Thursday, January 17, 2008

Don't Poop Under the Dinner Table, and Other Rules of Etiquette

I guess I'll be going back and forth between topics for a while, but I want to get back to Taylor's A Secular Age and ponder a few things I read yesterday. Again, the central question his book addresses is how human beings "moved from a condition in 1500 in which it was hard not to believe in God, to our present situation just after 2000, where this has become quite easy for many." In ways that never existed before, even nominally religious people are quite content to pursue goals that are purely immanent and to enjoy activities that take no account of the transcendent. This can be easily proved by the existence of NASCAR.

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....


Smoov said...

A way to live

john said...

Drat it Bob! You've made me buy still another book.

Lisa said...

Great link, Smoov...I have always had a huge crush on the Slowhand. I have been lucky enough to see him live in Israel in 1989 at an ancient Roman amplitheatre called Ceasaria. I still have the T-shirt! It was crazy everyone kept chanting "Air-reek Clap-tone" over and over again. It was definitely a sacred moment in time for me. The last time I saw him here at Staples he played with Billy Preston, which was another treat. We had blocked view seats and arrived a little bummed but once we got into our seats realized how good they were only a few rows above the Hammond!

As to the post, I imagine that we see such high rates of people dying of cancer not due to "manmade pollution/global warming crap" but more to the fact that people are living longer then ever before and have to die of something eventually! (Not that I'm endorsing toxic dumping or anything like that, in case a troll is looking for fodder...) The cells in one's body just start reproducing slightly off due to their age and the result is cancer.

USS Ben USN (Ret) said...

"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."

I think most folks seem to forget that (if they knew it at all).
Particularly irt crime, for example.
One might "feel" that people are more violent nowadays, like that link you provided to Powerline a few days ago, reporting how the NYTimes printed easily disprovable lies about how the war is making our US Military more prone to murder.

In reality, crime, mental illnesses and suicide in the military is far less, per capita, than it is among civilians.

And even that is far less than it was in the past, although relatively speaking, it typically rises in democratic strongholds.

Boozophile said...

What was that about suffering? A gallon of beer a day? Sounds like a pretty good deal to me...

julie said...

I just finished reading Ken Follet's "The Pillars of the Earth," which (for the other three people who had never heard of it) is a fictional story about the building of a cathedral in the 1100s. It's a well-written and engaging story which I quite enjoyed, but I couldn't help thinking as I read it that even though he did a good job of describing the state in which most people lived back then, the main characters were still thoroughly psychologically modern in many ways. In fact, I can't help wondering if that's the only way modern people could really connect with a story set in such an alien time (hence the book's popularity). Characters that feel real and believable to us today would, I suspect, have been inconceivable (or quickly dispatched as witches and heretics) back then.

cousin Dupree said...


Before you get nostalgic, it was only a gallon a day.

Magnus Itland said...

I have elsewhere compared the 17th century to the "X-men" movies. People lived in a world where seemingly ordinary people might cause a tornado, or drain the life force of neighbors and cattle to strengthen themselves, or transform into animals or the likeness of others in order to indulge their vices, or even reach into the mind of good men or women and make them do loathsome things. If you denied that this was happening, it was probably because you were One Of Them.

By our standards, virtually every citizen more than a couple hundred years ago was utterly, clinically insane.

Mizz E said...

Music, for Clapton, has not been the end but rather the means for getting beyond his own selfishness and into a higher realm of existence where love, family, and integrity trumped sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Admitting this is dangerous territory for a rock icon. When Clapton finally dismissed his ghostwriter, he became the foreman in dismantling his own mythic image. He always was susceptible to the truth.

from John Powell's book review at First Things of Eric Clapton's: Clapton, The Autobiography.

Anonymous said...

dilys here.

