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Joseph Joubert (1754–1824). Joubert: A Selection from His Thoughts. 1899.

Chapter VII.

Of Domestic Life, Society, Conversation, Politeness and Manners

[1]IN a well-ordered state kings bear rule over kings, that is to say over fathers of families—masters on their own ground, each governing his own house. If any one of these govern his house badly, it is a great evil, no doubt, but a much lesser evil than if he did not govern it at all.

[2]To govern one’s house is to be truly a citizen; it is to take real part in the general government of the state, to exercise her finest rights, and to make her progress easier. Every head of a family should be both pontiff and king in his own house.

[3]Few men are worthy to be heads of families, and few families are capable of having a head.

[4]One should only choose for a wife a woman whom one would choose for a friend, were she a man.

[5]The triumph of a woman is not to tire out and vanquish her persecutors, but to soften their hearts, and make them lay down their arms.

[6]Only from the indissolubility of marriage can arise a woman’s true participation in her husband’s dignity, and from that in turn spring all the outward consideration, honour, and respect paid to her.

[7]A woman can only with dignity be wife and widow once.

[8]Children can only be well cared for by their mothers, and men by their wives.

[9]There are some good qualities which are not transmitted, and which do not enter into the stream of heredity. All that is delicate is evanescent. The son of a serious and strong man is generally himself a man of sense; the son of a man of genius is rarely a man of genius.

[10]The use of one’s bed, when alone in it, is to gain wisdom. ‘A man should make for himself a temple of his bed,’ says Pythagoras.

[11]The table is a kind of altar which should be decked for festivals and holidays.

[12]To be an agreeable guest one need only enjoy oneself.

[13]An evening meal is the joy of the day; a morning feast is a debauch. I detest songs at the breakfast-table.

[14]Neither for his pleasure nor for our own should we have a boon-companion as our habitual guest. He palls on us, and we on him.

[15]In all temperance there is a suggestion of cleanliness, and of elegance.

[16]A moderation with which goodness has nothing to do is not lovable.

[17]A little of everything, nothing too easily—there is no better road to moderation, wisdom and content.

[18]Take care that something in your house shall always be wanting, whereof the deprivation is not too painful, while to wish for it is a pleasure. We must keep ourselves in such a condition that we can never be either satisfied or insatiable.

[19]The attention we bestow on a house and its furniture is taken away from its master, just as the temple diverts attention from its God.

[20]‘It is not civil to contradict any one in his own house’: so goes the saying. Every man has the right to be absolute master there, to live like a king, and to be happy there even through his self-love. There his infirmities are, as it were, permitted, and his faults take their ease. He is at home: whoever comes there enters into a foreign dominion. Such privileges as these, among civilised people, make domestic life delightful, and preferable to all the independence of savage and isolated man. Moreover, this life has its duties, which continually call upon us for the sacrifice of its rights. But the surrender that we make of them is voluntary, generous, honourable, and thus becomes a possession, an enjoyment, and a happiness the more.

[21]We should wear our velvet within, that is to say, show ourselves most amiable to those of our own house.

[22]Gentle manners and pleasant greetings are cards of invitation that circulate all the year round.

[23]To see the world is to judge the judges.

[24]He who is a model to society is not called upon to be its instrument.

[25]In Paris, good company and the society of literary people skim the mind, and so purify the taste. There one’s second-rate ideas are used up in conversation; the best are kept for writing down.

[26]How many things we say in good faith in discussing a subject, that we should never think of if we contented ourselves with knowing it, without talking about it. The intelligence is warmed, and its warmth produces what it could never have drawn from its light alone. Talking is a source of error, but perhaps also of some truth. Speech has wings; it carries us whither we could not otherwise go.

[27]We should only put into a book the amount of wit that it wants; but, in conversation, we may have some to spare.

[28]In play a man may carry wit to excess, and yet please; let him do it in earnest, and the charm is gone.

[29]In conversation one is content to point to things and ticket them with their names, without giving oneself time to form an idea of them.

[30]It is a great disadvantage in a dispute, to be mindful of the weakness of our own arguments, and the force of other people’s; but it is fine to perish so.

[31]The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.

[32]It is never other people’s opinions that displease us, but only the desire they sometimes show to impose them upon us, against our will.

[33]The pleasure of pleasing is legitimate; the desire to dominate is odious.

[34]Contradiction only irritates us, because it disturbs us in our peaceful possession of some opinion, or of some pre-eminence. That is why it is more irritating to the weak, than to the strong; and to the infirm, than to the healthy.

[35]We may convince others by our own arguments, but they can only be persuaded by their own.

[36]A good argument, if we know it thoroughly, needs but a word to make it understood.

