I just finished reading the book “The Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles. One of my publisher’s marketing associates had mentioned the book to me when several of us were at dinner one night at a conference. I wrote it down and ordered the book, but saved it for a time when I could read without too many interruptions. That time came this past Christmas when it rained for over a week. I curled up under a fleece-lined throw and started reading the book. It was wonderful! Set in the late 1930’s, the book is told through the point-of-view of working class woman in New York City. She takes us all over the entire city in the span of one year. So much happens to her and her friends and the people she crosses paths with along the way. But the most fascinating part of the book is that the title and one particular rule in the book are based on the Rules of Civility that George Washington learned from the original rules written by and passed down from the French Jesuits in 1595. It is believed that Washington begin to hand-write the rules and study them when he was a sixteen-year-old student. Soon, he had all of the 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company written down. The rules are included in the back of the novel, with strange script and strangely spelled words, but there all the same.
These quaint but timeless rules are still very relevant today. Even more so today because they teach us about respect and self-esteem. They teach us how to be gracious under pressure and courageous under fire. They express courtesy and chivalry and manners and wit, things that at times seem to be sorely lacking these days.
I have a copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette which I received years ago when I served on a local Board of Directors for Dress for Success. We each were given a copy so that we could encourage the women who came through our program to be the best they could be. Because we all knew that civility and courage and good manners and proper decorum are not about how wealthy you are. They represent the best of our intentions and the best of our hearts, no matter our circumstances in life. Today, more than ever, we need to revisit the rules of civility and try to adhere to them. In this mean-spirited world, the golden rule still holds true. “Do unto others as you would have them to unto you.”
George Washington knew this was important in starting a new nation. It’s amazing and the true measure of his personality and status, to know that he wanted to begin our country with the rules of civility that had been passed down through priests and peasants and kings and queens.
Some of the rules in modern language:
If you criticize someone else of something, make sure you are not guilty of it yourself.
Do not be quick to believe bad reports about others.
Associate with good people. It is better to be alone than in bad company.
Do not be quick to talk about something when you don’t have all the facts.
And … Somethings are better kept secret.
The 110th rule: Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.
This week, we will see the 45th President of the United States sworn in. I hope this country will stop and think of etiquette and civility and I hope that we will all come together through peace, understanding, respect and manners as we pray for some civility to return to this world.
(The church where I grew up.)
(New York City Skyline)
(The Supreme Court Building in Washington, DC.)
(If you’d like to read all 110 rules, check foundationsmag.com for an interesting report.)