I think we've all touched on this before: there simply was until prosperous modernity, with rare exceptions, no individualistic self-concept, and until recently, no way for one to survive apart from the group. Faye Weldon took issue amusingly with those who asked why, say, unhappy governesses didn't simply run away. Easy. They would, as unendorsed women, either be labelled moral deviates and imprisoned, or left to starve as "undeserving" poor.

As Mouravieff [sorry, no T-shirt available...] points out, the religion of those who ultimately look to the group is profoundly, probably qualitatively, different from the individual's. Yet some kind of shared cult(ure) is still essential. What we've inherited is looking better than Some New Idea invented on the fly, with major unintended-consequence fishhooks hanging off. So long as it can accommodate the questions of modernity without fatwas and beheadings.

Mizz E said...

My grandson's parents gave the 10 year old a Fender 'Wizzy" for Christmas, after 6 months of demonstrating his gift and passion for the acoustic. Here's a photo from their neighborhood church's Christmas Eve service . . . dancing and singing "in the color of the Lord." What have I begotted? Sure isn't the insane, old English stock of his furbears. Grandpa departed for America in the mid 1500's.

Gagdad Bob said...

With the exception of his early Yardbirds work and the classic Layla album -- which he never came close to artistically matching, let alone surpassing -- I've never cared much for Clapton. To me, he's sounded like a Michelob beer commercial since about 1975. However, I noticed that one of his sidemen in the video is a young Derek Trucks, who is now one of the two lead guitarists of the Allman Brothers Band. He is an awesomely gifted musician.

Gagdad Bob said...

BTW, I had a chance to skim the autobiography before regifting it, and the overall impression was of an intensely schizoid personality, i.e., pretty flat and empty. He comes across better in interviews, but his prose is as flat as a pancake. Reminds me of a review of Chuck Berry's autobiography: "His style of writing brings to mind the sound of a large toolbox crashing to the garage floor."

Anonymous said...

"...lies about how the war is making our US Military more prone to murder.

In reality, crime, mental illnesses and suicide in the military is far less, per capita, than it is among civilians."

Suicide rates for soldiers were higher in 2003, 2005, 2006, and 2004 the rates were fairly close to civilian(like 10.4 to 10.6 per 100,000). 2003 it was like 18.6, 2005 was like 19.9, and supposedly 2006 was higher but the only numbers showing are the army only at 17.3.

As for suicides committed by former members of the armed services? Included in civilian numbers, though suicide rate among veterans is nearly double that of non-veterans of the same age groups.

Is it because of war? I'm not linking the concepts because I don't know the circumstances, but there is correlation.

debass said...

I must have been transported to different cosmos this morning. Wasn't NASCAR started and has most of its ardent adherents in the "Bible Belt"? And wasn't Buddha a prince? (Siddartha). I think he personally gave up quite a lot. You would never hear of any peasants from that era ever achieving anything great even if they did. It wasn't his own pain and suffering that led him on his journey, but the pain and suffering of others.
NASCAR was started by moonshiners (gallon a day). I'll take those guys to keep the modern barbarians (Islamists) at bay. I'm not a NASCAR fan and I don't watch sports at all. I think it is the "drug of the middle class" as someone once stated. Some of by best friends are sports fans.
Those people you describe from the past sound like modern Arab cultures.

Gagdad Bob said...


Yes, my point is that NASCAR is a wholly immanent pleasure enjoyed by Bible Belters. In other words, they don't spend all day in church, or orient their lives completely around the transcendent.

As for Buddha (to the extent that he actually existed as a real person), the fact remains that even a prince 2500 years ago was much worse off materially than the poorest American today.

Ricky Raccoon said...

Even the Artist formerly known as Prince could not surf the information superhighway till Algore vented it a mere dozen-ish years ago…no matter how much treasure he had.

debass said...


I gotcha. I just got back from the other cosmos.
Only the left spend all day in their church today.
They seem to want to take us back in time. The poorest Americans today are better off than the European middle class.

debass said...

I gotta cut down on that gallon a day. Oh well, back to reloading.

coonified said...