[37]Often an argument is good, not that it is conclusive, but that it is dramatic—because it has the character of its propounder, and springs from the depths of himself. For there are arguments ex homine, as there are some ad hominem.

[38]In the discussions with which man torments his own mind, and the minds of others, the difficulties that he has to combat spring not from things, but from his ideas of them.

[39]We may pride ourselves on our reasonableness, but not on our reasoning; on our sincerity, but not on our infallibility.

[40]Frankness is a natural gift, habitual veracity a virtue.

[41]Caution, which is excellent when business has to be carried out, hinders it when it is being planned, and is only to its owner’s advantage. In deliberation it is sincerity that is wanted. Sincerity opens up new paths for investigation; it leads the mind over more points, and multiplies alternatives among the expedients that suggest themselves; in fact it is the main agent towards a happy result; for, to choose well, it is better to have the choice of a thousand than of two.

[42]Free explanation is only possible where there is some hope of arriving at an understanding; and we can only hope to arrive at an understanding with people who are already half of our opinion.

[43]Some one has said in joke that ‘when two people understand each other they have nothing more to say to each other.’ Yes; but they are tempted to avoid and fly from each other, when there is no understanding.

[44]We must learn how to enter into, and how to depart from, the ideas of others; just as we should know how to depart from our own, and return to them again.

[45]There are people who, when they enter into our ideas, seem to be entering into a hovel.

[46]What can one put into a mind which is filled, and filled with itself?

[47]Oil flowing over marble is the image of a character impenetrable by the gentleness of persuasion. Life is hurried, and these rigid characters, whatever their secret weakness, resemble barriers which we would rather walk round than step over, when they lie in our path. Instead of laying siege to their opinions in due form, we blockade them, or we turn aside.

[48]Intractable minds expose themselves to flattery. One naturally seeks to disarm those whom one can neither conquer nor combat.

[49]Of all monotonies that of assertion is the worst.

[50]We should always have in our heads one free and open corner, where we can give place, or lodging as they pass, to the ideas of our friends. It really becomes unbearable to converse with men whose brains are divided up into well-filled pigeon-holes, where nothing can enter from outside. Let us have hospitable hearts and minds.

[51]To write would be a hundred times less laborious than conversation with those people who are continually rubbing pumice-stone over all that you think and say. They hurt you: in their company relaxation is impossible; it is a tournament, a fencing-match, a duel. The aimless and unnecessary constraint that they impose upon us is the most unbearable of all forms of dependence.

[52]The attention of the listener serves as accompaniment to the music of the discourse.

[53]Every one should be provided with that sort of indulgence, and that readiness to listen, which makes the thoughts of others bloom. It is a bad sort of cleverness which deprives the character of kindness, indulgence, and sympathy, which makes it difficult for us to live and talk with others, to make them pleased with us, and pleased with themselves—in a word, to love and be lovable. The gentle mind is patient, gives itself without hurry to the task of understanding, is open to conviction, afraid of obstinacy, and would rather learn than take the lead.

[54]To be liked is better worth our while than to be valued.

[55]There are some conversations in which neither the soul nor the body take part. I mean those conversations in which no one speaks from the depth of his heart, nor even with the true temper of his mind; in which there is neither freedom, nor gaiety, nor flow, nor play; in which we find neither movement nor repose, neither distraction nor relief, neither concentration nor diversion; in fact, where nothing has been given, and nothing received, where therefore there has been no true exchange.

[56]In society we talk of what we can touch lightly; in a true intimacy there is little talk that does not go deep.

[57]The true bon-mot surprises him who makes it as much as those who hear it….

[58]A clever talk between two men is a unison; between a man and a woman it is harmony, a concord; we come away satisfied by the one, enchanted by the other.

[59]Never show warmth where it will find no response. Nothing is so cold as feeling which is not communicated.

[60]In conversation, passion, which is vehement, should be only the handmaid of the intelligence, which is calm. It is allowable, even praiseworthy, in talking, to follow one’s mood; but one must think and judge only with one’s reason.

[61]It is better to turn over a question without deciding it, than to decide it without turning it over.

[62]He who cannot keep silence never gains ascendency. In action, spend yourself; in speech, spare yourself; in action, fear sloth; in speech, fear abundance, ardour and volubility.

[63]Taciturnity is, in some men, a matter of policy, a kind of charlatanism, which has the same effect as all secret charlatanisms.

[64]Use only gold and silver coin in the commerce of speech.

[65]To know oneself is a duty; but we are not called upon to know others. To take note of their defects, beyond the first glance, is useful for our business, but useless and even harmful for our character.

[66]To make what is not ridiculous appear so, is, in some degree, to make good evil.

[67]Whoever laughs at evil of any kind has not a perfectly true moral sense. To find amusement in evil is to rejoice in it.

