Aristotle and Etiquette

Greek philosophy and reflections on how to live
Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio (1509), showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right)
When I was twelve or thirteen I started buying The Times newspaper for its daily chess column: I would follow a grandmaster game by reading the notations and making the corresponding moves on a chessboard at home. Afterwards, I would rearrange my pieces into the configuration of that day's chess problem, and sit under my window until it was solved. This was the sole reason I ever bought The Times newspaper, and it proved a reliable source of information for a young chess player looking to hone his skills.

I distinctly remember that on the same page as Raymond Keene's daily chess problem there was an etiquette advice section, presided over by an expert on correct social conduct. It struck me then, and now, as an incongruous feature for any newspaper, but I could see its aspirational appeal. I would read the column for my own amusement whenever the chess problem became too much, and was often astonished by the way the etiquette section promoted very traditional and elitist codes of conduct. The column ended suddenly when its writer was involved in a tragic car accident: I believe he was killed while crossing a busy London street.

I've been reading a little Aristotle lately, one of the key thinkers in the history of Western philosophy. I don't know whether it's a nuance of the 1950s English translation, or a projection of mine, but while reading The Ethics I am under the impression that I'm reading an etiquette column in a newspaper. Perhaps The Ethics, wonderful though it is, is in fact the most grand, the most established etiquette column of all; perhaps it is the source text for those in the know, receiving readers' letters and responding through columns in broadsheet newspapers. Or perhaps I've taken this too far.

Aristotle is both engaging and accessible, and makes some compelling points alongside some wonderful observations. But there are aspects of his discourse that are amusing to me; for instance, in distinguishing the humour of the educated and un-educated man, Aristotle defines the characteristics of the 'Old' and the 'New' comedies: one known for its sense of ribaldry, the other for innuendo. I can easily imagine Aristotle's words being repeated today, perhaps for the benevolent purposes of instruction, and yet forever tied to its socially elitist foundations.

There is no question of Aristotle's value to us, but while we can all learn a lot from his teachings, I think we can also gain understanding and insight from an active questioning of those teachings.

I thought I'd finish with a quote from The Ethics, which underlines three intermediate human characteristics on the subject of humour and correct social behaviour. Whether it is a profound philosophical insight into humankind, or a ready-to-hand cultural guideline, is for you to decide:
Conversational qualities: wit, buffoonery and boorishness

Since one part of life is relaxation, and one aspect of this is entertaining conversation, it is considered that there too there is a kind of social conduct that is in good taste: that there are things that it is right to say, and a right way of saying them; and similarly with listening. And it will be an advantage if those in whose presence we talk and to whom we listen accept such standards. Clearly in this field too it is possible to exceed or fall short of the mean.

Those who go too far in being funny are regarded as buffoons and vulgar persons who exert themselves to be funny at all costs and who are more set upon raising a laugh than upon decency of expression and consideration for their victim's feelings. Those who both refuse to say anything funny themselves and take exception to the jokes of other people are regarded as boorish and sour; but those who exercise their humour with good taste are called witty, as one might say 'nimble-witted', because witticisms are considered to be movements of the character, and characters, like bodies, are judged by their movements. As material for humour is ready to hand, and most people like fun and ridicule more than they should, even buffoons are called witty, as being good company; but that there is a difference between the two, and not a small one, is clear from what we have said.

The intermediate disposition also has the property of tact, and the mark of tact is saying and listening to the sort of things that are suitable for a man of honourable and liberal character; because there are certain things that it is appropriate for such a person to say and allow to be said to him in fun, and the liberal man's sense of humour is different from a servile person's, just as an educated man's is from an uneducated man's. One can see this even from a comparison of the Old and New comedies; because to the earlier writers humour consisted in ribaldry, but the later ones preferred innuendo. There is no little difference between these two in respect of decency. Should we, then, distinguish the man who uses ridicule rightly by his ability to use language that is not unsuitable for a well-bred person, or by the fact that he does not annoy the person about whom he is speaking, but actually gives him pleasure? (Probably the latter qualification, at any rate, is still vague; because different people have different likes and dislikes.) The humour to which he listens will be of the same kind, because he is regarded as actually making the jokes that he tolerates hearing. Now he will not go to all lengths; because ridicule is a sort of defamation, and some forms of deformation are forbidden by law, and presumably some kinds of ridicule should be forbidden too. The cultured and well-bred person, then, will exhibit this disposition, acting as a law to himself. This is the sort of man who observes the mean, whether he is called witty or tactful. The buffoon cannot resist a joke, sparing neither himself nor anybody else provided that he can raise a laugh, and saying things that a man of taste would never dream of saying, and some that he would not listen to either. As for the boor, he is useless for any kind of social intercourse, because he contributes nothing and takes offence at everything, whereas relaxation and amusement seem to be necessary in our life.

So, in our social life there are three intermediate dispositions as we have described them; and they are all concerned with participation in some sort of conversation or action, but they differ inasmuch as one is concerned with truth and the other two with pleasure. Of the latter, one is exercised in the sphere of recreation and the other in the associations that belong to the rest of life.

Aristotle, The Ethics, Book Four, viii