|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 good manners.
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
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
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
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 development.
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
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 elevated sense.
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 of God.
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
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 reasons:
1. Good manners have become a little neglected as an art, which if
practiced would in itself tend towards self purification and spiritual
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
From Longfellow we hear:
In character, in manners, in style, in all things, the supreme excellence is
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
JMZ June 21st 2004