You know, I hear a lot of Buddhist trashing from people in this circle, and though I do I accept their criticisms, I only apply it to early Theravada Buddhism, whose whole motivation and aim was to reach the cessation and extinction of Nirvana. This was to be taken as the end itself, the world only thought of as an illusion to be escaped (rightfully given the topic of the post). But then came "The Heart Sutra" with its famous line: "That which is Emptiness is not other than Form, that which is Form is not other than Emptiness." This statement is one of adherence to the reality principle, unlike prior Buddhist history.

I mean, even Valentin Tomberg makes the same generalized argument (that Buddhist long for escape)about the Buddhist, that the Buddha and the Christ "came to the same diagnosis, but prescribed different medicine," one being resurrection, the other cessation.

Traleg Rinpoche, in his "Liberation through the Mahamudra Meditation", goes as far as to suggest that "In the Buddha's early discourses on the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path begins with the cultivation of the correct view...," which is to say "don't be stupid and forget to form accurate concepts of the world of form."
I try not to bitch to much and cry like a baby. And I'm not a Buddhist (I'm a wasp , which makes Christianity almost inescapable); and could never imagine myself as one, something Alan Watts taught me.

(I actually laugh when people call them self Buddhist around me, since it's obvious to me that they're trying to escape from the infantile forms of Christianity that they were raise on)

Just say'n with a smile on my face.

I have to go to work now.

NoMo said...

At most any point in human history there are those who have much for which to be truly thankful, and aren’t - and those who have little for which to be thankful – and are. And by truly thankful, I mean via faith relationship with the Creator / Provider. The “fruits of the spirit” - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness - were identified and written down at least a couple millennia ago as very real then. They are also very real now. What is required for true quality of life? Is it material or is it otherwise? The Bible describes and tells the stories of real people who happened to live long ago. The more time I spend seeking how the truths revealed in that book have application for my life and my spiritual growth, the less fundamental difference I see between those people and us.

boozophile said...


"I'm not a NASCAR fan and I don't watch sports at all."

You poor, poor soul.

debass said...

boozophile says it all.

Magnus Itland said...

"The poorest Americans today are better off than the European middle class."

One shall hear much before the ears fall off.

NoMo said...

...and back to the here and now, I still like Fred.

Magnus Itland said...

The characters of the Bible aren't random people who happened to live long ago. They were certainly not typical of their time. (Of course, neither are we.)

Even so, I really think most of us would shrink back from having children with our slaves, celebrating a good harvest by visiting a prostitute, massacring the children and livestock of idolators, or sacrificing the first person of the household who meets us after a God-given victory. They were certainly people like us, but they were also people very unlike us, all at the same time.

The truth is that even these, we tend to see through the lens of our own age. Not least these, because they had the same spirit that we are drinking, and so we are sorely tempted to think they also had the same soul. That is not entirely the case, though.

NoMo said...

Magnus - I certainly don't romanticize their lives, I just don't view them as somehow far less evolved.

Elephant said...

Aren't the middle ages notorious for being particularly "uncivilized"? In other words, wasn't that time clouded by the obscurity of non-objective thinking as propagated by the Catholic Church at the time?

I am at work and am distracted but trying to cobble this meager attempt of a question together.

There were about 1,000 years where progress and culture were eclipsed;
the culture was affected, etc...

So perhaps the middle ages as a reference point only applies to that time but not all times, psychologically and in some other respects.

A rather pathetic attempt but consider it rough notes for a rough draft.

will said...

>>Everyone just "knew" that the air was filled with ghosts, ghouls, incubi, the spirits of unbaptized infants, water nymphs, sprites, fairies, and vampires<<

In Medieval times the average Hans knew the exact safety protocols to be performed in case one encountered a ghost in the woods - pretty much like many of us know how to conduct ourselves in late-night, crime-infested areas. Of course, the threats to us are real enough. And, I might argue, the ghostly threats to Medieval citizens might well have been real enough, at least in many situations.

