were all looking at something of interest. The Sheik and his disciple were each smoking a cigarette.
Understanding the changed state of the disciple instantly, the Sheik reversed the normal etiquette and
picked up the ashtray and held it for the disciple to use during the duration of the cigarette. Only the true
Sheiks can do this. None of those present saw this despite their proximity.
Those Sheiks compete in the demonstration of good manners of a highly subtle kind and are highly
appreciative of the demonstration of refined manners by other Sheiks. It is these subtle demonstrations,
rather than fine words, that demonstrate the spiritual level and attainments of the true Sheik to his peers.
Lord Jesus suggested that a person fasting should ‘anoint your heads and wash your faces that you
appear not to men to fast’ – an example of real ‘good manners’.
All this goes to show that good manners are in certain respects at the very heart of the spiritual life, and
as the spiritual life is at the real heart of all of life they are central to social, business, industrial,
interpersonal, and all other forms of expression.
However the abandonment of the external forms of good-manners by one who has not reached an
advanced level but who merely imagines that he or she has, is the height of folly and constitutes a trick
of the lower soul. Seeker beware! Mevlana Rumi in the Masnevi tells a well known tale of a parrot who
having spilled some oil over his master accidentally, and having been beaten by him as a consequence,
becomes bald and stops his usual habit of conversing with customers. Eventually he is moved back to
speech by the sight of a bald headed Sufi. He asks him – ‘have you too spilt the oil?’ the moral that
Mevlana points out is that the parrot has made a completely wrong assumption likening his state to that
of the passing Sufi.
The Malaise of ‘modern society’.
From what I have said it should be clear that a decline of the exhibition of good manners that we find in
our everyday life is a matter of concern not primarily because of the manners themselves but for two
1. Good manners have become a little neglected as an art, which if practiced would in itself tend
towards self purification and spiritual development
2. Bad manners are a reflection of a deeper spiritual malaise in the individual and thus inevitably in
the wider society.
The practice of conventional good manners, allied with spiritual and moral sincerity, is a ‘spiritual
practice’ of huge benefit to the person wanting to travel the path of enlightenment. Without such sincerity
it may be mere hypocrisy but even then may retain some residual social benefits that modern society
can scarce afford to do without.
In the past ‘high society’ looked down on lower classes for their lack of ‘good manners’ by which they
meant their own particular norms or conventions, and thus exhibited real bad manners themselves. As
we have suggested the concern of such persons for ‘manners’ was misapplied, because it was focused
on external behaviours rather than on intention and inner sincerity. If however we eschew their attitude
merely to replace it with the deliberate acceptance of some other ruder form of manners we are also
guilty of the same mistake.
What then should we do?
There is a book by Count Leo Tolstoy entitled ‘What then should we do? And that is the question we
need to answer too.
For the answer we must both turn within and also seek guidance from the wisdom of the ages.
The practice of ‘self evaluation’ and constructive self criticism is a powerful tool. We can develop the
practice of evaluating our mutual interactions at the end of each day. Sitting ‘like Solomon’ in judgement
on the nuances of our words and actions and the motivations behind them, we can, in complete self
honesty, look at each example of behaviour and decide whether we acted in a well mannered way. We
may try to think of ways of behaving that would exhibit better manners.
We may wish to go a little deeper and consider whether what we said or did was actually intended to
hurt or to help irrespective of whether we cloaked it with outward good manners or not. Were we acting
out of anger or greed or lust or vanity? We don’t need to psychoanalyse ourselves and get lost in a
maze of speculation about past experience. As Dr Sharib says at the beginning of one of his lectures –
‘I am not the least concerned with what you have been, but with what you would like to become’.
Nor need we expect to entirely overcome our lower nature, as we refine our spiritual nature so our lower
nature becomes more subtle in its deceptive ways. Nor need we expect from ourselves immediate
perfection – as Nawob Gudri Shah Baba said: ‘the triumph of intelligence is to recognise that perfection
nowhere exists’. We should limit ourselves to a few pieces of behaviour, and when we have completed
our self evaluation we should simply resolve firmly to act with better manners next time. We can
complete our period of introspection by asking, in all earnestness, Almighty God to forgive and help us.
To go even deeper we may bear in mind that God sees all that we do and thus to act with good
manners even when alone.
From Seneca we hear the following:
‘It is my custom every night, so soon as the light is out, to run over the words and actions of the past
day; and I let nothing escape me, for why should I fear the sight of my errors when I can admonish
and forgive myself? I was a little too hot in such a dispute; my opinion might have been withheld for it
gave offence and did no good; the thing was true but, but all truths are not to be spoken at all times; I
would I had held my tongue, for there is no contending either with fools or with our superiors. I have
done ill but it shall be no more. If every man would so look into himself it would be better for us all.’
The Halls of Wisdom
Let us now proceed through the corridors of time to see what else ‘the wisdom of the ages’ has to offer
by way of solution to the spiritual malaise of which the decline in social manners is a symptom.
In the holy Qur’an God says:
‘Let good deeds annul ill deeds’.
