Don't Poop Under the Dinner Table, and Other Rules of Etiquette
Some people seemed puzzled by my statement the other day, to the effect that a contemporary religious and secular person will probably have more in common with each other than either of them do with a pre-modern person or NASCAR fan, but it's difficult to avoid that conclusion. How many contemporary religious people would actually like to eliminate the secular realm, as the Islamists wish to do? Until a few hundred years ago, all of mankind was completely swaddled in religion. There was no "space" outside it. The very possibility of skepticism just didn't exist.
Likewise, it wasn't as if people converted from godlessness to Christianity. Rather, it was simply a change of allegiance from one god to another, usually for a better deal. No evangelist had to begin "from the ground up" and lay a basis for why God exists and religion is necessary. It was completely and totally self-evident. A book such as mine would have been even more superfluous than it is today: "Of course the universe was created. Of course life didn't arise by accident. What's your point?"
But today, for the vast majority of people, God is anything but self-evident. In my case, as I was saying yesterday, it wasn't until I tapped into the esoteric and Hermetic tradition of Christianity that it made any sense to me at all. I was then able to use that as a "bridge" to more traditional forms, and it all began to add up.
I think it was also much easier for pre-modern people to be religious because life was so short and unpleasant: "Lousy food. And such small portions!" Plus, no one understood how anything worked or why anything happened. I think of Buddha, or the early desert fathers, who withdrew from the world in order to have a direct encounter with God. As much as I admire them, what were they giving up? Life was so obviously transient and full of pain, that the Buddha must be counted as a champion of the obvious. "Life is suffering. Gee, ya think? What would you like us to do, name a religion after you?"
I was particularly struck by Taylor's discussion of the "civilizing process" that commenced in Europe in the 16th century. I touched on this in my book, on pp. 162-166, but there again, that section could easily be expanded into a whole book. (In fact, it has, for example, Norbert Elias's classic The Civilizing Process.) It turns out that you can learn a lot about people by looking at the etiquette books of the time, to see what was required to be a polished gentleman and stand out from the uncivilized rabble -- by the things that were and weren't taken for granted.
For example, when dining with others, don't blow your nose with the tablecloth. When walking with a companion down the street, it is not a "very fine habit," "when one comes across excrement... to point it out to another, and hold it up for him to smell." Do not defecate in public places, either in the middle of the street or down the hallway. Don't just walk around naked.
Neil Postman also discusses this in his excellent The Disappearance of Childhood. People "were not shamed by exposing their bodily functions to the gaze of others.... The idea of concealing sexual drives was alien to adults, and the idea of sheltering children from sexual secrets, unknown.... Indeed, it was common enough in the Middle Ages for adults to take liberties with the sexual organs of children.... In the Middle Ages there were no children because there existed no means for adults to know exclusive information..." Manners, literacy, disenchantment, individualism, boundaries, and the interior self all arise simultaneously.
In his book, Elias devotes an an entire analysis to "the rise of the fork," which symbolized a more general trend toward refinement of manners, or self-restraint, courtesy, psychological boundaries, and recognition of the other as a separate being. Prior to the 16th century, everyone just ate with their hands from a common bowl, and this persisted in the lower classes into the 19th century. In a way, the civilizing process tracks along with the development of shame, or at least putting it to an entirely new purpose. As Taylor writes, the civilizing process is a matter of learning to feel shame "in the proper places."
Thus, what may appear to be a trivial change in manners on the surface signifies a much deeper psychological change, in that people are beginning to be aware of their own psychological interior, and how they appear to others. Prior to this time, people are much more like children, with no shame whatsoever about bodily functions, about expressing emotion with no restraint, or about acting on violent or sexual impulses without reflection. Ironically, it is only with the development of the individual that intimacy can begin to develop, which you might say is the unashamed sharing of two people, interior to interior, or "psychological undressing."
It's easy to criticize the Catholic Church, but the point is, they were just reflecting the average mentality of the time. A day-to-day chronicler of papal life tells of how, at a Vatican banquet in around 1500, the Pope watched from a balcony "with loud laughter and much pleasure," as his illegitimate son "slew unarmed criminals, one by one, as they were driven into a small courtyard below" (Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire). One could cite hundreds of similar examples. People were just fascinated with the most barbaric expressions of sadistic violence, in a way that we only express in disguise by, say, watching horror movies or NASCAR crashes.
Since there was no interior self, there was no need for privacy. The typical home of even a prosperous peasant centered around a bed made of straw pallets, "all seething with vermin. Everyone slept there, regardless of age or gender -- grandparents, parents, children, grandchildren, hens and pigs -- and if a couple chose to enjoy intimacy, the others were aware of every movement." One wonders as well if they weren't perpetually intoxicated: "Under Henry VII and Henry VIII the per capita allowance was one gallon of beer per day -- even for nuns and 18-year-old children." After all, you were taking your life into your hands if you drank water. Because of malnourishment, the average man stood 5'5" and weighed 135 pounds. Because of the toll of childbearing, "a young girl's life expectancy was twenty-four." Marriages typically lasted only six or seven years, since few people surpassed the age of 40, by which time they probably looked and felt 70 (Manchester).
Not only was skepticism unheard of, but childlike credulousness was the norm. Taylor traces the psychological "disenchantment" of the world, which made it possible to study the world objectively, and thereby give rise to science. But before the development of psychological boundaries demarcating a distinct interior and exterior, the world was teeming with psychological content projected outward. Everyone just "knew" that the air was filled with ghosts, ghouls, incubi, the spirits of unbaptized infants, water nymphs, sprites, fairies, and vampires. Many of the burial practices we maintain today were developed in order to make sure that the dead person stayed dead, and did not come back to haunt the living (Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality).
My children, this post has become rather rambling and unwieldy, without ever getting to my main point. To be continued....