Being that the Medieval citizen was of aboriginal, pre-self awareness consciousness level, he or she might very well have had an intuitive awareness that more readily bridged dimensional levels than does our modern objective awareness. This is to say that they could have had an non-reflective "astral" awareness".

The whole evolutionary scheme is, according to folks like Rudolph Steiner, the movement from non-self reflective, aboriginal awareness (with it's astral dimension intuition) to self-reflective, individualistic objective awareness, and then eventually to a indiviudalistic awareness that consciously extends into the higher planes of being.

Gagdad Bob said...


Cooncur! (p. 285, f. 104)

debass said...

" I certainly don't romanticize their lives, I just don't view them as somehow far less evolved."

With the exception of Israel, they seemed to have stopped evolving many centuries ago in the ME, unless they are making a conscious choice to behave like barbarians, which is even worse.

Mizz E said...

Looking inside a different toolbox. Music to my besotted ears:

"Theology must instead continue to draw from a source of knowledge that it has not invented and that is always greater than itself, and which always renews the process of thinking since it is never totally exhausted by reflection." ~ PB16

From the speech Pope Benedict did not deliver at Rome's Universita degli Studi "La Sapienza", scheduled for today and cancelled yesterday. Full gallon here.

at in la said...

nomo, i agree...different circumstances, different customs, etc...but still human. not as alien as it could be made to sound.

at in la said...

I just saw this on Yahoo. The coincidences that tally up here at OC are kind of spooky sometimes.

Humans Crave Violence Just Like Sex Jeanna Bryner
LiveScience Staff Writer
Thu Jan 17, 10:16 AM ET

New research on mice shows the brain processes aggressive behavior as it does other rewards. Mice sought violence, in fact, picking fights for no apparent reason other than the rewarding feeling.

The mouse brain is thought to be analogous to the human brain in this study, which could shed light on our fascination with brutal sports as well as our own penchant for the classic bar brawl.

In fact, the researcher say, humans seem to crave violence just like they do sex, food or drugs.

Love to fight

Scientists have known that mice and other animals are drawn to fights. Until now, they didn't know how the brain was involved.

The new study, detailed online this week in the journal Psychopharmacology, reveals the same clusters of brain cells involved in other rewards are also behind the craving for violence.

"Aggression occurs among virtually all vertebrates and is necessary to get and keep important resources such as mates, territory and food," said study team member Craig Kennedy, professor of special education and pediatrics at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. "We have found that the reward pathway in the brain becomes engaged in response to an aggressive event and that dopamine is involved."

Mouse brawl

For the experiments, the researchers placed a pair of mice, one male and one female, in a cage. Then, the female was removed and a so-called male intruder mouse entered the cage. That triggered aggressive behavior in the resident male. The tell-tale signs of aggression included tail rattle, an aggressive sideways stance, boxing and biting.

After the initial scuffle ended, the resident male mouse was trained to nose-poke a target to get the intruder to return. Results showed the home mouse consistently poked the target and fought with the introduced mouse, indicating, the researchers say, that the aggressive encounter was seen as a reward.

"We learned from these experiments that an individual will intentionally seek out an aggressive encounter solely because they experience a rewarding sensation from it," Kennedy said.

To figure out whether the brain's reward pathway was involved, the scientists treated the home mice with a drug to block dopamine in certain parts of the brain known to be involved in rewards like food and drugs.

The treated mice were less likely to instigate the intruder's entry. “This shows for the first time that aggression, on its own, is motivating, and that the well-known positive reinforcer dopamine plays a critical role," Kennedy said.

Human violence

Kennedy explained that the experiments have implications for humans. The reward pathway in the brains of humans and mice are very similar, he said.

"Aggression is highly conserved in vertebrates in general and particularly in mammals," Kennedy told LiveScience. "Almost all mammals are aggressive in some way or another."

He added, "It serves a really useful evolutionary role probably, which is you defend territory; you defend your mate; if you're a female, you defend your offspring."

