The Taser's Edge


“Progress,” “Civilization,” and Etiquette

<<You are now reading yet another post in a series on Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age. Orient yourself here first if this is your entry point.>>

Thus far, Taylor has been laying out various pieces in the development of society that made our secular age (an age in which believing in no god is a widely available conception of the world for the first time in human history) possible. Among those pieces is the growth of “civility.”

The first reason for sharing the following is that it is amazingly interesting. The second reason for sharing it is that we cannot understand Taylor’s project in A Secular Age until we recognize (not just cognitively but viscerally) that our conceptions and assumptions about the world around us are vastly different than people in ages before us. Our “common” sense is not common, historically speaking.

Elias has noted and recorded the tremendous shift in manners which accompanies the developing ideal of civility, and later civilization. This starts off among the elites, of course, but then spreads during the nineteenth century virtually to the whole society. The shift involves a steady raising of the threshold of embarrassment, one might even say, disgust, which is quite remarkable. It is with surprise, and not a little shock, that we discover how things were back in 1500.

Early books of etiquette admonish people not to blow their nose on the table cloth…A book of 1558 tells us that it is not a “very fine habit”, when one comes across excrement in the street to point it out to another, and hold it up for him to smell…People are told not to defecate in public places…Clearly we are in an age whose standards in this regard are far removed from our own.

Elias traces, not an abrupt change, but a gradual raising of the thresholds. Where earlier the standard books advise against blowing your nose in the table-cloth, later ones demand the use of handkerchiefs, tell you not to blow at table, etc. Where at one point you are asked not to defecate in the hallways, by the end of the process, it would be an indelicacy even to mention such a thing in a book of etiquette….

Elias sees [a] dynamic at work…The demands of refinement serve to distinguish upper strata from their inferiors; and these become the more necessary as nobles are being forced into a courtly, urban way of life where their resources and the powers at their disposal no longer clearly mark them off from bourgeois.

Taylor continues on to argue that what is at work in the creation of etiquette is creating boundaries of intimacy. At first, social “superiors” are bounded off more tightly from their “inferiors” (for instance, it’s okay for the king to hold court while he sits on the toilet, because he is in that way showing his superiority, but the reverse would be extreme disrespect to the king and his office), but eventually these consciously created boundaries become the disgust that we know today when we think about the actions described above.

A movement that began fully consciously became our unconsidered assumptions.


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