A man said to the holy Prophet Muhammed, ‘Give me a command.’ He said, ‘Do not get angry.’ The
man repeated the request several times, and he said, ‘Do not get angry.’
There is an extraordinary story of the manners of the holy Prophet told in the Masnevi of Mevlana Rumi.
Some guests arrived and were given a meal – as there a large number of guests it was decided that the
people present would each take one person home to stay for the night. There was one guest of
enormous physical proportions who had eaten so much of the food that the people of the house were
left hungry. No one chose to take him to their home and thus he stayed in the house of the holy Prophet.
One of the servants had become angry because this monstrous giant had eaten all the food leaving
them with nothing. When the guest had retired for the night the servant quietly slipped the lock on the
door so that he was locked inside. The man was unable to get out to use the toilet with the result that he
created a great mess by the morning.
He left the next day with the others, saying nothing. The servants began to clean the bedding that he had
soiled but the holy Prophet insisted that he would do it personally. This brought horror to the servants
that the Messenger of God should engage in such a thing, but he insisted.
Meanwhile the guest had recalled that he had left some thing of value in the house and returned – to find
the holy Prophet himself engaged in washing his soiled bedclothes. At once he became horrified and
aghast and mortified, and the nature of his behaviour came rushing in upon him. He fell at the feet of the
holy Prophet begging his forgiveness and became there and then a devoted follower of Islam and a
man much given to fasting.
After the holy Prophet Mohammed, The paragon and model of good manners for the Sufi is Hazrat Ali.
There is a well known story that Almighty God told the holy Prophet Muhammed to ask each of his four
caliphs as to what they would do if they were given the sacred robe and bowl. The three caliphs
answered each in their own way with noble intentions but Hazrat Ali said he would use it ‘to cover the
faults of the people’. The robe was awarded to him as God had said it was the one who answered thus
to whom it should be given. So to cover the faults of others is the height of good manners.
Hazrat Ali is also reported to have said:
Whoever says what he should not say, hears what he does not want to hear.
St Francis of Assisi said:
Lord, make me an instrument of thy Peace,
Where there is hatred let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light
Where there is sadness, joy.
Hazrat Ansari said:
Be as dust on His path.
Sheik Saadi said:
Whenever you argue with another wiser than yourself in order that others may admire your wisdom,
they will discover your ignorance.
Mercy is nobility’s true badge.
Conversation should be pleasant, without scurrility; witty without affectation; free, without indecency;
learned, without conceitedness; novel, without falsehood.
I feel within me a peace above all earthly dignities: a still and quiet conscience.
What is a man if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more!
Sure he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability
and God-like reason, to rust in us unused.
The Lord Buddha said:
A loving wife is ever hard to find, as is a man that to his wife is kind.
Alas what differs more than man from man! And whence that difference? Whence but from himself!
The primal duties shine aloft like stars: The generous inclination, the just rule, kind wishes, good
actions, and pure thoughts; no mystery is here! Here is no boon for high nor yet for low; for proudly
graced, yet not for meek of heart: the smoke ascends to heaven as lightly from the cottage hearth as
from the haughtiest palace! He who ponders this true equality may walk the fields of Earth with
gratitude and hope!
The man whom I consider as deserving of the name is one ….who seeks not advantage, or takes a
wrong path to gain a real good purpose:
....life must be measured by the thought and action rather than by time.
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius says:
Our life is simply what our thoughts make it.
There is not a thought or feeling, not an act of beauty or nobility whereof man is capable, but can find
complete expression in the simplest, most ordinary life.
Discretion in speech is more than eloquence.
Shall courtesy be done only to the rich, and only by the rich? In good breeding, which differs, if at all
from high-breeding, only as it gracefully remembers the rights of others, rather than gracefully insists
on its own rights, I discern no special connection with wealth or birth; but rather that it lies in human
nature itself, and is due from all men towards all men.
The small courtesies sweeten life; the greater ennoble it.
Thomas a Kempis says:
Let not your peace rest in the utterances of men, for whether they put good or bad construction on
your conduct, does not make you other than you are.
Accuse not nature, she hath done her part; do thou but thine!
He who reigns within himself and rules passions, desires, and fears, is more than a king.
The only true source of politeness is consideration: that vigilant moral sense that never loses sight of
the rights, the claims, and the sensibilities of others.
From Longfellow we hear:
In character, in manners, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is simplicity.
Socrates prays thus:
‘I pray thee God that I may be beautiful within’
Dr Sharib says:
‘As you think so you act, as you act that you become.’
There are many such good pieces of advice in the annals of time. Time itself does not reduce their
value, nor changing fashions alter their significance. By means of thinking deeply over them and of
acquiring them, and finally by putting them into practice we may enrich ourselves and those around us,
for good manners are the expressions of good thoughts. The roots of them can be found in the four
cardinal virtues of purity, humility, generosity, and justice. We practise them to our own benefit, we
ignore them at our own peril for they are the building blocks of ‘better living’.
JMZ June 21st 2004