Even though it served a purpose for other animals, in modern human societies, Kennedy said, a propensity toward aggression is not beneficial and can be a problem.

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Jake Was Here said...

Magnus, 11:14 AM:

"The reason we execute witches is that we do not believe there are such things. If we did - if we REALLY thought that there were people going about who had sold themselves to the devil and received supernatural powers from him in return, and were using these powers to kill their neighbors or drive them mad or bring bad weather - then surely we would all agree that if anyone deserved the death penalty, these filthy quislings did? There is no difference of moral principle here; the difference is simply about matter of fact. It may be a great advance in knowledge not to believe in witches: it is no moral advance in not executing them when you do not think they are there. You would not call a man humane for ceasing to set mousetraps if he did so because he believed there were no mice in the house." -- C S Lewis

NoMo said...

Here's the thing. Just like God's chosen people influenced the behavior of the ancient world around them for good - and have always been despised by Evil for it, so do God's people influence the world around them today - and are also despised by Evil for it.

Short of the influence of the light of God's people in the world, there's nothing left but unabated evil, violent and black. Falleness only devolves into further blackness. Falleness doesn't evolve into light short of individual acts of God's grace towards individual human beings.

If every small light were removed from the world all in a moment - well, its hard to imagine the horror left behind. Oh wait, number 9 comes to mind.

Oops, sorry, did I poop under the dinner table?

ximeze said...

"aggression, on its own, is motivating, and that the well-known positive reinforcer dopamine plays a critical role"

yup 'splains why trouncing ananoMice is sooooo much fun

njcommuter said...

Two late thoughts ...

Thought the smaller: Some of the Manchester's conclusions (though not the facts) are contested by Rodney Stark in The Victory of Reason. It's a controversial book, but I find it convincing.

Thought the larger: At one time children had no time to grow up. They had to do it as fast as they could. Then we 'invented' childhood and gave children time to practice responsibility, and created institutions (Boy Scouting, schools, etc.) to help. Then we decided that adults should have to be responsible, and we shouldn't expect children to be responsible either. I've just passed my half-century, and when I was in fourth grade I carried a pocketknife. Not everyone did, but as we got older more and more did. Today a fourth grader can be hauled off to jail (with his parents) if he has a plastic knife to cut his lunch with. We have not only washed off the dirt, but we've taken the skin and are working on the muscle and bone.

Personally, I think it irresponsible for an adult not to have a pocketknife or multitool. The TSA obviously disagrees.

Magnus Itland said...

in short: The main characters of the Bible, those who lived close to the ever growing light God shone into the world, became the main civilizing impulse for what eventually became our culture. It was not the only place where divine grace dripped into the world, but it was a special project for that express purpose. This is why they stood out from their neighbors then, and still do. I am not surprised to see that we largely agree after all.

Mizz E said...

My personal favorite theory is that women civilized men by inventing the BALL.

"Here - ya'll take THIS outside and throw it, kick it, bat it, punch it, knock it around."

Elephant said...

In a half-light of judgment, I ask, would it be appropriate or relevant for me to shout "thank you for this post!" Three cheers for civilization! I'm just hoping a display of thanks isn't uncivilized.

Civilization tops my list of what I'm grateful for; it probably vies for a number 2 spot.

Elephant said...

A better way to put it:

THANK YOU for the post!!!

Mister Poo said...

It may have been the 1600s that the upper class gentlemen of Europe stopped pointing out turds to each other and holding them to smell.

But some of the rabble here are still doing it.

Elephant said...

Re: MP

That's shocking. But maybe once I warm up from tonight's freeze, I'll see it as not so... I can't think of the word. Would need to finish thawing first. [It's VERY cold in my neck of the woods this week. Getting home after work, my fingers lost feeling. Where are those gloves when I really need them.)

I guess the thing missing from MP is some kind of smell representation. Then it would be closer to then. I can't believe I am writing this long in re: that.