Imagine a crisis-ridden, middle-aged poet/political animal being given a VIP tour of Hell by one of the most sagacious voices of Classical Antiquity. At one point, a semi-naked figure erupts from a tomb of raging flames. The abruptness and awkwardness of recognition are followed by a surprisingly cordial salutation. Surprising because the bewildered traveller and the eternally damned heretic are sworn enemies. More so when Mediterranean hot bloodedness is involved. (Yes, this points to stereotype which can be grossly unjust.) Yet their greeting is courteous, incandescent emotions firmly kept in check on both sides.
This is no macabre screenplay or gruesome fantasy on my part but the well-known Farinata episode in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Florentine epic written on the cusp of the Renaissance; and which still rocks even when reading in translation. Purists may despair at such a blasphemous shortcut. But if a story wows in translation, it’s not hard to conclude how immeasurably immense the original is. Besides, how accessible is the medieval Florentine dialect?
For Dante wrote his magnificent opus in his very own vernacular – a daring and utterly defiant feat since epics at the time were demanded to be written in Latin. Vehemently throwing literary constraints out of the window, Dante went even further by taking Church dogma to task as well as seeking revenge (on paper at least) on his political opponents while grappling with his own road to redemption. Hence, the poem’s equal divisions into Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.
Farinata (Manente degli Uberti known as Farinata degli Uberti because of his blond looks) was a prime target because he was the mastermind behind Dante’s lifelong exile from Florence – a sentence deemed worse than death. You see, Dante belonged to the defeated faction in Florence’s civil war. Banishment plus denying a martyr’s status proved the sweetest cherry on the cake for his adversaries who kept up their tortuous tantalising act by offering a return on conditions they knew he would never accept. Dante vented his gall by relegating Farinata to the 6th circle of Hell ̶ that’s three-quarters down his depiction of an increasingly harrowing infernal torment.
Nevertheless, the brief exchange between them is gentlemanly. Cynics may easily scoff at the veneer of respectability and cry ‘Sheer hypocrisy!’. That Farinata is not depicted in starkers easily rebuts any such surmise since this detail shows respect – no matter how begrudgingly it may have been bestowed. Meaning Dante gets his revenge in his poem without sinking low.
What a far cry from today’s all-over-the-place flaunting of uncivility!
Why do so many people find it hard to say ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’ and ‘You’re welcome’? To be punctual. To knock the door before entering a room. To punctuate the workday with ‘Good morning/Good afternoon/Good evening’. To make way for someone entering a space, if they happen to be on their way out instead of barging in. To apologise if they accidentally bump into you or have done something amiss.
As for table manners, I’m in no mood of a downer. It’s one thing if you have not been taught how to use your cutlery. To refuse to learn quite another when you are given the opportunity. Am I the misfit with no gizmo in hand as I gaze at the ubiquitous gluing to mobile phones spelling out loud and clear that people are no longer worth considering let alone listening too? No wonder, the increasing affinity to AI. Giving your full attention when people speak to you has become so last century, in total contrast to the trendy belting out of an incessant string of insults. Well, being brash and boorish is not cool in my books.
That the explosion of social media over the past ten years unleashed the beast of hate-speech hell-bent on spewing venom without restraint is more than obvious. The mouldy rot, however, has been festering a long time. The erosion of good manners concatenates with the corrosion of feeling ashamed, of decent values, of trashing a moral compass, and the ridiculing of honesty. Also, the idolising of celebrities and ongoing love affair with self in tandem with playing god. As a result, the fuelling of self-dignity and self-pride has long lost its spark and consequently the power to ignite.
Admittedly the fine line between civilisation and barbarity is indeed tenuous as our long, violent history amply shows. Though intrigue and sleaze have always been intrinsic to politics, the vast majority of today’s politicians are immune to statesmanship. It does not take much thinking to realise that we are children of a millennia-accumulated accretion of conflict, including two world wars breaking out within twenty years of each other. But more in this vein is going to have to wait for another story.
I grew up in a middle-class home in which traditional British manners set the bar, though these were inevitably coloured by the impact of being born and bred in Malta. Like any other country, it is not easy to pitch the different degrees of the cross-cultural mix that imprint our historical and social divides. What is perhaps both baffling and fascinating is the way they shape the island’s tiny size. Nevertheless, irrespective of cultural nuances, home-background, and life experiences have long made it clear that manners are part of the bigger jigsaw puzzle of education, mindset, innate values and sense perception of life.
Being polite does not boil down to simply going through the motions of etiquette or, wearing the badge of privilege.
One of the politest people I know is an illiterate mason who has long become a family friend. Being polite shows caring, respect and gentleness when you put people rather than yourself first – even when you are stressed out, pent up with frustration or, flat out with exhaustion.
Consequently, politeness also exercises patience – waiting without complaint (extremely difficult I know) and giving others the chance to speak up and listen to what they have to say whether you like and agree with them or not. Also, giving people the ‘benefit of the doubt’ without allowing yourself to be duped. Politeness steers clear from boastfulness and angry tones of voice, of returning favours and not always asking for them. Of not belittling people, no matter how right you may be or the gravity of their mistakes. Of expressing gratitude and of tolerating people who irritate you. Or of passing the buck and shirking responsibility. Of striving to be graceful and honouring dress codes. Of respecting people’s property and public spaces. Of having a sense of duty and regard for the community because you believe in promoting pleasantness and harmony. Of striving for excellence without treading on other’s people toes to get where you want to get. In other words, it’s all about bringing the best out of living among people.
And yet I would like to go a step further. What really inspired this piece is my pondering on Baldassare Castiglione ‘s The Book of the Courtier. 500 years old, this open-ended philosophical discussion about an ideal courtier’s virtú (read connoisseurship) sounds a truckload of moonshine in today’s world. But what never fails to strike me is the author’s equating of courtesy with an amalgam of courage, aesthetic sensibility, and moral standing, not merely with a show of good manners and attractive self-presentation.
I believe that this perception is dateless because we all know that the way we treat ourselves reflects the way we treat others and that respect is gained not earned. Francis Bacon once said, ‘A man without a sense of courtesy is an animal with human form.’ Sadly, the wholesale rubbishing of good manners denotes a devolving of the human species. Infinitely sad because in a world where everyone and everything must have a price tag, it does not cost anything to be polite.
Isn’t our fixation with value blinding us to what is beautiful and priceless?