[68]We must use art in showing our hatred and contempt. Rude words wound good taste; foolish laughter is always the laughter of a fool, and makes the laugher detestable.

[69]In speaking of what is hateful, gentle natures always speak with reserve; they spare others and themselves.

[70]Never show the reverse of a medal to those who have not seen its face. Never speak of the faults of a good man to those who know neither his countenance, nor his life, nor his merits.

[71]We do much harm and much injustice by taking for an intellectual error what is only an error of opinion, or for a defect of temper what is only a defect of character; by judging a man from one remark, a life from one act, a soul from one impulse, every one of which may be exceptional.

[72]Even if it be pardonable to judge the living by our feelings, we must judge the dead by our reason alone. Having become immortal they can only be judged by an immortal law, the law of justice.

[73]Heaven often punishes the faults of worthy men through their reputation, by handing it over to calumny.

[74]To say of a vain man who talks too much, that he is a good father, and a good neighbour, and a generous host, is to judge with the soul. To say, on the contrary, of the worthy father of a family, the obliging neighbour, and hospitable householder, that he is a chatterbox, is to judge with the wit; it is to forget the face for the mole, and the whole plane for one point upon it.

[75]To attribute to a good fellow merits which he has not, is to fail to recognise those that he has.

[76]To be always disregarding appearances argues a low or corrupt nature, but to be always the slave of them argues smallness of mind. Duty and convention do not always agree.

[77]Deference for age, merit, and dignity is a part of the duty, but in the case of equals, foreigners, or strangers it is a part of politeness—of a true civility.

[78]Politeness is the blossom of our humanity. Whoever is not sufficiently polite, is not sufficiently humane.

[79]Politeness has the effect of blunting the sharp edge of our character, and preventing it from wounding others. We should never lay it aside, even when we come into collision with coarse natures.

[80]It is the sign of a graceful and urbane temper to begin with esteem and confidence in our relations with others. It proves at least that we have lived for a long time in good fellowship with the world and with ourselves.

[81]Politeness is to kindness what words are to thought. It acts not only on our manners but on our mind and heart; it moderates and softens all our sentiments, opinions, and speech.

[82]Civility is a part of integrity.

[83]Ease of manner is pleasing, even without kindness; with kindness added it is enchanting.

[84]The naive character exposes itself to ridicule without foreseeing it; the frank character foresees it without fear. Those who have been able to keep their own freshness of nature are always charmed with it in others, even when it is of a kind contrary to their own.

[85]All simplicity runs the risk of ridicule, and yet never deserves it, for in all simplicity there is trust without calculation; it bears the signs of innocence.

[86]Credulity is the sign of a good disposition.

[87]Gravity is only the bark of the tree of wisdom; but it preserves it.

[88]Sweet temper is a great excellence. It implies sympathy for all that wins the attention, and it refuses attention to nothing that is innocent. It is the childlike quality grown-up, preserved, strengthened and developed. It serves the ordinary man for happiness, and to the busiest and the greatest of men it becomes an abundant source of pleasure and relaxation.

[89]Business relations have a sort of ugliness which good-nature smooths down. It even gives them charm.

[90]Movement should have grace, thought should have bloom, accent should be sincere, the hand free;—the intention just; judgment upright.

[91]Oh! what a little thing may hinder a line, a poem, a picture, a feature, a face, a speech, a word, an accent, a gesture from touching us!

[92]Good taste is necessary to the half of morals; for it regulates convention.

[93]Simple dress makes those who wear it simple; complicated dress insensibly complicates the manners of the most simple people. Not every man can provide himself with dress that suits his character; but all, inevitably, suit their manners to their clothes.

[94]Grace imitates modesty, as politeness kindness.

[95]All grace is the product of some kind of patience, and therefore of some force exerted upon itself. Grace and self-restraint are all one.

[96]Strength is a matter of nature, but grace is a matter of habit. This delightful gift needs practice to become lasting.

[97]We should not disparage outward beauty, for it is the natural expression of beautiful realities. We ought only to blame what belies them.

[98]Good manners tend to imitate the look of health. This depends upon a well-constructed body; and a good manner has something of the same effect. We hold ourselves up to appear tall; we square our shoulders to broaden the chest; we walk with uplifted head to give graceful length to the neck.

[99]Manners are an art. They may be perfect, or praiseworthy, or faulty; but they are never of no importance. How is it that we have no precepts by which they can be taught, or at least principles by which we can learn to judge of them, as we do of sculpture or of music? The science of manners is probably more important than we generally believe to the happiness and the virtue of men. If virtue leads to conduct, conduct leads to virtue: now manners are an essential part of conduct. Therefore let us train ourselves, on all occasions, in fine, simple, fitting manners, if we would reach the heights of goodness.